by Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe
Buddhism has existed for well over two thousand years. It has spread over most of Asia and now it has reached the West. Its philosophy is said to be very difficult. How can we begin to understand it? Buddhist Thought guides the reader towards an understanding and appreciation of the central concepts of classical Indian Buddhist thought, tracing their development from the time of Buddha, and opening up the latest scholarly perspectives and controversies. Abstract and complex ideas are made accessible by the authors’ clear and lucid style. Of particular interest here is by far the most accessible and up-to-date survey of Buddhist Tantra in India. In Tantric Buddhism, under strictly controlled conditions, sexual activity may play a part in the religious path. This apparently shocking and frequently misunderstood topic is absolutely crucial for an understanding of developments in Buddhism that are of wide interest in the West. Detailed bibliographies complete this comprehensive, authoritative and engaging introduction to one of the world’s great philosophies.
Paul Williams is Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and Co- Director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol. His numerous publications include Mahayana Buddhism (Routledge, 1989). Anthony Tribe teaches in the Asian Studies Program, University of Montana, and is a specialist on Indian Tantric Buddhism. Both authors have many years’ experience of introducing Buddhist thought to nonspecialists, and have borne in mind the interests and difficulties of such students when writing this book.
The purpose of this book is straightforward. It is to serve as an accessible guide for students wishing to reach as quickly as possible a familiarity with the basic ideas of Buddhist philosophical and religious thought, and the results of some of the latest research in the field. A good understanding of the way Buddhism developed in India is an essential prerequisite for any appreciation of Buddhist ideas elsewhere, in Tibet, China, or Japan and the other countries of East Asia.
The book aims to give a comprehensive first survey of Buddhist thought, devoting adequate balanced space to basic, early, and mainstream Indian Buddhism, the views of some of the philosophical schools, Mahayana religious and philosophical developments, and the often neglected and inadequately understood topic of Tantric Buddhism. It will also serve as an introduction to Buddhism as such, providing the reader remembers that the interests of the authors are mainly in religious and philosophical thought, that is, essentially in doctrines. There is of course much more to a religion as something lived by all its members at all levels in history and society than its ideas on these topics—no matter how central they might be. But it is arguable that without a good grounding in Buddhist doctrine it is very difficult for the student to gain a proper appreciation of what is going on in Buddhism as it occurs in the day to day lives of Buddhists themselves.
The authors of this book have between them many years of experience in teaching Buddhism at school and university level. They have also taught Buddhist thought in the context of centres for Westerners who are interested in practising Buddhism. In writing they have borne in mind the interests and difficulties of such students, particularly students coming from a background in theology, religious studies, and philosophy rather than, say, Asian languages. The authors have tried very hard to make ideas accessible that can sometimes seem abstract and complex. The use of technical terms in Asian languages has been kept to a minimum. Where necessary, both the Sanskrit and the Pali versions of terms have been carefully indicated. Unless the contrary is stated, however, a technical term is in Sanskrit. Where both terms are given, the Sanskrit is usually given first. The exception is where the context is a discussion of a source in Pali. In that case the term is in Pali, or the Pali version is given first. The reader should have no problem in knowing which language a term is in.
Because this book is intended as a guide for students a central feature is the full Bibliography. This is in order to enable students to know where to find material that might interest them for further study. All the works referred to in the text are carefully listed. In particular all the primary sources—the Indian writings themselves—have been included with reference to reasonably reliable translations where available, and also where to find the Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Chinese texts. Thus it is hoped that the book will be of value as well to those who are familiar with these languages, as a study resource.
If there is a common thread running through much of this work it is that of the central distinction for Buddhists between the way things appear to be when seen by ordinary unenlightened people, and the way they actually are. Things are seen the way they actually are by those like Buddhas who are enlightened, that is, awakened to the truth. This distinction has given Buddhism an acute interest in issues of ontology, i.e. what can be said really to exist. Such matters are essentially philosophical. In Buddhism philosophical insight—coming to understand things the way they Preface xi
really are—has transformative moral and spiritual implications. On the other hand there are areas of Buddhist thought that are treated in this book only cursorily or not at all. For example, there is not a great deal of direct discussion here of Buddhist ethics. Buddhist thinking on the role and potential of women, or ecology, or politics, for example, is scarcely treated at all. For this we offer no apology. Some selection was inevitable. This is an introduction to Buddhist thought in India. It naturally reflects the interests of its authors, and their vision of what is central. Paul Williams wrote Chapters 1 to 6, and put the book together. The chapter on Buddhist Tantra (Chapter 7) was written by Anthony Tribe. It is sometimes said that a book has not really been read unless it has been read three times. Taking either the book as a whole, a chapter, or a section, the first read should be fairly rapid. This reading is in order to survey the topic and get a broad understanding of its nature and scope. It shows you where you are going. The second read should be in detail, making notes as necessary. The final reading is to check any points that are still unclear, pull the topic together, appreciate some of the subtleties, and really engage with the material critically. The student who reads this book carefully will by the end have a good familiarity with the main Indian Buddhist ideas. He or she will be able to handle with confidence the language and concepts in which those ideas are expressed, and will have met with some of the very latest thinking among scholars working on the topics which have been introduced. After that, with the aid of the Bibliography, the student will have the ability and plenty of help to explore further the astonishingly rich, stimulating, and challenging world that is Buddhism. Paul Williams
Centre for Buddhist Studies
University of Bristol
It will be obvious to those who are familiar with the field that this book is heavily indebted to the work of others. In particular I (PW) would like to thank my colleague Rupert Gethin for his generosity with advice and the loan of books related to mainstream and Theravada Buddhism, on which he is so knowledgeable. Rupert Gethin’s own book The Foundations of Buddhism (1998) is highly recommended for further reading in areas of Buddhist doctrine and practice which are common to most Buddhist traditions. I would also like to thank my brother Peter Williams for comments and encouragement on an early version of the book’s first few chapters, and fun with the computer.
This work is dedicated to my wife Sharon in the confidence that she is unlikely to read it. Her love and complete lack of interest in my religious and philosophical enthusiasms has encouraged in me a degree of critical common sense that has kept me relatively sane through nearly thirty years of wonderfully happy marriage. I am very grateful.
1 The doctrinal position of the
Buddha in context
‘Buddhism’, and its derivatives like ‘Buddhist’, are, of course, English words. They have parallels in other European languages, like ‘Buddhismus’ and ‘Bouddhisme’. They refer for speakers of the English (German, French) language to the ‘-ism’ which derives from the (or a) Buddha. The Buddha (Sanskrit/Pali: ‘Awakened One’) is thought by Buddhists to be one who has awakened fully to the final truth of things, and thus freed, liberated, himself once and for all from all forms of suffering. He is also one who, out of supreme compassion, has taught others the way to attain liberation themselves. Buddhas are not born that way, and they are certainly not thought to be eternal gods (or God). Once (many lifetimes ago) they were just like you and me. They strove through their own efforts, and became Buddhas. A Buddha is superior to the rest of us because he ‘knows it how it is’. We, on the other hand, wallow in confusion, in ignorance (Sanskrit: avidya; Pali: avijja). Thus we are unhappy and suffer.
This use of the English ‘-ism’ termination in ‘Buddhism’ can be taken to refer to the system of practices, understandings (‘beliefs’), experiences, visions, and so on undergone and expressed at any one time and down the ages which derive from, or claim to derive from, a Buddha. The minimum for becoming a Buddhist is spoken of as three times ‘taking the triple-refuge’ in 2 Buddhist Thought
the proper formulaic way prescribed by the Buddhist traditions. In its broadest sense this ‘taking refuge’ is firmly taking the Buddha as the final spiritual refuge, the final (and only final) place of safety. He has seen in the deepest possible way and taught to its fullest extent how things truly are, and he has thus liberated himself from the suffering and frustrations which spring from living in a state of confusion and misunderstanding of the true nature of things. It is taking refuge also in the Dharma. The Dharma is how things truly are and the way to incorporate an understanding of how things truly are into one’s being in the deepest possible way, as expressed and taught by a Buddha. One takes refuge also in the Sangha, the community of practitioners who are in their different ways and at different levels following and realising the Dharma.
Significant in the above is the notion of practising the Dharma, the Dharma which derives from the (or a) Buddha, and coming to see things the way they really are. While belief is of course a prerequisite for any spiritual path (and this is not denied by Buddhists), Buddhists like to place the primacy not on belief as such but on practising, following a path, and knowing, directly seeing. There is no significant virtue simply in belief. This direct ‘seeing things the way they really are’ is held to free the person who thus sees from experiences most people would rather be freed from. These are experiences like pain, frustration, anguish, sorrow—experiences which are classed by Buddhists under the broad Sanskrit term duhkha (Pali: dukkha), that is, suffering, unfulfilment, and imperfection. Thus any person who is liberated is finally and irrevocably liberated from all unpleasant experiences. Buddhism is therefore a soteriology. In other words it is concerned with bringing about for its practitioners liberation, freedom, from states and experiences held to be negative, unpleasant, not wanted. Being liberated is by contrast a state that is positive, pleasant, and wanted. The primary orientation of Buddhism, therefore, is towards the transformative experience of the individual, for there are no experiences that are not experiences of individuals. Buddhism is thus also concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 3 experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind. This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to be brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation. Buddhism is thus a highly individualistic path of liberation. One is bound by one’s own mind, and it is by working on one’s own mind that one becomes liberated, attaining the highest possible spiritual goal. The transformation is from mental states Buddhists consider as negative to states considered by Buddhists to be positive. That is, it is a transformation from greed, hatred, and delusion, and all their implications and ramifications, to the opposites of these three negative states—non-attachment, loving kindness, and insight or wisdom, and all their implications and ramifications. It is this that liberates. What is meant and entailed by these negative and positive states, what is understood when one ‘sees things the way they really are’, what sort of ‘seeing’ is necessary, and how to bring that about, will form the content of Buddhism.1 I have referred to ‘Buddhism’ as what speakers of European languages (or ‘the West’) think of as the ‘-ism’ that derives from the (or a) Buddha. While one could scarcely be both an orthodox Christian and, say, a Muslim or Hindu at the same time, it is perfectly possible to be a Buddhist and at the same time have recourse to and make offerings to Hindu gods, or other local gods of one’s culture. Many, probably most, Buddhists do this. This is because what it is to be a Buddhist, and what it is to be e.g. a Christian, or a Muslim, are different. And if to be a Buddhist and to be a Christian are different, then Buddhism and Christianity qua ‘religions’ are different. Richard Gombrich has succinctly summed up what Buddhism is all about:
For Buddhists, religion is purely a matter of understanding and practising the Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma), understanding and practice which constitute progress towards salvation. They conceive salvation—or liberation, to use a more Indian term—as the total eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. To attain it is open to any human being, and it 4 Buddhist Thought
is ultimately the only thing worth attaining, for it is the only happiness which is not transient. A person who has attained it will live on so long as his body keeps going, but thereafter not be reborn. Thus he will never have to suffer or die again. For Buddhists, religion is what is relevant to this quest for salvation, and nothing else.
Traditionally Buddhists throughout the Buddhist world consider that the universe contains more beings in it than are normally visible to humans. Buddhists have no objection to the existence of the Hindu gods, although they deny completely the existence of God as spoken of in e.g. orthodox Christianity, understood as the omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, and primordially existent creator deity, who can be thought of as in some sense a person. Nevertheless one cannot as a Buddhist take refuge in Hindu gods, for Hindu gods are not Buddhas. That is, they are not enlightened. What this means is that Hindu gods, for all their power, do not see the final way things are, the final truth of things. They do not see it as it is. Power does not necessarily entail insight, and for Buddhists the Hindu gods, unlike Buddhas, do not have that liberating insight. Thus because they are not liberated Hindu gods too ultimately suffer. They have been reborn as gods due to their good deeds in the past (as we have been reborn human for the same reason), and gods too (like us humans) die, and are reborn elsewhere. We may ourselves be gods in our next lives, and, Buddhists would say, we certainly have been infinite times in the past, in our infinite series of previous lives. Gods may be reborn as humans (or worse—the round of rebirth includes e.g. animals, worms, ghosts, and sojourns in horrible hells as well). But none of this entails that Hindu gods do not exist.2 Therefore none of this entails that Hindu gods cannot exert powerful influence on human lives and activities. There is thus no problem in Buddhists making offerings to Hindu gods, with requests for appropriate favours. Throughout the Buddhist world there is one very particular way of contacting the gods and asking for their favours. This is through Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 5 possession. In many Buddhist countries (such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, or Tibet), and also countries strongly influenced by Buddhism (such as China and Japan) there are people who are both Buddhists and also go into a type of trance. In this trance they are possessed by a god, who may give advice or medical assistance, for example. The only problem with all this would come if a Buddhist took refuge in a god, implying that the god had the key to final liberation. The gods concern only the worldly (Sanskrit: laukika). The Buddhas are beyond the world (lokottara), both in terms of their own status and also in terms of their final concerns in helping others. Thus whereas one would not expect to see an orthodox Christian making offerings to Hindu gods, prostrating to them, making requests of them, or going into trance and being possessed by them, there is no contradiction to Buddhism in Buddhists doing this. To be a Buddhist for Buddhists is not the same sort of phenomenon as being a Christian is for Christians. Allegiance in different religions does not have the same sort of exclusivity. This is not an example of ‘Buddhist syncretism’, or ‘popular Buddhism’, or even ‘Buddhist tolerance’. Not all religions operate the way we expect them to on the basis of the religion or religions with which we are most familiar. As Lance Cousins puts it:
It is an error to think of a pure Buddhism, which has become syncretistically mixed with other religions, even corrupted and degenerate in later forms. Such a pure Buddhism has never existed. Buddhism has always coexisted with other religious beliefs and practices. It has not usually sought to involve itself in every sphere of human ritual activity, since many such things are not considered ‘conducive to’ the path, i.e. not relevant to the spiritual endeavour. Its strength perhaps lies in this very incompleteness…. [These other practices, such as contacting local gods) may be practised if desired so long as the main aim is not lost…. [As far as the soteriological goal, liberation, is concerned they] are irrelevant. (Cousins 1998:372)
6 Buddhist Thought
As far as we know this has always been the case in Buddhism. There was no period in the past when it was different, or expected to be different. The great Indian Buddhist King Asoka (third century BCE) made offerings to non-Buddhist teachers and religions. He no doubt also made offerings to non-Buddhist gods.3 When householders in ancient times met and were impressed by the Buddha and ‘took refuge’ in him, we need not assume that they thereby ceased entirely to make offerings to other teachers or gods. In their villages they were therefore ‘Hindus’ as well as ‘Buddhists’ (if one must use these modern Western classifications). But if they really saw the Buddha as enlightened, and accepted that his teachings differed from those of other teachers, they would no longer take refuge in those other teachers as final sources of truth and liberation. They would be likely to think of the Buddha as their special teacher, the teacher in whom they put their trust for the final concerns of their life, the teacher whom they would most like to see helping them on their deathbed.
The Brahmanical doctrinal background
In the quotation from Richard Gombrich above we saw that from the Buddhist point of view ‘religion is what is conducive to salvation’. On the other hand, we might think that making offerings to Hindu gods, whether or not they are worth taking refuge in, is nevertheless indeed ‘religious’. But by ‘religion’, of course, Gombrich (or his Singhalese informants) means here specifically Buddhism. ‘Religion’ is Buddhism, and Buddhism, to a Buddhist, is characterised as what is conducive to salvation, liberation. The term translated by Gombrich above as ‘religion’ is (in Pali) sasana, the Teaching, the expression used in e.g. the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka to refer to ‘Buddhism not just as a doctrine but as a phenomenon in history, a whole religion’ (Gombrich 1988:3). Buddhism as a religion in history was founded in ancient India and even the truth as articulated in history, Buddhism itself, it is thought by Buddhists, will eventually cease to exist due to forces of irreligion. As a matter of fact Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 7 Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. But eventually all Buddhism will cease in this world. Nevertheless, at some point in the future a sasana will again be established by another Buddha, as indeed its establishment in India this time round was in fact a re-establishment. And so on, and so on, apparently throughout all eternity.
Each time a sasana is established it is due to a rediscovery. But what exactly is rediscovered each time? The answer is the Dharma. This is a further term sometimes used by Buddhists for what in the West is called ‘Buddhism’. But ‘Dharma’ cannot of course refer simply to Buddhism as a religion, since we have seen that the Dharma is the second of the three refuges taken by Buddhists, alongside the Buddha and the Sangha. Buddhism as a religion has to include all three refuges. Rather the Dharma is Buddhism as content, that is, what is actually taught by Buddhism as a religion. It consists of the truths, both concerning how things really are, and the way to practise in order to bring about cognition of how things really are. As articulated as part of the sasana, the Dharma consists of the teachings of the Buddha, and thereby of Buddhism. That certain things are really, really, true is central to Buddhism. Buddhists claim that it is really true, for example, that most things form part of a causal flow, and physical matter is not in any sense one’s true Self (atman). Buddhists claim too that the state of unenlightenment is ultimately duhkha, unfulfilment, and there is no omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, and primordially existent creator deity, who can be thought of as in some sense a person. That certain practices truly bring about the results they claim to bring about— that, for example, the eightfold path as taught by the Buddha if followed properly with singleminded devotion will eventually lead to liberation (i.e. Sanskrit: nirvana; Pali: nibbana) —is also central to Buddhism. These are objective truths, as truths they are always true, and their truth is quite independent of the existence of Buddhas or indeed any beings existing capable of realising those truths. They form the Dharma, the content of the Buddha’s teaching. Buddhism is built 8 Buddhist Thought
on the absolute objectivity of truth, and Buddhists claim that the Dharma (their Dharma) is that absolutely objective truth. As Narada Thera puts it:
The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma…. The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the doctrine of reality. It is a means of deliverance from suffering and deliverance itself. Whether the Buddhas arise or not the Dhamma exists from all eternity. It is a Buddha that realizes this Dhamma, which ever lies hidden from the ignorant eyes of men, till he, an Enlightened One, comes and compassionately reveals it to the world.
The word ‘Dharma’ is nevertheless an important word of the Indian cultural context within which Buddhism arose. In using ‘Dharma’ for his teaching the Buddha intentionally chose a term which was intended to indicate to others that he truly knew and taught how things finally are. Where others disagree, they do not have the Dharma. What they teach is in that respect its negation, Adharma. Let us look more closely then at the Indian context that produced the teachings, the Dharma of the Buddha. First a note on the words ‘Brahmanism’ and ‘Brahmanical’ as used here and in the works of other scholars when writing on early Indian religion. We still find it commonly said that the Buddha was a ‘Hindu reformer’. This is misleading. The Buddha rejected the final religious authority directly, indirectly, or ideologically, of the social class of brahmins and their primordial scriptures, the Vedas, so important to Hinduism throughout history. And much of what we nowadays call ‘Hinduism’, such as the centrality of the gods Siva, or Visnu, the ideas of Samkara’s Advaita Vedaata, the themes of the Bhagavad Gita, Tantric practices, and so on developed after the time of the Buddha. In some cases they were influenced positively or negatively by Buddhism. The religious practices and beliefs actually current at the time of the Buddha are associated in early Buddhist texts with two broad groups of practitioners in many fundamental ways radically different from each other. On the one hand we have Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 9 the brahmanas, that is, (in Anglicised spelling) the brahmins. On the other hand we have the sramanas (Pali: samanas), the renouncers of society, the ‘drop-outs’. The religion of the brahmins was preeminently a religion of householders, in origins and interests a religion of villagers and very much a set of religious practices geared to the primacy of harmonious ordered social relationships and ‘prosperity in this world and the next’. It had evolved out of the religious ideas and practices of the Aryas, migrating speakers of Indo-European languages, who reached India sometime during the second millennium BCE from their home base presumed to be in the grasslands of Southern Russia near the Caspian Sea. The Aryas brought with them horse-drawn chariots, an early form of the Sanskrit language, and perhaps from before arriving in India and anyway soon afterwards the earliest (as yet unwritten and orally transmitted) scriptures of Indian religion, the Rg Veda. Over many centuries the Vedic scriptures expanded (still not written down), eventually reaching by the time of the Buddha four collections, the Rg, Sama, Yajur, and (originating a little later than the others) the Atharva Vedas. Each of these Vedic collections was divided into verses (samhita), ritual manuals (brahmanas— not to be confused with the same word when used for ‘brahmins’), ‘forest books’ (aranyakas), and eventually also upanisads. The Vedic religion was based largely on offerings of sacrifice, and the ritual manuals gave detailed instructions for performance of the sacrifices, which grew more complex as the centuries passed. At first the sacrifices were made as offerings to the various Vedic gods such as Indra— commonly known in Buddhist sources as Sakra (Pali: Sakka) — Varuna, Agni, who was the god of the sacrificial fire, or the sun god Surya, in the hope that the gods would reciprocate. Gradually the feeling developed that the gods must reciprocate, for a properly performed sacrifice where the appropriate formulae (mantras) were correctly uttered needs must bring about the appropriate reward. Just as the very universe itself springs from a primordial sacrifice (see the famous ‘Hymn to the Cosmic Man’, the Purusasukta, Rg Veda 10:90), through the sacrifice the universe is kept going. The sacrifice is the action par excellence, the ‘significant action’, the karman (i.e. ‘karma’; a word which in classical Sanskrit simply means ‘action’). 10 Buddhist Thought
From performing one’s duty, the correct karman appropriate to one’s ritual and social status, the fruit (phala) of the action necessarily follows, either in this life or in the next. But how is it that the significant action brings about its result? First in the Forest Books, and then very much in the Upanisads, we find speculation on the meaning of the sacrifices, and the elaboration of a secret (i.e. esoteric) interpretation which in the Upanisads converges on an other-worldly soteriology. The action which takes place here in the space of the sacrifice is seen as a microcosm, which magically corresponds to—is magically identical with—actions, events which the sacrificer desires to bring about in the macrocosm. The esoteric interpretation is a web of magical identifications the knowing of which bestows power over the identified. And it eventually emerges that the most significant identification, the identification whispered in the older prose Upanisads, is literally the greatest identification of all. That which is the very core of the universe, that which is unchanging even when all things—‘the seasons and the turning year’ —change, is Brahman (in origin, the ‘priestly power’), the Universal Essence. That which is the true, unchanging, core of oneself, that constant which is always being referred to when one says ‘I’, that which lies beyond all bodily and mental changes, is the Self, the atman, the Personal Essence. And (clearly the Secret of Secrets in the older prose Upanisads) atman is actually identical with Brahman—the Personal Essence is the Universal Essence. The search for the underlying nature of the universe reached an early apogee in India in the turn inwards. Early cosmology and physics converges with psychology. Magical identification begins its long road in India to spiritual idealism and the overwhelming primacy of personal experience. As the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (1:4:10/15) puts it:
If a man knows ‘I am brahman’ in this way, he becomes the whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (atman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand….
Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 11 It is his self (atman) alone that a man should venerate as his world. And if someone venerates his self alone as his world, that rite of his will never fade away, because from his very self he will produce whatever he desires.
This is the final magical identification. By knowing oneself, by thereby controlling oneself, one knows and controls all. And after death there will be no more ‘coming and going’, no more rebirth. The notion of rebirth is not found in the earliest Vedic literature. Rather, the correct performance of the sacrifices, and adherence to one’s social duties as laid down by the brahmins, led to ‘prosperity in this life and in the next’. The next life here is thought of as some sort of heavenly realm (the ‘world of the fathers’, the pitrloka), that was expected to go on forever. It is not clear exactly where the notion of rebirth came from, or when. At least, I shall not enter into the speculations here. But inasmuch as post mortem existence was linked to ‘significant (sacrificial) action’ (karman) in this life, so the next life as the result of finite actions could not be guaranteed to be infinite. As time passed the idea developed that the ancestors in the ‘world of the fathers’ needed to be kept alive by further sacrificial offerings on behalf of those who remain behind. And can these further offerings really go on forever? Even in the post mortem state one might die again, and be born again. With the notion of rebirth comes redeath, and it seems to have been the idea of continually dying again and again throughout all eternity that gave Vedic thinkers their greatest horror. To be born again is not necessarily a problem. But to die again! For the system was claustrophobic, it seemed to provide no way of getting out. To perform another sacrifice (karman) simply perpetuated the problem.
The issue of the broad relationship between these soteriological concerns and the Vedic householder cult of the sacrifice is a complex one. Eventually it begins to crystallise into an opposition between this householder religious world (associated with the brahmins), and world renunciation, a complete renunciation of the householder state and a search for some alternative form of 12 Buddhist Thought
practice which would liberate from the abyss of redeath which had opened up. The Buddha was a member of a distinct social group in the Indian religious scene. He was a renouncer, who had ‘gone forth from home to homelessness’ seeking to know the liberating truth. His life was outside that of the married householder, with his or her social duties within the village or town. He was himself, therefore, a member of the group known as the sramanas, the drop-outs.
Scholars in the past have debated whether there is any evidence at all that the Buddha was familiar with the ideas of the Upanisads, those paradigmatic early Brahmanical treatises on the path to liberation, and whether he was influenced either positively or negatively by them. Louis de la Vallée Poussin expressed a not uncommon view when he denied any knowledge of the Upanisads by the Buddha (Gombrich 1996:14; cf. Norman 1997: 26). Yet if we follow the consensus of opinion that is now emerging on the date of the death of the Buddha the earliest classical Upanisads may be a few hundred years earlier than his time. Patrick Olivelle, introducing his valuable recent translation of the Upanisads, speaks of the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya Upanisads, the earliest, as ‘in all likelihood, pre- Buddhist; placing them in the seventh to sixth centuries BCE may be reasonable, give or take a century or so’ (Olivelle 1996:xxxvi). Thus not only is it possible that the Buddha knew of the earlier prose Upanisads, there is a good chance that he had at least some idea of their salient teachings. Others of the classical Upanisads may have been composed during or soon after the time of the Buddha, and indeed may have been influenced by Buddhism. Richard Gombrich has recently attempted to show at length references to the Upanisads in the earliest Buddhist scriptures (which may or may not go back directly to the Buddha himself), which he holds are directly mocked and criticised by the Buddhists. Gombrich’s view is that
the central teachings of the Buddha came as a response to the central teachings of the old Upanisads, notably the Brhadaranyaka. On some points, which he perhaps took for Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 13 granted, he was in agreement with the Upanisadic doctrine; on others he criticised it.
(Gombrich 1996:31; see also Norman
1990–6: paper 99, 1997:26 ff.)
