The Dharma of Energy

Presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, March 11, 2017.


The Philosophical Idea of Energy

da9461200ea0759c1c661c8a85a76efeIn the Western philosophical tradition “energy” was originally an Aristotelian term denoting “actuality” or “existence in actuality.” More broadly, energy is defined in the physical sciences as the ability to do work. Energy exists in two states, kinetic and potential, both of which are real. Thus, energy is one of the universals of science, inherent in all physical systems. In general, it refers to activity or power of action.

In Pali, the English word “energy” is often used to translate viriya, defined by Tamilcube as “vigour, energy, effort, strength.” This word appears frequently all through the Pali Canon, along with such close synonyms as “power,” “strength,” “effectiveness” (upaya), “fire” (teja), “zest,” “ardor,” etc. (see Appendix). According to PED, it is derived from vira, cognate with Latin vir, virtus, “virtue,” from Vedic Sanskrit, meaning, “man, hero, chief,” as well as “people, humanity,” much like the English word “man.” Similarly, the Pali vira means “manly, mighty, heroic; a hero,” even “divine.” The Majjhima commentary states that the higher stages of arhantship are produced by “manly strength.” Viriya refers to “the state of a strong man,” i.e., vigour, energy, effort, exertion. In Sanskrit, it is virya,seminal energy, strength, power,” also translated as “courageous engagement” by Peter Harvey in his Introduction to Buddhism. The Tao Te Ching has a similar concept, Te, the complement of Tao, often translated into English as “virtue,” which comes from the same Indo-European root as vira, and implies the same connotation of manliness that underlies the classical conception of virtue. Sometimes it is translated as “character.”

The Indian View of Male Sexuality

flat1000x1000075f-u1Already it is clear from the foregoing that there is a special and specific association between the concept of virtue and male sexual energy, also called bindu in Indian literature (the Sanskrit word bindu also occurs in the Pali, where it means a ‘drop, spot, or cipher’; cf. bija and oja). Male sexuality played a significant role in early Buddhism in that it became the focus of monasticism, enshrined in the first training rule of the Vinaya, the prohibition of sexual intercourse. [1]

In his study of images of masculinity, sex, and the body in Indian Buddhism, A Bull of a Man (2009), author John Powers discusses the traditional Indian view of male sexuality. Powers makes it clear that in Indian tradition, including Buddhism, sexual and spiritual energy are cognate concepts. Thus, the Buddha is simultaneously a supreme spiritual master and a virile ksatriya warrior, handsome, with large quantities of semen and saliva and strong sexual desire. Therefore, the prohibition of sexual intercourse is not a prohibition of sexuality as such but rather of its profanation. Many of the Buddhist monastics are represented as extremely virile and attractive young men (the Pali Canon mentions young men frequently, implying that young men were particularly attracted to the Buddhadharma) who were eagerly sought after by women in charnel grounds and elsewhere (Powers, Bull of a Man, p. 277 n. 13). The Buddha himself is represented as so handsome and charismatic that women were overcome by desire or actually fainted in his presence. Sariputta was initially attracted to the Buddhasangha by the “surpassing beauty” of Upasena, a Buddhist monk (p. 154). Sariputta subsequently became the “monastic partner” of Maudgalyayana, who were inseparable for the rest of their lives, dying two weeks apart.[2] Sariputta became renowned as the monk foremost in wisdom, and Maudgalyayana as the monk foremost in psychic powers.

Powers writes,

In ancient India, semen was associated with the energy of life, and men who recklessly shed their seed were said to become physically diminished.[3] Excessive ejaculation leads to various morbidities and premature death. By contrast, the heroic ascetic who retains his seed is the most manly and virile of men and enjoys robust health, tremendous physical energy, and mental alertness, and he also develops supernatural powers (siddhi). Those who practice celibacy and other acts of austerity accumulate an energy called tapas, which literally means ‘heat.’ Sages who remain chaste for long periods and who combine this with advanced levels of meditation can even challenge the gods in terms of power and wisdom. (p. 79)

Nanamoli and Bodhi’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya makes this association with virility clear: “For a faithful disciple who is intent in fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation it is proper that he conduct himself thus: ‘Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be realized as long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, manly energy, and manly persistence” (MN 70:27; cf. SN 12:22, 21:3, AN II:5(5)). These are the same words used in the vow that the Bodhisattva took at the foot of the Bodhi tree prior to his Enlightenment (Ja 171, 24-27).

As with the prohibition of eating after noon, which was originally an Ayurvedic practice to optimize health, based on the waxing of the agni, the digestive fire, the Buddhist prohibition of sexual intercourse has complex cultural resonances. In traditional Indian belief, as in the ancient Hellenic view, the female principle is identified with the somatic, physical polarity of existence, whereas the male is identified with the psychic, spiritual polarity, in a vertical hierarchy of value. Powers writes, “Buddhists, like other religious groups of the time, viewed the male body as naturally more conducive to self-control than the female body was. Females are depicted as constantly oozing fluids and as prone to emotional instability, while men are physically stronger, more controlled, and less subject to the vagaries of emotion” (p. 110). Thus, male celibacy (or seminal retention) is not actually anti-sexual, but anti-somatic. The notion that monastics were actually asexual is amply refuted by the Vinaya. Monastics must be celibate, but they must also be sexually unimpaired (pp. 84, 85). We find this doctrine, as well as its associated problems and difficulties, in Catholicism and Mormonism too. Thus, “the sage becomes more potent and more desirable as a result of avoiding sex” (p. 77). In order to understand the Buddhist view we must avoid projecting Judaeo-Christian notions of shame and guilt onto Buddhism, the sexual frankness of the original writings of which have offended more than one translator. According to the accepted account, the Buddha indulged in sexual intercourse and other pleasures, while a bodhisattva in his final rebirth, right up until his 29th year, merely six years before his Enlightenment. Powers explicitly recognizes “more and better sex” as a goal of spiritual practice (p. 99).

In the myth of Chandra, the god of the moon, which is also a symbol of dharma in Buddhism and of soma in Hinduism, is associated with the uposatha observance. Soma, the ritual beverage of the Vedic sacrifice, and  the drink of the gods, is associated with semen. The consumption of soma confers immortality and is said to be able to restore vitality lost due to excessive sexual activity. Its silver-white colour identifies it as a lunar substance (p. 79). Semen was also regarded as medicinal. Says Powers, “Indian medical lore holds that semen is produced by a process of refinement of the elements comprising food and that semen pervades the tissues of the entire body. … It is also ‘a formative principle in all bodies in the universe.’ … Semen is the source of physical vitality (in some sources menstrual blood is the female equivalent). Buddhaghosa [the great Theravadin scholar-translator] differentiates among various types of semen and rates their relative quality” (p. 128). Powers writes that “men who practice self-control can retain their semen and thus acquire power” (p. 279 n. 62). These ideas are developed in the last great Buddhist tantra, the Kalachakra, circa 966 CE, but are clearly archaic in origin.

