Category Archives: Pali Canon

Translations and paraphrases of specific suttas of the Pali Canon, as well as articles on Pali language, history, and scholarship. NOTE: These are works in progress, and not finished works. Some blogs may contain factual inaccuracies or errors of interpretation. Blog material is reviewed and corrected continuously for publication. For the current versions, please buy my books. This is an essential part of my income.

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 www.tipitaka.org. 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.

Conclusions

  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.
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The Concept of Karma in the Jataka Tales of the Buddha

(from Dharma Notes, first edition, as presented to the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies)

Introduction

The Jataka, or “Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births” (lit. ‘belonging to, connected with what has happened’), constitutes, in the six-volume translation of Professor Cowell,[1] 547 accounts of former lives of Siddhatta Gotama, the historical Buddha (fl. ca. 435 B.C.E.?).[2] The Jataka is the tenth part of the Khuddakanikaya (lit. ‘collection of short [books]’), itself the fifth and final part of the Suttapitaka (lit. ‘basket of threads,’ meaning a traditional collection of discourses), which is the second part of the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhists. The Jataka is preceded by an introduction, called the Nidanakatha (lit. ‘causal discourse’),[3] which summarizes the lives of twenty-seven former Buddhas over many eons, as well as the biography of Gotama himself. The oldest stratum of former birth stories of the Buddha is preserved in the Cariyapitaka (lit. ‘basket of [proper] conduct’), which is the fifteenth part of the Khuddakanikaya.[4] All of the stories in the Cariyapitaka are repeated in the Jataka.

The great interest of the Jataka lies in its antiquity. Rhys Davids describes it as “a large number of old stories, fables, and fairy-tales.”[5] Their inception lies with the Buddha himself, who recollected all his past lives after his enlightenment experience (ca. 455 B.C.E.?). A number of Jataka tales are alluded to elsewhere in the canonical Buddhist scriptures. According to the general mode of presentation of the Jataka, the Buddha would refer to various past-life experiences of his in order to elucidate events in the present involving him and others, which he would explain in detail. Which and how many of these tales actually originated with the Buddha is an open question. However, it is certainly true that the Jataka tales preserve the beliefs and attitudes of early Indian Buddhists in the first centuries of the Buddhist era concerning how karma works itself out in the lives of individuals in general and how it worked itself out in the lives of the Buddha and some members of his community in particular.

Concerning the age of the Jataka, the collection belongs to the third or even the fourth century B.C.E.[6] Moreover, a significant number of the tales are borrowed from Indian folklore. Thus, the Jataka tales of the Buddha express the attitude of the first Buddhists towards the pan-Indian belief in karma as the main mechanism of samsara, a belief that the Buddha himself certainly shared.

The World View of the Nidanakatha

The Distant Epoch

As previously stated, the Jataka tales enumerate 547 accounts of the Buddha’s previous births as a bodhisattva, or ‘enlightenment warrior.’[7] However, this number only refers to the number of tales told by the Buddha, or perhaps remembered and collected by his disciples. According to the Nidanakatha, the number of such births—and therefore, perhaps, the average number of births required in order to achieve Buddhahood—must be counted in the tens of billions (thousands of kotis, in which a koti equals ten million). Since the longevity of our physical universe (according to the Buddhist worldview) lies between one and three billion years (equivalent to three eons of time) and the Buddha lived at least ten billion lives, the average length of each of the Buddha’s lives cannot exceed four months (or, according to an alternative interpretation, one year; see n. 12, below).

The Nidanakatha is an optimistic work, dedicated to the theme of “the infinite efficacy of the actions [karmas] of great men [mahapurushas].” One thinks of Rahula’s definition of karma as the primum mobile of the universe:[8]

Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more and more is a tremendous force that moves whole lives, whole existences, which even moves the whole world. This is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the world.

The exposition of ten billion or more births is of course impractical, so the Nidanakatha begins with the Buddha Dipankara, in response to whose example our Siddattha Gotama first resolved to attain Buddhahood. The time of Dipankara himself is uncertain; our text states that it was “four asankheyyas and a hundred thousand cycles [kalpas] ago.” However, an asankheyya is literally an incalculable period, glossed by the translator as “a period of vast duration,” and therefore unknowable, although (presumably) finite. The interval from the time of Dipankara to our own time is divided into three epochs: the Distant Epoch, from the time of Dipankara to the time that the Bodhisattva left his life as Vessantara and was reborn in the Tusita world; the Intermediate Epoch, from the time that the Bodhisattva left the Tusita world to the enlightenment of the historical Buddha circa 455 B.C.E. (?); and the Proximate Epoch, being the period of forty-five years during which the historical Buddha lived and taught (ca. 455 B.C.E.?—ca. 410 B.C.E.?).

The earliest birth of the Bodhisattva, i.e., the birth during which, as previously stated, he resolved to attain Buddhahood, was as an Indian of the Brahman caste (“Studious, knowing the Mantras, versed in the three Vedas, / Master of the science of divination and of the traditions and observances of his caste”), named Sumedha, a man of good family going back seven generations, who lived in the city of Amaravati (Amara). Sumedha’s parents died young and, rather than inherit the vast fortune of his patrimony, he gave it to the people and became an Himalayan rishi,[9] retiring to a mountain called Dhammaka, where he meditated wearing nothing but bark. This is the Story of Sumedha recounted in the Buddhavamsa. Sumedha’s renunciation parallels the Buddha’s, but what is of particular interest in the account of the Nidanakatha is the intellectual process by which Sumedha came to realize the necessity of nirvana:

For as in this world there is pleasure as the correlative of pain, so where there is becoming there must be its opposite, the cessation of becoming; and as where there is heat there is also cold which neutralizes it, so there must be a Nirvana that extinguishes (the fires of) lust and the other passions; and as in opposition to a bad and evil condition there is a good and blameless one, so where there is evil birth there must also be a Nirvana, called the birthless, because it puts an end to all that is called rebirth.

That is to say, Sumedha realized the necessity of nirvana by reasoning from the interdependence of opposites, very like Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, both of whom anticipate Hegel’s dialectical logic by 2,500 years:[10]

Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

At first Sumedha lived in a hut but soon even this galled him, and he retired to the foot of a tree, where he ate nothing but wild fruits. Soon after, “he attained the might of supernormal knowledge.”