Scholars refer to the Vedic religion of the sacrificial cult that we have been looking at as ‘Brahmanism’, because this indicates the centrality of brahmins in both social and religious terms in the world of Vedic civilisation. The brahmins formed the ideologically dominant group in Vedic society. They were and still are a hereditary elite. One is born a brahmin, one cannot become one. Vedic literature was as far as we know composed almost entirely by brahmins, and brahmins were essential to the performance of the sacrifices. What makes a brahmin a brahmin is birth, but what makes that birth significant is the relative ritual purity of a brahmin. Brahmins are ritually pure and, because that purity makes them most suited to approach the gods through sacrifice on behalf of the sacificer (who pays for the sacrifice), that purity must be preserved. Whether or not they actually practise as professional sacrifice-priests, brahmins must therefore not be polluted, and tasks which might involve impurity and thus be polluting (such as the disposal of rubbish, or dead bodies) must be performed by others, specialists in the removal of impurity. These ‘others’ are held to be by nature, by birth, highly impure, so impure that as time passed they were required to live in separate groups (‘outcastes’) outside the main hamlet. Other social groups are ranked in accordance with their relative purity and impurity in relationship to these two poles of the system.4 Thus eventually we have the caste system. But it is not clear how far this system was developed by the time of the Buddha. Scholars tend to think of Brahmanism at the time of the Buddha not in terms of the Indian actuality of caste (jati) as it has developed over many, many centuries, but rather in terms of the Brahmanic ideology of class (varna). Note this distinction carefully, because confusion between caste and class seems to be almost normal in works on Indian religions. Classical Brahmanic texts dating from Vedic times and beyond refer to society divided into the four classes (varnas) of 14 Buddhist Thought
brahmins (brahmanas), warriors/rulers (ksatriyas), generators of wealth (vaisyas), and the rest (‘servants’, sudras). This division is by birth, it is a division of purity, and it is strictly hierarchical. Each preceding class is purer and therefore superior to the following. Thus the preceding class has a higher social status than the following, quite regardless of any wealth one might have. Within this system there is no correlation between wealth or power and social status. Status is determined by relative purity. It is not given by wealth, power or, as such, behaviour or insight. Members of the first three classes are referred to as ‘twice-born’ (dvija), and they are entitled and expected to enter into the world of Vedic religious duties, for most of their lives as married householders. This involves keeping alight the domestic sacrificial fire and engaging particularly in the duty to sacrifice, each in the appropriate and distinctive way determined by relative position (relative purity) in the social hierarchy. Nearly everyone can be fitted somewhere into one or other of these classes. Which class one is a member of determines (according to the Brahmanic lawbooks) a whole range of social behaviour from who one can eat with to which sort of wood is used in making one’s staff, or which sacrifices have to be carried out, by whom, and at what age.
Over the years Indian social actuality going back many centuries has seen not just four but hundreds of castes (jatis) and subcastes. If we try and relate class to caste, varna to jati, class is classical Brahmanic ideology while caste is historical and modern actuality. They are different. The varna system is what the Brahmanic authors wanted to see, and to the extent that brahmins were the dominant group in society the varna ideology provided a template for what they sought to realise. The jatis represent the actual system of Indian social division within relatively recent historical time. It is important to preserve the terminological separation of the two, and not to confuse them. At the time of the Buddha there was the ideology of varna, that formed part of the ideology of brahmins, the dominant group in much of North Indian society. No doubt there was within that area also some form of social division influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the ideology of varna. But the extent to which the varna ideology Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 15 influenced the actual social divisions in the region from which the Buddha came, a fringe area in the Himalayan foothills, is still very unclear.5
The concept of ‘Dharma’ is probably the single most important concept for understanding Indian religion, indeed classical Indian civilisation itself. Yet as a concept of the wider Brahmanical culture it is not an easy concept for a modern Westerner to appreciate. This is because it combines in the one concept two facets that we tend to keep distinct. These are the facets of ‘is’ and ‘ought’, that is, the dimensions of how things actually are and how things ought to be (Gombrich 1996:34). Dharma in the Brahmanic perspective is on the one hand something with the flavour of righteousness and duty. It is the righteousness of those who follow their duty, a duty essentially ordained in the Vedic works and the works of tradition based on the Vedas, as taught and praised by learned Brahmins. On the other hand it is also the objective order of the universe. The universe is ordered this way, in accordance with a hierarchy of beings and duties structured in terms of relative purity and the objective workings of the sacrifice. The cosmos in traditional Indian Brahmanism is intrinsically hierarchical, and organisation in terms of ranked hierarchy is absolutely central to most traditional Indian thought. This way of things, including the social and ritual duties that are the way of things, is not created by anyone. At the beginning of each cosmic epoch, when the world is created anew in whatever way it is created, or emanated, or evolved, the sages (rsis) directly discern Dharma. Dharma in Brahmanic culture is discovered. It is not created. It is there, objectively existent, waiting to be discovered at the beginning of things. Dharma is not a subject for radical disagreement or debate. Thus when one behaves as one should behave, as laid down in accordance with class (varna) and stage of life (asrama), whether student (brahmacarin), householder (grhastha), forest-dweller (vanaprastha), or wandering ascetic renouncer (samnyasin), this behaviour brings conduct into line with the objective order of things. The result is happiness, all one could wish for in this life and the next. And if one seeks to break out of society as ordered by Dharma one can only die. To break 16 Buddhist Thought
the rules of Dharma is a cosmic matter, for to act in a way that is at variance with the objective order of things is to cause a monstrosity. It is to bring about that which cannot be, and it is thus the very antithesis of being. This can only lead to the end of the world. No wonder Krsna, God himself, in the influential Hindu work the Bhagavad Gita (4:7–8) declares that he has to incarnate himself to restore Dharma, to prevent God’s world coming to nothing. God’s salvific action, his intervention in the world, has to be in the interests of the social framework of hierarchy and its duties.
Nevertheless, if significant ritual and social action (karman) leads to rebirth and hence redeath, then for some at least it appears that all such actions became suspect. In particular, all sacrificial actions are done with a particular goal in mind. One performs, or has performed on one’s behalf, a particular sacrifice in order to have children, more cattle, a long life, or whatever. In general, desire gives rise to action that generates results. There is no significant disagreement with this model, which sees the results as coming from desire through action. But what if one does not wish for the results, since at the best they will involve a heavenly rebirth and therefore redeath, with never an end? Then it was reasoned that one should bring to an end desire, and ‘significant action’ (karman), the actions of sacrifice and duty (or, perhaps, all actions altogether). It is desire, desire for something for oneself or one’s group, i.e. egoistic desire, which leads, which projects, generates, rebirth and thence redeath. Thus some might try to discipline their body into less and less action, or less and less dependence upon actions, less and less dependence on even involuntary actions. They might also try to overcome all desires, even so-called ‘legitimate’ desires. Harsh austerities, it was reasoned, or perhaps suspected, might cut at the very root that leads to redeath. But this could not be done—would not be accepted, has no place—within the social world of reciprocal duties found in the Indian village. The one who would seek to bring to an end all redeath needed to adopt a radically different strategy from that of Brahmanic ritual and obligation. He (perhaps sometimes also she) renounced the world of society, and ‘went Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 17 forth from home to homelessness’, seeking the liberating truth which almost by definition could not be found back home. And for some of these renunciates, at least, the means to attaining this knowledge lay not just in finding someone who would whisper it to them. It lay also in bringing about altered states of consciousness through concentration and meditative practices such that access to the liberating knowledge (and perhaps to other extraordinary abilities as well) could be gained in a paranormal or supersensory way.
These renunciates were known collectively (in the early Buddhist sources) as sramanas. A renunciate was, indeed still is in the modern Indian world, in social terms ‘dead’, a walking corpse. One who renounces the world performs his death-rites. The presence or even shadow of a renunciate, casteless, homeless, springing up from goodness knows where, pollutes the food of a brahmin about to eat lunch. And having set out on his search Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, both before and after becoming a Buddha, was a sramana. In Indian social terms he was a dropout. His very purpose as a drop-out was to search for that truth the knowing of which will set one free, liberation. I have stressed that Buddhism is in broad terms to do with transforming the mind in order to bring about the cessation of negative states and experiences, and the attaining of positive states and experiences. It is a soteriology that sees the goal in terms of mental transformation. Buddhism is also in some sense a gnostic soteriology. That is, crucial to bringing about the state of liberation is knowing something, something the not knowing of which by nearly everyone else explains their state of non-liberation, their state of samsara, and hence their duhkha, their pain, misery, and existential angst. Contrasting with the centrality of karman among Brahmanic householders is the centrality of knowing (jñana=gnosis) among renunciates. Liberation comes not from actions (it is not as such a matter of ‘good karma’), but from knowing the salvific truth. This centrality of knowing something places Buddhism firmly within other Indian traditions (such as those of the early classical Upanisads, or Samkhya, or Yoga) where knowing is thought to bestow soteriological benefits. As we 18 Buddhist Thought
shall see, however, the knowledge of the Buddha was very different from the knowledge of the grand identification associated with the Upanisads. In the terminology of the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism is thus a jñana-yoga.6 That is, Buddhism is a disciplined course of action based upon, or leading to, knowing something so important and in such a fundamental way that it finally and irrevocably liberates the knower from all unpleasant states and experiences, notably the state and experience of continued rebirth and redeath. We saw above that central to taking refuge in the Buddha is an understanding of the Buddha as one who knows (in the deepest possible way) the way things really are. He is described as ‘seeing things the way they really are’ (Sanskrit: yathabhutadarsana), and this expression is sometimes found as an epithet of nirvana, liberation itself. In Brahmanism the ancient sages (rsis) discovered an objectively existent Dharma that combines in one concept a description of the objective ordering of things and at the same time a prescription for how one should live to attain the optimum. Similarly the Buddha also taught what he called ‘Dharma’. For the Buddha this was the Dharma, the actual real Dharma. He had discovered an independent truth, the way things really are that also embraces in the same category the proper code of conduct and set of practices in order to attain the optimum, complete liberation from all suffering and rebirth. In declaring the Dharma, in (as Buddhists put it) ‘setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma’ after his enlightenment, the Buddha began his teaching (began the sasana) by declaring at the very most the relativity of the Brahmanic Dharma. This Brahmanic Dharma turns out to be not objective truth, but ‘mere convention’. The Buddha was a renunciate. For him the Brahmanic Dharma thus does not lead to final liberation, but only to repeated redeath.
It is clear from early Buddhist sources, and from other sources such as those of the Jains, for example, that by the time of the Buddha the institution of wandering renunciates who, by their very nature, lived off alms for which they would give teaching in exchange, was well established. After renouncing the world himself the Buddha-to-be (i.e. the bodhisattva, Pali: Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 19 bodhisatta), then known by his family name of ‘Gautama’ (Pali: Gotama), went in search of teachers who could teach him meditation and other associated practices common to his new lifestyle. Buddhist sources speak of six or ten groups of renouncers familiar to young Gautama, with their teachers and teachings, although whether these are very accurate portrayals of the views of their rivals can be doubted. It is not totally clear with some of these how knowing their ‘truth’ would lead to liberation, at least if liberation is thought of as freedom from rebirth and redeath. Nevertheless, as an indication of views we are told were in circulation among the drop-outs at the time of the Buddha, we have the following:7
Purana Kassapa taught that there is no virtue or sin, no merit or demerit, whatever one does. There is thus no such thing as moral causation.
Makkhali Gosala taught a sort of fatalism. Rebirth occurs again and again through ‘destiny, chance, and nature’ (Basham 1951: 14) and nothing we can do will make any difference. We have no control over any of it, and eventually liberation will come when it will come. Makkhali Gosala was an important founder of the rival religion of the Ajivikas, which continued for many centuries in India.
Ajita Kesakambali taught what appears to be a form of materialism, that there is no future life for us let alone repeated rebirth. Mankind is formed of earth, water, fire, and air, which return to their elements after death. There is no merit in good deeds (good karman) or demerit in wicked ones. Pakudha Kaccayana held the view that earth, water, fire, air, joy, sorrow, and life are stable and unproductive, independent primordial substances. He seems to have drawn the conclusion from this that killing (presumably in terms of moral responsibility) is impossible, since a sword would simply pass between these primordial substances.
20 Buddhist Thought
The figure of Nigantha Nataputta is probably intended to be Vardhamana Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Enlightened Conqueror (Jina) of Jainism. According to the Buddhist source here, which is not very specific, Nigantha Nataputta simply held that followers of his tradition surround their mind with a barrier of a fourfold restraint. But what this does show is the emphasis on austere asceticism, moral restraint, and control, characteristic of Jainism, liberating the eternal transmigrating soul from the bonds of matter, transmigration, and suffering.
Sañjaya Belatthiputta was the wonderful agnostic, or perhaps even sceptic, who is reported to have said: If you asked me, ‘Is there another world?’ and if I believed that there was, I should tell you so. But that is not what I say. I do not say that it is so; I do not say that it is otherwise; I do not say that it is not so; nor do I say that it is not not so…
(Trans. Basham 1951:16–17)
And the same for various further questions as well. We have independent knowledge of Jainism, and Basham (1951) has done an excellent job in retrieving the Ajivikas from obscurity. The position of Ajita Kesakambali is sufficiently explicit to suggest his kinship with the materialist wing of a school latter known as Carvaka or Lokayata (see Williams, in Grayling 1998: 840–2). But for the others there is not really enough to go on to develop a fair portrayal of a viable position, let alone an appraisal. But what these sources do show is the atmosphere of exciting and excited, vital, debate which was taking place in India at the time of the Buddha. It was a time that was also seeing the breakdown of old tribal federations and measures towards the establishment of powerful monarchies. It saw also the move from an agrarian village-based economy and the growth of cities as mercantile and military bases as well as bases for the exchange of ideas often in an atmosphere of social uprootedness. The Buddha (and other renunciates) stressed existential angst, duhkha, as the starting point Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 21 for the religious quest. Perhaps this reflects the fact that he also lived in a world of dynamic and upsetting change. How to read the life-story (hagiography) of the Buddha When scholars refer to the Buddha they invariably mean the Buddha who founded the present sasana. This is the ‘historical’ Buddha who founded Buddhism in history. That Buddha is called Gautama (Pali: Gotama). The title ‘Buddha’ is used for him only after his awakening, his enlightenment. He is also sometimes called in Sanskrit Sakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha who was/is the Sage (muni) of the Sakya (Pali: Sakya) clan. There is a later suggestion that his personal name may have been Siddhartha (Pali: Siddhattha), although this is by no means certain. He was born in what is now southern Nepal, in the Himalayan foothills, and he lived for about eighty years. For much of that time he wandered around with no hair, simple robes of a dusty colour, very few possessions, and begged and taught for a living. The Buddha was an outsider—a drop-out and a ‘traveller’. As someone considered by his followers to be enlightened, he was a teacher and example rather than a fiery prophet. The Buddha wrote nothing. It is not clear if he was literate, although quite possibly not. We all like a good story. Books on Buddhism (not to mention regular student essays) often start by recounting, as if it were simple historical fact, the Buddha’s life-story. But there is no reason why a book on Buddhism, even an introductory book on Buddhism, should start with the life-story of the Buddha. It is only self-evidently appropriate to start the study of a religion with the life-story of its founder if we hold that the life-story of the founder is in some sense a crucial preliminary to understanding what follows. That is, in the case of Buddhism, if it were true that we could not understand the Dharma without first understanding the life-story of the Buddha.
It is indeed obvious that one begins the study of Christianity as such with the life of Jesus Christ. The role of Jesus as a figure in history is absolutely central for Christians. If Jesus could be shown 22 Buddhist Thought
conclusively not to have lived then necessarily the salvific significance of his life could not have actually, really (i.e. in history), taken place, and this would have radical repercussions for Christian self-understanding. Christianity is a religion founded by a figure in history, embedded in a ‘sacred history’, and the historicity of that figure is absolutely essential to what the Christian message is all about. Buddhism too is a religion founded by a figure in history, so it seemed obvious when Buddhism was first a subject of study in the Western world to begin its study with the founder. Yet the role of the Buddha for Buddhists is quite unlike the role of Jesus for Christians. The Buddha, as we have seen, attained liberation himself and re-established the sasana, the Teaching. If it could be shown for certain by some clever scholar that the Buddha never existed that need not, as such, have dramatic repercussions for Buddhists. For patently the sasana exists, and the sasana is the sasana, it articulates objective truth ‘whether Buddhas occur or do not occur’. The effectiveness of the Dharma does not in itself depend on its discovery by a Buddha. If the Buddha did not exist then someone else existed who rediscovered the Dharma. If it really is the Dharma that has been rediscovered, that is sufficient. Of course, if it were shown for certain that no one could become liberated, or ever had become liberated by following this Teaching, that would have radical repercussions for Buddhists. That would be to show the Dharma as not actually the Dharma at all. It would be to show that the central religious event(s) of this religion are and can be nothing for us. This would be the equivalent to showing Christians that Jesus never existed, for it would entail the complete nullity of the claims and practices of the religion.
The role of the Buddha for Buddhists therefore is, as a Buddhist formula has it, simply to show the way, a way which has to be followed by each person themselves in order for its salvific function to be fulfilled. What follows from all this is that the corresponding absolutely central role of Jesus for Christians is performed for Buddhists not by the Buddha, but by the Dharma. The proper Buddhist place to start the study of Buddhism, therefore, is not the life-story of the Buddha at all but through Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 23 outlining straight away the Dharma, the practice of which leads to liberation without further ado. The life-story of the Buddha becomes important subsequently as a teaching aid, for showing how it is that the teachings have the validity they do possess— that is, for engendering confidence in the effectiveness of the teachings—and for illustrating themes of the teachings themselves. As one might expect, the Buddha is subordinate to the Dharma, for it is not the Buddha who brings about the enlightenment of his followers, but following the Dharma.
This is a book on Buddhist thought, and not a basic introduction to Buddhism. I do not intend to repeat at any length the traditional life-story of the Buddha here. I am nevertheless interested in drawing your attention to the story as a teaching aid, that is, drawing your attention to what the traditional life-story of the Buddha tells us about Buddhism and the Buddhist orientation. But first some preliminaries.
Our lives would be made much easier if we knew exactly when the Buddha was born, and when he died. In the third century BCE the Indian emperor Asoka sent various missionary-ambassadors abroad, and it has proved possible more or less to anchor chronologically the lifetime of Asoka in relationship to various Hellenistic kings apparently visited by these ambassadors. But this still gives rise to problems of how to relate the dates of Asoka to the time of the Buddha. The view found in the Southern (Singhalese) Buddhist tradition (at least, in its so-called ‘corrected’ version) is that Asoka came to the throne 218 years after the death of the Buddha, and suggested correlations with Hellenistic rulers give the date of Asoka’s accession at 268 BCE. Thus this gives 486 BCE for the death of the Buddha. There are other ways of calculating the date of the death of the Buddha however, and in the ‘Northern’ Buddhist tradition (found in, say, China) Asoka is said to have come to the throne just 100 years after the death of the Buddha (a suspiciously round figure). Richard Gombrich has recently argued that Asoka came to the throne about 136 years after the death of the Buddha. Doubt as regards the accuracy of the 486 date is now so widespread among scholars that the one consensus that appears to be emerging is that the 486 BCE date 24 Buddhist Thought
commonly given in books on Buddhism is wrong. The death of the Buddha should be placed much nearer 400 BCE than 500 BCE.8
The purpose of mentioning this problem concerning the date of the Buddha here is on the principle that the first stage of learning is to realise that one is ignorant. We do not know even when the Buddha lived. He may well have lived a whole century later than most Western scholars had previously thought. A century is a long time. This uncertainty should also suggest (if not as a direct implication, nevertheless as a methodological strategy) extreme caution as regards the details of the traditional life of the Buddha. For those unfamiliar with the story let me quote the summary of the Buddha’s life from Michael Carrithers, based on traditional Buddhist accounts:
The Buddha was born the son of a king, and so grew up with wealth, pleasure, and the prospect of power, all goods commonly desired by human beings. As he reached manhood, however, he was confronted with a sick man, an old man and a corpse. He had lived a sheltered life, and these affected him profoundly, for he realised that no wealth or power could prevent him too from experiencing illness, old age and death. He also saw a wandering ascetic, bent on escaping these sufferings. Reflecting on what he had seen, he reached the first great turning-point of his life: against the wishes of his family he renounced home, wife, child and position to become a homeless wanderer, seeking release from this apparently inevitable pain.
For some years he practised the trance-like meditation, and later the strenuous self-mortification, which were then current among such wanderers, but he found these ineffective. So he sat down to reflect quietly, with neither psychic nor physical rigours, on the common human plight. This led to the second great change in his life, for out of this reflection in tranquillity arose at last awakening and release. He had ‘done what was to be done’, he had solved the enigma of suffering. Deriving his philosophy from his Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 25 experience he then taught for forty-five years, and his teaching touched most problems in the conduct of human life. He founded an order of monks who were to free themselves by following his example, and they spread his teaching abroad in the world. He eventually died of mortal causes, like others, but unlike others he was ‘utterly extinguished’ (parinibbuto), for he would never be reborn to suffer again.
We simply do not know for certain whether any of the traditional life-story of the Buddha is true, let alone the truth of the details. Comparative work on different versions of the same story preserved in early Buddhist texts in Pali, and in Chinese and Tibetan translation, by scholars like André Bareau (1963–71) have led to very sceptical conclusions regarding the historicity of the well-known events in this story. The Buddha may not have existed, although there are no serious scholars currently who take this as a significant option. Nowadays scholars would tend to agree with Carrithers when he states that ‘There are good reasons to doubt even this very compressed account, but at least the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death’ (1983:3). The Buddha existed, and he was a renunciate. It is unlikely that what he taught was radically different from broadly what the earliest Indian Buddhist traditions consider he taught. The broad type of his teaching therefore was that of a renunciate, a drop-out teaching of the way to come to know the liberating truth which would free from all negative states including rebirth. But in some cases we now know that certain details of the traditional story of the Buddha are false, at least as they are commonly represented. For example, the Buddha was not born a prince, at least if a prince is the son of a king, let alone the son of a powerful king.10 We know that his clan of the Sakyas had no king. It was one of the North Indian republics soon to be absorbed into the growing empire of the Magadhan monarchy. The Sakya clan was ruled probably by a council of distinguished elders (it was thus perhaps what is known 26 Buddhist Thought
as an ‘oligarchy’), with possibly one elder elected for a period of presidency. Perhaps the Buddha’s father was one of these presidents, or one of the other elders, or perhaps not. And perhaps also the democratic order of the Buddha’s monks and nuns, the Sangha, was based on what he remembered on the political organisation of his home. The view that the Buddha was born the son of a king possibly reflects a retelling of the story by later Buddhists in terms of the political scene that had emerged by their own day. But it also represents a cipher, a code-expression, for the teaching-point significant to understanding the Dharma. This is that the Buddha was born in materialistically the most powerful and richest situation conceivable.
For what we find when we look at the life-story of the Buddha is not a historical narrative but a hagiography, and it is as a hagiography that one should read the life-story of the Buddha. A hagiography (nowadays ‘spiritual or religious biography’ appears often to be the preferred expression) is an account of the life of a saint. The hagiographies of medieval Christian saints provide the classic examples. In the hagiography we meet again the uniting of ‘is’ and ‘ought’, in which how it was, how it should have been, and how it must have been if he or she was who he or she indeed was, are united under the overriding concern of exemplary truth. This exemplary truth is the known Truth of the saint’s religious system. Within this perspective the interests of veridical historical narrative are sometimes not seen, and are always subordinate. The saint’s hagiography is constructed in the light of this exemplary need, and the needs of the construction are the needs of those who undertake it. Thus when the account of the saint’s life comes to be written—often, as the Buddha’s was, some time, even centuries, after his or her death— the life-story reflects the unification of is and ought in the vision and needs of the subsequent community. Careful intellectual archaeology may revel a core of historical fact (which is what, quite rightly, interests most modern historians, although by no means necessarily the believer), but the ‘is’ of historical fact was only one dimension, and a subordinate one, in the construction of the original hagiography. Thus the hagiography as a whole is to be read as an ideological document, reflecting the Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 27 religious interests of the community which put the hagiography together. And the hagiography’s survival shows that it indeed fulfilled those interests.11
Issues of the historical accuracy of elements in the life-story of the Buddha are therefore tangential to the purposes of one whose primary interest is Buddhist doctrine. André Couture, summarising the sceptical results of the work of Bareau, comments that what these studies forcefully bring out is how freely Buddhist writers received accounts deemed edifying. A relatively simple doctrine and a few ancient memories grew little by little into a heap of often contradictory traditions of fictional episodes composed to edify. Anyone claiming to solve unfailingly the enigma of historical likelihood would be shrewd indeed. It can safely be said of Buddhist hagiography in general that the teaching of the Good Doctrine outranks by far what we call attention to history; or as Bareau says, in the minds of hagiographers, the needs of preaching came before concerns over history. (Couture 1994:31)
The Buddha’s hagiography should be read as an illustration of what is to Buddhists important. It anchors the authenticity of the teachings in a story of wonderful achievement, and illustrates portions of those teachings, parts of the sasana revealing the Dharma. It should be possible to go through each element of the, or a, traditional account of the life of the Buddha and show how that element illustrates this or that aspect of what is to Buddhists important, the Dharma itself.
We are told that even before his birth the Buddha-to-be, unlike us, chose to be reborn at the time and place he was reborn, for he was already a supremely advanced Buddha-to-be (Sanskrit: bodhisattva; Pali: bodhisatta). Buddhas do not just occur, and to become a Buddha is the result of many lifetimes of devoted practise. The life-story of the Buddha shows a quite superior (albeit still human) being, even before he became a Buddha. Gautama was born into a supremely rich and prosperous family. 28 Buddhist Thought
We are told that had he not chosen to renounce the world and become a Buddha he was sure to become a world-conquering emperor (cakravartin; Pali: cakkavattin). He married a beautiful princess and had the supreme joy of an Indian male, a strong and healthy son. No one who follows the householder life could ever hope to be more successful at it than Gautama was and could have been. Thus in successfully renouncing the world Gautama renounced the highest possible attainment within the householder framework. In so doing he announced to all the ultimate frustration, imperfection (duhkha) of the householder’s life—the relativity of traditional Vedic Brahmanism—and the spiritual superiority of the life of a religious drop-out. At this stage in the story we see emerging a key theme, perhaps the key theme, illustrated by the life-story of the Buddha. This is the way the story shows so pointedly the central vision of Buddhism, the gap between the way things appear to be and the way things really are. Gautama had been brought up to think that everything was perfect, and it would go on forever. According to the developed life-story, in order to prevent him from having any inkling of suffering and thus becoming a renouncer, Gautama’s rich father had resolved to keep his son from ever seeing sickness, old age, and death. It is, for the Buddhist, exposure to this sort of suffering which gives rise to existential doubt, concern, and questioning, and this existential angst is what leads one to renounce the world and seek for liberation, freedom. Not ever to see old age, sickness, or death is of course impossible, and the fact that we are told his father kept these facts of life from Gautama until adulthood shows the absurdity of reading this account as narrative history. But it also shows the value of reading it as hagiography. Gautama had been brought up radically to misperceive things. He saw things one way, when they are really another way. His story portrays in acute form the situation that the Buddhist claims all unenlightened people are in, whether they realise it or not. For the Buddhist it is this gap between the way we see things to be and the way things actually are which engenders suffering and frustration. Coming to see things the way they really are, actually to see things that way, is to close this gap. Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 29 That is the final purpose of Buddhist meditation. Closing that gap is how meditation transforms the mind. For Gautama being introduced to old age, sickness, and death and, crucially, abstracting from their occurrence in the case of others to his own case (see Buddhacarita Bk 3) was to face reality. It was a revelation, which provoked a crisis. The only resolution was renunciation. That renunciation, it was hoped, would lead to seeing the way things really are in its fullest transformative sense, and thus to attaining liberation. This theme of seeing things one way and their really being another way is the thread running throughout the first part of the life-story of the Buddha. It is not surprising that this thread is the theme of Buddhism, for the whole story of the Buddha exemplifies what Buddhism is all about. The tension set up by this thread is resolved by the enlightenment, after which the gap is closed and the Buddha thereafter is incarnate insight flowing in acts of compassion. After Gautama had renounced the world he undertook his spiritual practices as a drop-out with supreme seriousness, outdoing all the others in austerity. Gautama entered deep meditation, reducing his food intake dramatically to (we are told) ‘as little as three grains of rice a day’. He soon achieved all his teachers could teach him, and went beyond their own attainments. Yet still he felt he had not achieved the goal. Thus Gautama had to discover the sasana anew, discover it for himself, for there was no one left to teach him. Clearly what he discovered went beyond all other teachings, and their teachings therefore could not be the final truth. The result of his extreme austerities was that he too acquired admiring disciples, for such asceticism was surely the way to bring rebirth to an end. But Gautama himself simply became ill. Just as he had shown his superiority over and transcended the householder life, with its extreme of luxury, so he now saw the ultimate pointlessness of much of the contemporary practice of the renunciates, his fellow drop-outs. Buddhism is said to be the Middle Way, and one meaning of this is the middle between sensory indulgence (luxury) and sensory deprivation (extreme asceticism). In eating again, strengthening the body, Gautama showed that true liberation concerns the mind. It is not a matter of 30 Buddhist Thought
ritual action, or of the renunciation of action. It is a matter of knowing. Liberation comes from delving within, beyond fierce asceticism and also any lesser understanding possessed by other renunciates.