The Concept of Energy in the Pali Canon

monks252c2bthe2bbuddha2527s2bfirst2bdiscourse2bor2bsutra2bto2bthe2bfive2bcompanions252c2bmyanmartravel2borgEnergy, in its three phases of arousal, endeavor, and exertion (SN 46:2(2)(ii)), is referred to frequently all through the Pali Canon in stock lists, including the Four Bases of Power, the Five Faculties or Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eight Causes and Conditions of Wisdom, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Ten Perfections (see Fundamental View). The Buddha says that he does not know of anything that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as energy (AN I:61(1)). The Buddha says that the enlightenment factor of energy is both physical and mental (SN 46:52(2).ii). It is “nourished” by frequent and careful attention to the elements of arousal, endeavor, and exertion (SN 46:2(2).ii). Bodhi comments that these three elements refer to the initial and intermediate phases of the development of energy, culminating in full intensity. The phallic connotation is obvious. The Buddha says that energy is aroused, developed, and fulfilled by faith (SN 48:50(10) and discriminating the dharma with wisdom (SN 46:3(3), 54:13(3).ii), leading to mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, faith, and rapture (SN 48:50(10). Alternatively, he warns that arousing energy “in a badly expounded Dhamma and discipline dwells in suffering” (AN I:324(9)). Energy is aroused “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet-unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized” (AN IV:80(10)).

Energy appears in the Suttavibhanga as the first cause leading to jhana, in the practice referred to throughout the Vinaya by the stock phrase “putting forth (arousing) energy.”

In the Anguttara Nikaya, we encounter “the power of energy” as a synonym for the arousal of energy:

One generates desire to abandon those qualities that are unwholesome and reckoned as unwholesome; those that are blamable and reckoned as blamable; those that are dark and reckoned as dark; those that should not be cultivated and are reckoned as not to be cultivated; those that are unworthy of the noble ones and reckoned as unworthy of the noble ones. One makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. One generates desire to obtain all those qualities that are wholesome and reckoned as wholesome; those that are blameless and reckoned as blameless; those that are bright and reckoned as bright; those that should be cultivated and are reckoned as to be cultivated; those that are worthy of the noble ones and reckoned as worthy of the noble ones. One who makes an effort, arouses energy, applies one’s mind, and strives for this. This is called the power of energy.

Elsewhere, “putting forth energy” appears as the culmination of a dharma talk. In the Mahavagga we have something approximating to an instruction in “putting forth energy,” in the form of the story of Sona Kolivisa, who received ordination and stayed in the Cool Grove. Through this story, we also begin to understand the intensity of the energy that is “aroused” by the Buddha and his followers. While he was pacing up and down, i.e., practising walking meditation, Sona’s body put out so much energy that “his feet broke.” As a result, the pathway became covered with blood. Presumably, this means that he cut his feet from so much walking barefoot. Sona began to consider returning to the life of a householder. The Buddha came, saw the blood and asked the monastics about it. Rather than condoing such extreme effort, the Buddha went to Sona, and through the famous metaphor of the lute, he taught Sona how to regulate his psychosomatic energy.

What do you think about this, Sona? Were you clever at the lute’s stringed music as when formerly you were a householder? When the strings of your lute were too taught, was your lute at that time tuneful at fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were too slack, was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? When the strings of your lute were neither too taught nor too slack, but were keyed to an even pitch was your lute at that time tuneful and fit for playing? Even so, Sona, does too much output of energy conduce to restlessness, does too feeble energy conduce to slothfulness. Therefore do you, Sona, determine upon evenness in energy and pierce the evenness of the faculties and reflect upon it.

Energy that is too slack or too lax leads to lassitude or laziness, whereas energy that is too tense or forceful leads to restlessness. Thus, the Buddha teaches the middle way between extremes, energetic balance, and evenness of the spiritual faculties as a basis for concentration. Because of the practice of “evenness in energy” Sona, “pierced the evenness of the faculties” (?), realized the supreme goal of the path by direct knowledge,  and achieved nirvana (see also SN 51:20(10)(ii), AN VI:55(1)).

Teja means ‘heat, radiance, glory, power,’ and is thus a near synonym of viriya. In the Majjhima Nikaya (43:22), “heat” and vitality are equated, standing in the same relationship to each other as radiance to flame. The “condition of heat” (tejodhatu) is referred to all through the Vinaya as an advanced spiritual attainment. This attainment is attributed to two monastics, Dabba the Mallian and Sagata, who was the Buddha’s personal attendant (thus dating the story to the first twenty years of the Buddha’s career, before Ananda became his personal attendant) and “chief of those good at the heat condition.” The story of Sagata is of particular interest because it has him using his “heat condition” to repel the “heat” of a hostile naga. It is repeated in somewhat expanded form of the Buddha himself, where he is called Angirasa (‘the Resplendent One’). One suspects that the association of the teja with a serpent is not arbitrary, since the Indian tradition describes a serpent-power (kundalini, ‘coiled one’) that is more than analogous to the concept of psychic heat, which also figures prominently in the Tibetan tradition. Kundalini awakening is a real physical syndrome that has been described by Dr. Lee Sannella in his book, The Kundalini Experience. If one looks closely at the oldest Indian representation of a cross-legged yogi, the so-called Pashupati seal of Indus Valley Civilization (c 2350-2000 BCE), the figure clearly exhibits an erect phallus! Here we begin to see clearly that the Buddhist concept of “energy” has some extra-ordinary characteristics and that any identification with “vigour” or similar such abstractions is simplistic at best. The Jungian notion of libido seems to be very close to the Buddhist conception of libido. In the story of the naga serpent, the equation of heat and psychic power is explicit: “Truly the great recluse is of great psychic power, of great majesty, in that he can master by heat the heat of the fierce serpent king who has psychic power and is a terribly venomous snake.” The description suggests the visionary phenomena of psychedelic experience: “Then at the end of that night the serpent’s flames became extinguished but the multicoloured fames of him of psychic power remained, and multicoloured flames, dark green, then red, crimson, yellow and crystal-coloured were on Angirasa’s body.”

The supreme example of the power of energy appears in the Book of the Great Decease (Mahaparinibbana). The Buddha, knowing that his time was near, took Ananda to Capala Shrine (MN 16:3.1) and gave him a teaching called the Four Roads to Power (iddhipada). This practice is associated with the brahma Sanat Kumara (Pali Sanankumar). The Four Roads to Power involve the concentration of intention, energy, consciousness, and investigation by an effort of will (MN 18.22, 26:28). The Buddha tells Ananda that by this practice, the Buddha might live out “his age,” the meaning of which is ambiguous but may refer to the human lifespan of 120 years or an historical epoch of millions of years, but Ananda, always a bit slow despite his phenomenal memory, did not beg the Buddha to live on before the Buddha declares his intention to die in three months. Too late, Ananda asks the Buddha to live on after he renounces the “force of life” (MN 16:3.1, 3.38), but a Buddha’s word is absolute and cannot be reversed. “Conscious dying” is of course a feature of Tibetan Lamaism and is widely attested.

MN 16:26 identifies five shackles in the heart: sensual pleasures, body, form, eating and sleeping, and theism. When these are overcome, the monastic develops the basis for spiritual power consisting of concentration due to zeal, energy, purity of mind, investigation, and enthusiasm.

The Buddha says that the “energy enlightenment factor” is aroused in one who develops the “investigation of states” enlightenment factor, which arises as result of mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and mind objects (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) (MN 118:32). From this aroused energy, “unworldly rapture” arises. Rapture develops into tranquility. Tranquility develops concentration. Concentration develops equanimity.