Concurrent with the life of Sumedha the Buddha Dipankara attained Supreme Enlightenment. Subsequently he wandered to the city of Ramma, where he resided in the monastery of Sudassana with many Arhats. One day Sumedha came upon a throng in the road and, asking the reason for the crowd of people, learned that a Buddha had appeared in the world. Sumedha, being already spiritually far advanced, realized that he could attain the fruit of nirvana in his very lifetime, but at the same time, moved by the same compassion for the multitude that had caused him to become a hermit, he rejected that course as being selfish. Instead, Dipankara’s example caused him to renounce immediate enlightenment and pursue the path of a Buddha, to save others. This fundamental choice of paths is what led Sumedha to become a bodhisattva (“a Buddha-seed, a Buddha-shoot”), and committed him to a vast series of subsequent rebirths during which he acquired the paramitas (lit. ‘transcendental perfections’) of a Buddha. Recognizing his future destiny, the Buddha Dipankara offered Sumedha eight handfuls of flowers as he passed, after which Sumedha returned to his mountain retreat.

The foregoing description makes it clear that even in early Buddhism a definite distinction was drawn between the Arhat and the bodhisattva, the Arhat being one who escapes the cycle of transmigration for himself alone, whereas the bodhisattva resolves to attain complete Buddhahood for the sake of others. In order to do so he must undergo a much more rigorous course of training in the ten perfections, viz., giving, morality, self-abnegation, wisdom, exertion, patience, truth, resolution, good-will, and equanimity (symbolized by a water-jar, yak, prisoner, monk, lion, the earth, Venus, a mountain, water, and the earth [bis], respectively). He must also meet the eight qualifications: humanity, maleness, capability of attaining Arhatship, association with teachers, renunciation of the world, perfection in virtue, acts of self-sacrifice, and earnest determination.  The birth stories recited in the Cariyapitaka document the Buddha’s efforts to achieve the ten perfections over many births. This constitutes the complete course of training of a Buddha (or perhaps the complete course of training beyond becoming an Arhat).

The Buddha Dipankara lived for 100,000 years, followed by twenty-three subsequent Buddhas, whose names we need not repeat here. It is not quite clear whether these subsequent Buddhas represent all the Buddhas that have been, or only the Buddhas with whom Sumedha, in his subsequent births, was associated. In any case, Sumedha was associated with each of these subsequent Buddhas, during which he experienced twenty-three subsequent births as a universal monarch, a Brahman, naga king, two consecutive births as a Brahman, a Yakka chief, lion, sage, Mahratta, Brahman, a universal monarch, a Brahman, an ascetic, a deva king, an ascetic, two consecutive births as a warrior, a snake king, four consecutive births as a king, a Brahman, and, finally, as Siddhatta the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya.[11]

The Nidanakatha is very specific about the lineage of the Buddhas summarized above, including the longevity of all of the Buddhas with whom the bodhisattva was associated. Thus, it is possible to reconstruct a sort of history. As stated above, the interval from Dipankara to the present is given as four asankheyyas and 100,000 kalpas, translated as ‘cycles,’ ‘world cycles,’ or ‘ages.’ In fact, three asankheyyas and 104,000 kalpas are mentioned explicitly in the lineage. This does not matter a great deal, however, since the length of an asankheyya is not given in the text. As an asankheyya is of uncertain extent, so is a kappa of variable duration.[12] The Nidanakatha identifies seven kalpas, during which four, three, two, three, one, two, and two Buddhas appeared, in addition to our own (still ongoing) during which four Buddhas have appeared (and a fifth expected sometime in the future). The duration of the seven known kalpas add up to 330,000; 290,000; 180,000; 290,000; 100,000; 190,000; and 97,000 years respectively. Our own kappa has been ongoing now for about 92,500 years. Thus, by adding up the longevity of all of the Buddhas it is only possible to arrive at a minimum figure; the intended interval must, of course, be much longer. The list below gives the longevity of the twenty-four Buddhas, beginning with Dipankara, together with the intervening intervals during which no Buddha appeared (in square brackets; note the distinction between intervening kalpas and numbers of kalpas ago, i.e., before the present. Kalpas of which the duration is known, indicated by a list of longevities of the respective Buddhas, are separated by a line space. As one can see by adding them up, there are also kalpas unaccounted for.):

100,000 years

[1 asankheyya]

100,000 years

[1 asankheyya]

90,000 years

90,000    “

60,000    “

90,000    “

[1 asankheyya]

100,000 years

100,000 years

90,000       “

100,000 years [100,000 kalpas ago]

[30,000 kalpas]

90,000 years

90,000    “

[1,800 kalpas]

90,000 years

100,000  “

100,000  “

100,000 years [94 kalpas ago]

100,000 years [92 kalpas ago]

90,000      “

100,000 years [90 kalpas ago]

37,000 years [31 kalpas ago]

60,000    “

40,000    “

30,000    “

20,000    “

As one can see by adding up the numbers, the interval from Dipankara to the Buddha is at least 1,967,000 years, but is certainly much longer. During this time, the human life expectancy dropped from 100,000 years to 20,000 years and finally to 100 years during the current kappa. Applying the rate, discussed above (see n. 12), of one year per century to the latter decline in longevity of 99,900 years, produces an interval from the time of Dipankara to the beginning of our own kappa of 9,999,000 years.

The Intermediate Epoch

The Nidanakatha further identifies a class of devas called “World-arrangers.” Devas (lit. ‘shining’ or ‘celestial’), commonly mistranslated as ‘gods,’ are actually spiritually advanced human beings who inhabit higher, more energetic planes of reality close to our own level, many of whom assist less developed human beings in their spiritual development.[13] These devas proclaim the advent of ages, Buddhas, and universal monarchs, 100,000, 1,000, and 100 years in the future, respectively. It is not quite clear whether the text means to imply that the ages, Buddhas, and universal monarchs referred to succeed each other at these intervals (if this is the case, then six Buddhas have appeared in historical times, viz., circa 3490 B.C.E., 2490 B.C.E., 1490 B.C.E., 490 B.C.E., 510 C.E., and 1510 C.E.; then the next Buddha will manifest in about four hundred years from the present).[14] In any case, each age is characterized by the destruction of the “world-system” by fire every 100,000 years. The proclamation of the Buddha would have occurred during historical times, viz., about 1490 B.C.E. According to the Nidanakatha, the future Buddha is elected by an assembly of devas, including the World-arrangers aforementioned and the four great kings (maharajas), who govern the four worlds of Buddhist cosmogony (see Appendix I). Since even a Buddha cannot manifest in the world in the absence of the right conditions, five preconditions are needed: the time, the country, the family, the mother, and the mother’s age-limit. With respect to the time, the longevity of human beings cannot be too long or too short. If the longevity of human beings is too long, human beings are too self-satisfied to appreciate the First Noble Truth, viz., the ubiquity of suffering and pain, whereas, if it is too short, human beings are too sensual to perceive any possibility of escape and too short-lived to achieve it. Therefore, a Buddha must manifest when the longevity of human beings lies between 100 and 100,000 years. In fact, the genetic maximum longevity of a human being is now about 120 years, though most human beings die before they reach even half this limit.