Gautama’s enlightenment is the enlightenment of a Buddha, completely perfect, relaxed, stillness. He ‘had done what was to be done, and there would be no further rebirth for him.’ What he had discovered we shall look at subsequently. And yet the Buddha also taught others, founding a monastic order with monks and eventually nuns, wandering, teaching, and living on alms. The Buddhist tradition holds that a Buddha has not just the wisdom of direct insight into the way of things but also complete compassion for others who are suffering as he once was. After forty-five years of teaching the Buddha died, for central to his awakening, his enlightenment, is that all things around us are impermanent. He appointed no human successor, for he affirmed that he has taught all that is necessary to attaining liberation and therefore the only successor needed was the teaching he had rediscovered. What more did they want? His successor, he said—and are we surprised? —should be the Dharma itself.12 The Buddha at the end directs attention to the Dharma and to its practice. The life-story of the Buddha is not narrative history. It is all about the Dharma. Without the Dharma there is nothing. Without its practice it is useless.
In reading the hagiography of the Buddha in something like the way sketched here we read the life-story as it was intended, we master the Dharma, and (students please note) we stop simply telling stories.
Do we really know anything of what the Buddha taught? Immediately after the death of the Buddha his teachings, as they were recalled, are said to have been recited. According to tradition they were then assembled into some sort of corpus appropriate for memorisation and oral transmission. They were not written down for some centuries.13 Over the years, reflecting the growth of Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 31 different schools of Buddhist transmission and sometimes understanding, a number of different versions of the canonical corpus were assembled. Thus scholars speak of e.g. the Theravada (‘Pali’) Canon, the Mahasamghika Canon, the Sarvastivada Canon, and so on.14 All of these canonical collections reflect what the schools concerned (Theravada, Mahasamghika, Sarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka, etc.) eventually considered to be the Canon, the authentic statement of the teaching of the Buddha as remembered, transmitted, and eventually written down. Each school claimed to represent unadulterated the original Buddhism of the Buddha. Not all these canonical collections were in the same language however. The Theravadins (followers of Theravada) favoured a Middle Indo- Aryan language which has come to be known as Pali, while the Sarvastivadins, for example, came to favour the pan-Indian language of high (and Brahmanic) culture, Sanskrit. The Buddha himself may have varied his dialect or language depending on the person to whom he was preaching, but none of these canonical collections is straightforwardly in a language in which the Buddha would have done most of his speaking. To that extent they are all one way or another translations, containing texts that may have been translated sometimes more than once.15 The only complete canon of an early Buddhist school surviving in its original Indian language is the Pali Canon, and the Theravada school of e.g. Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia is the only representative of these early schools of Buddhism to have survived to the modern day. Such a canon consists of three sections. For this reason it is known as the Tripitaka in Sanskrit, or the Tipitaka in Pali, the ‘Three Baskets’. In the Theravada tradition, which uses the Pali Canon, all the contents of the Tipitaka are held to stem from the Buddha himself either directly or through his active approval of the teaching of other enlightened monks. The first basket (pitaka) is the Vinaya Pitaka, which broadly speaking treats issues of monastic discipline (Vinaya). The Sutta Pitaka is the section of Discourses (sutta; Sanskrit: sutra). In its Pali version it is divided into four sections known as Nikayas: the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas. There is also a supplementary collection called the 32 Buddhist Thought
Khuddaka Nikaya. The equivalent material to the Nikayas in collections preserved outside the Pali tradition, particularly in Chinese translation, is called Agamas rather than Nikayas. Finally, and no doubt somewhat later in origin than the other pikakas, is the Abhidhamma Pikaka, the pikaka of ‘Higher (or “Supplementary”) Teaching’. Here we find seven books treating particularly issues requiring somewhat greater philosophical precision than in the works of monastic discipline or the Buddha’s regular discourses. The Abhidhamma Pikaka contains lengthy descriptions of how things really are, and how this relates to the way they appear to be. A great deal of its contents concerns issues of causation, unravelling the dynamic nature of things and explaining how the world nevertheless hangs together. It contains also an attempt to describe the experiential building-blocks which come together to make up our lived world, and how all these relate to issues of moral behaviour and following the path to liberation.
It would be wrong, however, to think unquestioningly that the Theravada school is original Buddhism, and its Canon is the original word of the Buddha.16 There were other early schools of Buddhism, and very substantial sections of their versions of the canons survive either in original fragments or in Tibetan or more importantly here Chinese translations. As we have said, each school considered itself to be simply original Buddhism, and its canon the original word of the Buddha. Scholars have great fun comparing these different versions of the canons, but while there are differences in detail their differences are not normally so great as to suggest very radical divergence in doctrine.
There are differences among scholars however on how far we can use these sources to know exactly what the Buddha himself taught. Lambert Schmithausen has recently referred to three approaches to this issue. The first position he detects, particularly associated by him with British Buddhologists, stresses the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic [i.e. earliest basic Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 33 canonical, particularly Pali) materials…. On this assumption, the canonical texts are taken to yield a fairly coherent picture of the authentic doctrine of the Buddha himself… (Ruegg and Schmithausen 1990:1–2; italics original) Scholars in the second group (Schmithausen seems to be thinking here in particular of Gregory Schopen and D.Schlingloff) express extreme scepticism about retrieving the doctrines of earliest Buddhism, especially of the Buddha himself. This is because among other things even the earliest texts were not codified until after the first century BCE, and it is difficult without making questionable presuppositions to go much beyond that time as regards the canonical texts, although archaeological sources such as inscriptions may be helpful. Schmithausen himself would side with a third group. This group maintains that notwithstanding these problems it may occasionally be possible to detect in the texts that now exist earlier and later segments and thus sometimes earlier and later doctrines. This approach favours detailed textcritical analysis of canonical versions of particular accounts to detect inconsistencies and contradictions that may suggest earlier textual revisions, stratification of textual content, and therefore different levels of doctrinal development. This may lead to some sort of relative chronology of ideas some of which may (or may not) be capable of being traced back to the Buddha himself. Richard Gombrich (who is considered by Schmithausen very much to fall within the first group of scholars, although he himself rejects being ‘painted…into a kind of fundamentalist corner’) has suggested that jokes in some of the texts may go back to the Buddha himself, for ‘are jokes ever composed by committees?’. He also tries to show allusions to Brahmanism in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, which the later tradition appears to have forgotten, thus suggesting the relative antiquity of those allusions. If they refer to doctrines found in e.g. the Brhadaranyala Upanisad, and these references have been forgotten by later Buddhists, then it suggests that at least these references may go back to the time of the Buddha himself (Gombrich 1996:11–12). The Buddha himself may well have been self-consciously 34 Buddhist Thought
responding to some of the early prose Upanisads like the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad.
Of course, we cannot show for certain the falsehood of the claim that none of the teachings attributed to the Buddha goes back to the actual figure of the Buddha himself at all. This logically follows, since it is always possible that the Buddha might not have existed. Nevertheless it seems almost certain that he did exist, and he gave teachings which were considered by his followers to be important and life-transformative. I agree with Gombrich elsewhere, where he considers the possibility held by some scholars that the Buddha may really have taught a Self (atman, Pali: atta) instead of the Not-Self (anatman; Pali: anatta) doctrine. He observes, ‘I myself find this claim that on so essential a point the Buddha has been misunderstood by all his followers somewhat [to use a Buddhist expression] “against the current”’ (Gombrich 1971:72 n. 18). In other words, if only because it was important to them, barring specific matters of detail the Buddhist tradition as represented in its earliest Indian sources is likely to have preserved the teaching of the Buddha reasonably well. The Dharma is to be practised, for the purposes of liberation. Its preservation, particularly in the hands of the an organised body like the Sangha, created by the Buddha no doubt partly for the purposes of preserving an awareness of the Dharma for as long as possible, is unlikely to have been treated in a cavalier fashion.17 The Buddha’s attitude to his teaching: the arrow and the raft
The Buddha is said to have used two illustrations in particular to show how to understand what his real concerns were in teaching, and how to take the teaching that he gave. The first is found in the Culamalunkya Sutta (the ‘Shorter Discourse to Malunkya(putta)’), which is the sixty-third sutta (‘scripture discourse’; Sanskrit: sutra) in the section of the Pali Canon known as the Majjhima Nikaya, the ‘Middle Length Collection’. A monk called Malunkyaputta while in retreat became concerned that the Buddha had not Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 35 answered what were to him certain major philosophical questions. These questions related to whether the world is eternal, or not eternal; whether the world is finite, or infinite; whether the jiva (the ‘life principle’) is the same as the body, or different from it, and whether the Tathagata18 exists after death, or does not exist after death, or both exists and does not exist after death, or neither exists nor does not exist after death? Upon whether the Buddha can answer these questions or whether he will honestly admit he does not know the answers will depend Malunkyaputta’s continuing a monk-disciple of the Buddha.
The Buddha’s response is simple. These are not questions he has any intention of answering (or, one can be sure, any interest in answering). He had never offered to answer questions like these, so Malunkyaputta cannot have decided to become a monk because he thought the Buddha would answer them. If Malunkyaputta insisted on answers to these questions before practising the Dharma as a monk then, the Buddha observes, he would surely die before it had been explained to him:
It is as if there were a man struck by an arrow that was smeared thickly with poison; his friends and companions, his family and relatives would summon a doctor to see the arrow. And the man might say, ‘I will not draw out this arrow as long as I do not know whether the man by whom I was struck was a [member of a] brahmin, a ksatriya, a vaisya, or a sudra [class]…as long as I do not know his name and his family…whether he was tall, short or of medium height …’ That man would not discover these things, but that man would die.
(Trans. in Gethin 1998:66)
The one uncontroversial point about this famous image is the comparison of being an unenlightened person in the world, our actual existential situation, with being hit in the eye by a very poisonous arrow. Being in the world as an unenlightened being, being in the world as one who will again be in the world, and again and again throughout endless rebirths and redeaths, is 36 Buddhist Thought
wanted as much as a poke in the eye with a pointed stick. For the Buddha our situation is past discussion, it is lethal (life is a fatal illness), and the very fact we cannot see this is itself a sign of how far we are from seeing things the way they really are. The thick poison is the poison of misconception, of ignorance (avidya; Pali: avijja).19 As far as the Buddha is concerned everything else is subordinate to this almost overwhelmingly urgent imperative. The Buddha in this sense is not a philosopher, at least if we understand a philosopher as someone like Socrates, engaged in an activity of reflection and discussion on fundamental issues of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. The image often used in Buddhist texts is not of the Buddha as a philosopher, but the Buddha as a doctor, ‘the great physician’. One does not philosophise with one’s doctor, at least, not if one’s illness is critical but still curable. The teaching of the Buddha is through and through goal-oriented (teleological). It is entirely dependent upon its goal of freedom from suffering and ultimate frustration. And the Buddha’s concern is not discussion. It is not pondering or mulling things over. It is action, based on an acceptance not of some abstract philosophising but rather specifically of the Dharma rediscovered by the Buddha. And when the Buddha said that the man would die before he had answered all these questions, what the simile means when applied to the soteriological teaching of the Buddha is not that for one reason or another it would take the Buddha a long time to answer those questions. Rather it must be that before such questions could be answered all would be lost. The chance for a cure, i.e. liberation, would have irrevocably passed. So long as one insists on an answer first one will never be liberated. Or, put another way, one will only have a chance of liberation when one abandons the search for answers to such questions.
This image is uncontroversial, and it is this image which shows how to approach the teachings of the Buddha and earliest Buddhism. Not all about the Buddha’s response to Malunkyaputta, however, is equally uncontroversial. What is it about these questions (and other similar sets of ‘unanswered’ (Sanskrit: avyakrta; Pali: avyakata) questions found in the Buddhist canon) which meant that the Buddha did not answer them? Here the Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 37 Buddhist tradition and modern scholars have mooted a number of possibilities (Collins 1982a:131–8; Gethin 1998:66–8). One can assume that these questions are being taken as a set. Let us look at the logical options.
Logically, there may be answers to these questions, or there may not. In favour of the view that there is no answer to these questions is that the Buddha seems to think that it would, as it were, ‘take forever’ to answer them. This seems to indicate that they are actually impossible to answer. Otherwise answers could be given (grudgingly, but if really necessary) and then one could follow the path. So on this interpretation, since there is no answer to these questions then not only cannot the Buddha give an answer, but also having an answer to these questions cannot be anything to do with becoming enlightened (because otherwise neither Gautama nor anyone else could have become enlightened). But if there are answers to these questions, the Buddha may know those answers or he may not. If he does not know the answers then this would certainly be incompatible with later Buddhist tradition that the Buddha was omniscient. It would also suggest that the Buddha was dishonest in not admitting that he did not know the answers, as Malunkyaputta wished him to do if that were true. But even if the Buddha did not know the answers it would still show yet again that if the Buddha’s Dharma is the Dharma, then knowing the answer to these questions could not be relevant to the path to liberation. And the Buddhists are telling this story, so we cannot approach the meaning of the story with an attribution of dishonesty to the Buddha that would be unacceptable to Buddhists.
If the Buddha knows the answers to our questions, then telling the answers may be relevant to his purposes or it may not. But we can assume that if there are answers, and the Buddha knows those answers, it cannot be the case that telling them is relevant to his purposes, or he would have done so. Thus giving answers to these questions simply has nothing to do with attaining liberation. Again and again we return to the same point. The Buddha is by definition an enlightened being, and as such he has understood the true nature of things and all that is necessary to becoming 38 Buddhist Thought
enlightened. That is, he has understood the Dharma. The need to attain liberation is the one overriding imperative. And that liberation simply does not require an answer to these questions, whether or not there is an answer or, if there is an answer, whether or not the Buddha knows it. This interpretation is supported by a subsequent comment made in the text:
It is not the case that one would live the spiritual life by virtue of holding the view that the world is eternal [etc.]…. Whether one holds that the world is eternal, or whether one holds the view that the world is not eternal, there is still birth, ageing, death, grief, despair, pain, and unhappiness— whose destruction here and now I declare.
(Trans. in Gethin 1998:68)
And that may be about as far as we can go in interpreting the unanswered questions with any reasonable degree of assurance.20 The other famous illustration to show the Buddha’s attitude to his teaching is that of the Raft. It can be found in another sutta of the Pali Canon’s Majjhima Nikaya, this time sutta number 22, the Alagaddupama Sutta (the ‘Discourse on the Simile of the Water Snake’). In this discourse a certain rather stupid, or perhaps selfseeking, monk called Arittha conceives the idea that when the Buddha said that sense pleasures are an obstacle to the spiritual path he was not including in this sexual intercourse.21 The Buddha is not impressed, calls Arittha a ‘foolish man’, and seems astonished that anyone would come up with such a misunderstanding of his teaching. Some people, he observes, learn his teachings but do not apply them. They just chat about them, or use them to accuse others. Thus they simply harm themselves. The teachings here have been ‘badly grasped’. It is just like trying to grab a poisonous snake, and catching it not by the head but by the tail. One simply gets bitten. Thus just as the Buddha sees his teachings as intensely practical so, for that very reason, they are also dangerous if misunderstood. And he continues by likening his teachings to a raft. A man comes to an expanse of water, where the near bank (the state of unenlightenment) is ghastly but the far Doctrinal position of the Buddha in context 39 side (i.e. nirvana; Pali: nibbana) is safe. There is no boat, so he builds himself a raft and crosses over safely. But having got to other side that man does not carry the raft with him. Rather, he leaves it behind. Thus, says the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma) is taught for the purpose of crossing over, not for holding onto. Again we see that the use of the teaching by the Buddha is subordinate to its purpose. The point is the point, but once one has got the point (indeed if one has got the point) one certainly should not hold onto the teachings and what they teach with craving and attachment (Gethin 1998:71 ff.). It follows that there is here no requirement (it seems to me) of rigid literalism. The text adds that by appreciating this simile of the raft one can let go even of the teachings (dhamma; following Gombrich 1996:24 ff.), let alone those things which were not taught by the Buddha (adhamma), such as the weird ideas of Arittha. What the Buddha did not teach is of course not to be adopted, but all that he did teach was for a purpose and having attained that purpose, letting go of craving and attachment, the particular verbal formulations of the teachings are no longer needed.22
Note that it simply does not follow from the raft simile that the teachings of the Buddha here are no longer being claimed to be factually true but only of relative practical benefit in particular contexts. The Buddha is not saying that any particular teaching is to be abandoned once it has fulfilled its pragmatic purpose because it carries no surplus truth over and above that purpose. The point of the raft simile is much simpler. The teachings may be true, descriptively, factually, cognitively true. But the message of the Buddha concerns liberation through transforming the mind, and the raft simile draws one’s attention to a potential incompatibility between the truth of the teachings themselves and the way they are held if they are clung onto with craving and attachment. It is obvious that particular teachings are no longer needed once one has irrevocably understood their point, or their meaning, or what they are referring to. In getting the point one does not need to cling on, and one can let go of the expression. Moreover if necessary one could re-express it, so long as the point eventually turns out to be the same. And whether to utter a 40 Buddhist Thought
particular statement at a particular time may well be completely pragmatic. That is, one utters the statement entirely because in context it will help on the spiritual path. But there is no implication here that the point, i.e. what is being expressed, is not really, objectively true. There is no suggestion that it is only ‘pragmatically true’ i.e. it is only a question of it being beneficial in the context of the spiritual path.
As we have seen, the Buddhist tradition, certainly in India, always considered that the Buddha had discerned a definite ‘way things are’, and there are teachings which entail practices which do indeed lead to seeing things that way and freedom from all suffering, all duhkha. The teachings of the Buddha are held by the Buddhist tradition to work because they are factually true (not true because they work). In the Indian context it would have been axiomatic that liberation comes from discerning how things actually are, the true nature of things. That seeing how things are has soteriological benefits would have been expected, and is just another way of articulating the binary ‘is’ and ‘ought’ dimension of Indian Dharma. The ‘ought’ (pragmatic benefit) is never cut adrift from the ‘is’ (cognitive factual truth). Otherwise it would follow that the Buddha might be able to benefit beings (and thus bring them to enlightenment) even without seeing things the way they really are at all. And that is not Buddhism. 2 Mainstream Buddhism
The basic thought of the Buddha
The four Noble Truths
Books on Buddhism often start with the so-called four Noble Truths, and rightly so since this topic is central to what is traditionally held to have been the first discourse of the Buddha after his enlightenment. That discourse is known in Pali as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (‘The Discourse Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma’). Yet, as K.R.Norman has pointed out, there is no particular reason why the Pali expression ariyasaccani should be translated as ‘noble truths’. It could equally be translated as ‘the nobles’ truths’, or ‘the truths for nobles’, or ‘the nobilising truths’, or ‘the truths of, possessed by, the noble ones’ (1990–6, in 1993 volume: 174). In fact the Pali expression (and its Sanskrit equivalent) can mean all of these, although the Pali commentators place ‘the noble truths’ as the least important in their understanding (ibid.; see also Norman 1997:16). Norman’s own view is that probably the best single translation is ‘the truth[s] of the noble one (the Buddha)’. This would amount to a statement of how things are seen (‘truth’; Sanskrit: satya; Pali: sacca, derived from ‘sat’, being, how it is) by a Buddha, how things really are when seen correctly. Through not seeing things this way, and behaving accordingly, we suffer. Nevertheless, while bearing in mind these alternative ways of reading the expression, let us stick with the (Western) tradition of translating the expression as ‘noble truths’. 42 Buddhist Thought
The formula for the four Noble Truths is probably based on the formula for a medical diagnosis. That is, it states the illness, the source of the illness, then the cure for the illness, and finally the way to bring about that cure. Let me treat each of the four in turn. Duhkha/Dukkha
In the Pali Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta the Buddha states: Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha, to be united with the unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from the pleasant is dukkha, not to get what one desires is dukkha. In brief the five aggregates (khandha; Sanskrit: skandha) of attachment are dukkha.1 What this amounts to is that absolutely everything pertaining to an unenlightened individual comes under duhkha. A certain amount has been written against the translation of this term by ‘suffering’. This is perhaps animated by a feeling that to claim all of our unenlightened life is suffering sounds rather pessimistic, even though it is sometimes added that Buddhism is actually realistic— because it tells it how it is—and optimistic, because it teaches a way to overcome duhkha. It is true that the Buddhist tradition has come to speak of three types of duhkha. The first is literally pain (i.e. in Sanskrit duhkhaduhkha), the sort of feeling you have when you step in bare feet on a drawing pin. The second type of duhkha is the duhkha of change, a duhkha which things have simply because they are impermanent (Sanskrit: anitya; Pali: anicca). They are liable to change, to become otherwise. Thus even happiness is duhkha in this sense, because even happiness is liable to change. This sort of duhkha is considered by Buddhists to be omnipresent in samsara. Perfectly illustrated in the Buddha-to-be’s discovery of old age, sickness, and death, radical unremitting impermanence is discovered to be the essential ontological dimension of our unenlightened state. And finally there is the duhkha of conditions. This is the duhkha that is part of our very being as conditioned individuals living in a conditioned world. It Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 43 is the duhkha which is intrinsic to our state of imperfection, unenlightenment. As Rupert Gethin puts it:
we are part of a world compounded of unstable and unreliable conditions, a world in which pain and pleasure, happiness and suffering are in all sorts of ways bound up together. It is the reality of this state of affairs that the teachings of the Buddha suggest we each must understand if we are ever to be free of suffering.
It follows from this therefore that as a technical expression of Buddhism duhkha is much wider in meaning than ‘suffering’. The Buddhist does not deny that we laugh and are happy, although laughter and happiness still come under duhkha. They come under duhkha not in the sense that they are really miserable but rather in the sense that they are impermanent and anyway they are the laughter and happiness of beings that are not enlightened (as they could be). Nevertheless, while bearing in mind this extended meaning of duhkha in Buddhism, it still is the case that the Buddha chose the everyday word duhkha, pain, suffering, to begin his medical diagnosis of the existential situation of beings. This was true to his position as a world-renouncer who sought complete liberation. Thus ‘suffering’ is indeed an appropriate translation for duhkha. As a technical term in Buddhist Sanskrit or Pali it is wider in meaning than simply everyday duhkha (duhkhaduhkha), and correspondingly therefore we would also have to admit that in Buddhist English ‘suffering’ is a technical term wider in meaning than it is in everyday English. For the Buddha, from his enlightened vision, all our very being as unenlightened individuals is indeed ‘suffering’, and that is just how we would expect an Indian renouncer to diagnose the endless cycle of redeath. Origin (samudaya)
The origin of suffering is said to be craving (literally ‘thirst’; Sanskrit: trsna; Pali: tanha). The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta 44 Buddhist Thought
(Narada 1980:51) says of craving: ‘It is this craving which produces rebirth, accompanied by passionate clinging, welcoming this and that (life). It is the craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence.’ This passage also indicates the three types into which cravings can be classified. Cravings include not just cravings for sensory pleasures, but also craving for continued existence—eternal life—and craving for complete cessation, non-existence, a complete ‘end to it all’. All of these can become objects of craving. Note that ‘craving’ is a much better translation for trsna than the common translation ‘desire’, since in English ‘desire’ is often synonymous with ‘wanting’, and it seems to me the Buddha does not wish to say that wanting per se is faulty. I take it that if we knowingly engage in rational actions that can be expected to bring about X we can be said to want X if we are neither acting randomly nor acting under compulsion external to ourselves and counter to our will. The Buddha, when he went on his alms-round, presumably wanted to go on the alms-round. He was not acting randomly, nor being compelled to set off on the alms-round against his will. He acted out of free will. That is, he desired to go on the alms-round. But it does not follow from wanting something that one has craving for it. The Buddha’s alms-round was not the result of craving. It did not spring from trsna. Thus it is not considered faulty, and certainly not contradictory (as people sometimes tell me), for a Buddhist to want enlightenment. A Buddhist wants enlightenment in the sense that wanting something is a condition of freely and intentionally engaging in practices to bring it about. It is indeed faulty to have craving for enlightenment and, since the Buddhist path is precisely designed to bring craving to an end, to want enlightenment is to want the practices which will eliminate among other things craving after enlightenment itself. There is no contradiction in any of this.
No doubt in isolating trsna as the culprit here the Buddha was following a common move among the sramanas, the renunciates. This move attributed continued rebirth and redeath to the egoistic concerns, the wish for personal gain, that powered the Vedic sacrificial culture and that led to the results of karman, ‘good Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 45 fortune in this life and in the next’. It would have been commonplace among renunciates that the way to bring to an end all rebirth was to cut completely something akin to trsna which, in order to ensure the results of appropriate actions, projected (as it were) a future rebirth. This craving is in Buddhism, however, a very deep-rooted sort of grasping, since it is considered to be an almost instinctive response in each unenlightened being from birth. He or she does not just want, they crave. Craving can lead to attachment (upadana), and the Buddhist tradition speaks of four specific types of attachment (Gethin 1998:71): attachment to the objects of sense-desire, attachment to views (Sanskrit: drsti; Pali: ditthi), attachment to precepts and vows, and attachment to the doctrine of the Self. Note the way in which it is not the object of craving and attachment that is the determinative factor here. What marked out the Buddha’s approach to this topic, in contrast to his fellow sramanas, was his psychologising. Trsna is a matter of the mind, and therefore trsna is eliminated not by fierce asceticism, torturing the body, but by mental transformation through meditation. For the Buddhist it is the mental factor which is crucial. Liberation is all about the mind.