Right Effort, the sixth stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, is divided into the Four Right Exertions: restraint, abandonment, cultivation, preservation,[4] in which the faculty of energy is seen (SN 48:8(8)), associated with strength, firmness, and not shirking (9((9)). According to the Devatasamyutta, energy clears the noble path by dispelling drowsinesss, lethargy, laziness, discontent, and torpor. Bodhi comments that ”The clearing of the path comes about when one expels the mental corruptions by means of the path itself, with the energy (viriya) conascent with the path.” The Sagathavagga says that energy overcomes suffering and associates it with initiative, toil, struggle, and striving “for the attainment of the as-yet-unattained, for the achievement of the as-yet- unachieved, for the realization of the as-yet-unrealized.” The Nidanavagga alludes to the possibility of using “spiritual power” or energy to teleport from one distant location to another.

In the Mahavagga the Buddha reveals a practice that he developed as a Bodhisattva, prior to his enlightenment, which he calls the Four Bases of Spiritual Power:

It occurred to me: ‘Here, a bhikkhu develops the basis for spiritual power that possesses concentration due to [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] and volitional formations of striving, thinking: ‘Thus my [desire, energy, mind, and investigation] will be neither too slack nor too tense [recalling the metaphor of the lute that we have discussed]; and it will be neither constricted internally nor distracted externally.’ And he dwells perceiving after and before: ‘As before, so after; as after, so before; as below, so above; as above, so below; as by day, so at night; as at night, so by day.’ Thus, with a mind that is open and unenveloped, he develops the mind imbued with luminosity. (SN 51:11(1))

Internal constriction refers to sloth and torpor, whereas external distraction refers to disturbance because of “the five cords of sensual pleasure,” i.e., pleasure in the objects of the five physical senses. Bodhi suggests that the phrase “’as before, so after as after, so before’ means maintaining consistency in the practice of meditation.” According to the text, “as below, so above; as above, so below” refers to the analysis of the body as consisting of numerous taints: “There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, seat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, snot, fluid of the joints, urine” (SN 51:20(10).i). “As by day, so at night; as at night, so by day” means that the practice is practiced all the time. According to the commentary, “developing the mind imbued with luminosity” means that one perceives an internal mental or psychic illumination with the same intensity and vividness that one perceives the light of the sun. Thus, “enlightenment” is not a metaphor but a real psychosomatic experience.

Energy is achieved by cultivating indefatigability on striving: “Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up in my body,, but I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion” (AN II: 5(5)).

The Buddha repeats this instruction for desire, energy, mind, and investigation. This is of course an elaboration of the Four Roads to Power that we encountered in the Majjhima Nikaya. This exercise leads directly to the development of “the various kinds of spiritual power,” referring to siddhis, including self-multiplication, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, weightlessness, levitation, the ability to explore other worlds, both astronomical and transcendent, clairaudience, telepathy, memory of past lives, and direct clairvoyant perception of karmic causality. This stock list of spiritual powers is a recurrence of a proto-tantric thread that runs all through the Pali Canon and became highly developed in Vajrayana Buddhism, especially in Tibet, and is also experienced, as I have discussed before, in the context of the UFO phenomenon and psychedelic states of consciousness. The references to “as before, so after; as after, so before” etc. and to “a mind that is open and unenveloped” suggests the practice of the expansion of consciousness that one finds in the famous metta meditation. Finally, the Buddha says that the ultimate fruit of the practice of the Four Roads to Power is the destruction of the taints, resulting in the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, realized by and for oneself with direct knowledge or gnosis. Once again, the Pali Canon makes it clear that wisdom is the essential salvific principle, as I have discussed elsewhere.

Concentration is explained as “one-pointedness of mind” (SN 51:13(3).  Desire is desire for the renunciation of evil unwholesome states and the development and maintenance of positive wholesome states using the four faculties of desire, energy, mind, and investigation.  These terms suggest the four yogas of the Indian system: bhakti, the yoga of love, devotion, or worship (desire); hatha, the yoga of arduous physical effort; and jnana, the cognitive yoga of mental or philosophical inquiry, whereas the reiterated references to “volitional formations of striving” subsume karma yoga (cf.  Vivekananda’s Four Yogas).

Ananda tells the Brahmin Unnabha that the Four Bases of Spiritual Power is the practice by which desire is abandoned, which he identifies with the goal of the Buddhist path (SN 51:15(5)). Interestingly, therefore, it is by desire, i.e., striving, that desire is abandoned. Unnabha objects to the practice on exactly this point, an argument that Ananda refutes, pointing out that when desire is gratified it abates. Similarly, when the desire for arhantship is satisfied, desire abates. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s distinction between wholesome and unwholesome pleasures, only the second of which he rejects. This in turn became the basis for his rejection of physical asceticism as a way.

The Buddha also says that the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the development of the bases for spiritual power (SN 51:19(9)).

While on retreat, it occurred to Ananda that the practice of asceticism is successful for one who relies half on good friends and half on “manly effort.” When he returns he asks the Buddha about this, who declares that “this is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path” (SN 45:2(2); cf. AN IX:1(1)(5)). Friendship and energy are thus equated.

Related Doctrines

yogi800We have already discussed the correlation between the concept of energy in the Pali Canon and the lunar soma juice.  Soma appears in the Pali Canon as amata, referring to the immortal or deathless state, but also to ambrosia, cognate with Sanskrit amrita, the divine water of immortality, “churned” by the gods from the one world ocean. Energy is cognate with other concepts in the Pali Canon, including karma, the essential kinetic or energetic principle itself; will or intention, which creates karma; craving, which is the human kinetic principle in its fallen, debased, passionate, or “attached” state; and siddhi, spiritual, magical, or psychic powers that are said to result from intense spiritual practice.

We also find the principle of energy implicit in other doctrines of the Pali Canon with which we are familiar: merit, the stored accumulation of positive karmic potential; the transfer of merit, by which merit may be intentionally directed, shared, and increased; the power of truth, which figures prominently in the Jatakas but also appears elsewhere in the Pali Canon; and the act of truth, by which the potential power of truth may be utilized to create change, usually by means of a vow or affirmation. The kinetic principle also appears in the concept of mantra, by which the repetition of a verbal formula with awareness and intention can facilitate spiritual transformation including siddhis; and in mantra-yoga, the original term for Tantra, the yoga of energy or power.

These concepts correlate with similar concepts in other, post-Pali Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, including the Indian concept of kundalini, the psychosomatic “serpent” energy “coiled’ or potential at the base of the spine, which the Buddha may have experienced during his practice of asceticism; Tibetan tummo or “psychic heat,” which can be generated to protect the body even in conditions of extreme cold; Chinese qi, the energy of vitality or life, which can be used to affect people at a distance as well as for healing in the practice of Qigong; and finally sexual yoga, which is greatly developed in certain highly esoteric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, especially Kalachakra.

Zoroastrianism refers to the khvarenah (xvarenah), literally “glory” or “splendour,” referring to a divine mystical force or power associated with kingship and luck. The word is derived from Proto-Avestan *hvar, “to shine,” thus associating it with the devas, the “shining ones.” The word is also attested in Sogdian farn and Khotanese pharra, which refers to the high position or dignity of a Buddha. Khvarenah  is also associated with the haoma, a divine plant cognate with Vedic soma, possibly ephedra, a precursor of methamphetamine that excites the brain and increases body heat.[5] It is still used in Chinese medicine and was also used as a tea by native Americans and Mormon pioneers.