With respect to the country, the culture of the country must be suitable to support the development of dharma. Vedic India met this requirement.

With respect to the family, the manifestation of a Buddha only occurs in a family of noble rank, viz., the Kshatriya caste, which was the dominant caste in northeast India at that time, the ascendancy of the Brahmans being more established in the west.

With respect to the mother, a Buddha is only conceived in the body of a woman of great personal purity and perfection. These five conditions being met, the Buddha was traditionally conceived at the end of the Midsummer festival (July-August?), gestated, and born in mid spring (April-May).  The Buddha’s conception was accompanied by a dream vision, in which Queen Mahamaya dreamt that a he-elephant bearing a lotus blossom in his trunk entered her womb. At his birth, the Buddha’s body being inspected, and found to be perfect, the ascetic sage Kala Devala, a confidant of the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, predicted that the child would become a Buddha. A young Brahman of the Kondanya family subsequently confirmed this. Seven other Brahmans, “skilled in the signs,” predicted that the child would become either a Buddha or a universal monarch. Seven days later, Queen Mahamaya died.

The World View of the Jataka

The Structure of the Jataka Tales

One or more stanzas of verse organize each of the 547 stories that make up the Jataka, arranged in order according to the number of stanzas quoted in each story, from least to greatest number. Strictly speaking, the stanza of verse alone constitutes the canonical part of the Jataka, the stories themselves being extra-canonical explanations, without which, however, the stanzas themselves are generally unintelligible. The Jataka tales are constructed in the same basic way, consisting of the number in sequence; title; opening words of the first verse stanza; the geographical place where the Buddha is reputed to have told the story; the subject matter of the story; a “tale of the present,” explaining the circumstances in the present which prompted the Buddha to tell the story; the “tale of the past,” or the Jataka tale proper, i.e., a previous birth of the Buddha and his associates; the link, connection, or lesson revealing the karmic pattern linking the two stories together; and a conclusion in which the Buddha reveals the identity of himself and his associates with the characters recounted in the tale of the past.

The Cosmology of the Jataka Tales

The cosmology of the Jataka tales depicts a hierarchy or continuum of worlds vertically divided into three levels: hells, earth, and heavens. As one descends the hierarchy pain and suffering increase and longevity decreases, whereas as one ascends the hierarchy bliss and happiness increase and longevity increases, but no world of the Buddhist cosmos is entirely free from suffering and no beings in it are immortal. Thus, all beings are essentially similar in that they suffer and are mortal, though to differing degrees. Cheetham provides a complete summary of the fundamental Buddhist cosmological system, divided into four or five arupadhatu, ‘formless worlds’; seventeen rupadhatu, ‘worlds of form’; and twenty-two kamadhatu, ‘worlds of desire,’ consisting of five higher worlds or “heavens,” the four terrestrial continents ruled by the four great kings (see Appendix I), and eight hot and eight cold hells.[15] The “Valahassa-Jataka” refers explicitly to four hells, six heavens of sense, and twenty worlds of Brahma: thirty worlds in total.[16] In the “Lohakumbhi-Jataka” four adulterers are reborn in Four Iron Cauldrons—probably the name of a hell (not attested in Cheetham). The “Kutidusaka-Jataka” refers to “the Great Hell of Avici,” and “the hell Roruva” is referred to in the “Mayhaka-Jataka.”[17] Avici (lit. ‘uninterrupted’) is the eighth of the hot hells in Cheetham, whereas Roruva is probably the same as Raurava (lit. ‘howling’), the fourth hot hell in Cheetham. The “Baka-Brahma-Jataka” refers to three heavens (or higher worlds) by name, viz., Vehapphuda, Subhakinna, and Abhassava, as well as “higher Brahmaloka heavens.”[18] These names are not found in Cheetham, but the latter does refer to the Subhakrtsna (lit. ‘universal beauty’; = Subhakinna?) and the Abhasvara (lit. ‘universal light’; = Abhassava?), the ninth and twelfth rupadhatus respectively. The “Takkariya-Jataka” refers to “the Lotus Hell,” which must be Padma (lit. ‘lotus’) in Cheetham, the seventh cold hell.[19] The “Sarabha-Miga-Jataka” refers to “the Heaven of the Thirty-three,” which is Trayastrimsa (lit. ‘thirty-three’) in Cheetham, the world next above our own world ruled by the four kings. In the same place, we learn the name of an inhabitant of one of these worlds: Tudu Brahma. It is apparent that the cosmological scheme of the Jataka tales is pretty close to the system summarized in Cheetham, perhaps in an earlier stage of formation.

The Chronology of the Jataka Tales

The chronology of the Jataka tales is consistent with that discussed above in connection with the Nidanakatha, though less extensive and detailed. In the “Lomahamsa-Jataka” the Buddha alludes to his life as a Bodhisattva “[n]inety-one eons ago.” In the “Susima-Jataka” the Buddha refers to himself “who have for many hundred thousand ages exercised perfection,” i.e., pursued the paramitas as a Bodhisattva (elsewhere stated to be 100,000 ages or eons).[20]

The Mechanism of Karma

In Pali kamma is derived from the Indian Vedic karman, ‘work,’ referring especially to the sacrifice, which sense is still retained in Pali in the specialized meaning of ceremony or formal observance; whence, ‘doing, deed, work, building, weaving, plaiting, acting, action.’ In its applied (pregnant) sense, karma is simply causality, i.e., action and reaction, or cause and effect. In Buddhism, everything in samsara obeys the law of karma, which is to say that every action necessarily and inevitably produces a complementary reaction that returns upon the active agent, for good or ill.[21] Like the quotation from Rahula, above, The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary refers to kamma as “the driving power of the world.”[22]