But what exactly is it about trsna, craving, which has such results, and how exactly does cutting craving lead to liberation? First, what is so insidious about craving, given that one wishes to overcome suffering, is its (psychological) incompatibility with impermanence. Craving X, where X is sure to cease, is to lead to suffering at the loss of X (for frustrated craving is painful), and renewed craving which itself is doomed to eventual loss. And so on, short of liberation, forever, for craving also projects future lives. This craving in the light of impermanence is radically unwise. Essential to seeing things the way they really are, which is liberation, is seeing all these impermanent things as impermanent, and therefore letting go of craving.
Erich Frauwallner (1973:150 ff.) has suggested that perhaps the Buddha’s original idea was that craving resulted simply from contact between the senses and their objects. Craving occurs usually (but clearly not necessarily) from all sensory experience, including mental experiences since Buddhism, in common with all 46 Buddhist Thought
Indian philosophy, treats the mind (manas) as a sixth sense, ‘seeing’ mental objects like memories and fantasy images. Thus the way to liberation lay in mindfulness, constantly watching sensory experience in order to prevent the arising of cravings which would power future experience into rebirths. Cravings occur subsequent to sensory experience. This is seen in the formula for ‘dependent origination’ (q.v.; Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada; Pali: paticcasamuppada) for example, where it is held that conditioned by the six senses is sensory contact, conditioned by sensory contact is feeling, and conditioned by feeling is craving. It becomes possible therefore (it is hoped) through awareness to insert a block between the sensory experience and the resulting craving. Thus the dynamism behind rebirth is also blocked. However, Frauwallner suggests, subsequently the Buddha (or the Buddhist tradition—who can tell?) shifted interest from craving as such as the cause of samsara to the factor behind craving which has such dramatic effects. Fundamentally the factor behind craving and the real cause of suffering is avidya (Pali: avijja), ignorance or misconception, which produces egotism.
Whether this represents two different phases of the Buddha’s understanding remains controversial. Perhaps ignorance and craving can better be seen as two different but inextricably mixed dimensions (the cognitive and the affective) of the samsaric experience (Gethin 1997b:221). Either way, ignorance is not a first cause in Buddhism in the sense of something that chronologically started the whole process off. It is not that once there was nothing and then ignorance occurred and the world came about. The traditional Buddhist view is that the series of lives extends as far as we can tell infinitely into the past. Moreover short of liberation rebirths will as far as we can tell stretch infinitely into the future. Thus there is no chronological (or indeed ontologically necessary) first cause. Rather, ignorance is the conceptual, and, we might say, soteriological first cause. It is that which is taken to act as a conceptually final explanation for suffering and the cycle of rebirth, the root of samsara. It is that from which liberation follows when it is completely overcome. In stating ignorance to be the root cause of suffering Buddhism again displays its credentials Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 47 as an Indian gnostic system. If ignorance is the cause of samsara, knowing, gnosis (vidya=jñana), becomes the ultimate condition of nirvana.
Ignorance when spoken of as the cause of suffering is explained in the Buddhist tradition as ignorance precisely of the four Noble Truths. ‘In other words, it is the not-knowingness of things as they truly are, or of oneself as one really is. It clouds all right understanding’ (Narada 1980:240). It is thus ignorance of the Dharma, ignorance of what is cognitively and practically seen as the Truth by the Buddha. In particular ignorance is, once more in common with e.g. the Upanisads, ignorance of the true nature of the Self. But radically unlike the Upanisads (or Jains, for example) which seek to reveal the hidden Self behind all things, the Buddha is going to assert that all the candidates put forward for the Self are ‘not Self’. Letting go of all these candidates for Self is the very prerequisite of nirvana. And what makes craving so insidious is precisely the way wanting becomes almost inextricably mixed with a strong assertion of Self, ‘I’ and ‘mine’, and thereby becomes craving. Thus the way to liberation lies not just, or perhaps not really, in mindfulness of sensory experience. Rather it lies in cutting forever all false assertion of Self, through knowing (gnosis) that each candidate for Self is really not Self at all. This is a crucial topic to which we shall return. Cessation (nirodha): on nirvana
The Buddha has completed his diagnosis. Now he offers the cure. If suffering in all its forms results from craving, then it follows that if craving can be completely eradicated, suffering will come to an end. As we have seen, the way to eradicate completely craving is to eradicate its cause, ignorance, through coming to see things in the deepest possible manner the way they really are. The complete cessation of suffering is nirvana (Pali: nibbana). Nirvana is broadly speaking the result of letting-go, letting-go the very forces of craving which power continued experiences of pleasure and inevitably suffering throughout this life, death, rebirth, and redeath. That, in a nutshell, is what nirvana is. It is the 48 Buddhist Thought
complete and permanent cessation of samsara, thence the cessation of all types of suffering, resulting from letting-go the forces which power samsara, due to overcoming ignorance (thence also hatred and delusion, the ‘three root poisons’) through seeing things the way they really are. Nirvana here is not ‘the Buddhist name for the Absolute Reality’ (let alone, God forbid, ‘the Buddhist name for God’). Nirvana is here an occurrence, an event (not a being, nor Being). Literally it means ‘extinguishing’, as in ‘the extinguishing of a flame’, and it signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara. These forces are thus completely destroyed. This event of extinguishing occurred when the Buddha became the Buddha. He ‘attained nirvana’ while seated in meditation at the foot of a tree. Having come out of his meditation he knew it had finally been done, once and for all. ‘Nirvana’ is not used by Buddhists to refer to the extinguishing of the person, or the individual. The Buddha did not suddenly go out of existence at the time of his liberation. It does not follow, therefore, from the use of this term alone that liberation in Buddhism is the equivalent (as some people seem to think) of ceasing to exist. Nor does it follow in anything other than the purely grammatical sense that nirvana is entirely negative. After his nirvana the Buddha continued to live and act in the world, living and acting as a person completely free of greed, hatred, and delusion. Note also that to live in this way is thus defined in what we would call moral terms. One who acts free of greed, hatred, and delusion is as such living and acting morally. Nirvana is not understood to be an amoral state. The tradition refers to the nirvana which the Buddha attained when he completely eradicated greed, hatred, and delusion as ‘nirvana with a remainder [of “fuel” or life?]’ (Sanskrit: sopadhisesanirvana; Pali: sa-upadisesanibbana). When an enlightened person like the Buddha dies, by definition there is no further rebirth. When that occurs it follows that the psychophysical elements that make him up as the embodied living individual he is (psychophysical elements known collectively as the five aggregates (q.v.)) cease, and are not replaced by further psychophysical Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 49 elements. This is called ‘nirvana without a remainder [of “fuel” or life?]’ (Sanskrit: nirupadhisesanirvana; Pali: anupadisesanibbana). As Gethin points out (1998:76, see also Norman 1990–6, 1996 volume: 12–18), this ‘nirvana without a remainder’ is sometimes referred to in modern Buddhist usage (probably incorrectly) as parinirvana, restricting ‘nirvana’ to ‘nirvana with a remainder’. And what of a Buddha who has attained ‘nirvana without a remainder’? What is it like for that person? Is it fun? The question is considered absurd. Without the psychophysical elements (including consciousness, but cf. Harvey 1990:67 and 1995) there is no sense to the idea of a person (and certainly no sense to ‘fun’, at least as it is normally understood in samsara). And, as we shall see, the Buddha rejected any additional candidate with the status of a Self that could be the ‘real person’ undergoing fun. There is nothing left for our minds to fix on (‘men and gods will not see him’, Norman 1990–6, 1993 volume: 253). Since there is nothing left for the mind to fix on, nothing more can be said. We have seen already that the question whether the Buddha (Tathagata) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist after death was one of the useless questions which the Buddha expressed no intention of answering. Any attempt to do so would attempt the impossible, and also contravene Buddhist tradition.2
Thus nirvana appears to be expressed in the earliest Buddhist tradition with event-terminology like ‘attaining’ and ‘extinguishing’ rather than noun-terms as occur in English metaphysics with ‘Absolute’, ‘Reality’, or ‘God’. Unfortunately however the issue is rather more complicated than it at first appears. There remains the interesting problem of how to interpret passages like the following, said of nirvana and attributed to the Buddha as an ‘inspired utterance’ (udana): There is monks a domain where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no wind, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of neither awareness nor non-awareness; there is not this world, there is not another world, there is no sun or moon. I 50 Buddhist Thought
do not call this coming or going, nor standing nor dying, nor being reborn; it is without support, without occurrence, without object. Just this is the end of suffering. (Trans. in Gethin 1998:76–7)
‘Domain’ would appear to be a noun-term. One way of reading this is that alongside our discussion of nirvana as an event we must also indeed make room for nirvana spoken of here as an Absolute Reality. This would be a Reality rather like the Brahman of the Upanisads or perhaps the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, or the ineffable ‘Godhead’ of some religious teachings. Moreover, perhaps, as with the Hindu approaches, this Absolute Reality is also identical with the True Self (atman), really in spite of appearances accepted by the Buddha. Thus his denials were only of what is ‘not Self’, not of the True Self.3 I am not convinced by all of this. The Buddhist tradition for its part speaks of nirvana in this context simply as the ‘unconditioned’ (Sanskrit: asamskrta; Pali: asamkhata), or the ‘unconditioned realm’ (-dhatu). It is worth noting that the only positive expression in the whole quotation from the Udana cited above (and indeed in expressions like ‘unconditioned realm’) is ‘domain’ or ‘realm’ (ayatana =dhatu). I do not think that any conclusions sympathetic to the (for want of a better expression) ‘Hindu’ or ‘Absolutist’ interpretation can be drawn here from a series of negatives. It simply does not follow that even if I describe identically two things (such as Brahman and nirvana) using negative terminology I am thereby describing the same thing. Think of a banana and an orange both described as ‘not apple’, ‘not cabbage’, ‘not green’, ‘not on wheels’, ‘not powered by diesel’, and so on. And one certainly cannot conclude from language like that in the quotation above without considerable further evidence and argument that the Buddhists are speaking of the same thing as e.g. the Brahman of Advaita Vedanta. Deference should be given to the mainstream Buddhist traditions that explicitly deny this linkage. It seems to me that it is from looking more closely at the only positive expressions here, the Buddhist use of ‘domain’ (ayatana) and ‘realm’ (dhatu) that some understanding of what is going on Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 51 may emerge. Early Buddhist treatment of perception (epistemology) speaks of the twelve ayatanas and the eighteen dhatus. The twelve ayatanas are the six senses (five senses plus the mind) and their six classes of corresponding intentional objects (visual objects, tactile objects, and so on). The eighteen dhatus are the same twelve plus the six types of resultant consciousnesses (visual consciousness, which occurs as a result of the ‘meeting’ of the visual sense with a visual object, and so on). Thus in the context of the theory of perception the term dhatu overlaps with that of ayatana. It seems clear to me that in referring to nirvana as a ‘domain’, or a ‘realm’ the only commitment is to nirvana as an intentional4 object of cognition, where ‘X is an object of cognition’ means simply (and nothing more than) ‘One can have an Xexperience’. 5 This is why in another famous passage from the Udana the Buddha states that ‘if that unborn, not-become, notmade, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this here that is born, become, made, compounded’.6 All this actually says, in its Buddhist context, is that the attainment of nirvana is not doomed through the mind being unable to cognise in such a way, i.e. there is no such cognitive content. As an intentional object of cognition nirvana is described using almost entirely negatives, for it is described in polarised opposition to that of which it is the complete negation, i.e. samsara (see Norman 1990–6: paper 117, esp. 23–4). Samsara is the conditioned. That is why it is impermanent, and being subject to impermanence it is subject to at least one sort of duhkha. Thus nirvana, being defined deliberately as not-samsara, is specified using precisely negations. It is not conditioned, because it is not part of the formula for ‘dependent origination’, which pertains to samsara, it is where there are no conditioned things (K.R. Norman), and also it is not impermanent (and thence enmeshed in duhkha) as are conditioned things. And so on. The only commitment in all of this, it seems to me, is that nirvana can be attained. The search for nirvana is not doomed to failure. Cognising nirvana is not impossible, due to there being no such cognitive content or referent. In addition nirvana is the negation of samsara and all that cessation involves. But there is no positive ontological commitment implied at all. 52 Buddhist Thought
Nirvana in this sense is simply—and nothing more than—the perceptual condition for the event of nirvana (what happened to the Buddha under the tree of enlightenment) to take place. Thus the only positive expression needed or possible for nirvana is ayatana or dhatu, translated as ‘domain/realm’. All the rest can indicate the negation of the suffering which is samsara, either directly as here through the use of verbal negations, or indirectly through terms like ‘supramundane’ (Sanskrit: lokottara) which unpack as negative expressions (=not of the world). Thus this third sense of nirvana is as the content, or the intentional referent, of enlightening gnosis. That is all.7
Way (Sanskrit: marga; Pali: magga)
The way to nirvana is spoken of in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta as the ‘eightfold path’. In its fullest development this is the eightfold (or eight-dimensioned) way of the Aryas. The Aryas are the noble ones, the saints, those who have attained ‘the fruits of the path’, ‘that middle path the Tathagata has comprehended which promotes sight and knowledge, and which tends to peace, higher wisdom, enlightenment, and Nibbana’ (Narada 1980:50). The path is described as the ‘middle path’ in this early discourse in the sense that it is the middle path between what renunciates like the Buddha would have seen as the indulgent sensual way of the householder, and the self-mortification, bodily torture, carried out by certain other renunciates. Positive and permissible indulgence in sensual delights (kama) providing it does not contradict Dharma has always been seen as very much the prerogative of the householder in Indian civilisation (Kamasutra, esp. Ch. 2). For the Buddha this is precisely not suitable for ‘one who has renounced’, and thus for one seriously engaged in the path aimed at eradicating suffering and rebirth. In talking of the ‘middle path’ the Buddha directly indicates transcendence of the householder framework. But equally the Buddha understood liberation in psychological terms, as something to do with transforming the mind through correct understanding. Thus asceticism as such could not bring about liberation, and indeed certain types of asceticism Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 53 (such as starving oneself) were no doubt seen as causing serious distraction in working on one’s own mind. The Buddhist path is the overcoming of greed, hatred, and delusion through the cultivation of their opposites, nonattachment, loving kindness, and wisdom or insight. The list of eight elements to the path (perhaps ‘dimensions’ would be better, as indicating the complementarity rather than successive nature of the set) is early, and is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Each element is preceded with ‘right’ (Sanskrit: samyak; Pali: samma) or ‘perfect’, ‘appropriate’, we might almost say ‘fitting’. Thus we have:
(i) right view (i.e. samyagdrsti/sammaditthi) (ii) right intention
(iii) right speech
(iv) right action
(v) right livelihood
(vi) right effort
(vii) right mindfulness
(viii) right concentration.8
‘Right view’ is here glossed as seeing the truth of the four Noble Truths (which in a nice piece of self-reference thus includes of course the eightfold path itself).9 It means that one speaks, acts, and thinks in conformity with reality, how things actually are. Note that the word ‘view’ (drsti/ditthi) is used here, and its use in this sense must therefore be distinguished from the sense seen previously in which all ‘views’ are described as finally pernicious. To hold even the right view with craving is to have a drsti which is ultimately to be abandoned, although it seems clear that to do this must for the Buddhist be preferable to holding a wrong view, necessarily with craving. This is because holding the right view with craving is as such to engage in the path that if followed through eventually erodes all craving and leads to a right view without craving, that is therefore no ‘view’ at all. ‘Right intention’ is explained as intentions free from attachments to worldly pleasures, selfishness, and self54 Buddhist Thought
possessiveness, and animated by benevolence and compassion (see Narada 1980:181–3). In terms of the three major divisions of the Buddhist path—wisdom (prajña; Pali: pañña), morality (or conduct: sila; Pali: sila), and meditation (Sanskrit/Pali: samadhi) —right view and right intention are classed under ‘wisdom’. ‘Right speech’ is speech that is not false, divisive, hurtful, or merely idle chatter. ‘Right action’ is refraining from harming living beings, particularly through killing them, refraining from taking what is not given (essentially, stealing), and refraining from sexual misconduct. In the case of monks and nuns this means refraining from all sexual activity.10 ‘Right livelihood’ is explained as livelihood not involving the infringement of right speech and right action. Some (Pali) sources refer to five kinds of trade particularly inappropriate for lay Buddhists (let alone monks and nuns), trade in arms, human beings, flesh, intoxicating drinks (presumably also other ‘recreational’ drugs), and poison (op cit: p. 184). In terms of the three major divisions of the Buddhist path, right speech, right action, and right livelihood are classed under ‘morality’, and the remaining elements of the eightfold path come under ‘meditation’. ‘Right effort’ consists of effort to prevent the arising of unwholesome mental states (e.g. of greed, hatred, and delusion) which have not arisen and effort to abandon unwholesome states that have arisen. It is effort to arouse wholesome states (e.g. of non-attachment, loving kindness, and wisdom) which have not arisen, and effort to develop and promote wholesome states that have arisen.11 ‘Right mindfulness’ is constant mindfulness, awareness, with reference to the body, with reference to feelings, with reference to the mind, and with reference to physical and mental processes (following Gethin, based on Theravada commentaries). In watching these one is aware of their flowing nature, moments arising and falling, aware of their impermanence and aware of letting them go. In watching in this way one perceives them as they are, and abandons any notion that they might be worth craving, as capable of providing lasting happiness, or as an object of attachment as one’s true Self. In knowing, seeing the body, feelings, the mind, and Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 55 physical and mental processes as they are, one begins to erode any basis for craving, and thus the forces that power suffering and rebirth. ‘Right concentration’ consists of one-pointedness of mind, the mind focusing unwaveringly on a single object, which can be taken to the point where one attains successively the four dhyanas (Pali: jhanas), the four ‘meditations’ or, in this context, perhaps ‘absorptions’. These dhyanas are said to take the meditator outside, as it were, the desire realm (kamadhatu) in which we humans normally live, and to pertain to the realm of (pure) form, the rupadhatu. The first and lowest of the dhyanas is characterised (in the standard scheme) as involving applied thought, examination, joy, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind. The second dhyana has the same features apart from the applied thought and examination, which are no longer experientially present and have dropped away. The third has happiness and one-pointedness, and the fourth possesses just one-pointedness and equanimity.12 To quote from Peter Harvey: The fourth jhana is a state of profound stillness and peace, in which the mind rests with unshakeable one-pointedness and equanimity, and breathing has calmed to the point of stopping. The mind has a radiant purity, due to its ‘brightly shining’ depths having been uncovered and made manifest at the surface level. It is said to be very ‘workable’ and ‘adaptable’ like refined gold, which can be used to make all manner of precious and wonderful things. It is thus an ideal take-off point for various further developments. Indeed it seems to have been the state from which the Buddha went on to attain enlightenment.
The four dhyanas are also spoken of as being realms into which one can be reborn as certain types of gods, thus bringing together cosmological realms and mental transformation in an interesting way which shows a blending of ‘outer’ cosmology and ‘inner’ psychology on these rarefied levels of Buddhist experience. We shall return to this topic subsequently.
56 Buddhist Thought
Not-Self (anatman; Pali: anatta)
It is often said in books published in English that the Buddha denied the existence of the soul. I do not see this as a very helpful way of speaking. The ‘soul’ in Western thought is held in its broadest sense to be that which gives life to the body. Some, such as Aristotle, thought of it as the ‘form’ of the body, that is, what makes the matter of the body alive as the actual living thing it is, rather as the shape is what makes wax this wax thing. He apparently did not think of the soul as separable from the body. Others (including Aristotle’s Medieval followers such as Aquinas) have seen at least the human soul as something immaterial capable of living apart from the body after the latter’s demise, and some others have connected the issues of bodily life, survival of death, and personal identity in a radically dualistic way. As is well known, Descartes identified that which gives life to the body, and survives death, with the mind, and he also identified this mindsoul as the true self, of an intrinsically different stuff from the body. The mind-soul is the factor in which lies the identity of the person over time and change. But these diverse views are diverse views of the thinkers concerned. Christian theology, for example, has no commitment to a particular view of the soul or, as such, personal identity. Its only commitment is that there is something that gives life to the body, and death is not the end of the story for the specific person concerned.
It seems to me that very little of this discussion of the soul is relevant to the Buddha.13 The Buddha stated that a large number of things were anatman, not Self, but I see no reason to think that in doing this he was concerned to deny whatever gave life to the body, whatever that is. Nor do I think he was concerned to deny that death is not the end of the story. Indeed he was very concerned to assert that the story in some sense goes on after death (‘life after death’, ‘reincarnation’). To say that this is not the case has always been considered to be a cardinal ‘wrong view’ in Buddhism, the wrong view of ucchedavada, annihilationism. In spite of what is sometimes said nowadays, traditional Buddhism is completely committed to some sense of life after death.14 But all Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 57 this has nothing whatsoever to do with the central element in the teaching of the Buddha, the teaching of things as anatman, not Self.
Strangely, the Buddha makes no mention of Not-Self in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. This is particularly strange given that the discourse is supposed to be the Buddha’s first sermon. It purports to describe what the Buddha discovered at his enlightenment (apparently the four Noble Truths), and the Not-Self teaching has always been held by Buddhists to be the unique discovery of the Buddha, the discovery that ensures his superiority over all other teachers. If what the Buddha discovered was the Truth that sets one free, then in a very real sense Not-Self is that liberating Truth. Perhaps in order to reconcile the anomaly here, the tradition holds that the Buddha followed the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta with another discourse, this time on Not-Self, known in its Pali version as the Anattalakkhana Sutta (the ‘Discourse on the Definition of Not-Self’). This sutta is probably the single most important source for understanding the mainstream position of Buddhist thought in relationship to its soteriological project. In it we see the Buddha addressing his very earliest disciples:
Bhikkhus (monks), material form (physical form, rupa) is not self [rupam bhikkhave anatta).15 If material form were self, this material form would not lead to affliction, and it could be had of material form: ‘Let my material form be thus; let my material form be not thus.’ And it is because material form is not self that it therefore leads to affliction, and that it cannot be had of material form: ‘Let my material form be thus; let my material form be not thus.’ Feeling (sensation; vedana) is not self…. [[[Wikipedia:Determinate|Determinate]]] perception [[[Wikipedia:conception|conception]]; sañña; Sanskrit: samjña) is not self….
Formations (volitions etc.; samkhara; Sanskrit: samskarah) are not self….
Consciousness (viññana; Sanskrit: vijñana) is not self…. (Trans. in Ñanamoli 1992:46)
58 Buddhist Thought
What the Buddha wants to say, then, is that each of these possible candidates for the status of Self is actually not Self. His grounds for this are that if something were to be the Self it would (i) not lead to affliction, and (ii) it would obey the person of whom it is the Self.16 In other words, whatever the Self is, it is something over which one has complete control and it is something which is conducive to happiness (or at least, not conducive to suffering). The list of five types of things which might be considered to be the Self but which by simple examination are seen not to fit the description falls into two classes: the physical (material form), and the mental (the other four: feelings, perceptions, formations (e.g. intentions/volitions), and consciousness). These five classes of things are known as the five ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates’ (Pali (singular): khandha; Sanskrit: skandha).17 The Buddha continues with a further characteristic of any putative Self:
How do you conceive this, bhikkhus, is material form permanent or impermanent? —‘Impermanent, Lord.’ —But is what is impermanent unpleasant or pleasant? — ‘Unpleasant, Lord.’ —But is it fitting to regard what is impermanent, unpleasant and subject to change as: This is mine, this is what I am, this is my self?’ —‘No, Lord.’ (Ñanamoli 1992:46)
And the Buddha explains that the same can be said as regards the other four aggregates. Thus we can add also that any Self would (iii) have to be permanent. And if it were fitting to regard anything with the consideration ‘This is mine, this is what I am, this is my self’, that thing ought at least to be permanent, pleasant, and not subject to change. Clearly from all this the Buddha takes it that any part of our psychophysical makeup, anything which can be classed under one or other of the five aggregates, cannot fit the paradigmatic description of what something would have to be in order to be a Self. They are all not Self. And—this is important— they are all impermanent. Seeing things this way is to see correctly:
Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 59 Therefore, bhikkhus, any material form whatsoever, whether past, future or present, in oneself or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, should all be regarded as it actually is by right understanding thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not what I am, this is not my self.’ (Ñanamoli 1992:46)
And the same applies, of course, to the other aggregates. Elsewhere (in the Alagaddupama Sutta) the Buddha comments that if someone were to burn wood no one would consider that he himself is being burned. Thus not only is our physical body not our Self, but it is patently obvious also that the world cannot be the Self (as some followers of the Upanisads might have thought). Of course, on the basis of what we have just seen from the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the world also could not be the Self because it too leads to affliction, does not obey the person of whom it would be the Self, and is impermanent. We cannot say ‘I am all this, this is my Self’. I cannot gain control over the macrocosm by realising its essence (Brahman) is truly identical with my essence (atman), since patently the macrocosm is not my Self. It does not fit the description for a Self.18
Now we meet the crucial part of this discourse. Note what the Buddha in the Anattalakkhana Sutta considers to be the result of seeing things the way they really are in this way: Seeing thus, bhikkhus, a wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate towards material form, becomes dispassionate towards feeling…[etc.]. Becoming dispassionate, his lust fades away; with the fading of lust his heart is liberated; when liberated, there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what was to be done is done, there is no more of this to come.’
This shows wonderfully well, I think, the connection between seeing things the way they really are, in terms of seeing how the 60 Buddhist Thought
psychophysical world actually is, and liberation. There is built into seeing how things are (‘is’) a transformation of moral response (‘ought’). The Buddha seems to suggest that this transformation is an automatic response to seeing how things really are. In spite of what the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Hume says, for the Buddha it is very much possible to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Liberation results from letting-go that which is seen as not being the Self. When one sees things are sources of unhappiness, out of one’s control, and impermanent, one sees that they cannot be any kind of Self. With this one lets them go, for having any involvement with them can only lead to misery. In letting all these go there is liberation, for the force of craving which leads to suffering and rebirth is no more. Seeing that all these are not Self is the path to liberation.