These concepts, doctrines, and practices are not aberrations but rather developments of concepts found in seminal form all through the Pali Canon, and will constitute the subject of Part II of this talk.

Some Synonyms and Cognate Terms for Energy (viriya)

Ardent (atapi)
Arising (uppada)
Arousal (arambha)
Delight (nandi)
Desire (chanda)
Enthusiasm (ussolhi)
Exertion (opakkama, sankhara)
Fire (teja)
Intention (sankappa)
Life (ayu, jivita)
Light (aloka)
Luminosity (obhasa, pabhasa)
Manly effort (viriya)
Heat (usma)
Power (bala, iddhi)
Radiant (abhassaro)
Rapture (piti)
Shining one (deva)
Stirring (eja)
Striving (padhana)
Virtue (silava)
Vitality (ayu)
Zeal (chanda)


[1] “Should any bhikkhu — participating in the training and livelihood of the bhikkhus, without having renounced the training, without having declared his weakness — engage in the sexual act, even with a female animal, he is defeated and no longer in communion” (trans. Thanissaro). The qualification is typical of the Pali Canon and indicates one of the means by which some bhikkus sought to evade the injunction.

[2] The Pali Canon implies that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana were even accused of homoerotism, an accusation that the Buddha rejected, stating that that they were only friends. Their cremated remains were housed together in the famous Third Stupa and at the Satadhara Stupa, Sariputta in the south and Moggallana in the north. However, the statement that Sariputta was attracted to the sangha by the ”surpassing beauty” of the male monastic, Upasena, clearly implies that he was homosexual, which need not imply that that Sariputta and Maudgalyayana had anything more than a “platonic” relationship, however. Maudgalyayana was violently murdered at the age of 84. See Wikipedia, “Relics of Sariputra and Mahamoggallana.”

[3] Cf. Gen. 38:8-10: “And Judah said unto Onan, Go into unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also” (KJV). The Egyptians also regarded semen as a potent and even dangerous substance, and prohibited its wastage. (ed.)

[4] Explained as the non-arising of unarisen bad unwholesome qualities, the abandoning of arisen bad unwholesome qualities, the arising of unarisen wholesome qualities, and the maintenance of arisen wholesome qualities respectively (AN IV:69(9)).

[5] The identity of soma or haoma is a matter of dispute. The mainstream view equates it with ephedra, an amphetamine, whereas others hold that soma was a  psychedelic. Whatever its ultimate identity, everyone agrees however that it was a mind-altering drug.


Powers, John. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sannella, Lee. The Kundalini Experience: Psychosis or Transcendence? Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987.

The Book of the Right Way of Laozi

NOTE: I just noticed that I hadn’t posted all of my draft translations of the Tao Te Ching on my blog. Rather than post the eleven missing chapters in consecutive blogs, I am posting them here in one blog for those are interested. Please note that these are draft translations, not final versions.


He whose conduct is impeccable leaves no mark; he whose speech is perfect causes no offence.
The skilful businessman is not tricky.
A sound door needs no lock, yet it cannot be opened.
A skilful knot is tight, and cannot be loosened.
Truly, because the sage always seeks the common good, no one is left out.
He finds the good in everything.
Truly, this is the way of wisdom.
Good and bad teach each other.
Good and bad need each other.
Even though one were wise, if this is not understood, one is stupid.
This is a great secret.


He who knows the male power protects his female energy.

Thus aligning himself with the universal flow of things, he uses the universal flow.

Never giving up this power, he returns to the primordial state.

He who knows the bright protects the dark; thus he conforms to the universal paradigm.

Thus conforming to the universal paradigm, he is not subject to variability.

He who returns to the source is not subject to duality.

He who knows fame, protects his privacy. Thus he makes himself empty, like a valley.

It is enough to make one’s strength empty, like a valley.

Thus he returns to the primordial simplicity.

Tools are made by analyzing nature.

The sage uses this principle to control the state.

Therefore, he uses everything but respects its integrity.


He who would use the way to help a ruler of the world

Will not use violence to achieve his ends, for everything under the sun comes back to its source.

Wherever armies go, there only thorns and brambles will grow.

Certainly, armies leave in their wake terrible times.

It is skilful to seek only one’s immediate goal, then stop, not daring to go beyond what one is able to accomplish.

One achieves one’s goal, but does not boast. One achieves one’s goal, but does not go further.

One achieves one’s goal, but is not arrogant. One achieves one’s goal, but then one stops.

One achieves one’s goal without conflict.

Everything that waxes, wanes. Truly, this is not the way.

That which is not the way dies young.


The universal way cannot be described.

Infintesimal, no one in the whole universe can use it, not even your most powerful men.

Yet it is the source of their power.

Everything would come to them.

When the higher and the lower work in harmony, they appear on the earth as a sweet dew. Even without rulers, everyone participates.

When you have industry, you have speech.

Speech mucks everything up.

You need to know when to shut up.

Just shut up, and you can act with impunity.

The way is the paradigm. It is everywhere.

Like the ravine that carries the river to the sea.


The ancient way o’erflows its banks, like a winding river.

Everyone relies on it as the source of life, yet it denies no one. It inspires every accomplishment, yet cannot be identified.

It gives rise to everything, but neither possesses nor is possessed.

Desireless, it is regarded as unimportant. Hence it is invisible.

Truly, the ancient way precedes language.

Because its goal is selfless, it is great.

And this is how greatness is achieved.


If you would tense something, it must be relaxed.

If you would weaken something, it must be strengthened.

If you would abolish something, it must be made to flourish.

If you wish to take something, it must be given.

Truly, this teaching is paradoxical.

By its means, the soft and the weak may overcome the hard and the strong.

Just as a fish cannot escape its habitat,

So the machinery of the state should not be subjected to popular opinion.


The universal way transcends action and non-action.

If the rulers were to conserve it,

Everything would be transformed.

Everything would change and become free of affect.

This is what I would do: suppress desire and realize the intuition that precedes labelling.

He who realizes the intuition that precedes labelling is without affect.

Because he is still, he has no desire. Thus, everything under the sun will find its own path.


To abstain from virtue is the highest virtue.

The lowest virtue is to act aggressively.

Spontaneity is better than conformity.

Having to act is not so great.

The righteous person acts without acting.

The righteous knower does not get entangled in circumlocutions.

The righteous ethical person acts spontaneously.

When traditions are questioned society is thrown into confusion and violence.

Therefore, hold to the way. When the way is no longer followed, virtue is substituted.

When virtue is lost, the people govern themselves.

When the people can no longer govern themselves, they are ruled by laws.

When laws can no longer be enforced, traditions still remain.

But even traditions are forgotten. Paradoxically, traditionalism is succeeded by anarchy.

Thus, the ancient sages are both the flowering of the way and the source of stupidity.

Truly, the virtuous person abides in the security of tradition.

Truly, he remains with the substantial, not the insubstantial.

Truly, he resides in the essential, not the superficial.

Thus he gives up one and gains the other.


By order the state governs the nation.

By disorder the military exercises power.

But everything that occurs comes out of nothing.