The Jataka tales show how the mechanism of karma works itself out in the lives of actual sentient beings, specifically, the Buddha and his disciples. Situations in the past involving individuals tend to recur over the course of subsequent rebirths. A common phrase found in the Jataka is “to fare according to his deserts.” The preeminent example is the Buddha himself, who in his previous births as a Bodhisattva was recurrently reborn in the time of twenty-three subsequent Buddhas, of each of whom he became a disciple. One may be the active agent or the passive recipient of karma. Personal spiritual realizations may also continue from birth to birth. Thus, the concreteness or physicality of a “situation” is not what determines its continuity. Paradoxically, although the Buddha taught that there is no ultimate or fundamental entity corresponding to the idea of a “self,” the karmas produced by individuals are so intricately interwoven that subsequent rebirths produce the illusion of individuality. Thus, the Buddha was able to identify his and his disciples’ identities in past births, and the individuals in question are reborn into similar relationships, including ties of blood, friendship, and enmity. Although karma thus tends to form recurrent “parallel” patterns of mutual experience that reproduce themselves from birth to birth, these karmic patterns are not necessarily explicitly identical to the original patterns in respect of the conditions. Thus, although there is an abstract continuity of similarity, there is also a concrete discontinuity of details produced by differing explicit circumstances. It is as though the karmic pattern waits for a set of contingencies, sufficiently similar to the past pattern to manifest but not necessarily identical, just as a seed requires certain conditions to grow but can nevertheless grow in a variety of soils and conditions, with varying degrees of fruition. In this way, karma can reproduce itself over a prolonged period, recurrently, until the energy potential that motivates it is exhausted. The body of rebirth itself is an example of the operation of karma.[23] Thus, physical appearance and health problems can be the result of the operation of karma.[24]

Just as individual actions may be relatively pleasurable, painful, or neither, so their consequences may be relatively pleasurable, painful, or neither (although all actions are ultimately painful, as proved by the First Noble Truth).[25] Pleasurable actions yield pleasurable results, painful actions yield painful results, and neutral actions yield neutral results. Similarly, there are actions conducive to liberation and there are actions conducive to bondage.[26] Actions conducive to liberation produce results that are conducive to liberation, whereas actions conducive to bondage produce results that are conducive to bondage. Thus, the law of karma, once it is understood, in and by itself produces a strong incentive to engage in positive actions and to refrain from negative actions, without any need to invoke Fraser’s fickle and wayward deity.[27] The law of karma also implies a significant degree of control over one’s future destiny, since the energy of the karmic patterns, once fully manifested in the conditions proper to them, is exhausted; therefore the possibility arises of the arising of new and different karmic patterns, as a function of the reflexivity of the volitional process with which karma itself is intimately intervolved. It appears, therefore, that volitions themselves are not merely automatic reflex reactions to prior actions, although they can be.

The experiential or karmic pattern is the link or “connection” that joins the two stories together. From this is derived a moral lesson.

Beings closer to the enlightened state (but still unenlightened) are more subtly aware and remember more than their present births. Beings at a higher level of development are more aware of the higher worlds than beings at a lower level of development, since according to Buddhism sentient beings do not evolve, they devolve, and all beings have devolved from a higher state.[28] The process by which lower beings become unaware of their previous births in higher worlds is likened to a process of forgetfulness or confusion, and is associated with the rebirth process itself. Human beings, remembering as they do a single birth, must occupy a very low level, although not as low as beings that are incapable of volition, and therefore completely bound by karma, i.e., by automatic instinctual impulses. The Buddha himself, having achieved the epitome of consciousness, remembered his past births and existed in a state of complete and perfect self-consciousness (to the degree of realizing his own non-self-existence!). Thus, the slightest incident might trigger a past-life memory in the Buddha, who would allude to incidents in his previous births as casually as his present birth. Not only the Buddha, but sometimes others as well are represented as remembering their former births, and responding to him on this basis.[29]

Types of Karmic Consequences

Specific examples of karmic consequences include the Buddha’s speech, the beauty of which is said to be a result of many lives of truth-telling; a goldsmith’s purity, which is said to be a result of many lives spent purifying gold; a monk’s insignificance, which is said to be a result of previous sins, despite devotion to prayer, high aspiration, and true discipleship in this life. Perhaps most interesting in this category is an elder who “[w]hile still alive became a preta in the world of men,”[30] presumably referring to some kind of wasting disease.

Kinds of Rebirths

The kinds of rebirths described in the Jataka tales are very diverse. The following table gives the number of births of the Bodhisattva of each kind, which are also representative of the generality (although the Bodhisattva is usually presented as a wise, righteous, and compassionate leader), based on the table produced by Spence Hardy’s pandit and reproduced in Buddhist Birth-Stories.[31]

King 85 Potter 3
Ascetic 83 Outcast 3
Tree god 43 Iguana 3
Teacher 26 Fish 2
Courtier 24 Elephant driver 2
Brahman 24 Rat 2
King’s son 24 Jackal 2
Nobleman 23 Crow 2
Learned  man 22 Woodpecker 2
Sakka 20 Thief 2
Monkey 18 Pig 2
Merchant 13 Dog 1
Man of property 12 Curer of snake bites 1
Deer 11 Gambler 1
Lion 10 Mason 1
Wild duck 8 Smith 1
Snipe 6 Devil dancer 1
Elephant 6 Student 1
Cock 5 Silversmith 1
Slave 5 Carpenter 1
Eagle 5 Water-fowl 1
Horse 4 Frog 1
Bull 4 Hare 1
Brahma 4 Kite 1
Peacock 3 Jungle cock 1
Serpent 3 Fairy 1

The following table categorizes the rebirths in the previous table, giving the gross percentage in each category (cf. n. 11, above).

Animal 30%
Human 28%
Worldly 24%
Noble 7%
Superhuman 5%
Religious 4%
Military 1%

The Six Modes of Existence

The Jataka tales clearly portray the Buddha and his disciples moving through six distinct modes of rebirth: in suffering states as hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals; in intermediate or mixed states as human beings and ‘anti-gods’ (asuras); and in blissful states as devas. Of these, human beings are the rarest mode of existence but with the greatest potential for supreme enlightenment. However, human beings also move freely between rebirths as hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, and devas. The Buddha himself in one of his Bodhisattva births was reborn as a hell being who suffered for eighty thousand years in recompense for a previous birth in which he spent twenty years as a king. Sages and the Buddha himself are represented as taking rebirth in animal forms, even birds. Thus, there is little distinction in Buddhism between the spiritual state of animals and humans; most humans are only slightly more evolved than animals, and may easily be reborn as animals, and vice versa, whereas the Buddha is never represented as having been born as a female.