The Buddha had characterised the aggregates as being not Self because they lead to affliction, they do not obey the person of whom they are the aggregates, and they are impermanent. It follows from this that if something had the negations of these characteristics (did not lead to affliction, did obey the person, and were permanent) it would be the Self, or at least could be a strong candidate for the Self. On the basis of this there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self. He has not however said that there is no such thing as a Self at all. I confess I cannot quite understand this. If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so. And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed. He does not. It seems that all the other renouncers of his day saw the search for liberation from all suffering as terminating in discovering the Self. Indian systems which do teach the atman, like the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, for example, devote a great deal of attention to the issue, and make it quite clear in what way they assert the Self. No one has ever argued that the Upanisads do not teach the Self. Nor could they possibly do so. In early and mainstream Buddhist texts on the other hand all we find are Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 61 denials, statements that various things are not the Self. If the Buddha had thought there was a Self, and merely wanted to indicate here what is not the Self, it is inconceivable that he would have thought finding the Self really had nothing to do with liberation. Thus in the Anattalakkhana Sutta we should expect that he would have continued by explaining how, having seen what is not the Self, one finds the Self and that leads to ‘the knowledge: “It is liberated.”’ But he does not do this. He makes no mention of discovering the True Self in the Anattalakkhana Sutta. As we have seen, the Buddha explains how liberation comes from letting-go of all craving and attachment simply through seeing that things are not Self. That is all there is to it. One cuts the force that leads to rebirth and suffering. There is no need to postulate a Self beyond all this. Indeed any postulated Self would lead to attachment, for it seems that for the Buddha a Self fitting the description could legitimately be a suitable subject of attachment. There is absolutely no suggestion that the Buddha thought there is some additional factor called the Self (or with any other name, but fitting the Self-description) beyond the five aggregates.19 Just as there are those who think that the Buddha is really teaching a True Self behind all denial (an example of the view of eternalism; Pali: sassatavada; Sanskrit: sasvatavada), there are sometimes those who think the Buddha intends to deny that we exist at all. This is a version of the view of annihilationism (Pali/ Sanskrit: ucchedavada). Another sense of ‘middle way’ when used of Buddhism is the middle between eternalism and annihilationism. This middle is that we do exist in some sort of dependence upon dynamic, causally generated psychophysical bundles. It should be clear from what has been said so far that the individual, in the case of normal human beings the person, is being explained in terms of five classes of physical and psychological continua. Each of these forms a flow with all elements of the flow and the five continua themselves bound together in a dynamic bundle. The principles of this binding, what holds it all together, as we shall see in the next section, are causal. Any idea that there is more to us than is revealed by this reduction is, in terms of how things really are, wrong. An unchanging 62 Buddhist Thought
element, the real ‘me’, a Self, is simply non-existent. It is a fiction, and as a fiction it is the result of beginningless ignorance (avidya/avijja) and the cause of endless sorrow. Thus eternalism is false. But note that this explanation of the normal human being, the person, presupposes that there are indeed persons. Thus annihilationism too is false. Although the Buddha himself may have been more interested in his liberating denials, the later Buddhist tradition has been careful to make sure that there is no confusion about what is not being denied here. A practical way of referring to the bundle, giving it one name such as ‘Archibald’, or as ‘Fiona’, is generally thought to be acceptable.20 Persons in the everyday sense exist, and frequently in later Buddhist tradition the person is spoken of as the pudgala (Pali: puggala), carefully distinguishing it from the atman which is being denied. The Buddha is denying a particular sort of thing, a Self, which he sees as being at the root of the suffering of those who are unenlightened (whether they know it or not). He is not denying the existence of persons. He is not stating the absurdity that you and me, and he himself simply do not exist, and we would all be better off realising this. Persons exist as practical ways of speaking about bundles.
In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’) another stupid monk, Sati, conceives the idea that consciousness is the unchanging subject of experiences, effectively the Self, and that therefore it is consciousness which transmigrates unchanged from life to life. The Buddha vehemently repudiates this idea. Consciousness comes about in dependence upon some condition or another. ‘Consciousness’ is just the name we give to e.g. sensory experience, as happens when an unhindered eye meets (as it were) a visual object. Then we speak of ‘visual consciousness’. There is a flow of such experiences, and if experiences actually take place no really existing additional subject as consciousness itself, over and above conscious Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 63 experiences, is needed. Indeed it would be better, the Buddha observes at another point, to take the body as the Self rather than the mind. The mind is patently changing constantly whereas the body at least has a certain perceived stability about it (Samyutta Nikaya II: 94–5, in Lamotte 1988:29). Thus the Buddha’s response to a claim to have found an unchanging Self is among other things to point to the obviousness that the putative ‘Self’ (if it occurs at all) occurs as a result of the coming together of causal conditions. It accordingly could not be unchanging, and therefore could not be a Self. ‘Consciousness’ is no more a Self than anything else. It is actually a name we give to the flow of experiences. The Buddha thereby replaces a vision of the world based on Selves underlying change with an appeal to what he sees as being its essentially dynamic nature, a dynamism of experiences based on the centrality of causal conditioning. In other words, the flight from the world into Selves is to be replaced by seeing the world as it truly is and letting it go. The Buddha considered that if we look at the whole of samsara as it is we see that it is pervaded by its three hallmarks (trilaksana; Pali: tilakkhana). It is suffering (duhkha). It is impermanent (anitya). And it is not Self (anatman). The world truly is a torrent of cause and effect with no stability within it, save the stability we try to make for ourselves as a refuge from change and inevitable death. That stability only exacerbates suffering because it is a fictional stability created by our desperate grasping after security. The only real stability therefore lies in nirvana, just because (as we have seen) nirvana precisely is not the torrent of samsara. This stress on the dynamic nature of samsara throws into relief the still, calm, dimension of nirvana. Causal dependence was important to the Buddha primarily because it indicated the rational coherent structure of the universe. It shows what is to be done in order to bring about liberation, nirvana, through reversing the processes of samsara. The Buddha was interested in the fact that X comes into existence due to Y particularly because through the cessation of Y there will be no more X. Causal dependence was also important to the Buddha because it demonstrates how rebirth can occur without recourse to any Self. In addition it shows the mechanism whereby wholesome 64 Buddhist Thought
and unwholesome actions (karman) entail appropriate pleasant and unpleasant results. Indicating the way samsara exists as an endless series of causal processes also became important for Buddhists because it rendered any sort of personal divine creator irrelevant. The Buddha intentionally or by implication replaced any talk of God with that of causal dependence. God has no place in a seamless web of natural contingency, where each contingent thing could be explained as a causal result of another contingent thing ad infinitum. In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta the Buddha corrects Sati by stressing that things originate in dependence upon causal conditioning, and this emphasis on causality describes the central feature of Buddhist ontology. All elements of samsara exist in some sense or another relative to their causes and conditions. That is why they are impermanent, for if the cause is impermanent then so too will be the effect. In particular, our own existence as embodied individuals is the result of the coming together of appropriate causes, and we exist just as long as appropriate causes keep us in existence. Inevitably, therefore, we as the embodied individuals we are shall one day cease to exist. In this particular discourse the Buddha gives a picture of causal dependence (dependent origination) expressed in its most vivid way related to the exhortation to become free. Its very practicality has, it seems, the immediacy of an early source. A child is born, and grows up: On seeing a visible form with the eye, hearing a sound with the ear, smelling an odour with the nose, tasting a flavour with the tongue, touching a tangible with the body, cognizing an idea with the mind [this indicates the eighteen dhatus of sense, object, and resultant consciousness for each of the six senses), he lusts after it if it is likable, or has ill will towards it if it is dislikable (dependent upon ignorance of its true nature he produces greed and hatred). He abides without mindfulness of the body established and with mind limited while he does not understand as they actually are the deliverance of mind and the deliverance by understanding wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Engaged as he is in favouring and opposing, Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 65 when he feels any feeling, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant [=the three types of feeling), he relishes that feeling, affirms and accepts it. Relishing arises in him when he does that. Now any relishing of those feelings is clinging. With his clinging as a condition, being; with being as a condition, birth; with birth as a condition, ageing and death come to be, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair. That is how there is an origin to this whole aggregate mass of suffering. (Trans. in Ñanamoli 1992:251 ff.)
This, in a practical sense, is how suffering comes about. It comes about through causes. Thus through reversing the causes the suffering can be ended. And the text continues by telling us that perhaps a Buddha may appear in the world. Someone might hear the Dhamma and eventually become a monk. Through following seriously the Buddha’s path as a monk he might so develop his ability in mindfulness and meditative absorption that he learns to cut his lust after sensory experiences. Thus each link in the above list ceases through the cessation of the preceding link: With the cessation of his relishing, cessation of clinging; with cessation of clinging, cessation of being; with cessation of being, cessation of birth; with cessation of birth, ageing and death cease, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair; that is how there is a cessation to his whole aggregate mass of suffering.
(Op. cit.: 255)
Therefore the Buddha wants to link the emergence of suffering to impersonal lawlike behaviour, and he chooses to anchor this link in the impersonal lawlike behaviour of causation. This impersonal lawlike nature of causation is well demonstrated in its standard formula found in early Buddhist sources: ‘This existing, that exists; this arising, that arises; this not existing, that does not exist; this ceasing, that ceases’ (Gethin 1998:141). This is what causation is for early Buddhist thought. It is a relationship 66 Buddhist Thought
between events, and is what we call it when if X occurs Y follows, and when X does not occur Y does not follow (in Pali: imasmim sati, idam hoti; imasmim asati, idam na hoti). There is nothing more to causation than that. It is because causation is impersonal and lawlike that the Buddha places ‘dependent origination’ (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada; Pali: paticcasmuppada) at the very centre of his Middle Way (cf. ‘He who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination’; Mahahatthipadopama Sutta, Pali text I: 191). It is this impersonal lawlike causal ordering which is held in the Samyutta Nikaya (II: 12:20) of the Pali Canon to be the case whether Buddhas arise or whether they do not. This is what the Buddha is said to have rediscovered, and it is in this rediscovery and its implications that he is held to be enlightened. Because the emergence of suffering is a direct, impersonal, lawlike response to causes, suffering can be ended automatically through the removal of its causes (without recourse to sacrifices or petitioning divinities). Thus we might argue that (like Not-Self), although the Buddha does not mention dependent origination in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the very significance of the four Noble Truths which formed the content of his enlightenment relies implicitly on the impersonal lawlike behaviour of causation. Perhaps the Buddha’s understanding of both Not-Self and dependent origination emerged as he thought more and more (as he meditated) on the implications of what he had discovered. As we have seen, Frauwallner (1973) suggested that the Buddha’s tracing all finally to ignorance rather than the immediate cause of craving was a subsequent stage in his understanding and development of the teaching. From this perspective Not-Self and dependent origination together come to form the two pillars of the final gnosis (vidya) which is the antidote to ignorance (avidya). The account of the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta quite possibly represents an early formulation by the Buddha of the more complex (and much less clear) scheme of dependent origination found for example at length in the Mahanidana Sutta (the ‘Greater Discourse on Causes’). The Buddha preached the Mahanidana Sutta to his faithful attendant Ananda, who had ventured to Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 67 observe that dependent origination, while profound, seemed to him to be quite straightforward. It is not straightforward, and the Buddha claims here that it is precisely failing to understand dependent origination that has bound people to samsara for so long. Since (as Richard Gombrich 1996:46 observes) he personally preached it to Ananda who by tradition remained unenlightened until after the death of the Buddha, Ananda himself presumably at that time still did not understand it. The full formula for dependent origination (taken for convenience from the Pali version in Samyutta Nikaya II: 12:1; cf. Gethin 1998: 141–2) is as follows: Conditioned by (i) ignorance (avijja) are (ii) formations (samkhara), conditioned by formations is (iii) consciousness (viññana), conditioned by consciousness is (iv) mind-andbody (namarupa; nama—name—equals mind here), conditioned by mind-and-body are (v) the six senses (sanayatana), conditioned by the six senses is (vi) sensecontact (phassa), conditioned by sense-contact is (vii) feeling (vedana), conditioned by feeling is (viii) craving (tanha), conditioned by craving is (ix) attachment (or ‘grasping’; upadana), conditioned by attachment is (x) becoming (bhava), conditioned by becoming is (xi) birth (jati), conditioned by birth is (xii) old age and death (jaramarana)…
And thence come all the sufferings of samsara. Because this is tagged to the impersonal lawlike nature of causation, reversing the process, through overcoming ignorance, can be guaranteed to lead—again, completely impersonally—to liberation. The reader should stop reading here, and just appreciate the sheer exhilarating wonder the Buddha must have felt at realising the significance of the fact that effects follow from causes naturally. We are told that the sharpest of the Buddha’s disciples, Sariputra, immediately left his previous teacher and followed the Buddha when he heard it said that ‘of those dharmas which arise from a cause, the Tathagata has stated the cause, and also [their] cessation’.21 The Buddha had discovered the actual law of things 68 Buddhist Thought
(the dhammata (Pali); Sanskrit: dharmata), something which clearly others had not realised for they had not taught it to him. Through this law he now had the key to putting a stop to that which all would want to stop if only they knew how. The discovery was absolutely—enlighteningly—liberating. From this sheer wonder of the Buddha at uncovering the inner turnings of the universe, and the overwhelming freedom of stopping their incessant roll, flows the whole history of Buddhist thought. And yet while it is clear, I think, what is going on here, it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means. This may reflect its composite origin, for the model we found in the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta was much clearer, and more focused. One theory, widely (but not universally) held in later Buddhist tradition, would have the twelve links spreading over three lifetimes.22 The twelvefold formula for dependent origination thus becomes crucial among other things in explaining rebirth without recourse to an enduring Self. According to this model, the first link of the twelvefold formula states that as a result of ignorance karmic formations— actions of body, speech, or mind, flowing from morally wholesome or unwholesome intentions—take place. The Buddha is reported to have said of karman (kamma), action: ‘I assert that action is volition (cetana), since it is by willing that one performs an action with the body, speech or mind’ (Anguttara Nikaya III: 415, in Lamotte 1988:34). Thus for the Buddha karman as an action issuing in appropriate results (necessitating rebirth) ceases to be the external act itself (as it is within e.g. the Brahmanic sacrificial tradition). What are determinative in terms of ‘karmic results’ are wholesome or unwholesome volitions, that is, intentions.23 Buddhism is all about the mind. As we shall see in the next section, the Buddha internalised the whole system of ‘significant actions’ and in so doing moralised it in terms of the impersonal causal law.
The first two links of the process pertain to past lives. It is ignorance in the past, giving rise to morally determinative intentions in the past which brings about the third link, consciousness, in the present life. According to this interpretation, Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 69 ‘consciousness’ here is the consciousness that comes about in the mother’s womb as the first stage of the rebirth process. And conditioned by this consciousness is the fourth link, mind-andbody. ‘Mind’ (nama) here refers to the other three aggregates alongside consciousness and held to be mental associates (i.e. not physical matter), that is, feelings, perceptions, and formations. ‘Body’ (rupa) here is the physical side of the organism, composed of derivatives of the four Great Elements, ‘earth’, ‘water’, ‘fire’, and ‘air’. Thus with this link we have an embodied individual, born in dependence upon previous morally determinative acts, traceable to the fact that he or she was not enlightened—was ignorant —in past lives.
The Buddha did not hold that the ‘reborn’ being is the same as the being who died. Thus strictly speaking this is not a case of rebirth. Likewise the ‘reborn’ being is not different from the being that died, at least if by ‘different’ we mean completely different in the way that, say, you and I are different. The reborn being is linked to the being that died by a causal process. Let us call the one who dies A, and the reborn being B. Then B is not the same as A. For example, B is not the same person as A (this, at least, seems to me uncontroversial). B occurs in causal dependence (of the right sort) on A. Among the relevant causal factors here are morally wholesome, or unwholesome, actions (karman) performed by A (in the sense understood above) in the past (or even by A’s previous incarnations as X, Y, and Z, back theoretically to infinity). Thus at death these factors in complex ways enter into the causal process (‘karmic causality’) which leads to another embodied individual occurring, in direct dependence upon actions performed by A in one or more of his or her lives. Therefore the link between the ‘reborn being’ and the ‘being that died’ is also explained in terms of causal dependence, where karmic causation is held to be a central factor in holding the whole process together. With causation there is absolutely no need for a Self to link A and B. This is why one speaks of causal dependence ‘of the right sort’. At death the psychophysical bundle reconfigures. One figuration breaks down and another figuration takes place. The bundle is a bundle of the aggregates, but each aggregate taken as a whole is a 70 Buddhist Thought
bundle of momentary impermanent components that form members of that aggregate-class. Thus the person is reducible to the temporary bundle of bundles where all constituents are radically impermanent, temporarily held together through causal relationships of the right sort. All this is in accordance with causal laws (notably of the karmic sort). Because there is this right sort of causal dependence, we cannot say of B that he or she is totally different from A either.24
Thus instead of identity and difference, and instead of eternalism and annihilationism, the Buddha substitutes dependent origination, in the sense of causal dependence. Thereby dependent origination becomes another meaning of the ‘Middle Way’. But note that while all this has been said specifically of the rebirth process here (and later Buddhist traditions elaborate that process in great detail), the Buddha would consider that all this also holds throughout life. Throughout life there is constant change in accordance with causal laws and processes of the right sort. Between a person at one stage of their life—whatever stage —and at another stage of their life the relationship between the stages is one of neither identity nor difference, but dependent origination. Death is a particular sort of change, with particular modalities of causal relationships coming into play. But the Buddha does not appear to have thought that there is any fundamental difference in the way things really are between Archibald at age 3 and Archibald at age 73 on the one hand, and Archibald when he died at 81 and his rebirth, baby Fiona, on the other. There is however a difference between Archibald and Fiona on the one hand, and Duncan (who was Archibald’s insurance salesman). Between Archibald at 3, Archibald at 73, Archibald at 81, and baby Fiona there is absolutely nothing in common save causal connections of the right sort. With Duncan those connections too are lacking. Thus while we deny that Archibald at 73, Archibald at 81, and baby Fiona, are the same, we also deny they are different. Duncan is different.
Given that we now have an embodied individual, the twelvefold formula interpreted over three lifetimes explains in more detail the process by which in this life we enmesh Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 71 ourselves yet further in suffering, rebirth, and redeath. As we have seen, suffering arises through craving for sensory experiences (remembering that in India the mind is also treated as a sense). Thus, conditioned by mind-and-body is the fifth link, the six senses. The six senses make contact (the sixth link) with their appropriate objects. Through that contact comes the seventh link, feelings—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is an important stage in the process, since this link along with all the previous links of the present life (i.e. from the third link, consciousness, on) are the results of former karman. They are thus not in themselves morally wholesome or unwholesome. They are therefore morally neutral. But at this stage (no doubt due to previous habits which the wise person should watch carefully and counteract), conditioned by those feelings the eighth link, craving, can so easily arise.25 From craving comes the ninth link, attachment (see p. 45 for the four types of attachment). And since both craving and attachment are morally negative taints (‘passions’; Pali: kilesa; Sanskrit: klesa) from then on it is all downhill. According to the formula, conditioned by attachment the tenth link, ‘becoming’, arises. It is not immediately obvious what this means. The ‘becoming’ here is what arises from attachment and explains birth, old age, death, and so on. Since conditioned by becoming is the eleventh link, birth, in order to explain the formula over three lives the ‘becoming’ here must therefore ultimately equal whatever at the beginning of the formula explained this life. Thus ‘becoming’ is explained to mean the ‘becoming’ of karman, the wholesome and unwholesome intentions arising from attachment (due to craving) which explain future rebirth.26 And from this occurs birth into a new life, and thence the twelfth link that is old age and death.
This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange. In one way it makes sense spread over three lives, yet this explanation looks like an attempt to make sense of what may well be a compilation from originally different sources.27 Why, for example, explain the first of the three lives only in terms of the first two links, and explain the tenth link, ‘becoming’ as 72 Buddhist Thought
essentially the same as the second link, formations? Why introduce explanations in terms of karman where none of the links obviously mentions karman? Frauwallner (1973) would want to argue that there is certain logic in the eighth to the twelfth link, basing suffering on craving. Perhaps the first to the seventh links were constructed in order to tag craving to ignorance. But it may be impossible at our present stage of scholarship to work out very satisfactorily what the original logic of the full twelvefold formula was intended to be, if there ever was one intention at all. A further note on karman
As we have seen, for the Buddha karman is essentially volition (intention) which leads to actions of body, speech, or mind.28 Wholesome and unwholesome karmic intentions entail (in this life or in future lives) pleasant and unpleasant experiences, feelings, as their karmic results, together with the particular psychophysical organism that is capable of undergoing those feelings. Whereas wholesome and unwholesome intentions are by definition morally virtuous or unvirtuous, the results—while pleasant and painful—in themselves are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. A pain in itself has no moral quality. But it is the result of unwholesome karmic intention(s). Thus for a feeling to be unpleasant is not as such for it to be morally wrong. A volition or intention of hatred or greed (produced by ignorance) as a mental response to what is unpleasant, on the other hand, is morally wrong (i.e. unwholesome, not conducive to following the path to liberation). For the Buddha this is all underpinned by the impersonal lawlike behaviour of causality. Thus an unwholesome intention because it is a cause brings about a feeling of pain as a result. A feeling of pain (like all in samsara) must be a result, and therefore it must be the result of its cause, an unwholesome intention.29 And the feeling of pain, as resulting, occurs (by definition) in the same causal continuum as the unwholesome intention occurred as cause. This is why, the Buddhist wants to claim, even with an impermanent psychophysical continuum and without a Self there is no ‘causal Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 73 confusion’ or ‘confusion of continua’. Even without a Self, the karmic results occur in the same continuum in which occurred the unwholesome intentions. Feelings of pain are therefore brought about not by others (other persons, God or gods) but by oneself, in the sense that in everyday speech we use ‘oneself’ to refer to events in the same causal continuum. This is a situation of ‘total responsibility’ (Gombrich 1971: Ch. 5).
Richard Gombrich has commented that ‘just as Being lies at the heart of the Upanisadic world view, Action lies at the heart of the Buddha’s. “Action”, of course, is kamma; and primarily it refers to morally relevant action’ (Gombrich 1996:48–9). Gombrich wants to argue that the Buddha did not simply take over a pre-existing Brahmanical doctrine of karman, which then sat often uneasily alongside his real interest in gnosis and liberation. The Buddha’s attitude to karman is different from that of the wider Brahmanic culture, and is of a piece with his vision of what is involved in gaining liberation. That is, the Buddha understood karman in quite a different sense from that of his compatriots, and that different sense was soteriologically relevant. In the Brahmanical context karman is significant ritual action. For Jains (as an example of another renouncer group for whom we have some information) karman was seen as quasi-material, like a polluting dirt which weighed down the Self and kept it in samsara. Thus for Jains all karman is one way or another bad. Ultimately one should cease acting altogether.30 The Buddha’s position was quite different from either of these groups and (as with his position on the Self) it was different as far as we can tell from all others in India. It was the Buddha who declared that karman is intention, a mental event. In so doing, Gombrich comments, the Buddha ‘turned the brahmin ideology upside down and ethicised the universe. I do not see how one could exaggerate the importance of the Buddha’s ethicisation of the world, which I regard as a turning point in the history of civilisation’ (Gombrich 1996:51). Thus the Buddha turned attention from physical acts cleansing the pollution resulting from ‘bad karma’ —such as acts of physical asceticism, or the Brahmanic actions of purification, which typically involve washing, or ingesting ‘the five products of the cow’ —to ‘inner purification’, mental training. For the Buddha, as 74 Buddhist Thought
we have seen, craving—a mental state—arises from ignorance—a mental state—and leads to (unwholesome) karman —a mental state—and this leads to suffering—a mental state. The Buddha’s vision of karman as really being intention is of a sort with his stress on overcoming craving through insight into the way things really are. Through understanding how things really are, craving is dissolved. We could relate this to what Gombrich calls ‘an ethicised consciousness’ (1996:61). Following the Tevijja Sutta (the ‘Discourse on the Triple Knowledge [of the Vedas)’) Gombrich speaks of the monk engaged in actively pervading the universe with a mind of kindness and compassion. This is a sort of infinite karman, the ultimate karman, that leads to the overcoming of suffering, liberation.31
The universe of the Buddha
I want now to look briefly at how the Buddha (or the early Buddhist tradition) saw the structure of the universe in which he dwelt and which yet he had transcended.32 The doctrinal framework here is that of the five (or six) types of rebirth, and the ‘threefold world’.
First, the Buddha speaks in texts like the Mahasihanada Sutta (the ‘Greater Discourse which is the Lion’s Roar’) of five types of rebirth. All rebirth is due to karman and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one’s own karman. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara. One can be reborn in a hell (sometimes translated as ‘purgatory’ to stress its impermanent, purifying nature), as an animal (including all creatures other than those of the other types of rebirth), a ghost,33 a human, or a god. This list of five should be noted, since other Buddhist texts speak of six ‘destinies’, adding that of the asuras, jealous anti-gods who are said to be constantly at war with gods. The list of six types of rebirth, or ‘destinies’, is rather more familiar in the West, particularly from the Tibetan pictorial representation in the soMainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 75
called ‘Wheel of Life’. It is arguable however that the earliest formula involved only five, and in the Kathavatthu (8:1) —the fifth book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Pali Canon— the teaching of six destinies is explicitly contradicted, claiming that the asuras can be split between the gods and the ghosts.34 Rebirth in a hell, as an animal, or as a ghost is referred to as a bad ‘destiny’ (gati), while rebirth as a human or a god is a good destiny. ‘Bad destinies’ are so defined due to the preponderance of pain there. Good destinies involve (other things being equal) either a preponderance of pleasure over pain (rebirth as a god), or in general equal pleasure and pain (as a human). There are many hells, and the time spent in them is very, very long indeed. They are, frankly, hellish. The very lowest hell is termed ‘without intermission’ (avici), although life in a hell does eventually come to an end. Note that what ‘destines’ one to these destinies is not the action of a God or anyone else, but one’s own karman. Thus one has a choice over one’s destiny. Later tradition is very unsure whether rebirth as an asura (given that they are consumed with jealousy) is also a good destiny. The frequent claim that it is a good destiny may reflect more the needs of symmetry (three bad, three good) than doctrinal considerations.