How do I know that this is true?

By this!

The more you regulate them, the more the people are impoverished.

The more sophisticated, the more muddle-headed the people become.

The more technicians there are with their inventions and their innovations, the more the people suffer.

The more laws are made, the more criminals appear.

Therefore, the sage says:

Do not act, and the people will transform themselves.

Love stillness, and the people will govern themselves.

Do not toil, and the people will become rich.

Desire nothing, and the people’s lives will be easy.


Everyone under the sun says that my teaching is profound,

Familiar, yet not familiar.

Truly, man is ancient. This is why he is confused –  familiar, not familiar, familiar.

In ancient times, man was more refined.

I have three treasures.

I hold to them and preserve them.

First, I refer to the heart.

Second, I refer to thrift.

Third, I refer to not presuming to put myself first.

Courage comes from the heart.

Generosity comes from frugality. Everything that one needs to succeed comes from

Not daring to put oneself first.

Today thrift and love have been abandoned, … [missing text]


The best warrior is not violent.

The best fighter is not enslaved by rage.

The victorious opponent is dispassionate.

The best leader submits (to those he leads).

This is called the power of influence.

Truly, since antiquity this has been called the celestial marriage.

The Pali Canon Phenomenon

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, January 7, 2017.

“Start with the universe.” Bucky Fuller

In this talk, I will be discussing the phenomenon of the Pali Canon, considered as a whole as distinct from any particular part of the Canon, ranging from introductory to advanced topics. This talk should be suitable for newcomers to Buddhism who are trying to get an overview of the subject matter as well as advanced students who are familiar with all or part of the Canon, either directly in translation, through anthologies such as Bhikku Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words, or by listening to my series of talks on the Pali Canon and/or the Digha Nikaya presented in Second Life at the Buddha Centre and here at Riverview.

daitangkinhThe Pali Canon is the term used to describe a set of texts published in Pali between 1871 and 1956. There are five editions of the Pali Canon extant, including the first Burmese Edition (1900, 38 vols.) Pali Text Society Edition (1877-1927, 57 volumes); Thai Edition (1925-1928, 45 vols.); the Sixth Buddhist Council Edition (1954-1956, 40 vols.); and the Sinhalese Edition (1957-1993, 58 vols.). The Sixth Buddhist Council Edition, called the Chattha Sangayana, is available online at Thanks to the efforts of the Pali Text Society and others, almost all of the Pali Canon is now available in English translations ranging from fair to good, both in print and online. A new, truly critical edition of the Pali Canon is in the early stages of preparation in Wat Phra Dhammakaya, north of Bangkok. When finished, it will supersede through incorporation all of the previous versions of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon will be truly restored to its theoretical singularity. But will that event constitute the manifestation of the ekayana – true, universal dharma? It was not lost on the redactors of the Sixth Buddhist Council Edition that their project would culminate in 1956, which according to their calendar marked the 2500th year of the Buddhist era. In fact, 2100 is closer to the year 2500 BE.

A modern critical edition of the Pali Canon did not exist prior to 1900, about 2,300 years after the death of the Siddattha Gotama, the Buddha. Nevertheless, very few if any scholars doubt the antiquity of the modern text, based on the demonstrable antiquity of the Pali language and comparative study of texts similar or identical to texts in the Pali Canon in other ancient canons, especially the Chinese canon, and other traditions, especially the Sarvastivadin tradition, an almost complete collection of which was discovered recently in Afghanistan. The Pali Canon is a text of the Sthavirivada school, from which the Theravada derives.  It is, therefore, a sectarian collection though it includes a substantial number of pre-sectarian texts too.

ihl078There is no reason to contest the traditional statement that the original Pali Canon was written down on palm leaves at the end of the first century before the common era, almost three hundred years after the death of the Buddha in 400 BCE. This latest consensus date came out of the Gottingen symposium, the results of which were published in The Dating of the Historical Buddha by the Gottingen Academy of Sciences in 1991 and 1992. Only the first two of a projected three volumes have been published. The range of dates for the death of the Buddha that is now increasingly given is between 410 and 370 BCE, supplanting the older date of 487 to 483 BECE, which in turn supplanted still older dates, going back to as far as 2420 BCE! This is a good thing for the Pali Canon. According to the Theravadin view, the Buddha died in 545 BCE and the Pali Canon was first written down in 29 BCE, 516 years after the death of the Buddha. The new date means that the Pali Canon may have been written down as early as 341 years after the death of the Buddha. This should increase our confidence in the veracity of the Canon by as much as a third.

ashokaThe interval between the death of the Buddha and the approximate final form of the Pali Canon may even be smaller than this. Many scholars accept the view that the Canon achieved its approximate final form prior to the reign of Ashoka, who is nowhere alluded to, which would put the Canon prior to Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism about 263 BCE, a mere 107 years after the death of the Buddha, just about the time of the Great Schism. For comparison, the Buddha predicted the future rise and fall of the city of Pataliputra (modern Patna) in the last year of his life, according to the Pali Canon. The Buddha’s prophecy refers to the rise of the Mauryan empire in 321 BCE. Barring actual prescience, these considerations broadly place the date of the Pali Canon between 321 BCE and 263 BCE, 49 to 147 years after the death of the Buddha. The Great Schism occurred during the Second Buddhist Council when the elder Sthaviras, the ancestors of the Theravadins, split off from the majority Mahasamghikas over a disagreement on Vinaya, about 100 to 110 years after the Buddha’s death. I am vastly oversimplifying because the Pali Canon is not a singular text but a collection of texts, some parts of which are certainly older and some parts of which are certainly more recent than the range of dates I have suggested.

It is clear from internal evidence that the Canon was edited, revised, and copied over hundreds of years. Thus, it is a heterogeneous cocktail of a text, riven by differences of details but characterized by a broad underlying uniformity, the product of a process of such intense intellectual energy that we can only infer. In the early days, changes or elucidations were probably made to clarify differences of doctrine, whereas as time passed the nature of the changes probably became more editorial in character. Thus, the Canon would have gradually congealed into stasis over time. The Canon itself indicates the conservatism and seriousness with which the task of preserving the dharma teachings was taken, as it still is today. To regard it as something that just “appeared” more or less spontaneously and effortlessly is surely a mistake. We must believe that there is a historical veracity at the core of the Canon. Nevertheless, while the Pali Canon can be said to derive from this core nothing in the Pali Canon can be simplistically identified with it. A range of interpretations is always possible. The best approach seems to be to keep an open mind.

The Pali Canon is an aggregate of texts, some earlier, and some later. Rhys Davids classified the chronology of the Pali Canon in approximate strata, in which the earliest identifiable texts of the Pali Canon are the Paranavagga and the Atthakavagga, the final two chapters of the Suttanipata. We find these texts in the Khuddaka Nikaya surprisingly, since the latter is generally associated with later matter. The third early text is the Pattimokkha, the rules of the sangha, although the Pali Canon alludes to a Pattimokkha of only 150 rules, compared with the 227 rules of the Pali Vinaya. This causes us to classify the Vinaya as a post-sutta text. The famous Rhinoceros or Khaggavisana Sutta, also in the Suttanipata, may be included here. These four texts, to which we can add the Five Precepts (Pansil), are as close as we can come to the words of the historical Buddha in the Pali Canon as it exists today.

