Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Story of the Elder Protector of Vision (Commentary, Subcommentary, and Anticommentary)

     For the sake of completeness, and also for the sake of giving English-speaking people some idea of what the commentaries are like, and thus some idea of the brickwork comprising the finished edifice of Theravadin orthodoxy, I include the vibhaṅga, or word-by-word analysis, to the Dhammapada verse itself, as found in the Dhammapada commentary, immediately following the story of Cakkhupāla. Some brief comments of my own are inserted in blue text

     manopubbaṅgamā dhammā / manoseṭṭhā manomayā //
     manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā //
     tato naṁ dukkhamanveti / cakkaṁva vahato padanti //

     Therein, mano refers to the type of skillfulness (kusala), and so on, of the Sphere of Sensuality, and the consciousness of all of the four levels (of the Sensual Sphere, Sphere of Form, Formless Sphere, and of the Transcendental, with the Sensual Sphere including this world and everything below the level of Brahmas, and with the Transcendental referring to the consciousness of Ariyas in their transcendence of Samsara); and here in this verse it is to be taken as the healer’s being led, being bound, being compelled, by the power of his arisen mind, possessed of unhappiness—a mind bound to irritation.
     By pubbaṅgamā  is meant being endowed with the state of going first.
     With regard to dhammā—virtue, teaching, mastery, and that which is beingless or soulless are called the four dhammas. Of these: 

     “Truly, what is Dhamma and what is not Dhamma do not both have the same result;
     What is not Dhamma leads to hell, and Dhamma leads to the attainment of paradise.”

This is called the Dhamma of virtue. (That is, “dhamma” interpreted as righteousness.
     In “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the Dhamma that is beautiful in the beginning…,” this is called the Dhamma of teaching. 
     In “And here, bhikkhus, there are some gentlemen who thoroughly learn the Dhamma in a discourse or verses for chanting…,” this is called the Dhamma of mastery.
     With regard to “In this state there are dhammas and there are aggregates…,” this is called a “beingless” dhamma, and a “soulless” dhamma is just this also. (In other words, “dhamma” in this sense refers to elemental qualities that are without self. The passage is a quote from the Abhidhamma Pitaka.) And with regard to these, in this place, the beingless, soulless dhamma is intended. The meaning of it is the three formless aggregates: the aggregate of feeling, the aggregate of perception, and the aggregate of constructs. So these, having mind coming before them, are called manopubbaṅgamā.
     So how, having the same ground with these, having the same supporting stimulus, not arising earlier or later but at the very same moment, can mind be said to go first? By the condition of its arising. Just as, for example, among many bandits working together, if one were to ask, “Who goes first among them?” one would answer that it is he who is the instigator, in dependence upon whom they do their business—“That Datta, or Mitta, (these being common names in ancient India) is the one who goes first among them.” Thus this account should be understood. So, by the condition of its arising, mind goes before them, and so they are preceded by mind. For with consciousness not arisen they also are unable to arise. But mind arises with some mental states not arising. (The point of this is apparently that although no mental state can arise without consciousness, consciousness itself can arise without this or that mental state—although, according to Abhidhamma and the commentaries, it cannot arise without any accompanying mental states.
     And by means of its dominance it is the chief of them; thus manoseṭṭhā. For just as among thieves, for example, the leader of the thieves, for example, is their chief through dominance, even so, mind is a dominator over them (that is, over the mental states), and mind is chief. 
     And just as these or those objects produced of wood, for example, are called “made of wood,” for example, in the same way, those also which are produced of mind are called manomayā, “mind-made.”
     By paduṭṭhena is meant defiled by extraneous defects such as greed. For the natural mind is the existence-factor consciousness (i.e., the bhavaṅgacittaṁ, a phenomenon peculiar to the Abhidhamma literature and not named at all in the Suttas), and that is undefiled. It is like clear water defiled by extraneous blue dye, for example, and becomes, for example, a kind of blue water; it is no longer fresh water, nor is it the original clear water. In this way also the mind becomes defiled by extraneous defilements such as greed; it is not a fresh consciousness, nor is it the original existence-factor consciousness. Thus the Blessed One said, “This mind, bhikkhus, is shining forth, but it is defiled by extraneous defilements.” (This passage is taken from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, and almost certainly has nothing to do with the hypothetical Abhidhammic bhavaṅgacittaṁ, which is a kind of unchanging subconscious background pattern to the mind and could hardly be said to be “shining forth”; but I’ve discussed this point elsewhere and needn’t belabor it here.) Thus when he says “manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā,” he refers to one who speaks in accordance with the fourfold misconduct of speech (i.e., lying, malicious speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter), and one who acts in accordance with the threefold misconduct of action (i.e., killing, stealing, and sensual misconduct); and even if not speaking and not acting, in one’s mind being defiled by greed, etc., the threefold misconduct of mind (that is, greed, ill-will, and diṭṭhi or wrong view, not to be confused with the similar lobha, dosa, and moha) is fulfilled. Thus one’s course runs in the fulfillment of the ten unskillful actions.
     By tato naṁ dukkhamanveti is meant that due to this threefold misconduct (presumably of speech, body, and mind) unease follows that individual; by the unfolding actuality of that misconduct he goes into a dark existence in the four lower realms or in the realm of human beings, with the fruition of that physical/mental unease, based in his body or otherwise, following behind. 
     How is this? cakkaṁva vahato padanti—like the wheel follows the foot of the beast of burden; like the wheel at one end of the cart shaft follows the foot of the yoked ox at the other end pulling the load. So however he pulls the load, for one day, or two, or five, or ten, or half a month, or a month, he is not able to avoid the wheel or leave it behind; now by moving forwards the yoke chafes his neck from the front, and by backing up the wheel strikes the flesh of his thigh from behind. In these two ways the chafing wheel dogs his footsteps; and in this very same manner an individual, established in a defiled mind, having fulfilled the three (kinds of) misconduct, has bodily and mental unease pursuing him, in places like hell, here and there, in this and that existence, with his misconduct at the root of it.