The ‘threefold world’ divides into (i) the desire realm (kamadhatu); (ii) the form realm (rupadhatu); and (iii) the formless realm (arupadhatu).35 The desire realm consists of all the realms of rebirth apart from (taken as a whole) that of the gods. Only one group of gods falls under the desire realm, and these gods are appropriately called ‘desire gods’ (kamadeva). They are the gods who are closest to humans, and into this category the Buddhist tradition has placed the gods it is familiar with from the Vedic Brahmanic and later Hindu traditions. These are the powerful gods it is appropriate to pray to for rewards, or contact through possession, provided one is aware that these gods (and goddesses, of course) are all part of samsara. They are thus subject to greed, hatred, and delusion and their derivatives (such as pride, anger, or lust), and are very definitely unenlightened. The common feature of beings in the desire realm is that they have the five physical senses plus consciousness. In other words, they operate from a base of 76 Buddhist Thought
sensual experience. The desire gods are thought to occupy one or other of six ‘heavens’, each in certain ways better than the last.36 If we take all these six heavens together, they can be classed as the ‘world of the gods’ (devaloka), although as we shall see there are many, many gods on higher planes still beyond this sensual ‘world of the gods’. Cosmologically these planes where beings have all five senses as well as consciousness form ‘world-spheres’ (cakravadas). For a crisp description of a world-sphere I cannot even begin to improve on Gethin, whose recent work has contributed greatly to drawing attention to the interest of Buddhist cosmology and its relationship to meditation and hence Buddhist soteriology: At the centre of a cakra-vada is the great world mountain, Meru or Sineru. This is surrounded by seven concentric rings of mountains and seas. Beyond these mountains, in the four cardinal directions, are four continents. The southern continent, Jambudvipa or ‘the continent of the rose-apple tree’, is the continent inhabited by ordinary human beings; the southern part, below the towering abode of snows (himalaya) is effectively India, the land where buddhas arise. In the spaces between world-spheres and below are various hells, while in the shadow of the slopes of Mount Meru dwell the jealous gods called Asuras, expelled from the heaven of the Thirty-Three (Sanskrit: Trayastrimsa; Pali: Tavatimsa, the second of the desire realm heavens) by its king Sakra (Pali: Sakka, sometimes, but by no means always, identified with the Vedic god Indra). On the slopes of Mount Meru itself and rising above its peak are the six realms inhabited by the gods of the sense-sphere [i.e. desirerealm]. A Great Brahma of the lower realms of pure form may rule over a thousand such world-spheres, while Brahmas of the higher realms of the form-sphere (form realm) are said to rule over a hundred thousand. (Gethin 1998:118–19; see also Gethin 1997a) Note that the description here is of one world-sphere, but there are many, many world-spheres, so many in fact that the number Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 77 converges on infinity. Thus the Buddhist view is that, taken as a totality, not only is time infinite but space too is effectively infinite. The Buddhist cosmological vision is about as vast as it is possible to conceive. It is clear that in a world-sphere the gods of the desire realm are thought to occupy places in physical space, and while Sakka may rule over the gods most closely related to humans, there are higher gods for whom he too is a subject.37 There is no final god who rules over either one world-sphere or all the world-spheres, although beings such as some humans may think there is one God who is the supreme ruler and even creator. There may even be a god who mistakenly considers that he is indeed the creator and supreme ruler of the entire system.38 Technically the gods of the form and formless realms are known not as ‘gods’ (deva), but as ‘Brahmas’. Those of the form realm are ranked in a hierarchy of sixteen levels (in the Theravada scheme), divided into four classes (in the ratio 3, 3, 3, 7) corresponding to the four dhyanas (Pali: jhanas), the four ‘meditations’ or ‘absorptions’ that we met earlier. The highest of these levels or planes is the ‘Supreme’ (Pali: akanittha; Sanskrit: akanittha). Brahmas within the form realm are said to have only two senses, sight and hearing. The Brahmas of the formless realm are of four types, corresponding to a hierarchy of four formless meditative attainments (samapatti): (i) infinite space; (ii) infinite consciousness (viññana); (iii) nothingness, and (iv) neither perception (sañña) nor non-perception. This last is also referred to as the ‘peak of existence’ (Pali: bhavagga; Sanskrit: bhavagra). Brahmas within the formless realm have just consciousness, and so long as they are in that rebirth and have not attained enlightenment they presumably enjoy uninterruptedly the appropriate meditative attainment. In total therefore (including the asuras) there are thirty-one different types of beings, or possible states, within samsara. Outside all of this (although not in spatial terms of course) is nirvana. Nirvana is not elsewhere. It is simply not in samsara. It is simply not part of any of this, and can only be specified in terms of its negation.
It is not necessary to proceed up all the realms and planes to the very highest before attaining liberation. They are not ranked 78 Buddhist Thought
like a ladder. Many humans have become enlightened, directly from the human plane. As we have seen, liberation is a matter of gnosis and gnosis could in theory be obtained anywhere and at any time. But actually the Buddhist tradition holds that nirvana can be obtained only from the human realm, or a god realm above the human. Indeed the gods of the five very highest planes of the form realm are said to dwell in the ‘pure abodes’, corresponding to the highest and most perfect development of the fourth dhyana, and as such are all ‘never-returners’ (anagamin). We have seen already that the fourth dhyana is held to be a particularly important springboard for enlightenment. Although not yet enlightened they will never again return through the cycle of samsara to the lower realms. They are thus sure of eventually attaining enlightenment, without needing to sojourn in the formless realms.39
The Buddhist cosmology, with its realms of rebirth including hells and gods who occupy physical space and undergo sensory experiences as humans do, is reasonably comprehensible. But what is meant by referring ‘in the same cosmological breath’ to the form and formless realm gods as stages of meditative absorption? Are these places of rebirth, or are they some sort of ‘inner state’ of a meditator, perhaps encountered during deep meditation? Gethin (1998:119 ff.) argues that the key to understanding what is going on here is the ‘principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psychology. I mean by this that in the traditional understanding the various realms of existence relate rather closely to certain commonly (and not so commonly) experienced states of mind.’ Note however that Gethin is not saying that the Buddhist cosmology is really all about current or potential states of mind, psychology, or meditation here and now, and is therefore not really a cosmology at all in the sense that these are actually realms or planes of rebirth. These different planes are indeed realms of rebirth. Otherwise either rebirth would always be into the human realm or there would be no rebirth at all. And that is not traditional Buddhism. Moreover if ‘cosmos’ is defined sufficiently widely there is no reason why this should not be spoken of as ‘cosmology’. Thus if someone dies here they may, under Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 79 appropriate circumstances, be properly thought of as having been reborn (in the sense of ‘rebirth’ explained above) in, say, a formless realm. Their coarse physical body is perhaps cremated here. Therefore there is no sense of their mind left, as the mind of the embodied person they were. But the story has not ended. The tradition does indeed want to speak of an ‘elsewhere’ here, and ‘they’ have been reborn elsewhere. Their rebirth in that formless realm is causally dependent on their meditative attainment in a life prior to that rebirth. Thus we cannot be speaking here of states of mind, psychology, or meditation in the sense that these are purely states of mind and so on of a particular embodied individual here and now in this life.
Mental intentions (karman) which are wholesome, animated by the three basic virtuous states of mind, non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, give rise to appropriate acts and favourable rebirths. Unwholesome intentions animated by greed, hatred, and delusion produce unfavourable rebirths.40 The ‘favourable rebirths’ here are rebirths as a human (possibly as an asura) and as a god of the desire realm. Unfavourable rebirths are rebirths in hells, as a ghost, or as an animal (including a fish, worms, bugs, etc.). Thus favourable and unfavourable rebirths spring from states of mind. And there are some specific wholesome states of mind in addition to these that as a matter of fact occur only in meditation. These are states like attaining one of the four meditations (Sanskrit: dhyanas; Pali: jhanas). Favourable rebirth as a god of the desire realm, enjoying various sensual pleasures, occurs through acts animated by such states of mind as non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion. Similarly the favourable rebirth as a god of e.g. the form realm occurs due to having accustomed oneself to one or more of the four dhyanas.41 A monk who, for example, has cultivated the path to a high level removes various negative factors preventing the attainment of enlightenment and attains the fourth dhyana. After death that monk will be reborn in one of the pure abodes, corresponding to the fourth dhyana, and will there attain enlightenment. Thus given that rebirth accords with mental events, reference to the higher planes as corresponding to meditative states simply describes the sort of mental event which is necessary in 80 Buddhist Thought
order to attain rebirth on those planes. The ‘bodies’ of those reborn there—defined in terms of experiences of seeing and hearing, plus consciousness for the form realm, and consciousness alone for the formless realm—are the bodies that support and express experience on those planes. Beings reborn on those planes are undergoing the experiences of those dhyanas. It follows from all of this that when in this life the meditator attains to, say, the third dhyana, that meditator is undergoing temporarily the experience of one reborn as a god on that particular plane of the form realm. That is what being reborn there is like. Correspondingly, for one undergoing any of the appropriate mental states in this life, one undergoes temporarily the experience associated with being reborn on the appropriate plane. Thus if one is overwhelmed with greed, hatred, or delusion, one is in the state of one born as a ghost, in hell, or an animal respectively. But one familiar with the third dhyana will, after death, be reborn on the appropriate plane for that dhyana. The appropriate plane of the cosmology is not simply a description of the mental state of a meditator. Similarly, in spite of a common suggestion among some modern Buddhists, the plane of hell is not simply a description of the state of mind of one in this life full of hatred. As one’s mind is, so one actually becomes.42
Finally there is the destruction of worlds. In Indian thought even for traditions that believe in a creator God there is no such thing as the emergence of the universe from nothing. A common Indian model sees the universe as evolving from a state of what we might call ‘implosion’ to manifestation. It then remains for a very long time. Eventually the universe implodes again. It remains for a further long period in imploded state before evolving (for theists, due to the action of God) once more. And so on, throughout all eternity. The Buddhists employ a similar model, it being understood that all of this occurs due to an impersonal lawlike causation and not divine whim. Elements of this system are found in works like the Aggañña Sutta (‘Discourse on Beginnings’), and are elaborated in later Abhidharma works. When the universe implodes it implodes from the lower realms upwards. Thus the hells implode first of all. Sometimes the implosion is Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 81 through fire, and this implosion stretches as far as the third of the god-planes of the form realm (the Mahabrahma plane), thereby taking in all up to and including the plane corresponding to the first dhyana. The rest remains. Implosion through fire is the most frequent sort of implosion. At other times the implosion is through water, taking in all the above plus the planes corresponding to the second dhyana as well. At other times there is a wind implosion, which includes all that included in the water implosion and also the plane corresponding to the third dhyana. But implosion can stretch no further. Beings reborn in the plane corresponding to the fourth dhyana (and above, for that matter) cannot be affected by any of this. When an implosion occurs, beings that perish are reborn somewhere else that still remains, perfectly in accordance with their karman. Let us not worry about them.43 Buddhist meditation—the theoretical framework It is through working with and on the mind that Buddhists consider one can bring about the transformation in seeing required in order to bring to an end the forces generating suffering and rebirth, and thus attain liberation. Earlier I suggested that, for the Buddhist, meditation closes the gap between the way things appear to be and the way they actually are. How does meditation do this? The structure of Buddhist meditation in the oldest texts and throughout much if not all of the Buddhist tradition in India and elsewhere is to calm down and still the mind. One then uses that still, calm, mind to investigate how things really are. This is in order to see things free from the blocks and obscurations that normally hinder our vision. These blocks and obscurations entail our immersion in samsara. Calming the mind is called ‘calming (meditation)’ (Sanskrit: samatha; Pali: samatha). Dis-covering with a calm mind how things are really is called ‘insight (meditation)’ (Sanskrit: vipasyana; Pali: vipassana). At least some degree of calming is considered necessary to insight. As we have seen, right concentration is a stage of the eightfold path. Nevertheless depending on the abilities of the meditator it need not 82 Buddhist Thought
be necessary to follow through calming meditation to the actual attainment of the meditative absorptions (dhyanas/jhanas) before commencing insight meditation. When calming and insight are linked the mind has the strength and orientation really to break through to a deep transformative understanding of how things truly are.
As one might expect, the Buddhist tradition has elaborated the stages and elements of the path of meditation in great detail. A certain amount of material can be found in early sources such as the suttas of the Pali Canon, particularly for example the Samaññaphala Sutta (the ‘Discourse on the Benefits of being a Drop-out (samana)’) and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (the ‘Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness’). But for the detailed elaboration of the path one must look to the authoritative scholastic compendiums such as the Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’) of the Theravadin Buddhaghosa (fifth century CE), or the Abhidharmakosa (‘Treasury of Abhidharma’) of Vasubandhu. Vasubandhu followed either the Sarvastivadin (Vaibhasika) or the Sautrantika tradition and wrote in the fourth or fifth century CE. These two sources were constructed independently of one another, and were inheritors of different Buddhist traditions. They are far from agreeing in detail. Calming meditation aims to still the mind. It presupposes that the meditator has faith in the teachings of the Buddha, has adopted the moral perspective required of a good Buddhist, and is otherwise involved in the religious activities expected of a practitioner who is seriously engaged in the path. In order to bring about the desired state of mental calm the meditator starts by learning to focus the mind, narrowing down its attention so that he or she becomes simply aware. In other words, he or she concentrates. Because concentration requires something to concentrate on, works such as the Visuddhimagga list forty different possible objects of concentration. These include concentrating on, for example, a blue disc. This is one of ten objects of concentration known in Pali as kasinas, and taking a coloured disc as an object is said (among others) to be particularly suitable for those whose personality is dominated by hatred among Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 83 the three root poisons. Those who are dominated by greed might take as their object the skeleton. Those by delusion (or whose mind is inclined to instability) might start with mindfulness of breathing. This last has become well known in the modern world through being the very first meditation practice in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, a discourse particularly favoured by more recent Burmese meditation masters and there used, perhaps because everyone’s mind is at first inclined to instability, for all meditators. Indeed the text describes itself as ‘the sole way’: Herein, a monk having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross-legged, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Just mindful he breathes in and mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows ‘I breath in a long breath’; breathing out a long breath, he knows ‘I breath out a long breath’; breathing in a short breath, he knows ‘I breath in a short breath’; breathing out a short breath, he knows ‘I breath out a short breath’.
(Mahasatipatthana Sutta trans.
Nyanaponika Thera: 117–18)
And so on. Or there are the so-called ‘divine abidings’ (brahmaviharas), also known as the ‘four immeasurables’, again particularly recommended for those of a hate disposition but possibly originally thought of as one sufficient means for attaining enlightenment itself.44 These entail developing all-pervading loving kindness (Sanskrit: maitri; Pali: metta). This is the pervasive wish ‘may all sentient beings be well and happy’. One develops allpervading compassion (karuna), the pervasive wish ‘may all sentient beings be free of suffering’, all-pervading sympathetic joy (mudita) —delight at the happiness of others—and all-pervading equanimity (Sanskrit: upeksa; Pali: upekkha). In such meditations one practises steadily and repeatedly, gently drawing the mind back to the object when it wanders. The meditator is exhorted to overcome the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, tiredness and sleepiness, excitement and depression, and doubt. In abandoning 84 Buddhist Thought
the five hindrances, the Samaññaphala Sutta observes, the meditator ‘looks upon himself as freed from debt, rid of disease, out of jail, a free man, and secure’ (Samaññaphala Sutta, trans. Rhys-Davids 1899:84). And eventually he or she attains the first jhana (Sanskrit: dhyana). As we saw above, the first jhana is characterised by applied thought, examination, joy, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind. The second jhana has just joy, happiness, and one-pointedness of mind, since ability in meditation has here become so refined that consciously applied thought and examination are no longer needed in order to place the mind on the object. The third jhana lacks even joy, which can become a disturbance, and has only happiness and onepointedness. The fourth jhana similarly lacks happiness, and possesses just one-pointedness and equanimity. From attaining the fourth jhana it becomes possible (it is said) to develop what might be called supernormal powers (Sanskrit: rddhis; Pali: iddhis), or ‘super-knowledges’ (Sanskrit: abhijña; Pali: abhiñña). These include the ability to create ‘mind-made’ bodies, to walk through walls, fly through the air, hear distant sounds, know the minds of others, and to know the past lives of oneself and others.45 The general view of the Buddhist tradition is that some considerable ability in calming meditation is necessary in order to develop very effectively insight meditation, although it is not necessary actually to attain the fourth dhyana before commencing insight meditation. Insight meditation involves bringing about a state of meditative absorption where the object of meditation is not one of the objects of calming meditation but rather is how things really are, understood in terms of suffering, impermanence, and not Self and their implications and ramifications. In so doing one attains ‘wisdom’ (Sanskrit: prajña; Pali: pañña). As can be readily understood from what has gone before, seeing in this manner directly in the deepest way possible is held to cut completely the forces which lead to rebirth and suffering.46 The model for the path of insight meditation employed in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (see Chapters 18–22) is that of the ‘seven purifications’. The first two purifications concern (i) engagement in proper moral conduct (sila), and (ii) developing Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 85 calm (samatha). The third (iii) is ‘purification of view’, breaking down the sense of Self through constant direct awareness (mindfulness) of experience in terms of actually being a bundle of e.g. the five aggregates, divided into mind and body in mutual dependence, and nothing more. The fourth (iv) purification is the ‘purification by overcoming doubt’. Just as the purification of view involves an awareness of the interdependence of mind and body at any one time, this fourth purification involves examining causal dependence as a continuum in time. Thus one comes to understand kamma (karman) and to see directly how things are the result of an impersonal lawlike causality and nothing more. In overcoming doubt, Buddhaghosa observes (19:27), one becomes a ‘lesser stream-enterer’. The next purification (v) is that of ‘knowing and seeing what is the way [or ‘path’; magga) and what is not the way’. This involves taking various groups and classes of phenomena and seeing that they are all impermanent, suffering, and not Self. One then sees them as arising and falling in their constant change and impermanence. Thus the meditator comes to deconstruct the apparent stability of things, and to see directly the world as a process, a flow. Gethin draws attention to the images Buddhaghosa selects (from earlier Buddhist sources) for this stage of the meditator’s experience:
the world is no longer experienced as consisting of things that are lasting and solid but rather as something that vanishes almost as soon as it appears—like dew drops at sunrise, like a bubble on water, like a line drawn on water, like a mustard-seed placed on the point of an awl, like a flash of lightning; things in themselves lack substance and always elude one’s grasp—like a mirage, a conjuring trick, a dream, the circle formed by a whirling firebrand, a fairy city, foam, or the trunk of a banana tree.
(Gethin 1998:190; ref. Visuddhimagga 20:104)47 The mind of the meditator at this time is said to be close to absorption (dhyana), and there is a danger that the meditator might become complacent and attached (Visuddhimagga 20: sects 105 86 Buddhist Thought
ff.). Tearing him- or herself away from this, the meditator attains the sixth (vi) purification, ‘purification through knowing and seeing the path [or ‘way’; patipada)’. At this stage the meditator returns to contemplating with renewed vigour and ever deepening awareness the arising and falling of phenomena (dhammas), and he or she attains a series of eight knowledges with, it is said ‘knowledge in conformity to truth as the ninth’ (op. cit.: Ch. 21). Attaining the eight knowledges, in a state of deep equanimity and concentration, the meditator crosses over from worldly meditative absorption to transcendent or supramundane absorption. At this point the meditator ‘changes lineage’. He or she ceases to belong to the lineage (family) of ordinary people (Pali: puthujjana; Sanskrit: prthagjana) and joins the lineage of the Noble Ones (Pali: ariya; Sanskrit: arya). He or she is said now to take as the meditative object nibbana (nirvana). Nevertheless the complete eradication of defilements may still take time. One is said to become a ‘stream-enterer’ through abandoning the first three of the ten fetters (samyojana), the ‘view of individuality’, doubt, and clinging to precepts and vows. In finally and deeply abandoning these one will be reborn at the most a further seven times before becoming enlightened. In becoming a stream-enterer (or any of the other three ‘noble fruits’) one is said to attain the seventh (vii) and final purification, the ‘purification by knowing and seeing’. On also permanently weakening the next two fetters, sensual desire and aversion, one becomes a ‘once-returner’, who will be reborn as a human being no more than one further time. On completely abandoning all these five fetters one becomes a ‘never-returner’ and if one still does not attain full enlightenment, is on death reborn in one of the highest planes of the form realm. On completely and irrevocably eradicating all ten fetters (including in addition the five of desire for form, desire for the formless, pride, agitation, and ignorance) one becomes enlightened, an arhat (Sanskrit) or arahat (Pali). In one moment the meditator sees and understands the four Noble Truths, and all the factors leading to enlightenment are fulfilled. In subsequent moments the meditator is said to enjoy the ‘resultant’ (phala) meditative absorption. These four ‘noble fruits’ may be attained successively, over a long period Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 87 of time. But there is also a view that their attainment may be in quick succession, or even that one might ‘leap’ as it were, directly to one or other of the fruits.48
Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma)
As we have seen, the term ‘Abhidharma’ refers fundamentally to the third section (Pitaka) of the Buddhist canon (the Tripitaka). It also refers derivatively to the teachings, approach, and insight contained in that section of the canon, as well as their explanation, elaboration, and summaries contained in later commentaries, compendiums, and digests, such as the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu. Only two complete Abhidharma canonical collections remain: the Theravada Abhidhamma in the Pali Canon, and the Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika) Abhidharma that survives mainly in Chinese translation.49 Both consist of seven books, but they are quite different books. In the Theravada Pali Canon the Abhidhamma section is attributed directly to the Buddha himself, although at least one book (the Kathavatthu) is also said to be the work of a certain Moggaliputtatissa and clearly relates to doctrinal disputes which occurred long after the death of the Buddha. All the books of the Sarvastivada Abhidharma are attributed to various elders other than the Buddha, but the claim is that those elders were compilers rather than authors in that they assembled the books from material scattered throughout the canon. Another school, the Sautrantika, while accepting the approach and many of the tenets of the Abhidharma, appears to have gained its name (‘those who follow the sutras’) through a rejection by its adherents of any claim that the Buddha himself actually spoke the Abhidharma.
The controversies concerning the status of the Abhidharma books should indicate that we are dealing here with material that in the form in which we have it now is certainly somewhat later than the Vinaya and Sutra parts of the canon. The Abhidharma represents a phase of systematisation and clarification of the teachings contained in the Sutras, and probably grew out of 88 Buddhist Thought
summary lists of the main topics of a teaching prepared for memorisation. With the evolution of the Abhidharma, and Abhidharma style, however, what we find emerging are not just lists of essential points in the discourses. Rather, we find lists which enumerate with the maximum possible exactitude what is actually occurring in a particular psychological or physical situation spoken of in the sutras or occurring in life generally. The lists are lists of what is seen to be the case by one who sees things the way they really are. The Abhidharma lists are exhaustive lists of possible psychophysical events. They thus correspond to—and also form a template for—the contents of insight meditation. The Buddha might say ‘Oh monks, on my alms-round I was given a strawberry’. But if he were to speak with maximum possible exactitude there would be no independently real thing referred to by ‘I’, in the way it is experienced by a person who is unenlightened. Nor would there be that thing referred to by ‘strawberry’, nor probably a lot of other things that are normally assumed when this simple sentence is uttered in everyday life by unenlightened beings. If we were to speak with maximum possible exactitude here, how would we analyse this situation? The answer would involve listing various psychological and physical factors, each of which is impermanent, and each of which is here relating to the others in a particular sort of causal relationship. Which types of psychological and physical factors are those, and what types of causal relationship are there? How, in this specific situation, do the psychological and physical factors come together in causal relationship? This is what the Abhidharma texts are all about.
As we have seen, implicit in Buddhist philosophy from the very beginning was a distinction between the way things appear to be and the way they actually are. Buddhist thought tends to look beyond apparent stability, apparent unity, to a flow of composite parts which are elaborated by mental processes of construction and reification into the relatively stable entities of our everyday world.50 There appears to be a Self, but really there is not. Really there is just a flow of material form, sensations, perceptions, formations (i.e. other mental factors like volitions/ intentions), and Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 89 the flow of consciousness. The way things appear to be is one thing, the way they are actually is another. Quite early in the development of Buddhist thought—certainly in the Abhidharma— this distinction issued in a clear distinction between conventional reality (or ‘truth’; samvrtisatya; Pali: sammutisacca), and the ultimate way of things, how it really is (paramarthasatya; Pali: paramatthasacca). The religio-philosophical project of the Buddhist lies in knowing directly the conventional as conventional, rather than investing it with an illusory ultimacy. The ultimate truth, how it really is, lies precisely in the fact that what appeared to be ultimate is merely conventional. It appeared that there was a Self, but really there is only a flow of the aggregates and the Self is just an artificial unity, a self, oneself, the person one is, in fact a pragmatic conventional construct. But once we adopt this perspective it is clear that even talk of ‘five aggregates’ is simply shorthand for a far more complex list of types of psychophysical impermanent factors that might occur.
The common approach of Buddhist philosophy, experienced in insight meditation, is to probe, to investigate. The terminating point of that analysis—what the analysis finds is actually there, what is therefore resistant to the probing, dissolving analysis—is spoken of as ‘how it is’, i.e. an ‘ultimate truth’ (or an ‘ultimate reality’). In Buddhist thought in the immediate centuries after the death of the Buddha this probing analysis was taken further, and even the five aggregates as simple unities were seen as obscuring a further dissolution, analysis into a plurality of further elements. This analysis rapidly came to embrace not just the psychophysical aggregates of a conscious being but also to include all things in the universe. These elements were known as dharmas (Pali: dhammas), ‘phenomena’, or maybe just ‘factors’. The dharmas form the psychophysical building blocks of the world as experienced by us.
For example, take the first aggregate, material form (rupa). If we want to talk about how it really is, material form does not occur. ‘Material form’ is not a dharma. Rather, this expression is shorthand for the occurrence of particular instances of (in the ancient Indian system) solidity (‘earth’), and/or fluidity (‘water’), 90 Buddhist Thought
or heat (‘fire’), or motion (‘air’), and various other possible physical factors derived from these. These are related in some sort of causal connection (perhaps presenting thereby the physical object ‘strawberry’). Thus in general under ‘material form’ comes various classes of things. Is it the same for a specific case of e.g. solidity itself? It seems not. An instance of solidity is irreducible to some further factors. Thus an instance of solidity, transient as it is, is what is really there, seen by one who sees things the way they really are. An instance of solidity is thus a dharma. The Abhidharma texts set out to offer a list of all the types of factors into which experiences can be analysed when we aim to find what is ‘really there’. They also explain how these link up causally and relate to each other in order to provide us with the actual world of lived experience. Thus the Abhidharma texts, in contrast to e.g. the Sutras, are phrased in ‘how-it-actually-is language’, universally valid, and not in the loose speech of everyday discourse in which the Buddha spoke when he spoke in a manner appropriate to the actual teaching situation he was in. Therefore we also find essential to Buddhist exegesis a distinction between texts or discourses that are definitive and tell it as it is (Sanskrit: nitartha; Pali: nitattha), and those that were phrased the way they are phrased with a particular purpose in view. If we are interested in precision these latter texts or discourses require to be interpreted, to have their meaning ‘drawn out’ (neyartha; Pali: neyyattha). In general for their advocates Abhidharma texts, and Abhidharma discourses, concern ultimate truth (paramarthasatya), and are definitive (nitartha).
The Theravada Abhidhamma produced a list of eighty-two classes of dhammas.51 That is, all possible experience can be analysed into events each one of which will be an instance of one or other of the eighty-two classes of dhammas. Eighty-one of these (types of) dhammas are said to be conditioned (Sanskrit: samskrta; Pali: samkhata: the direct result of causes). One, nibbana, is unconditioned (asamskrta/asamkhata). Thus, technically, for the Theravada Abhidhamma nibbana is an ultimate, a dhamma. This means that in the most general sense nibbana forms the content of an experiential event that cannot be analysed Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 91 into more fundamental components, and it is in a unique class described as ‘unconditioned’. Each dhamma has its own specific characteristic, by which it is recognised. Thus the dhamma of solidity has physical resistance as its characteristic. Where there is a case of physical resistance that indicates solidity. That is how one knows one has a case of solidity.