The Atthakavagga addresses such basic concerns as desire, attachment, philosophy, mindfulness, detachment, the nature of Buddhahood (referred to as the Muni, or ‘Sage,’ similar to the Tao Te Ching, and Bhagavat, ‘Lord’), and the path.  The suttas emphasize the importance of independence and disdain philosophizing and seeking salvation through others. We must save ourselves. The Buddha opposes the doctrine of self-purification through the cultivation of inward peace to the doctrine that one is purified by the practice of philosophizing based on speculation and argument. Even at this early date, we see the Buddha celebrated and even worshipped as a descendent of the Sun, a Muni, an Isi, and a Sambuddha (‘perfectly or self-enlightened’). The Buddha is said to have been reborn from the Tavatimsa (‘thirty-three’) heaven, associated with the bodhisattva doctrine. The Buddha is described as having the thirty-two marks of a great man and as having the psychic power of telepathy. The realm of the deities (devas), including earthbound devas and Mara, are also referred to. The path is described as both gradual and instantaneous. The Buddha prohibits some of the same superstitious practices, especially prognostication, that he criticizes in the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Net of Confusion (Brahmajala Sutta). As observed by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, asceticism is deemphasized. Pain is observed, but not cultivated. The liberated person is free from attachment and revulsion and sees happiness everywhere. They are friendly and tolerant to all, much like the sage of Laozi. These texts, especially the Parayanavagga, introduce the same question and answer format that structures almost all of the suttas, suggesting that this may have been the major teaching method used by the historical Buddha.

Yet even these texts cannot be identified with the historical person of Siddhattha Gotama. For one thing, the Buddha is already partly divinized. They are rather interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha by the immediate successors of those arhants that convened the First Buddhist Council under Mahakassapa. By definition, we do not know who was not present at that meeting, or whose potential contributions were forgotten. Ananda’s significant contribution was only saved by his attaining the state of arhantship on the night before the council was set to meet. I have discussed these documents in my talk, “The Oldest Buddhist Scripture.” Rather than get into dogmatic minutiae here, in this talk I want to discuss the general implications of these discoveries for our understanding of the Pali Canon and its place in the context of the Dharma Transmission to the West, the ekayana, and the whole Buddhist oeuvre, from a holistic perspective.

While on this topic of chronology I would like to address a common concern that one finds cropping up constantly in discussions of what Buddhism says and means, or should say and mean, and that is the statement that because a text is “later” than another text the later text can be disregarded. (This is precisely opposite of the Quranic precept that the later suras have greater and indeed definitive veracity, as we see with regard to the prohibition of alcohol for example.) This bias seems to be based on the notion that through the application of a reductive method one can ultimately identify a hypothesized “Q” text that is therefore identical with the actual historical teaching of Siddattha Gotama (this is also based on the hidden axiom that Buddhism is restricted by or to the historical teachings of Siddhattha Gotama). Thus, one goes from the non-essential to the essential by a process of purification. Unfortunately, no objective methodology on how to do this has been described and no new canon proposed based on the application of the method.

This historicist/reductionist/”academicist”/fundamentalist approach to the Pali Canon is really missing the point. Even if we were able to identify the exact words of the Buddha, and thus create a revised, “corrected” Canon, in which only historically reliable material appears – based on the assumption that the dharma itself is historical and nothing else – the twin problems of ‘meaning and praxis’ (dharma-vinaya) would not disappear. Even during the Buddha’s own lifetime, these problems intruded. Even if we were able to apply an absolutely rigorous method to this “Q” text to identify with certainty what each and every word of the historically corrected Pali Canon meant in the context of the meanings of the words in other, similar sentences and in the context of the Buddha’s cultural milieu, we cannot avoid the syntactic and semantic uniqueness of the sentences in which he used these words without denying the significance of the Buddhist project and we cannot identify what these sentences meant to the Buddha in his own interiority. We cannot identify the Buddha’s “authorial intent.” We can only know the Buddha’s mind through knowing our own Buddha mind.

Even so, such an analysis inevitably ignores what these sentences imply and what they might mean to us, both collectively and as individuals. Even in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is represented as giving different teachings and techniques to different individuals based on their personal needs and stages of spiritual development. Thus, to infer any perfectly consistent system from a historical reconstruction of the “original” teachings of the Buddha, himself merely one of many historically and samsarically contingent beings, is inherently paradoxical since the second half of the equation, the individual subjects themselves, are absent. Moreover, the axiom of impermanence (anicca), itself militates against any such possibility. As Kierkegaard notes, there is no repetition. While dharma itself may be supermundane, every samsaric expression of dharma is necessarily relative and contingent. There is no ultimate manifestation of dharma anywhere but there are expressions more or less perfect based on their completeness (it does not follow however that these are all equal). The fundamentalist project is at its root self-contradictory and thus invariably degenerates into religious fascism and ultimately nihilism, as we clearly saw in the person of Devadatta, who also wanted to impose a maximally rigorous “Buddhism.”

Not all of the Pali Canon purports to represent the ‘words of the Buddha’ (Buddhavacana). It is clear from the compilation of the Canon that the “canonicity” of the Canon does not inhere only in its being identical with the words of Siddattha Gotama. There are also suttas and poems uttered by others, rules, formulas, precepts, catechisms, summaries, stories, commentaries, analyses, histories, and the expositions of the the Abhidhamma, the third major section of the Pali Canon, which codifies the suttas and was supposed to have been taught by the Buddha to his mother in Tavatimsa, the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods.

The Buddha was not mainly or even at all concerned with his own person. The goal of his renunciation was not personal; it was universal. His purpose in leaving home was very specific, and it only had to do with Siddhattha insofar as he was one of many. His purpose was to discover the dharma or reason underlying the universal suffering of living and sentient beings and its cure. The Buddha had already clarified that this is what he wanted to do himself to some extent. It is in the course of this quest or search that Siddhattha Gotama discovers the praxis and thus became a Buddha. It is the praxis, not the theory, which made Siddhattha a Buddha. Theory also precedes praxis.

Thus, our concern in trying to identify the words of the Buddha, insofar as we can do that, is not to find out about the Buddha himself but to find out about the dharma that he sought, the most generalized meaning or interpretation of which is “natural law” or simply “truth,” especially the First Noble Truth of Suffering, and the praxis. These are not two things but one thing, since wisdom implies praxis and praxis implies wisdom. Thus, the Buddha said that we should make the dharma, not the Buddha or the sangha, our refuge and our teacher, and reason and experience our criteria of evaluation, not teachers or texts, including, presumably, the Buddha and Pali Canon. The Buddha deemphasized himself, and said that he was merely one of a series (the lineage of Buddhas) and part of a group (the sangha). This does not, however, negate the fact of the Buddha’s primogeniture. This ontological fact alone proves that the path that leads to Buddhahood, the path of the bodhisattva so-called, is not the same as the path that leads to arhantship, the path of the sravaka so-called, regardless what another text may or may not say. However, it is clear from the Pali Canon that the fundamental difference between Buddhas and arhants was recognized in the earliest texts.

 The main part of the Pali Canon that quotes the Buddha or his close disciples includes the suttas or “discourses” of the Digha NIkaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, and Khuddaka Nikaya. In the Khuddaka Nikaya, only the Khuddakapatha (five suttas), Itivuttaka (112 suttas), and Suttanipata (71 suttas) include actual suttas. Thus, there are approximately 5,572 suttas in total.