The Act of Truth         

A particularly interesting category of karma that recurs throughout the Jataka tales is the Act of Truth (satyagraha) so-called. In pan-Indian thought, truth itself is believed to possess its own intrinsic power by virtue of its ontological status as an expression of the creative power of reality (maya). Similarly, traditional philosophy always ascribes power to the magical word, which creates reality. Thus, the “Vattaka-Jataka” tells of a jungle fire that went out as soon as it approached the Buddha. The Buddha says, “It is no present power of mine, Brethren, that makes this fire go out on reaching this spot of ground. It is the power of a former ‘Act of Truth’ of mine. For in this spot no fire will burn throughout the whole of this aeon,—the miracle being one which endures for an aeon.”[32] The tale of the past elaborates on this as follows:[33]

In this world there exists what is termed the Efficacy of Goodness, and what is termed the Efficacy of Truth. There are those who, through their having realized the Perfections in past ages, have attained beneath the Bo-tree to be All-Enlightened; who, having won Release by goodness, tranquility and wisdom, possess also discernment of the knowledge of such Release; who are filled with truth, compassion, mercy, and patience; whose love embraces all creatures alike; whom men call omniscient Buddhas. There is an efficacy in the attributes they have won. And I too grasp one truth; I hold and believe in a single principle in Nature. Therefore, it behoves me to call to mind the Buddhas of the past, and the Efficacy they have won, and to lay hold of the true belief that is in me touching the principle of Nature; and by an Act of Truth to make the flames go back, to the saving both of myself and of the rest of the birds [in this tale the Buddha was reborn as a quail chick].

Therefore it has been said: —

There’s saving grace in Goodness in this world;
There’s truth, compassion, purity of life.
Thereby, I’ll work a matchless Act of Truth.
Remembering Faith’s might, and taking thought
On those who triumphed in the days gone by,
Strong in the truth, an Act of Truth I wrought.

Accordingly, the Bodhisatta, calling to mind the efficacy of the Buddhas long since past away, performed an Act of Truth in the name of the true faith that was in him, repeating this stanza:—

With wings that fly not, feet that walk not yet,
Forsaken by my parents, here I lie!
Wherefore I conjure three, dread Lord of Fire,
Primaeval Jataveda, turn! go back!

Even as he performed his Act of Truth, Jataveda went back a space of sixteen lengths; and in going back the flames did not pass away to the forest devouring everything in their path. No; they went out there and then, like a torch plunged in water. Therefore it has been said:—

I wrought my Act of Truth, and therewithal
The sheet of blazing fire left sixteen lengths
Unscathed,—like flames by water met and quenched.

And as that spot escaped being wasted by fire throughout a whole aeon, the miracle is called an “aeon-miracle.”

“Thus, Brethren, said the Master, “it is not my present power but the efficacy of an Act of Truth performed by me when a young quail, that has made the flames pass over this spot in the jungle.”

Similarly, elsewhere a woman who has no witness as to the father of her child appeals to an Act of Truth to prove his paternity; an ascetic and the parents of a boy bitten by a snake, having no antidote, appeal to an Act of Truth to heal the boy; a master mariner saves seven hundred souls from shipwreck by an Act of Truth; a paccekabuddha sets free all enslaved creatures by an Act of Truth; a king restores both his eyes by means of an Act of Truth; a king saves his son from an ogre by an Act of Truth; a snake-king causes the head of a false ascetic to burst asunder; a woman heals a leper by means of an Act of Truth; an elder saves the life of a woman in childbirth by means of an Act of Truth; and a king heals a man-eater by an Act of Truth.[34]

The magical character of the Act of Truth is readily apparent, but the core idea is that the effective power of the karma of merit or virtue can be consciously harnessed and intentionally directed by an act of will of a sufficiently powerful person. The Buddhist Act of Truth is a variant on the traditional motif of a sacred substance produced by spiritual practice, which inheres in the body and in nature, in people, objects, and places.  A spiritually developed being can utilize this substance, in sufficient concentration, to produce physical phenomena including healings. The Act of Truth is clearly associated with a method, preeminently a solemn pronouncement, recited in verse, analogous to a magical incantation or “spell,” and sometimes with a ritual action including the use of a special object, such as a bowl or a pitcher of water. The assumption underlying the Act of Truth is the same as the doctrine of karma: thoughts and words, i.e., consciousness, are not essentially different from so-called “physical objects.” All phenomena are equally real, mutually co-determining, and inhere in the same ground, viz., emptiness. Thus, mental thoughts and words are as real and efficacious as physical objects.

Summary

The original Buddhists believed that the world is essentially illusory, governed by a causal law that makes no distinction between thoughts, words, and deeds, and in which no cause fails to produce a precisely appropriate effect that returns to the agent in the form of experience. This law of karma is fundamental, ubiquitous, automatic, and determinative but as ultimately illusory as the world that it governs. Thus, there is the possibility of escape. The Buddha is the first human being in this historical dispensation to have made good his escape from the world of samsara. Thus, he is the highest teacher and his teaching the highest teaching. His experiences in his pursuit of supreme enlightenment constitute the subject matter of the Jataka. By attaining to the attainment of an Arhant and perfecting the ten perfections of a Buddha, the Bodhisattva pursued the goal of Buddhahood after billions of births over millions or billions of years in many different sentient forms, including men, superhuman beings, animals, and even hell beings. Once he resolved to attain Buddhahood, it took him twenty-four subsequent rebirths to attain enlightenment, not always as a human being. The attainment of enlightenment is by definition the perfection of consciousness. Thus, the Buddha remembered all of his former lives, which he discussed freely in the course of his teaching work, when prompted to do so by the recurrence of a set of circumstances similar to those that occurred in a previous birth. During his rebirths as a Bodhisattva the Buddha was reborn in the company of a series of Buddhas, whose disciple he became. Similarly, many of the Buddha’s disciples had themselves shared many previous births with him, and many of these disciples in this historical dispensation attained Arhatship under the Buddha’s tutelage. The practice of virtue and meditation are profoundly karmically efficacious. Thus, an enlightened being is not merely a man of knowledge; he is also a man of power. Even ordinary but virtuous people can consciously call upon the power of karma to change karma. The power of karma is the primum mobile of the universe and the secret spring of phenomenality.