The eighty-one conditioned dhammas fall into three classes: consciousness (citta=viññana (Sanskrit: vijñana)), mental associates (cetasikas; Sanskrit: caitasikas), and material or physical form (rupa). Consciousness consists of one dhamma. Mental associates consist of fifty-two dhammas. Twenty-five of these are wholesome, including non-greed, non-hatred, and nondelusion, faith, mindfulness, compassion, and so on. Fourteen are unwholesome, including wrong views. Thirteen are morally neutral, and gain their moral colouring from the other dhammas that occur along with them. Seven of these thirteen are common to all mental ‘occasions’: contact, feeling, perception,52 volition, mental life, concentration, and attention. Material form consists of twenty-eight dhammas. Other Abhidhamma discussions concern which combinations of dhammas are permissible since, for example, one could not have non-greed and greed occurring in the very same momentary composite mental ‘occasion’. Which dhammas occur when one murders Archibald and dances on his grave? Which dhammas occur when one attains the third jhanah Clearly this is not abstract philosophy, engaging in analysis out of intellectual interest. The purpose is one of direct concern with the path to liberation. The monk engaged in insight meditation will dwell quietly and in concentration, observing the arising and falling of dhammas, seeing how things really are and cutting the sense of Self. He will also know which mental factors conduce to positive, wholesome, mental occasions, and will thus know how to ‘cease to do evil and learn to do good’. Lance Cousins (1995) has commented that ‘The aim of this abhidhamma analysis is not really theoretical; it is related to insight meditation and offers a world-view based upon process in order to facilitate insight into change and no-self so as to undermine mental rigidity’. I would not argue with this, although I would argue with any reading of 92 Buddhist Thought
Abhidharma which would interpret its concern to be solely with practical issues of how to lessen attachment in opposition to the ontology of how things really, truly, are. I have already suggested that there is no such opposition in (Indian) Buddhism. Abhidhamma analysis does indeed involve seeing things as they are, and that is a matter of ontology. The dhammas (excluding, of course, nibbana) are evanescent events, linked by an impersonal causal law. That is how it truly is.
The Abhidhamma texts are committed to the view that dhammas are how things really are. This does not commit the texts, however, to any particular position on the exact nature of the dhamma beyond the contrast between dhammas as what are not further reducible, compared with, say, persons, or tables and chairs which are. What is involved in seeing dhammas as events, in seeing all as based perhaps on an event-ontology, rather than a substance-ontology, seems to be relatively unexplored in the Pali Abhidhamma or indeed in the Theravada thought which follows it. To that extent, one could argue, the everyday practicalities of insight meditation remain paramount. An interest in specific questions of the ontological nature of dharmas is found not so much among Theravadins, but among Sarvastivadins and their rivals.
I do not want to go into many of the details of the Sarvastivada Abhidharma here. I shall return in a later chapter to some of their characteristic positions. This system is in many respects very similar to the Abhidhamma of the Pali Canon and Theravada tradition. It has seventy-five dharmas, with three dharmas unconditioned.53 Several of the Sarvastivada dharmas are unique to their system, and were the subject of vigorous controversy with other schools (particularly Sautrantika). I want to mention here briefly, however, the Sarvastivadin approach to the ontology of the dharma. In India as a whole in classical times the Sarvastivada (although it has not survived into the present day as an independent school) appears to have been by far the most important and influential of the Abhidharma traditions. One way or another it is the Sarvastivada that appears to have had most influence on the Mahayana approaches to both Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 93 It should be clear from what we have seen already that the Abhidharma is characterised by some sort of reduction. Throughout this reductive process the search is driven by a quest for what factors, what elements, are actually there as the substratum upon which the forces of mental imputation and reification can form the everyday ‘life-world’. An ‘ultimate truth/ reality’ is discovered as that which is resistant to attempted dissolution through reductive analysis. This search is animated by the wish to let-go, to bring to an end all selfish craving after things that turn out to be just mental and cultural imputations, constructions for practical purposes. Absurd craving for such things leads to rebirth. It seems to me that all Buddhist thinkers in India agreed in the direction of this analysis. There is no disagreement that you and me, or tables, or chairs, can be analysed into component parts and in reality lack the unities that are imputed upon them simply for practical everyday purposes. Disagreements among Buddhist thinkers in this area centred on claims to have found those elements that are really there behind mere appearance. Major disagreement in Buddhist philosophy concerned claims to the status of ultimate truth or truths. Thus the dissolution of what we might call ‘everyday’ craving through dissolution of the everyday world is agreed and taken for granted. The real disagreement concerned the craving which one group of Buddhist thinkers would attribute to another in the light of the latter’s claim to have found ultimate truths which are not accepted as ultimate by the former. Since this rarefied activity of an elite group of scholars is occurring within the Abhidharma project, all Buddhist philosophy, it seems to me, is Abhidharma philosophy. The great ‘Mahayana’ schools of philosophy (q.v.) Madhyamaka, Yogacara, possibly also tendencies associated with the Buddhanature (tathagatagarbha) —involve notably disputes concerning how far this probing, dissolving analysis can go. In the classical Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika) system, the plurality of reals discerned through analysis (i.e. dharmas) are of course by their very status as analytic reals ultimate truths. Sarvastivada texts also refer to these dharmas, these ultimate truths, as ‘primary existents’ (dravyasat), and those composite entities constructed out 94 Buddhist Thought
of primary existents as ‘secondary’ or ‘conceptual existents’ (prajñaptisat). Note (and this is important) that to be a conceptual existent (you, me, a chair, table, or a forest) is not thought in Sarvastivada to be the same as not existing at all. It is to bear a particular sort of existence, the existence of an entity that is quite correctly treated as a unity for pragmatic purposes but nothing more. It can be analysed into a plurality of constituents which are thus to be taken as ontologically more fundamental. A conceptual existent is genuinely existent, but it is existent (i.e. given as a unity) through a purposeful, pragmatic context and its unity is fixed through conceptual reification. Thus a conceptual existent is the result of a particular sort of causal process, a conceptual reification or unification out of a plurality. A table appears to be a unity in its own right, one thing, and indeed it really can be spoken of and thought of in everyday life as one thing for pragmatic purposes. But it is not really a unity in its own right (i.e. a simple). It is not really one thing over and above this pragmatic context. It is actually a name we give for practical purposes to e.g. four legs and a top. And these too can be further analysed, eventually into dharmas. The dharmas into which it can be analysed, however (perhaps here they are actually something more like sense-data), as those factors which must be there irreducibly in order for there to be construction at all, must accordingly be simples. They must be unities in their own right. Otherwise the analysis would not have reached its terminating point.
Thus primary existents must be found as the terminating points of the process of analytical probing. They must be irreducible simples, and they must not be the results of conceptual reification, as are you and me, tables, chairs, and forests. They must thus have, in the terminology of Vaibhasika/Sarvastivada Abhidharma, an ‘own-existence’, a svabhava. By way of contrast secondary conceptual existents are the results of conceptual reification and are lacking in ‘own-existence’, i.e. they are not simples, they are nihsvabhava.54 Thus secondary existents are empty (sunya) of own-existence, and to be empty is another expression for lacking own-existence. Note, however, that within this Sarvastivada Mainstream Buddhism: a Buddha’s basic thought 95 (Vaibhasika) framework it is part of the meaning of nihsvabhava (‘lacking own-existence’) that some things are sasvabhava (‘bear own-existence’), it is part of the meaning of emptiness that not all things are empty. To state that all things lack own-existence would be to state that all things are conceptual existents, reified conceptual constructs, without anything left for them to be reified and constructed out of. This would be an absurdity, for it would destroy the very category of secondary, conceptual existence and thus destroy the entire universe—everything—along with the destruction of primary existence. To state that all things are lacking own-existence, nihsvabhava, must entail an absurd nihilism. As we shall see, that is where—in the search for complete letting-go—the Madhyamaka thought of Nagarjuna will come in. It is heralded by the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom sutra literature.
But the Buddha, alas, was long dead. With the development of Mahayana Buddhism some centuries after the death of the Buddha we encounter a growing awareness among some Buddhist activists of a new dimension to what Buddhism is finally all about, and in the generation of the apocryphal Mahayana sutra literature a radical response.
3 The nature and origins of
I was once asked by an eminent Oxford philosopher ‘What sort of “animal” is Indian philosophy?’. If we try and clarify what sort of ‘animal’ Mahayana Buddhism is we find straight away that contemporary scholarship is beginning to indicate—I think convincingly—that there has in the past been considerable misunderstanding concerning the sort of religious phenomenon we are talking about. Talk has all too often been one of schism and sect; the model one of clear-cut doctrinal and behavioural difference, rivalry and antagonism, often one feels, on the model of that between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity. This model perhaps has been reinforced by the undoubted antagonism found in some Mahayana sutras towards those who fail to heed the message of the text. These people persistently continue to follow what the Mahayana sutras themselves term— using an intentionally polemical and abusive expression—an ‘Inferior Way’, a Hinayana. Thus we have texts, the earliest of which might date in something resembling a form we have now from perhaps the second or first century BCE, that see themselves as genuinely being the word of the Buddha (or a Buddha) and thus claim a disputed status as sutras. These texts advocate a vision, although not necessarily all the same vision, which they term ‘Mahayana’, the Great Way.1 In some cases, perhaps increasing as time passed, this Great Way is contrasted with an Inferior Way (Hinayana), and sometimes this contrast is marked by the use of rather immoderate The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 97 language. Followers of the Inferior Way are, as one Mahayana sutra puts it, ‘like jackals’ (Williams 1989:21). Yet notwithstanding the harshness of some Mahayana sutras (all of which were considered apocryphal by non-Mahayanists), we now know that a picture of schism and sect, with attendant and widespread rivalry and antagonism, would be very misleading. We know from later Chinese sources, for example, that Chinese pilgrims to India found so-called non-Mahayana and Mahayana monks in the same monasteries. The only obvious and manifest differences between these two groups was that the Mahayana monks showed particular reverence towards, ‘worshipped’, figures of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings on the path to full Buddhahood, while the non-Mahayana monks chose not to.2 The student should be extremely careful not to extrapolate uncritically from the antagonism of some of the Mahayana sutras to an actual, practical, antagonism ‘on the ground’. He or she should also be careful not to extrapolate from the sheer size of the Mahayana sutra literature to the extent or indeed the nature of Mahayana identity in Classical India. There is evidence that monks and nuns who did not adopt the Mahayana vision viewed it with some scorn, seeing it as an absurd fabrication based simply on the so-called Mahayana sutras claiming a quite unjustified authenticity and consequential authority. Many Mahayana scholars such as Nagarjuna (in e.g. the Ratnavali) or Santideva (in the Bodhicaryavatara) produced defences of the Mahayana, defending the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras. But to the best of my knowledge there is no detailed, systematic refutation of Mahayana in any non-Mahayana Indian Buddhist source yet discovered.3 Modern scholars are frequently left digging and probing for what are claimed to be occasional and non-systematic references to Mahayana in non-Mahayana sources such as Vasubandhu’s enormous Abhidharmakosa. Given the many centuries of Buddhism in India, and the size of the Mahayana literature, this is absolutely astonishing if we extrapolate from the size of the Mahayana canon to the supposed extent of Mahayana in India. But we cannot make such an inference, and one is tempted to suggest that the only explanation for near-silence is that Mahayana in 98 Buddhist Thought
Classical India was not a threat, and/or was not taken seriously. This could be because in spite of the size of the literature there were throughout much of the period of Buddhism in India very few monks who actually adopted the Mahayana vision, and those monks were just thought by their brethren to be a bit weird—but harmless. Alternatively it could be because in terms of what is to count as a threat among those who have come together to live a simple and cenobitic lifestyle the Mahayana was not a rival. I suspect it may be a combination of both of these factors.4 Thanks to the work of Heinz Bechert (1982) we now have a clearer idea of what is to count as generating schism in Buddhist monasticism. For Buddhists ‘schism’ is nothing to do with doctrinal disagreements as such, but is the result of divergence in monastic rule.5 This makes sense. The whole purpose of Buddhist monasticism is for groups of people to live together a simple life with optimum facilities for inner development. What produces major disagreement in such contexts—and can lead to schism, ‘splitting the Sangha’ (samghabheda) —are what for nonmonastics would appear to be fairly minor matters of behavioural disagreement. Thus if a monk holds that it is permissible to eat after midday, while all his brethren have to finish their meal before midday, this could cause great problems for the peaceful running of the monastery. Further difficulties could arise for the crucial issue of the harmonious relationship between the monastery and the local lay community. Imagine the response of the lay supporters to their farming day being disrupted by two groups of monks from the local monastery on the alms-round at different times. One could see that under such circumstances it might be better for all concerned that the divergent monk (and those who agree) ‘split’. Suppose on the other hand that a monk holds the final goal of all should be not nirvana but perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Or he believes that in meditation he is receiving personal tuition from a Buddha called Amitayus unknown to other monks. This might be thought by many of his brethren to be pretty peculiar. But providing it does not lead to intolerable levels of disruptive behaviour—and why should it? — our monk’s Mahayana views need not lead to a ‘schism’. The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 99 Buddhism is thus an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. What is important is harmony of behaviour, not harmony of doctrines. The role played by doctrinal disagreements in Christian history does not apply in the case of Buddhism. Of course, where there is a genuine schism related to the monastic rule there could also take place subsequently doctrinal variation. But doctrinal difference as such cannot be a matter for schism. Thus since Mahayana is, as I shall argue, a matter of vision and motivation which does not (or need not) in itself entail behaviour confrontational to the monastic rule, it could not have resulted from schism. It is not that sort of thing. It is not that sort of ‘animal’. Once this is appreciated it can be seen that the opposition between Mahayana and non-Mahayana could not in any way parallel that of, say, Roman Catholicism polarised against Protestantism, where identity is very, very much a matter of doctrinal allegiance, of rival beliefs. Schism in Christian history is precisely the result of doctrinal disagreement. Identity in Buddhism is supplied by adherence to the monastic code, the Vinaya. Identity is a monastic matter. As time passed, after the death of the Buddha, there were indeed schisms, and there remain a number of Vinayas. The traditional Theravada account of the Second Council at Vaisali in north India (c. 40–100 years after the death of the Buddha) describe how it was called to settle issues related to divergent behaviour among certain ‘wicked monks’.6 There is some question about how far we can follow the Theravada account of this Council, but it is understandable that a Council may have been called over such central issues. The suggestion that the ‘wicked monks’ were defeated but remained stubborn and broke away is indeed an account of samghabheda, schism. This account could not be used as it often is, however, in any simple way to explain the origins of the Mahayana, since the Mahayana as such could not have resulted from schism.
Traditional Theravada accounts associate the defeated monks with the origin of the Mahasamghikas, a rival Vinaya and doctrinal tradition. In the past there has been a tendency to trace the origins of the Mahayana to doctrinal tendencies within 100 Buddhist Thought
the Mahasamghika tradition. On both counts there are however problems. Suffice to say that it is looking very unlikely that the ‘wicked monks of Vaisali were the origins of the Mahasamghikas, and few contemporary scholars would identify Mahayana in a straightforward way with any particular Vinaya tradition (or non-Mahayana ‘school’). Inasmuch as we can detect from Mahayana sources the Vinaya or perhaps Abhidharma presuppositions of the compilers of those sources, we can see that Mahayana tendencies cut across the boundaries of the non-Mahayana traditions. For example, there is a clear association between the Ta-chih-tu Lun (Mahaprajñaparamita Sastra), the enormous compendium of Mahayana attributed to Nagarjuna and translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva in the early fifth century CE, and monks from the Sarvastivada/ Vaibhasika tradition of Kashmir. But the Mahayana Lokanuvartana Sutra on the other hand shows a strong tendency towards the idea that the Buddha is in some sense always supramundane, and the teaching of emptiness, which are both associated with the Mahasamghikas (see pp. 128–30). The Theravada Vinaya is one particular Vinaya, and indeed a monk can be defined as a Theravadin (a follower of Theravada) precisely inasmuch as he has been ordained and lives according to the Theravada Vinaya. In India in classical times, however, it seems likely that one of the most important Vinayas was that of the Mulasarvastivada, the Vinaya which also to the present day guides the monastic vision of Tibetans. In China, and traditions influenced by China, among others the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya was popular. All these Vinayas are Vinayas which evolved over the centuries, but—and this is crucially important—they have absolutely nothing to do with issues of Mahayana versus non- Mahayana. There is no such thing as a Mahayana Vinaya.7 Thus Mahayana cannot have originated as such in a schism. Moreover in a very real sense there cannot have been any Mahayana monks in India, since identity as a monk is a Vinaya matter, although of course there can certainly have been monks who held a Mahayana vision and motivation. Once we understand that Mahayana identity is not a matter of the Vinaya and therefore not a matter of publicly The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 101 significant behaviour in a monastic context, then it becomes perfectly understandable that visitors to India would have seen Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks in the same monasteries. Why should we expect otherwise? If that still seems strange, then one has still not appreciated the inappropriateness of the schismmodel, or that supplied by Christian parallels. Moreover the different Vinayas, although containing what were no doubt significant differences in the context of monastic concerns and precision, are all fairly close to each other. The radical doctrinal differences sometimes found between Mahayana and non- Mahayana are not matched in what was in public terms what actually counted for Buddhists in Ancient India—monastic behaviour.
I have referred to Mahayana as a vision, a vision of what Buddhism is finally all about, rather than a sect, a school, or the result of schism. This picture of Mahayana corresponds I suggest with what scholarly research is beginning to indicate both about the nature of Mahayana and, more particularly, about what Mahayana is not. It also corresponds rather nicely with one of my favourite pictures of what Mahayana is really all about, a self-definition admittedly late (but enormously influential in Tibetan Buddhism) found in the Bodhipathapradipa of the eleventh century Indian Buddhist scholar and missionary to Tibet, Atisa. Based on earlier Buddhist precedents, Atisa suggests a division of religious practitioners into three hierarchical classes according to their motivations. Hierarchical division of persons is a very Indian strategy (cf. caste and class), while division by motivation is quintessentially Buddhist where, as we have seen, from early days it has been the intention behind an act which is the main contributory factor in creating morally significant karman. Thus those of the lowest type perform (religious) actions motivated by samsara—unenlightenment—worldly actions with the intention of some material gain either in this life or in another life. Those of the middle type are motivated by the wish for freedom from all suffering and rebirth, in other words the freedom that is nirvana, enlightenment. Note that those who attain such a goal are in fact the group called arhats, and within 102 Buddhist Thought
this hierarchical framework they have followed an Inferior Path (a Hinayana). But those superior people whose motivation is the very highest take as their goal freedom from suffering for all, that is, perfect Buddhahood, motivated by the wish to attain the greatest possibility to benefit others. These are followers of the Great, the Supreme, Path—the Mahayana. In fact those of lowest motivation attain samsara. Those of middle motivation attain nirvana, while those with the highest motivation of all reach what Mahayana scholars came to refer to as a ‘non-abiding’ nirvana (apratisthitanirvana). This nirvana is beyond such dualities. It is not samsara but it is also not a resting in any nirvana that would abandon sentient beings who are still suffering. Thus in the final analysis what makes a follower of Mahayana is not robes, rules, or philosophy. It is motivation, intention. The Mahayana as a whole is a particular vision of what the final motivation and goal of serious practitioners should be. Atisa’s self-definition of Mahayana is particularly useful for us because again it conforms to the picture of Mahayanists and non-Mahayanists in the same monastery, and it conforms to the archaeological and early textual evidence that there was no radical break between Mahayana and non-Mahayana, and no ‘Mahayana schism’. It reaffirms the centrality of intention in Buddhism, and explains why we find Mahayana cutting across the boundaries of non-Mahayana traditions. Mahayana is not as such an institutional identity. Rather, it is an inner motivation and vision, and this inner vision can be found in anyone regardless of their institutional position. Thus, of course, there could in theory be Theravada Mahayanists. If that sounds strange it does nothing more than indicate how conditioned we have become to think of the Buddhist world as divided into two schools (or sects) on the model of Roman Catholic and Protestant, resulting from some supposed doctrinal schism. I suspect it might indeed have been quite possible to visit India in earlier Classical times and as a casual visitor not see Mahayana Buddhism as such at all. I am sure that a great Mahayana thinker like Nagarjuna or Santideva would not have appeared any different from their non-Mahayana brethren. Their public behaviour would The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 103 not have been different. Perhaps even their public utterances would not have been very different. But if one came to know them well or visited them in their rooms or cells perhaps one could have detected a different vision and intention, a different idea of what, ultimately, it all meant, a different idea of what it was really all about. Nagarjuna, moreover, was an Indian monk. To meet Nagarjuna would not have been like meeting a Tibetan yogin, a magic-wielding wonderworker, or a Zen Master. I do not think also that it would have been like meeting the Dalai Lama. In actual fact in appearance and behaviour meeting Nagarjuna might have been rather more like meeting a Theravada monk. So far we have seen that Mahayana Buddhism is nothing to do with Vinaya differences, and is not the result of schism. It is a phenomenon that cuts across the boundaries of different Vinaya traditions, and was also capable of cutting across the boundaries of doctrinal (such as Abhidharma) schools without generating an identifiable further school.8 Mahayana is very diverse. It is united perhaps solely by a vision of the ultimate goal of attaining full Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings (the ‘bodhisattva ideal’) and also (or eventually) a belief that Buddhas are still around and can be contacted (hence the possibility of an ongoing revelation). To this extent the expression ‘Mahayana’ is used simply for practical purposes. It is used as a ‘family term’ covering a range of not necessarily identical or even compatible practices and teachings. Thus Mahayana could not itself form a school of Buddhism. It lacked that sort of unity, it is not that sort of ‘animal’ either. It is possible to detect in some Mahayana sutras criticism of those who do not accept Mahayana, and particularly criticism of those who do not accept the particular sutra concerned (Schopen 1975). There is also criticism sometimes of or comments on other sutras and their advocates (Harrison 1978; Pagel 1995:36 ff.). According to Gregory Schopen (1975), it is quite possible that in origins Mahayana was centred on a number of ‘sutra cults’, involving the promulgation as well as the worship of particular sutras which were perhaps in mutual rivalry. These sutras were held to contain a particular new revelation from the Buddha (or a Buddha).
104 Buddhist Thought
By far the most important and suggestive work on the nature and origins of the Mahayana in India has come from Gregory Schopen, with significant additional contributions by Paul Harrison. Schopen has drawn attention to the importance of archaeological data, such as inscriptional evidence, for the picture it can give us of what was actually happening in India, in opposition to the inferences we might be tempted to draw from written texts.9 I have argued already that the sheer size of the Mahayana literary corpus might suggest that Mahayana was a widespread tendency in Ancient India, although this need not follow. After all, one person or one group of teachers could write a very great deal (note the repetitive nature of much of the Prajñaparamita literature). Schopen’s study (1979) of the evidence for Mahayana in Indian inscriptions has led to some interesting conclusions which appear to contradict the picture some might be tempted to draw from the literary remains.10 First, the evidence for Mahayana in Indian inscriptions (such as the inscriptions of those donating a statue to a monastery, for example) is actually relatively scarce. What evidence there is shows that with one exception the earliest use of the term ‘Mahayana’ in inscriptions dates from the fifth or sixth centuries CE, although there is the use of certain terms identifiable as having a Mahayana reference from the fourth century CE. Therefore we find that inscriptional evidence for Mahayana lags many centuries behind the earliest literary evidence (c. second/first century BCE), and it is arguable that the use of the term ‘Mahayana’ to give self-identity to a particular group of people took even longer. Thus, Schopen wants to conclude, ‘we are able to assume that what we now call the Mahayana did not begin to emerge as a separate and independent group until the fourth century’ (Schopen 1979:15). It seems that for perhaps five centuries—the centuries which saw the production of a great deal of the Mahayana sutra literature, and many of the greatest thinkers of the Mahayana—Mahayana was not seen ‘on the ground’ as an identifiable ‘institution’ involving inscriptional allegiance. The one exception is contained in an inscription dating from the second century CE discovered in 1977, which also refers to the Mahayana Buddha Amitabha. But, as Schopen points out (1987b), the The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 105 amazing point about this inscription and its reference to Amitabha is that it is the only one for many centuries, in spite of the fact that we know Mahayana literature and texts treating Amitabha (or Amitayus) had been in existence for some time. Along with the absence of clear self-identity for the followers of Mahayana, we seem to find evidence of their scarcity—or at least, no evidence for their frequency, let alone the prevalence of a ‘cult of Amitabha’ in North India at that time, as some scholars have claimed. Schopen’s conclusions merit quoting at some length: even after its initial appearance in the public domain in the 2nd century (Mahayana) appears to have remained an extremely limited minority movement—if it remained at all— that attracted absolutely no documented public or popular support for at least two more centuries. It is again a demonstrable fact that anything even approaching popular support for the Mahayana cannot be documented until the 4th/5th century AD, and even then the support is overwhelmingly by monastic, not lay, donors…although there was—as we know from Chinese translations—a large and early Mahayana literature, there was no early, organized, independent, publically supported movement that it could have belonged to.
(Schopen 1987b:124–5; italics original)
Note also that as far as he is concerned Schopen has failed to find any support for the widespread association of the laity with the origins or growth of Mahayana. This is important, for it contradicts a prevalent view that the Mahayana represents primarily a move by the laity and those sympathetic to their aspirations, against certain rather remote and elitist monks.11 It is possible to point to material in the Pratyutpanna Sutra, studied by Paul Harrison (1978, 1990) which gives incidental evidence to support the view that the origins of that particular relatively early sutra had nothing to do with the laity. It seems to me that the idea that the Mahayana in origin was indeed associated with the laity results at least in part from an over-literal and perhaps wishful 106 Buddhist Thought
reading of certain sutras. These sutras employ the rhetorical device of lay speakers (such as the rich merchant Vimalakirti or the young princess Asokadatta) in order to criticise non-Mahayana (in fact definitely Hinayana) views associated with rival monks.12 Mahayana was not however the result of a lay movement or lay aspirations, perhaps inspired by the rich mercantile classes, anymore than it was the result of an aristocratic Girl Guide-like movement of precocious juvenile princesses.13 It seems obvious that in the context of Ancient India enduring religious innovation was made by religiously and institutionally significant groups of people who had the time to do so. This means, among educated laypeople, primarily brahmin teachers working within the caste and class based structures of orthodox householder life. It means as well renunciates, drop-outs, who also taught and survived on alms. It is unlikely that major changes in Buddhist ideology occurred inspired and preserved by householder brahmins, but entirely understandable that such changes occurred among Buddhist renunciates, i.e. monks.