Digha Nikaya: 34 suttas (521 pages)

Majjhima Nikaya: 152 suttas (1,151 pages)

Samyutta Nikaya: 2,889 (1,888 pages)

Anguttara Nikaya: 2,308 (1,588 pages)

Khuddakapatha: 188

Vinaya: 1 (1,214 pages)

buddhateaching1The suttas vary greatly in length, from 1,214 pages to one and a half pages. In English translation, they may be about 6,644 pages in total. This is about 3,322,000 words. As a lecturer, I use a rule of thumb of about 5,000 words per hour. Thus, all of the texts of the Pali Canon attributed to the Buddha, disregarding duplications of material, represents about 664 hours of speech. Since we know that the Buddha taught for forty-five years, we can say that the Pali Canon presents about fifteen hours of speech for each year that the Buddha taught – less than twenty minutes per week. Yet the Pali Canon itself represents the Buddha as engaged in almost continuous dialogue with visitors and Buddhist monastics on a wide variety of topics as well as a legislator of Vinaya. (Interestingly, Bucky Fuller said that he could summarize the essential meaning of his life’s work is just about fifteen hours.) It is obvious that the Pali Canon itself is only a small fraction of what the Buddha himself must have actually said. The Pali Canon says even less about praxis. Many practices are referred but not explained, let alone described. This may indicate that the redactors of the Pali Canon were forgetting the practices or perhaps these were considered too sacrosanct to commit to writing. The Buddha alludes to something similar, when he says that the wisdom of the Buddha, “vast as the leaves of simsapa trees in a simsapa forest,” vastly exceeds what he actually says. Elsewhere the Buddha is presented as being reluctant to discuss speculative matters, warning his followers against becoming mere intellectuals and debaters, while emphasizing the preeminent importance of wisdom and meditation. The Pali Canon also represents the Buddha as hesitating to teach the dharma for fear he would not be understood.

This view of “lateness” derives from the Buddhist identification of time with entropy, which is identical with the axiom of anicca or impermanence. Thus, everything decays into its elements and loses its identity over time.  “Even the dharma will be forgotten” is a familiar refrain in the Pali Canon.  From this fear, the fundamentalist gains his motivation. Preserving the dharma from its own demise becomes a sort of bodhicitta. However, even in the context of the Buddhist worldview this axiom is inadequate because it is incomplete. Time is both entropic and negentropic. There is devolution but there is also evolution. Living systems demonstrate this and so do information systems. As Bucky Fuller famously observed, information systems grow and expand, like a brain. As long as there is memory, there is progress. Thus, it is as absurd to say that a later school is ipso facto degenerate and therefore false due to the passage of time, even if not a single sentence of the teachings of that school is identical with a sentence spoken by the historical Siddhattha Gotama, as it is to say that the history of Western philosophy has no meaning or value in relation to the pre-Socratics or that quantum physics is inferior to Einsteinian relativity, which is inferior to Newtonian physics, etc. This is an extreme view that turns out upon analysis to be incorrect. Thus, the fundamentalist project is false in its essence. In the Pali Canon, we read that the dharma wheel cannot be stopped and that it never stops rolling. However, in such a kinetic system it is clear that the older schools will be the ones most likely to become corrupted, whereas the newer schools will represent a mixture of error and insight, devolution and evolution, depending on their conditions. Thus, the quality of the manifestations of dharma changes over time as a function of changing conditions.

We cannot infer anything evidential from the non-appearance of a doctrine or concept in the earliest versus the later texts simply because the survival or non-survival of the early texts is certainly fortuitous and therefore arbitrary. We can assume I think that a significant number of early texts were incorporated into later texts of the corpus, and there is evidence in the Pali Canon of suttas being spliced into other suttas. Thus, old wine may appear in new bottles! Nor can we assume that the Pali Canon corpus itself is complete and therefore exclusive for the reasons already stated. While we might infer some meaning from the presence of a doctrine in the earliest texts of the Pali Canon – there is a functional difference between the foundation and the attic of a house – no negative connotation can be inferred concerning the truth or falsehood of a later doctrine or text, any more than any “implication” can be stated to be inferior to an “axiom.” Axioms and implications have the same relationship to each other as causes and effects. For this reason when the Buddha refers to testing a new text or doctrine by reference to the established corpus he does not mean that it must be identical but rather that it must be continuous. Any other interpretation violates the axiom of impermanence (anicca).

The Buddha repeatedly implies that the application of reason to problems of religion can arrive at true conclusions “on the basis of truth,” even though he admitted that ultimate meaning and emancipation itself are beyond verbalization, linguistic categories, and rationality itself. Thus the Buddha discouraged empty speculation and cautioned his followers against dogmatism and sectarianism, referring each one to the authority of their own conscience, since enlightenment, like death, is experienced by and for oneself alone. The fruits of enlightenment may be shared but in itself, it is not a collective phenomenon. It is however false to infer from this fact that wisdom is unimportant and that all that matters is practice, since the Buddha emphasized the salvific primacy of wisdom both in his statements and in his behavior, where he spent the better part of forty-five years teaching and instructing others.

Praxis without wisdom is unintelligible (as is wisdom without praxis). The Buddha made no distinction between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, rich and poor, lay and monastic, and men and women, instructing everyone who came to him openly and without prejudice, giving to each one what they needed at that time to take the next step in their spiritual progress. It is only later after the Buddha’s death that the predominantly male monastics began to make and enforce such discriminations. After the Buddha’s death, his successors established an increasingly dogmatic, authoritarian, and hierarchical system that included systemic discrimination against women, dogmatic disputatiousness, and arguments about the practice and enforcement of the rules, culminating in the Great Schism of the Second Buddhist Council, about a hundred years later. This was followed by the disintegration into the Eighteen Schools, including disputes focused especially on the spiritual perfection and infallibility of arhants in relation to the Buddha.

Many scholars seem willing to accept the texts cited plus the Four Great Nikayas (Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara, Samyutta) as the foundation of “mainstream Buddhism,” but even these texts demonstrate a significant ideological development as well as internal doctrinal differences, especially in the matter of the spiritual status of men and women, which I have discussed at length in another talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.” Those who advocate the notion that later texts are necessarily and inherently corrupt fail to consider that development may also imply an original potential implication that may very well originate in the person of the Buddha himself, just as a tree originates in an original and originating “seed,” even if the appearance of the mature form differs greatly from the germ, yet who says that the tree is not implicit in the seed or inferior to the seed or, even more absurdly, not the seed?

To take just one example, the Pali Canon includes a collection of Jatakas or “birth histories” attributed to the Buddha. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha remembered many if not all of his past lives during his enlightenment experience, and throughout the course of his subsequent life, he would identify people, places, and events in his present life as Siddhattha Gotama with people, places, and events that he remembered from past lives. The Jatakas are generally dated to the fourth century BCE. Scholars recognize that many of the stories in the Jatakas come from other languages and media, including vernacular oral traditions that predate the Pali compositions and are also found in Hinduism. Therefore, many academic Buddhologists and “modern” religionists might be inclined to reject the doctrine of rebirth itself based on the historical implausibility of the Jataka tales, but does this inference follow logically from the premise? The fact that the conservative redactors of the Pali Canon included the Jatakas in the Pali Canon, along with many accounts of supernatural powers, characters, and events in the suttas, are also relevant facts.  Similar considerations apply to the Mahayana literature. Questions of history and questions of meaning and value are not coterminous.