Appendix I

The objective existence of the four terrestrial continents of Buddhist belief, with Jamvudvipa (India) in the middle, far from being imaginary, has been confirmed by modern science. The theory that all of the continents of the earth are the result of a progressive separation of one original proto-supercontinent, called Pangaea, originated with Afred Wegener in 1915.  The “continental shift,” as it is called, began about two hundred million years ago. As one can see from the illustration, below, about 130 million years ago India is surrounded by—and separated from—three large landmasses. These landmasses correspond to what are now North America, Asia, and Europe to the north (corresponding to Buddhist Uttarakuru); South America and Africa to the west (Godaniya); and Antarctica and Australia to the south and east (Purvavideha), just as described in the Buddhist scriptures.  The Buddhist description also refers to eight “subcontinents.” As one can see, the four primary continents illustrated below are exactly subdivided into eight subcontinents.[35]

pangaea130labels

[1] E.B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (1895, 1897, 1901, 1905, 1907; rpt. London: Pali Text Society—Luzac, 1957), 6 vols. in 3.

[2] “The shorter period of 150 years between Asoka and the Great Decease agrees much better with what we know of the literary history of Buddhism during that interval. And it agrees with the tradition of the northern Buddhists as preserved by Hiouen Thsang, and in Kashmir and Tibet. In the ‘Questions of Milinda’ also—a work of unknown date, preserved only in its Pali form, but possibly derived from a northern Buddhist Sanscrit work—the date of the Buddha’s death is fixed at five hundred years before the time of Milinda, who certainly reigned about a century after Christ. I am, therefore, of opinion that the hitherto accepted date of the Buddha’s death should be modified accordingly.

“This would make the date of the Great Decease about 420—400 B.C. (very possibly a year or two later)” (T.W. Rhys Davids, trans., Buddhist Suttas, ed. F. Max Muller, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XI (Oxford, 1881; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), pp. xlvii, xlviii). The trend in serious Western scholarship since Rhys Davids penned these prophetic words in 1881 has been towards a later date of 400 B.C.E. or even a little more recent.

[3] The Nidanakatha is translated in its entirety as “The Story of the Lineage” in T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales): The Commentarial Introduction Entitled Nidana-Katha, the Story of the Lineage, rev. ed. (London: Geo. Routledge, ca. 1913?), pp. 81—232. According to M.S. Bhat the Nidanakatha dates from the 2nd century B.C.E. (ed., The Genealogy of the Buddhas, trans. M.V. Talim, Devanagari-Pali Text Series No. 15 (Bombay: University of Bombay, 1969),  p. xiv).

[4] Trans. I.B. Horner, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part
III (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975). For the literal etymologies of the Pali words and phrases cited see T.W. Rhys Davids and Wm. Stede, eds., The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary (1921—1925; rpt. London: Pali Text Society, 1947—1949), 7 vols. in 1, esp. (for the words cited above, respectively) Pt. IV, p. 114; Pt. III, p. 66; Pt. IV, p. 188; Pt. VIII, p. 177; Pt. V, p. 79; Pt. IV, p. 194; and Pt. III, pp. 12, 94.

[5] Buddhist Birth-Stories, p. i.

[6] “In the Ceylon R.A.S.J. 1884, p. 127, it is argued from the indefinite use of uttara-patha for all countries north of Benares that the date of writing must be before the 3rd century B.C., when Buddhistic embassies were sent to Mysore and North Canara and when the Dakshinapatha was familiar” (Cowell,  p. 22 n. 1). Uttara-patha is translated by Cowell  as ‘north country.’ Patha literally signifies ‘path, road, way.’ See Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. V, p. 30.

[7] “[B]odhisattva, a Sanskrit word that roughly translates as ‘enlightenment warrior’” (Glenn H. Mullin, trans., Mystical Verses of a Mad Dalai Lama (Wheaton, IL: Quest—Theosophical Publishing House, 1994),  p. 29).

[8] Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 33. Cf. the Hindu concept of maya: “the force (shakti) of Brahman” (Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner, eds., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen (Boston: Shambhala, 1989), s.v. Maya, p. 223).

[9] A Vedic seer, saint, or inspired poet (Schuhmacher and Woerner, s.v. Rishi,  p. 291).

[10] “The Rise of Relative Opposites,” in Lin Yutang, trans., The Wisdom of Laotse, Cap. ii  (New York: Modern Library—Random House, 1948), p. 47.

[11] A statistical analysis of these births is interesting. Leaving aside the birth as a Mahratta, 78% are human births; 77% are noble births; 45% are religious births; 41% are worldly births; 14% are births as superhuman beings; 9% are animal births; and 9% may be specifically designated as military births (not counting births as a universal monarch, king, or chief, or 57%, counting these births). None of these births is overtly female. Perhaps most surprising of all is that the Buddha was born as an animal twice in his last twenty-four births. This suggests that the karmic state of an animal and the state of a human are not that different in the Buddhist world view, perhaps even less significant than the difference between male and female.

[12] According to what appears to be the final Theravada Buddhist system, not yet completely explicit in the Nidanakatha, the basic unit of measurement is the atarakappa (lit. ‘intermediate cycle’), which corresponds to one complete human evolutionary cycle, during which time the longevity of human beings increases from 10 to 84,000 years and then declines again to 10 years at the rate of 1 year per century: a period of 16,798,000 years is implied. Twenty or, alternatively, 64 atarakappas equal 1 asankheyyakappa (lit. ‘incalculable cycle’): a period, depending on which figure one accepts, of 335,960,000 or 1,075,072,000 years. Four asankheyyakappas equal 1 mahakappa (lit. ‘great cycle’): 1,343,840,000 or 4,300,288,000 years.  It is interesting to note that 4.3 billion years is also the duration of a day or a night (i.e., one-half of an astronomical or solar day) in the life of Brahma according to orthodox Hindu reckoning. A complete astronomical or solar day in the life of Brahma (itself equal to 100 years) is equivalent to 8.6 billion years (in the Hindu system, a day in the life of Brahma corresponds to a period of universal evolution, and a night to an equal period of universal involution). According to The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary, “When kappa stands by itself, a Maha-kappa is understood” (Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. I, p. 15).  According to Eric Cheetham (Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994), p. 17), “The whole world-system [lokadhatu] is said to last for three kalpas, which is the equivalent of  960 million years [actually 1,007,880,000 years; Cheetham is using a rounded off figure of 16 million years for the atarakappa, which he calls a kalpa].” Cheetham’s kalpa appears to be equal to our short atarakappa. Three long atarakappas are equal to 3,225,216,000 years.  However, Cheetham’s use of the word kalpa instead of atarakalpa causes one to wonder if in fact he has misinterpreted his source and that the duration of the lokadhatu is actually equal to 3 mahakappas. If this is the case, then the duration of the lokadhatu  is 4,031,520,000 or 12,900,864,000 years. More research is needed to resolve this question. According to a similar but slightly different scheme, the mahakappa is divided into 4 phases, and each phase equals 20 (or 64) atarakappas (in this scheme an asankheyyakappa is an indefinite number of mahakappas). Therefore a mahakappa is equal to 80 or 256 periods of 16,798,000 years: a period of  1,343,840,000 or 4,300,288,000 years is again implied as above (see Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner, s.v. Kalpa, p. 171; “Dhamma Questions” (23 November 2001); “Process-Freed Section,” Cap. v of Abhidhammattha-Sangaha <http://www.palikanon.com/abhidham/sangaha/chapter_5.htm&gt; (23 November 2001);  “Arupavacara-Bhumi (The Plane of the Formless)” <http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Runway/5787/31planes4.htm&gt; (23 November 2001).  Cf. Eric Cheetham, pp. 16ff.). According to Sayagyi U Ba Khin, “The Real Values of True Buddhist Meditation” (23 November 2001); Sayagyi U Chit Tin, “The Story of Pacceka Buddha Matanga” <http://www.webcom.com/imcuk/uchittin/baswl/BASWL11.html&gt; (23 November 2001); Sayagyi U Ba Khin, “What Buddhism Is” (23 November 2001); and Saya U Chit Tin, “The Perfection of Generosity (Dana-parami)”  <http://departments.colgate.edu/greatreligions/pages/buddhanet/genbuddhism/paramis/dana.txt&gt; (23 November 2001), an asankheyya is equal to 10140 years (“Buddhism A to Z”  <http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/BuddhistDict/BDA.html&gt; (23 November 2001) says 1059 years). Western science does not know the longevity of the physical universe, although its age is about twelve billion years (“Astronomers Calculate Age of the Universe” <http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9905/25/age.of.universe/&gt; [14 December 2001]).