Richard Gombrich (1990a) has argued that it seems unlikely that Mahayana as we know it could have originated without writing. This seems clear given the association of Mahayana in origins with the creation of the Mahayana sutra literature, and also Schopen’s (1975) mention of references in early Mahayana to worshipping the sutras themselves in the form of books. This is on the model of the existing cult of stupas, relic-shrines of the Buddha and his eminent disciples. The writing down of the Buddhist canon took place initially in the first century BCE. Thus Mahayana as such is unlikely to have occurred—would not have survived—much prior to the use of writing for scriptural texts. Against this, Vetter (1994) has suggested that there is some evidence that early Mahayana material was transmitted orally. Even so, Mahayana would not have survived without occurring within an enduring respected Buddhist organisation which was prepared to preserve it, and it is difficult to see in the case of Buddhism what that organisation could be if not members of the regular organisation which preserves Buddhist texts, the Sangha. One cannot imagine, on the other hand, the Sangha or indeed any The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 107 significant Sangha member preserving radical innovative texts that originated in a lay movement against the Sangha itself. The idea we get from Schopen’s work on archaeological sources is also supported by Paul Harrison’s concern with some of the earliest extant Mahayana literature, the translations into Chinese of Mahayana sutras by Lokaksema in the late second century CE (1987). Harrison has shown that the picture of early Mahayana involvement from these sources is overwhelmingly one of monks, although as well as nuns laity (including lay women) were also addressed in the sutras. Note that women, however, are far from being treated on a basis of equality with men. We also do not find in these sutras any antagonism towards monasticism, the Sangha, as such. Central to early Mahayana represented by these texts is an aspiration to perfect Buddhahood, that is, taking upon oneself the vow of the bodhisattva, while bodhisattvas as semidivine beings, the so-called ‘celestial bodhisattvas’ of later petitionary worship, are at this stage conspicuous by their absence. Early Mahayana is also characterised by a fairly antagonistic attitude towards those who follow the ‘inferior’ path to liberation from merely one’s own personal suffering, the state of the arhat, rather than full Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings.14 In his recent work Harrison argues that
some of the impetus for the early development of the Mahayana came from forest-dwelling monks. Far from being the products of an urban, lay, devotional movement, many Mahayana sutras give evidence of a hard-core ascetic attempt to return to the original inspiration of Buddhism, the search for Buddhahood or awakened cognition. (Harrison 1995:65)
Thus Mahayana may in part represent a rather austere, almost ascetic, ‘revivalist movement’. This picture is supported in a recent paper by Schopen (1999). He has shown quite convincingly in the case of an obscure Mahayana sutra, the Maitreyamahasimhanada Sutra (the ‘Lion’s Roar of Maitreya’) that this sutra can be dated to the Kusana period (c. first century CE) and originated in 108 Buddhist Thought
Northwest India. This would make it one of the earliest datable Mahayana sutras. The sutra advocates a highly conservative monastic vision of Buddhism, centred on the inferiority of the laity, austere practice in the forest as the ideal, and condemns less austere monks for their involvement in such inferior practices as stupa worship. Schopen concludes that
if there is any ‘relationship’ of the polemic found in the Maitreyasimhanada-sutra to the ‘rise of mahayana Buddhism’ that relationship remains a mystery. This early ‘mahayana’ polemic does not seem to be connected to the ‘rise’ of anything, but rather to the continuity and persistence of a narrow set of conservative Buddhist ideas on cult and monastic practice. That is all.
It is possible that particularly significant in the origins of some of the Mahayana literature was a belief that the Buddha (or Buddhas) could still be contacted, and is really still teaching out of his immense compassion. There is some evidence that early Buddhism felt it to be a genuine problem why the compassionate Sakyamuni Buddha had died at the age of 80 when there was a widespread view that at the time of the Buddha the average lifespan was actually 100 years. Lifespan is supposed to be the result of merit, and we have a suggestion in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta that a Buddha can live until the end of an aeon if he so wishes. We also have some grounds for thinking that in the early centuries the inability to see and benefit any more from the actual physical presence of the Buddha was felt by some very acutely. For this reason there was a real doctrinal problem as to why the Buddha actually died when he did die. One strategy was to blame the Buddha’s attendant Ananda for not petitioning the Buddha correctly to remain until the end of the aeon. Such an approach, however, could scarcely harmonise with the image of the Compassionate One, and perhaps one of the few defining dimensions of Mahayana Buddhism is a vision and understanding of the Buddha as not really dead but still around. When stated and The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 109 accepted this understanding entailed that Buddhism itself had the potential to change in the light of a continuing revelation. It is indeed possible that the suggestion that the Buddha is still around may have been (in part) a response to particular visions in meditation, perhaps associated with meditation practices involving visualising the Buddha and known as buddhanusmrti (‘recollection of the Buddha’). We know that such practices were popular from a very early period, and that one of the results of these practices is that the meditator feels as if in the presence of the Buddha himself (Williams 1989:30, 217–20; Harrison 1978). In the Pratyutpanna Sutra, translated into Chinese by Lokaksema and studied by Paul Harrison, we find details of a visualisation practice in which the meditator visualises Buddha Amitayus in his ‘Pure Land’ (Buddha Field; q.v.) in the West, for twenty-four hours a day, for a whole week. After that, the sutra says, the meditator may have a vision of Amitayus, and receive new teachings not before heard. Moreover these new teachings the meditator is exhorted to transmit and expound to mankind.
It seems certain that a text like the Pratyutpanna Sutra (and perhaps other early Mahayana texts associated with Pure Lands and buddhanusmrti) describes practices which can lead to revelatory visions, and the Pratyutpanna Sutra itself advocates the promulgation of the teachings thus received. But while visions can occur in meditation, the occurrence of visions—messages apparently from a Buddha—does not explain why someone would take those messages seriously. Indeed the Buddhist tradition in general has tended to be very cautious, even dismissive, concerning visions seen in meditation. Of course, if it is correct that for many centuries there were very few followers of Mahayana in classical India, then the problem becomes less acute. But certainly some people took these revelations seriously, and those who took them seriously were sometimes great scholars. It is often said that the standard view of early Buddhism is that after the death of a Buddha he is beyond reference or recall, significantly and religiously dead. From such a perspective the idea of seeing a living Buddha in meditation is problematic. One way round this would be to claim that the Buddha visualised is 110 Buddhist Thought
simply a Buddha who has for one reason or another not yet died. That would be to adopt a strategy of doctrinal reconciliation. As we shall see, this is indeed a strategy commonly adopted in Mahayana sources. But recent work by Gregory Schopen suggests that the atmosphere in Buddhist circles in Ancient India may have been at least emotionally more receptive to the idea that a dead Buddha is still around than was previously realised. Schopen has argued on archaeological and inscriptional grounds that the Buddha’s relics, preserved after his death in stupas, were felt to be the Buddha himself. The Buddha was thought in some sense to be still present in his relics and even in spots associated with his life (Schopen 1987a, 1990, 1994). Through his relics the Buddha was also treated as if present in the monastery, and was treated legally by the monastery and apparently by the wider community as a person with inalienable property rights.16 Schopen has shown that in day to day life the Buddha was felt very much to be present among the monks, if invisible.
Perhaps it was little wonder, then, that certain monks, inspired by the common meditation practice of ‘recollection of the Buddha’, buddhanusmrti, felt the genuineness of their visions of him and what had been revealed to them. Thus they arrived at the possibility of a continuing revelation and of course new sutras.17 Little wonder too, then, that eventually we find in some circles forms of religiosity developed centred on the supremacy of Buddhahood above all alternative goals. This religiosity focused too on the great compassion of one who remains present, transcending even death, helping sentient beings. It encouraged the need to attain a palpable immortality through becoming oneself a Buddha. In becoming a Buddha Sakyamuni, after all, is said to have triumphed over the Evil One, the ‘Devil’, Mara. The etymology of this name shows him to be the personification of death. Little wonder then that we also find in the meantime participation in ‘Pure Land’ cults, a need to see the Buddha if not in this life in meditation, then after death through rebirth in his presence in the Pure Land where he still dwells.18 Thus it seems clear from early Mahayana texts that through meditation it was felt to be possible by some Buddhist The nature and origins of Mahayana Buddhism 111 practitioners to meet with a still-living Buddha and receive new teachings, receive perhaps the Mahayana sutras themselves. That some people actually took this possibility seriously may well have been prompted by a feeling on the one hand of sadness that the age of the living presence of the Buddha as a physical being had passed. But it was also prompted by an awareness of his continuing if rather invisible presence in the monastery, as relics imbued with the qualities of Buddhahood, the dharmakaya. These are themes that we shall meet again.
4 Some schools of Mainstream
As with Theravada, there is a complete Sarvastivada Canon with a Sarvastivada Vinaya and a Sarvastivada ordination lineage to go with it. But the name ‘Sarvastivada’ means ‘the doctrine (vada) that all (sarva) exist (asti)’, and holding this ‘doctrine that all exist’, whatever that involves, is not the same as being ordained into the Sarvastivada lineage. To hold and defend this doctrine, and other associated doctrines, is to follow Sarvastivada as a doctrinal school. Clearly it is logically possible to be a Sarvastivadin (one who follows Sarvastivada) monk by ordination without being a Sarvastivadin by doctrine, and vice-versa. The association between a Sarvastivada ordination lineage and Sarvastivada doctrines is a contingent one, although in practice it may well have turned out to be the case that they were often associated in those monks (no doubt the minority) who were particularly interested in the refinements of doctrinal study. But not all the great doctrinal schools of Buddhism (traditionally there is said to have been eighteen doctrinal schools related to non- Mahayana Buddhism) had Vinayas associated with them. As far as we know, for example, ‘Sautrantika’ is only a doctrinal school. Thus there could easily have been a Sarvastivadin monk, i.e. one ordained according to the Sarvastivada Vinaya, holding Sautrantika views. And, as we have seen, Mahayana as such is neither a Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 113 Vinaya tradition nor a doctrinal school. It is rather a vision or aspiration, and an understanding of what the final concern should be for all Buddhists. That final concern should be to obtain perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, and perfect Buddhahood for all is very much superior simply to becoming an arhat, liberated from one’s own suffering. Thus there would be no contradiction in being a Sarvastivadin monk holding Sautrantika doctrinal views and also being a Mahayanist. The universal association of certain doctrinal schools, notably Madhyamaka and Yogacara, with Mahayana is again a contingent matter not one of necessary connection, notwithstanding the fact that the founders and all the great teachers associated with these doctrinal positions do indeed appear to have held the Mahayana vision as well. In this chapter I want to outline briefly some of the more significant positions associated with doctrinal schools not historically connected directly with Mahayana. The ‘doctrine that all exist’ was indeed so important to Sarvastivada as a doctrinal school that it became a name for the school. But from the time of the composition of the ‘Great Commentary’ (Mahavibhasa) in the second century CE perhaps the expression Vaibhasika (‘Following the Commentary’) was the more formal name for the school.1 Among the geographical areas associated with Sarvastivada, Northwest India (such as Kashmir) was particular important both in doctrinal terms and also for its influence on Afghanistan, Central Asia, and thence China.
The Sarvastivada appears to have had a particular interest in ontological issues. This interest should be seen as an understandable response to the basic Buddhist concern with the ontology of the Self, and with seeing things the way they really are. These are essentially ontological issues, and in its concern with ontology Sarvastivada is quintessentially Buddhist. We have seen already that Sarvastivada drew a systematic distinction between the way dharmas exist, and the way composite entities that are constructions out of dharmas exist. The former are ‘primary existents’ (dravyasat), and those composite entities constructed out of primary existents are ‘secondary’ or ‘conceptual existents’ (prajñaptisat). Both truly exist, although in different 114 Buddhist Thought
ways. The ‘doctrine that all exist’ concerns serious and perennial philosophical issues arising out of apparent paradoxes when referring to non-existence, specifically here past and future dharmas.2 If a dharma is impermanent, and ceases soon after its arising, how can something which has ceased and is thus apparently non-existent do anything? How can it serve as the object of cognition (as in the case of memory), and how can it bring about an effect (as in the case of karman)? Moreover the same could be said about future dharmas. How can they serve as the objects of cognition or action, as occurs in anticipation and motivated activity? In consideration of all this, the Sarvastivadin response was that past and future dharmas, while clearly not existing in the same way as the momentary present dharmas, must nevertheless still exist. Something simply non-existent could not serve as a cognitive (an ‘intentional’) referent, nor could it bring about an effect, as in the case of pain now occurring due to wicked deeds done in the past. Thus the ‘doctrine that all exist’ is specifically the doctrine that if a dharma is a future, a present, or a past dharma it nevertheless still exists.3
The idea that dharmas exist when future, present, and past was felt by rival schools (notably Sautrantika) to sail very close to an entailment that dharmas must actually be permanent.4 This need not follow, however, providing one distinguishes sufficiently adequately existing as past and future from existing as present. We find a number of attempts to do this even prior to the Mahavibhasa, and detailed in that text with priority given to an explanation by a certain Vasumitra. For the Sarvastivadin it was felt to be clear, as Samghabhadra (late fourth or early fifth century CE?) pointed out, that past and future dharmas cannot possibly be absolutely non-existent. They are not non-existent in the way that, for example, the horn of a hare is simply non-existent (i.e. there is no such thing). Anything that can be a cognitive referent exists. But in order to distinguish between existing simply in the way past and future dharmas do, and existing as present (and of course in that respect impermanent) dharmas do, the Sarvastivadin brought into play the notion of the ‘own-existence’ (svabhava) of a dharma. The own-existence, as we have seen, is possessed by each Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 115 dharma inasmuch as it is a dharma and not a conceptual construct. Its own-existence is what makes each dharma an individual unique thing. It was easy to slide from this to the own-existence as the ‘what-it-is-ness’ of the dharma, and thereby what is referred to every time one speaks of that dharma. Thus the Sarvastivadin wants to say past and future dharmas exist simply in the mode of their own-existence (sasvabhavamatra). That is, each past and future dharma exists as its ‘what-it-is-ness’, and it is this that enables one to cognise and to speak about it. This sort of existence is always possessed by a dharma of that type. It is atemporal and is what makes the dharma the dharma it is. In the case of dharmas it enables us to talk in abstract, divorced from particular instances, about dharmas. Thus we can speak of dharmas as ‘not further analysable’, for example, and we can classify them into a list of dharmas. It is what we might call ‘intentional existence’. It is the sort of existence anything has solely inasmuch as it is an object of language and cognition. The Sarvastivadin wants to suggest that because a past dharma has this sort of existence there is also no longer any paradox in a result occurring of something that is past and otherwise non-existent. But in addition to existing this way, present dharmas also have their characteristic activity (sakaritra). That is, a present dharma does what that dharma does, as this is understood in the Abhidharma. The dharma’s not yet doing what it does is what makes it a future dharma. Its doing what it does when the appropriate causes and conditions come together makes it a present dharma, and its ceasing to do what it does when the causes and conditions cease is what renders it a past dharma. This ‘doing-what-it-does’ is instantaneous, momentary. Thus any dharma’s being present is momentary. This is fully temporal, and since we live in time and the occurrence (i.e. being present) of a dharma in time is momentary, momentariness is preserved.5 A further interesting dimension of Sarvastivada thought worth noting in passing is its analysis of causation itself. This is because, in a way that shows remarkable philosophical flexibility and adventurousness, the Sarvastivadin has no objection to the simultaneity of cause and effect, and is even willing to entertain the possibility that the effect may occur after the cause. 116 Buddhist Thought
Sarvastivada speaks of six types of causes (hetu) and four types of conditions (pratyaya, see Hirakawa 1990:179–84). The first type of cause is the karanahetu, the ‘efficient cause’. This consists of every other dharma apart from the dharma that is the effect itself, inasmuch as every dharma either contributes directly towards bringing about a further dharma (the cause as an ‘empowered’ karanahetu) or does not hinder its production (the cause as a ‘powerless’ karanahetu). Thus all things are one way or another linked into the mesh of cause and effect. Here the class of karanahetu is specifically said to incorporate causes that can be either prior to or simultaneous with the effect (Samghabhadra, in Potter 1999:704). Simultaneity is even more obvious in the case of the ‘simultaneous cause’ (sahabhuhetu), which occurs where dharmas arise in a simultaneous relationship of mutual cause and effect. Thus, for example, since in a particular composite mental event (like perceiving a strawberry) consciousness and its mental associates arise together, if the consciousness occurs the mental associates must occur, and if the mental associates occur the consciousness must occur. If either consciousness or any of the mental associates is missing here, the others as parts of this composite mental event could not occur.6 Therefore they are here all mutually and simultaneously cause and effect. The ‘homogeneous cause’ (sabhagahetu), on the other hand, referring to cases of sequential concordance between causes and effects, must obviously be prior to its effect. Thus, for example, prior good causes give rise to subsequent good effects, prior bad causes to subsequent bad effects.7 The Abhidharmakosabhasya (2:52) considers also the possibility that the cause could occur chronologically after the effect, with support cited both for and against from the central Sarvastivadin canonical Abhidharma text, the Jñanaprasthana. The Kosabhasya itself rejects this possibility, but throughout this text its author Vasubandhu frequently rejects even established Sarvastivadin positions in a way which shows his considerable sympathy with Sautrantika.8 From a Sautrantika perspective it is axiomatic that the cause must precede its effect. A unique Sarvastivadin doctrine, and once more a topic of intense debate with others, is that of ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’ Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 117 (prapti). Supposing I have an intense wicked intention. That wicked intention is an unwholesome karman, which will eventually produce suffering for me. But the intention itself is impermanent. When it has ceased (in Sarvastivadin terms, passed from present into past) what entails that its karmic result will occur in the future to a future stage of the same psychophysical continuum in which the original intention occurred? In other words, in imprecise everyday terms, given the Buddhist stress on complete impermanence, what ensures that the karmic result of my wicked intention will occur to me (albeit perhaps my reincarnation)? In the future all the factors that make up ‘me’ will be completely different, even though causally linked, to the factors that make up ‘me’ now. The answer the Sarvastivadin wants to say is that when the original intention occurred it was mine. That is, in addition to the intention itself there was a further dharma occurring in the series called ‘possession’, prapti. The intention ‘ceased’ (i.e. for the Sarvastivadin, passed into ‘past-mode’). As an impermanent dharma, so did the prapti. But the prapti generated another prapti, this time the possession of ‘having had that wicked intention’. This prapti too is an impermanent dharma. On its cessation it too generates another similar possession. Thus as a result of the original wicked intention part of my psychophysical continuum consists of an ongoing stream of praptis: ‘having had that wicked intention.’ Eventually, when the conditions are right, a suffering as the karmic result of that original intention will occur. The original intention still exists in past-mode. And the suffering will occur in the psychophysical continuum which has the praptiseries ‘having had that wicked intention’, not in another one. In the imprecise everyday terms used above, the karmic result will occur to me because I am the one who has the prapti-series—I am the one who possessed the original intention, not someone else.9 Similarly, an unenlightened being has a possession of the negative taints (passions/defilements). Thus even when these taints are not actually operative in an unenlightened person, he or she is still not equivalent to an enlightened person, since the unenlightened person still has a possession of the negative taints. But in the case of an enlightened person not only has the possession of negative 118 Buddhist Thought
taints been completely disconnected, there is also a different dharma present, called ‘non-possession’ (aprapti), which keeps the negative taints from ever occurring again.10 Both prapti and aprapti were simply rejected as unnecessary—indeed a rather absurd reification of abstract qualities into fundamentally existent dharmas—by rival schools like Sautrantika. Sautrantika
The name ‘Sautrantika’ refers to ‘those who take the sutras as valid authority (pramana), rather than later treatises (sastras)’ — where ‘later treatises’ means the Abhidharma (Yasomitra, in Cox 1995:39, 50). It is not clear how early this term came to be used for the group, or how it relates to another expression ‘Darstantika’, ‘those who utilise the method of examples’. According to the Japanese scholar Junsho Kato (in Cox 1995: 38–9), Darstantika may have been an expression originally used for the followers of Sautrantika by their opponents, while ‘Sautrantika’ was their own name for themselves. As we have seen already, there is no Sautrantika ordination lineage. Monks who described themselves as ‘Sautrantika’ were no doubt frequently ordained according to the Sarvastivada rite. Their Sautrantika affiliation indicated a particular stance in rarefied doctrinal discussion and debate. They were suspicious of the claim of the Abhidharma Pitaka to be the word of the Buddha, and while in fact sharing much in common with their approach they were even more suspicious of the philosophising of certain later Abhidharma scholars. As Collett Cox puts it (drawing on the work of Kato):
[It] is best not to construe the appellation ‘Sautrantika’ as entailing either a distinct ordination lineage or a defined set of doctrinal positions. Instead, it indicates a reliance only upon the Buddha’s verified teaching in the sutras that ensures consistency with correct principle in contrast to the faulty reasoning that it is assumed undermines Abhidharma treatises. Doctrinally, the Sautrantika perspective can be Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 119 characterised only by a rejection of the definitive Sarvastivadin position that factors exist in the three time periods. Therefore the appellation ‘Sautrantika’ could have been used to encompass a broad range of individual opinions that conform to these general guidelines, rather than to a defined and delimited set of doctrinal opinions. (Cox 1995:40)
The presence of scholars favouring Sautrantika shows the vitality and vigour of philosophical debate within the Buddhist tradition. Doctrinal positions were not identical with ordination lineages, and within one monastic group no doubt in the same monastery there could be radical disagreement and discussion concerning doctrinal issues within the context of a common rule of conduct. Followers of Sautrantika rejected the existence of dharmas in the three times, which they saw as necessarily implying the permanence of dharmas. Actually only the present dharma exists. The past dharma did exist, and the future dharma (assuming the appropriate conditions come together) will exist. But only the present dharma actually exists (see Abhidharmakosa 5: 25 ff.). The Sautrantika took from the Sarvastivada, however, the idea that the present stage of a dharma lies in the dharma’s exerting its characteristic activity. Thus exerting activity now becomes the mark not of the present stage of the dharma as such, but its very existence. To be in fact is to exert activity. But it follows from this that a dharma cannot be something that remains for some time and then exerts its activity. If hypothetically it existed for some time before acting then in the moments during which the dharma is not acting it actually could not exist, since to be is to act. Likewise if the dharma hypothetically existed for some time after exerting its activity then during those moments too it could not actually exist. Thus the dharma must exist only in the moment (ksana) in which it exerts its activity. And that moment cannot itself have any time span, since if the moment had a time span then there would be the first moment of a moment, the second moment of a moment, and so on. If that were the case, then there would be the question of whether the dharma exerted 120 Buddhist Thought
its activity in the first moment of the moment, or in a subsequent moment of the moment. Whatever the answer, it would follow that the dharma actually existed in only one moment of the moment. And this process could be traced to infinity, unless one adopted the position that the temporal moment is not itself divisible into further moments. Thus the moment in which a dharma acts, in which existence occurs, has no time span beyond itself. It is absolutely instantaneous, so short that it can only be said to mark the infinitely short time-difference between the nonexistence before its existence, and the non-existence after its existence. To be is to cease. Cessation is the very nature of being, and is said to occur to a dharma through its very nature as existing. We are here stretching the bounds of language. The existence of a dharma is so short in time that we can no longer speak of it in terms of ‘being’ at all. Life can best be viewed as an ever-flowing process, and all talk of things, of beings, is merely practical convenience that can easily mislead and engender attachment and consequential suffering. The epistemology of all of this was particularly considered by the philosophers Dinnaga (fifth or sixth century CE) and Dharmakirti (seventh century), although it is not clear what the relationship was between their views and the Sautrantika of, say, Vasubandhu in the Abhidharmakosabhasya. If what actually exists endures for an infinitely small period of time before ceasing, then it follows that we never really see what we think we see. By the time we have seen something, in any normal sense of ‘seeing’, that thing has ceased to exist. According to Dinnaga (Pramanasamuccaya 1) only the very first moment of a veridical perceptual act apprehends what is actually there, the dharma. This first moment is thus referred to as ‘without construction’ (nirvikalpa). The subsequent moments of what we normally call a ‘perception’ bring about the construction of a ‘thing seen’, which as we understand it is of course not a momentary entity at all. These stages are called ‘with construction’ (savikalpa). Since, however, non-momentary entities do not exist these subsequent stages embody a process of falsification through linguistic and conceptual reification, associating the actual momentary real Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 121 (known as the svalaksana, that which is self-characterising) with a non-momentary recurrently instantiated universal (samanya) which as something non-momentary cannot really exist at all. Thus what we think we see is actually a constructed image, as such a fiction, and by the time the image (akara) has been fully constructed the original dharma has long ceased.11
Followers of Sautrantika utterly rejected the Sarvastivadin theory of prapti, possession, along with the idea that a past dharma is able to cause its effect because the past dharma still exists as past. According to the Sautrantika theory, what happens in the case of karman and its effect is that when e.g. a wicked intention occurs the subsequent psychological continuum or series (samtana) of the person who has that intention is no longer what it was. It is directly modified, and each moment of that series now bears the modification (perhaps analogous to a genetic imprint). The last moment of the series qua modified series has a special capacity to produce the effect. Thus the effect is the direct result of the preceding moment of the modified series, which is a result of the previous moment, and so on back to the original unwholesome intention. The images used to explain this process are of a ‘seed’ and ‘perfuming’. Thus the unwholesome intention is said to have deposited a seed in the mental continuum, the nature of which is to transform until it issues in a shoot and then a flower, the result. The existence of a flower is the result of a process of transformation from the seed. Lest we are misled by this image to think of the modification of the continuum as itself an additional dharma, it is said that that the influence of the unwholesome intention is like perfuming—there is no additional thing, but the series is now imbued with a different fragrance. It is not obvious however that the ‘seeds’ and the ‘perfuming’ could actually be there in the normal everyday level of consciousness (they are not constantly experienced as such). Some Sautrantikas put forward the suggestion that there is a subtle level of consciousness in which this occurs. That subtle consciousness continues through the lifetimes up until its destruction at nirvana. It is held to contain not just the seeds laid down by our intentions but also seeds for the emergence of the whole phenomenal world, 122 Buddhist Thought
implicated as it is in mental construction. Possibly too there are even innate seeds for wholesome activity. These theories contributed to the Yogacara doctrine of the ‘substratum consciousness’ (alayavijñana; q.v.).
Finally, as we have seen, the Sarvastivada speaks of three unconditioned dharmas. The most important of these is nirvana itself. As dharmas these bear primary or fundamental existence (they are dravyas). Followers of Sautrantika refused to accept with Sarvastivada that any of these unconditioned dharmas are entities, or existents (bhava). They are just ways of talking about negations. Nirvana is not a positive thing, but a simple negation, a non-existent (abhava), the simple cessation and therefore nonexistence of greed, hatred and delusion, suffering, and all the factors of samsara.
It is normal in introductory works on Buddhism to equate Theravada with the Buddhism of its canon, the Pali Canon. Since for convenience and historical reasons the Pali Canon is usually the source employed for outlining ‘basic’ and therefore presumably earliest Buddhism, it is often not properly appreciated that the Theravada is actually both a Vinaya tradition and a doctrinal school in just the same way as Sarvastivada is. Both Theravada and Sarvastivada considered themselves to be simply explicating and defending the original Buddhism of the Buddha. Both could claim great antiquity, and both were nevertheless schools that developed over many centuries. Both schools had a very great deal in common, but also doctrinal differences between themselves and with other schools. As does Sarvastivada, the Theravada as a doctrinal school relies extensively on exegetical works, such as the Milindapañha (‘Questions of (King) Milinda’), the commentaries to e.g. the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and particularly the great Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purity’) of Buddhaghosa. The Theravada also contains among the texts in its Abhidhamma Pitaka one work, the Kathavatthu (‘Points of Controversy’) which set out Some schools of Mainstream Buddhist thought 123 to combat other views and thus position Theravada as a doctrinal school in opposition to its rivals.
According to questionable tradition, doctrinal divisions occurred between Sarvastivada and a group known in Sanskrit as ‘Sthaviravada’ (‘the Doctrine of the Elders’) over the issue of the existence of dharmas in the three times. The Sthaviravadins declared themselves to be ‘Distinctionists’ (Sanskrit: Vibhajyavadins; Pali: Vibhajjavadins). They accepted that dharmas exist in the present but denied that they exist in the future. As regards the past, the Distinctionists wished to make a distinction between a wholesome or unwholesome intention that has already issued its karmic fruit, which could no longer be said to