1Another example: psychic powers. We need not believe that the Buddha actually levitated, teleported, and bilocated to accept that the Buddha demonstrated psychic powers on occasion, along with the vast host of other holy beings, both human and non-human, yet the evidence for the reality of some sort of psychic power is growing, and such powers as well as profound and powerfully transformative charisma and wisdom are commonly attributed to and demonstrated by so-called exceptional individuals throughout the human experience. This is the universal testimony of human history and Buddhism is not an exception to this. This is not surprising since the Buddha did not claim any originality for himself.

A fascinating aspect of this association is the UFO phenomenon, wherein many of these powers are experienced both in the UFO contact experience itself and in its aftermath. The UFO phenomenon is fully evident in the Pali Canon (I have discussed this connection at length in “Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon“), in accord with the historical hypothesis of Jacques Vallee in his book, Passport to Magonia. In view of the demonstrated physicality of at least some UFO appearances, we should not arbitrarily reject the possibility of such powers, although the Buddha himself said that the development of such powers is not the main point of his teachings.  Psychic powers and the UFO phenomenon itself also manifest in the context of the psychedelic experience and visionary phenomena, which are attested to in the Pali Canon.

One of the advantages of the Pali texts in relation to the founding texts of Christianity is the sheer abundance of material – 300 pages or so of primary Christian scripture compared with about forty volumes of material in the Pali tradition. Moreover, the Pali material is highly repetitive. One may hypothesize in such a situation that the tropes of the original and originating Buddhist texts were extensive and significant enough to (a) be preserved and (b) generate complex associations of meaning that led to meaningful implications that can then be refined by applying logical criteria to the. Quite simply, we know a lot more about Shakespeare because he wrote 37 plays than we would know if he only wrote {pick any single play at random}. The project is then to identify the large tropes in the Canon, collate them with each other, and submit them to criticism, to arrive at the truth of dharma.

This is precisely contrary to the fundamentalist project that tries to reduce the Pali Canon to a hypothesized set of original sentences, denies the value or legitimacy of any sentences outside that set or that any unstated implications do or could exist. and identifies through intensive comparative analysis the meanings and connotations of the words and sentences as they were spoken by the Buddha in a given semantic context, approximating as far as possible to “authorial intent.”  That such a project is impossible in principle is proved by the axiom of impermanence (anicca). There are no “permanent truths.” The truth is the middle way between dogmatic fundamentalist extremism on the one hand and subjectivism on the other. Mahayana and Hinayana need and correct each other. Without Mahayana Hinayana degenerates into arid literalism, whereas without Hinayana Mahayana degenerates into a flight of fantasy.  The ekayana and the Dharma Transmission to the West include them both. We find this point of view most highly developed in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Chan, and esoteric Buddhism, and least developed in the Theravada sect, whose orthodox adherents still uphold the view, now thoroughly discredited, that the Pali Canon represents the verbatim utterance of the Buddha, in the language spoken by the Buddha, recalled by the photographic memory of Ananda, and handed down for several hundred years by a perfect or nearly perfect process of group recitation till it was written down on palm leaves and meticulously preserved for 1900 years and finally printed in Burma. The scorpion of self-purification has arisen in the heart of Theravada Buddhism in the form of so-called progressive or “modern” Theravada. It ends in historical nihilism, whereas the sutras state that after 2,500 years in the new age now dawning the dharma of the future will be personal, intimate, and esoteric.


  1. The Pali Canon is a sectarian collection of sectarian and pre-sectarian texts, indiscriminately worked and reworked over centuries to form a composite textual aggregate.
  2. The core suttas of the Pali Canon were probably established by the mid-third century BCE, approximately a century and half after the death of the Buddha circa 400 BCE.
  3. The early and later Buddhist texts represent a complementary process of preserving and clarifying the original teachings of Siddattha Gotama, in the context of the universal dharma that he sought in relation to his special concern: the problem of universal suffering and its cure.
  4. The Pali Canon only represents a fraction of what the Buddha said, and what the Buddha said only represents a fraction of the dharma. The original teachings of Siddhattha Gotama and the dharma are not conterminous or coextensive.
  5. Dharma can only be ultimately understood by each individual for themselves through the exercise of reason and experience.
  6. Devolution and development in time co-occur. The dharma itself is unconditional and omni-evolutionary, yet its samsaric manifestations appear, develop, decay, and disappear and are always subject to error, flux, and change.
  7. Every expression of dharma is conditional and relative to what each individual needs at that moment. Universal dharma can only be inferred from this by a process of collation and abstraction and can never be perfectly arrived at. Largely it is intuitive and symbolic and ultimately transrational. Dharma is multivalent and is capable of multiple forms and interpretations without contradiction.
  8. Fundamentalism, organizationalism and authoritarianism all contradict the axiom of impermanence (anicca), since there are no permanent forms, and are thus adharmic. They are all contrary to authentic spiritual progress and are decadent, corrupt, reactionary, devolutionary, and   After 2500 years all historical Buddhist schools are more or less in the same boat. The whole system is stagnant. This is the mappo.
  9. What is needed is a radical comprehensive reformation. This is the Dharma Transmission to the West.
  10. Potentially all non-self-contradictory tropes in the Pali Canon are ultimately relatable to an original and originating trope. The task is to identify the recurrent patterns and recognizing them as deriving from an original axiom, essentially expressed, identifying their implications and ultimately their praxis.
  11. “Original Buddhism” is the set of primary axioms.
  12. The complete set of primary axioms must explicate all subsequent implications.
  13. Tropes that contradict the known prejudices of the conservative male monastic organizationalists who compiled the Pali Canon may have been too well known and too entrenched to be expurgated, like similar passages in the Christian New Testament, thus highlighting their interest and integrity. Anything that contradicts the status quo is unlikely to have been invented.
  14. The Buddahvacana includes dharma teachings not spoken by the Buddha. Thus, the denial of canonicity to Mahayana sutras is inconsistent. The latter may represent symbolic and visionary expressions of authentic implications of the axioms of the dharma and thus constitute authentic dharma realizations without being historically factual or spoken by the Buddha at all. Because dharma is unconditional potentiality the continuity of authentic dharma traditions, lineages, canons, sutras, and termas is infinitely extensive and diverse. Dharma is an open, not a closed, system.
  15. Spiritual development and enlightenment imply the experience of altered states of consciousness, visionary states, meditative states, dream states, radical metaphysical and philosophical intuitions and insights, powerful affective states, and influential charismatic states, similar to all other spiritual practices and traditions. Buddhism is continuous with Aryan/Indian tradition and exists in the universal context of shamanism and the perennial philosophy, the prehistorical ground of human spirituality.
  16. By collating all Buddhist expressions and resolving their complexities and contradictions into a coherent system of axiomatic generalizations one arrives at dharma. This is the hermeneutical method of the ekayana. This is the project of the Dharma Transmisison to the West, which will achieve its apotheosis on all planes in the historical manifestation of Shambhala, the dharma society of the future.