[13] “Always implying also a kinship and continuity of life with humanity and other beings; all devas have been man and may again become men…, hence ‘gods’ is not a coincident term” (Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. IV, p. 164). Cf.: “No disciples, male or female, who seek refuge in the Three Gems that are endowed with such peerless excellences, are ever reborn into hell and the like states; but, released from all rebirth into states of suffering, they pass to the Realm of Devas and there receive great glory” (Cowell, “Apannaka-Jataka,” in No. 1, Vol. I, p. 2).

[14] Circa 2510 C.E. This interpretation is suggested by the periodicity of the numbers, 100, 1,000, and 100,000, corresponding to increasing significance. Additional research needs to be done to determine whether similar cycles are mentioned elsewhere in the literature. Cf. the Kalachakra date for the Buddhist Armageddon, which will culminate in the terrestrial manifestation of Shambhala in 2425 C.E. (“Kalachakra: Shambhala” <http://www.kalachakra.com/Shambhala/Shambhala.htm&gt; [23 November 2001]) .

[15] Cheetham, pp. 33ff.

[16] Cowell, No. 196, Vol. II, p. 91.

[17] Cowell, No. 321, Vol. III, p. 48 and No. 390, Vol. III, p. 187. Avici is also referred to in the “Samuddha-Vanija-Jataka,” No. 466, Vol. IV, p. 99 and again in the “Amba-Jataka,” No. 474, Vol. IV, p. 124.

[18] Cowell, No. 405, Vol. III, pp. 219f.

[19] Cowell, No. 481, Vol. IV, p. 153.

[20] Cowell, No. 94, Vol. I, p. 229 and No. 411, Vol. IV, p. 237.

[21] It may be objected that if karma is ubiquitous and self-reproducing at all levels then escape from karma, and, hence, enlightenment, is impossible. This refers to the problem of intention (cetana), which we will not discuss here.

[22] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pt. III, p. 19.

[23] “This bodily frame is the repository of the workings of Karma” (Cowell, “Nigrodhamiga-Jataka,” in No. 12, Vol. I, p. 37).

[24] E.g., see the “Ekapanna-Jataka” in Cowell, No. 149, Vol. I, pp. 316f.

[25] “[T]he sinful man regards sin as excellent before it ripens to its fruit. But when it has ripened, then he sees sin to be sin” (Cowell, “Khadirangara-Jataka,” in No. 40, Vol. I, p. 102).

[26] By definition the non-contingent, i.e., nirvana, cannot be produced by the contingent. Therefore, contingent means merely prepare the phenomenon for the possibility of transcendence, but do not produce the transcendence. Since the non-contingent is the ground of the contingent, such means produce a translucency of the contingent phenomenon that reveals its own ground, thus producing the appearance of causation.

[27] This is in striking contrast to the Western scientific view of causality, which tends to produce the nihilism of postmodern society.

[28] The “Mahasupina-Jataka,” in which the Buddha interprets sixteen “great dreams” of the King of Kosala, describes in detail the traditional doctrine of historical devolution or degeneration, referred to as “the reign of unrighteous kings.” Thus the Buddha interprets the dreams as auguries of the future age, characterized by poverty, unrighteousness, perversion, evil, drought, famine, mortality, lust, premature pubescence, disrespect toward the elderly, political incompetence and corruption, the reversal of social roles, the reversal of sexual roles, oppressive taxation, despotism, deurbanization, dry wind storms, corruption of the sangha, and decline of the aristocracy (Cowell, No. 77, Vol. I, pp. 187–192).

[29] E.g., see Cowell, “Saketa-Jataka,” No. 68, Vol. I, pp. 166f.

[30] “Kutidusaka-Jataka,” in Cowell, No. 321, Vol. III, p. 48.

[31] Rhys Davids, Table VII, p. 246.

[32] Cowell, No. 35, Vol. I, p. 89.

[33] Cowell, No. 35, Vol. I, pp. 89f.

[34] Cowell, Vol. I, pp. 55, 89, 90, 155, 183, 184; Vol. IV, pp. 19, 90, 215, 255; Vol. V, pp. 15, 16, 47, 52, 246, 275; Vol. VI, pp. 1, 19, 47, 51, 78.

[35]j Graphic compliments of  “Pangaea” <http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/dinosaurs/glossary/Pangaea.shtml&gt; (23 November 2001). See Cheetham, pp. 14, 35. That the Buddhist world description conforms to an epoch 130 million years ago should not surprise one, in light of the previous discussion. However, further investigation into this line of inquiry in the light of the literature is required.

On the Relationship Between the Mahayana Precepts and the Vinaya

(from Buddhist Self-Ordination: A Dharma Strategy for the West and Dharma Notes, first edition)

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, recounting the last days of the Buddha, in his final exhortation to the Sangha, the community of monks, the Buddha made two statements concerning the Vinaya, the monastic rules of the Sangha, translated in these quotations as “Discipline” and “rules” respectively.

For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone. …

If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules.

Because it did not occur to Ananda, to whom the Buddha was speaking, to ask which aspects of the Discipline were the “lesser and minor rules,” the Sangha at that time chose not to abolish any of them. The original 227 rules of the Vinaya, called the pratimoksha, are still followed by monks of the Theravada tradition. These are summarized in The Manual of the Bhikkhu, by Ven. Dhamma Sami, and include such rules as:

  • Not to accept carpets containing silk or made entirely from the wool of a black sheep;
  • Not to carry wool for more than three days;
  • Not to ask for a new bowl when one’s existing bowl has less than five cracks;
  • Not to lie down in a building in which there is a woman;
  • Not to teach dhamma to women, someone holding an umbrella or a stick, a person wearing shoes or sandals, or a person in a vehicle, lying down, or wearing a head covering;
  • Not to leave a mattress or a chair outside;
  • Not to install oneself in a bed or on a chair placed on a floor with broken planks;
  • Not to build a roof having more than three layers;
  • Not to tickle, or play in water;
  • Not to wash more often than twice a month;
  • Not to make a needle, or cause one to be made;
  • Not to make a high bed, or cause one to be made;
  • When travelling through inhabited areas, to keep the gaze lowered and not to laugh, speak in a loud voice, lift one’s robe, or swing one’s arms, body or head, or place one’s hands on one’s hips, cover the head, or stand on tiptoes, or sit with one’s arms wrapped around one’s legs;
  • Not to speak when one’s mouth is full, or throw pieces of food into the mouth, or make noise or stick the tongue out while eating;
  • Not to urinate while standing.

There are also many rules about the monk’s robe, relations with nuns and laywomen, teaching the dharma and eating.

Fundamentalism is a wrong view that is present in all religions and religious Buddhism is no exception.[1] Some Buddhist fundamentalists seem to believe that the universe is a machine and that following the rules themselves are the means of liberation, much as certain Jews, Christians, or Moslems believe that by following a set of prescribed laws they will be admitted to heaven when they die. The fundamentalist view is contradicted by the facts that the Vinaya did not always exist and that it evolved over the course of the Buddha’s life, and the Buddha’s own statement, made at the conclusion of his life, that the lesser and minor rules may be ignored. For these reasons, monastic fundamentalism is an “adharmic” and erroneous view. The Vinaya rules are merely relative means (upaya), not the means of liberation in and of themselves. One may follow all of them perfectly and still be unenlightened, or vice versa.

Clearly, many of these rules are historically determined and contingent. For example, the rules concerning water are contingent on the non-recognition by the science of the time that all water contains innumerable living organisms. Therefore, it is literally impossible to avoid taking life. If literally not killing were an objective requirement for enlightenment, not even the Buddha was enlightened, because existence itself involves killing, whether intentional or not. The moment one realizes that the rules have to do with intention and not objective behaviour, one’s whole view of the Vinaya is profoundly transformed. This, however, is the correct, dharmic view, since dharma, being true, cannot contradict science.[2]

At the same time, neither can we ignore the Vinaya entirely. The Buddha himself stated that the rules (along with the dharma) are the Master in his absence. For this reason, the enlightened masters and saints of the Mahayana studied the Vinaya, and through that study, they identified the essential principles of the Vinaya that are truly binding upon the true disciple of Lord Shakyamuni. These are the eight Mahayana precepts:

  1. Not harming;
  2. Not stealing;
  3. No sexual wrongdoing;
  4. Not lying;
  5. No drunkenness;
  6. Not elevating the self;
  7. Eating only when the sun is waxing (an Ayurvedic practice for the maximization of health);
  8. No empty and vain shows, entertainments, or self-decoration.

When one studies the historical Vinaya texts in the context of the Mahayana tradition, one sees clearly that the Vinaya rules are simply elaborations of these eight essential principles. For example, “not killing” includes all of the following, which are all separately itemized in the Vinaya:

  • Not to dig in the earth;
  • Not to destroy plants;
  • Not to pour water containing insects on the ground, or use water containing living things;
  • Not to watch an army departing for combat, sleep amongst an armed troop, for watch military activities;
  • Not to kill animals.

And so on. To itemize them all would go beyond the scope of this essay. They are easy enough to work out for oneself (see “Synopsis of the Vinaya“).

Even the Mahayana precepts are contingent and relative, however. One theme that recurs in the Vinaya is exceptions made if one is sick or curing sickness. For example, the original rule concerning alcohol has been extended to all drugs, with the exception of drugs taken as medicines. It is apparent from the wording of this rule that its original intention was to avoid clouding the mind and impairing judgment, i.e., drunkenness. Since we now know that alcohol has medicinal properties, drinking two glasses of wine per day, but not to the point of intoxication, for the sake of one’s health, probably does not violate the precepts. Similarly, ordained followers of the Ngakpa or householder tradition and other Mahayana and Tantric traditions, including priests, may marry, the prohibition on sexual activity really being a prohibition of licentiousness and promiscuity. In Tantra, sexual yoga can even be a means of liberation. In the Tibetan Mahasiddha tradition, some practitioners consume drugs like cannabis and datura. Some great lamas have consumed alcohol. Time is too short, samsara too vast, and the dharma too rich and profound to waste time on organizationalist sectarian and fundamentalist religious agendas.

Notes

[1] Buddhism, properly understood, is not a religion. The English word “religion” refers etymologically to conduct indicating belief in a divine power, especially a state of life bound by monastic vows, characterized by devotional and ethical  observances, from Latin religio, ‘reverence for the gods.’ Buddhism specifically rejects theism in any form. The practices of Buddhism are not primarily devotional, and ethics are secondary as well. Buddhism is, moreover, not based on belief. The Buddha himself decried mere belief and instructed his disciples to test the validity of everything he said and did through the exercise of reason and direct experience. Buddhism, properly understood, is an experiential spiritual philosophy that provides the practitioner primarily with the means of achieving spiritual self-perfection, and secondarily presents the resulting insights concerning the nature of the world, living beings, and spiritual experience itself to those who comprehend and follow the path laid out to the end. Thus, Buddhism is nothing less than the science of enlightenment, perfectly understood. As such, it is the priceless treasure of humanity, but only if it is understood.

[2] Kalu Rinpoche tells a wonderful traditional Tibetan story that makes this point in Secret Buddhism: Vajrayana Practices, translated by François Jacquemart and Christiane Buchet (San Francisco: ClearPoint Press, 1995). See “The Buddha’s Tooth” on pp. 137ff.