     At the conclusion of the verse, thirty thousand bhikkhus attained Arahantship with mastery of the discriminative knowledges. And for the assembled congregation the discourse was of much benefit, and bearing much fruit. 

The story of the Elder Protector of Vision, the first. 
     Thus ends the official commentary to the first verse of the Dhammapada. Now I suppose I should add some of my own comments to the story itself, and, like the commentary itself, end up with the verse.
     The conception of Cakkhupāla is attributed to the protection of a tree spirit, or tree-dwelling deva. The reality of tree-dwelling devas is taken for granted in the Pali texts; for example, the rule of monastic discipline forbidding monks from damaging green plants reportedly came to being because a monk had inadvertently maimed a young tree spirit while chopping a tree. Their reality is still taken for granted in places like Myanmar, where large trees are often seen with an accompanying shrine to the resident spirit, and with people occasionally making offerings and prayers. They supposedly are members of the Realm of the Four Great Kings, which is the plane of existence immediately above the human level in the scheme of the 31 planes of existence, being approximate equals to the ancient Greek nymphs and satyrs.
     Throughout most of the course of the story, Gotama Buddha is staying at the monastery of Jetavana, or “the Jeta Grove,” apparently one of his favorite places. The story of how the rich businessman Anāthapiṇḍika bought it is well known: Wanting to provide the Buddha with a good place near Sāvatthi, and liking the looks of a park owned by a Prince Jeta, he approached the prince and offered to buy it. The prince, being greedy and/or not really wanting to part with the property, told Anāthapiṇḍika that he would sell it for the amount of money required to cover the entire area. The magnate, with price being no object in his generosity to the Buddha, called for cartloads of the standard unit of monetary currency in those days, the silver kahāpaṇa, and covered the entire Jetavana with 540 million of them. (The fact that kahāpaṇas were square rather than round facilitated his completely obscuring the ground with them. If we assume that one kahāpaṇa is one square inch in size, then the area covered would amount to 86 acres.) Thus the prince reluctantly parted with the park, but gladly accepted the money. 
     The city of Sāvatthi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala, in the Buddha’s time one of the great powers of northern India, along with Magadha (the latter of which eventually expanded to include almost all of the Indian subcontinent under the Mauryan Empire). But although it was the capital of a great nation, the claim by the commentary that it had a population of seven koṭis, or 70 million people, is exaggerated to the point of sheer impossibility. It may be that, at the time, all of India did not have a population that large. And of course, in ancient times, without modern urban planning, sanitation, transportation of food, advanced agricultural techniques, etc. etc., it is hardly likely, to say the least, that a single city could have a population exceeding that of modern New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo combined. Add to this the claim that 50,000,000 of the population were Ariyas, or Buddhist saints who had had at least a glimpse of Nirvana, and we’re smack in the midst of Fantasy Land. I have read that, historically, Sāvatthi was known as a stronghold for the Ājīvakas, an ascetic philosophical school rivaling Buddhism and, in those days, more popular than same. But this claim of 50 million Ariyas in one city may represent not only an exaggeration of heroic proportions but a sign that, early on, the term Ariya (and especially the term sotāpanna) had a different meaning than it came to have in the developed system of Theravadin orthodoxy. Sotāpanna in particular could have meant simply that a person had entered the stream of a spiritual life and become a Buddhist, not that the person was already almost enlightened and a superhuman being, as it came to mean later. But, again, heroic tales are laden with exaggerations to add to the grandeur of the scale, to make things extraordinary and “larger than life,” and to help them be heroic. (Incidentally, I walked over the site of Sāvatthi, “City of Wonders,” when I was in India more than twenty years ago, and all that remained of it was a scrubby hill populated by goatherds, goats, and three old temples, two of them Buddhist if I remember correctly, and the other one Jain. Aside from the old temples, and a faint outline of what used to be the city walls, the only other indication that there had ever been a great metropolis there was the fact that the ground, if one looked at it closely, appeared to be composed largely of brick fragments. Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā.)

Sāvatthi, “City of Wonders,” as it looks today (photo from Wikipedia)

     The account of the “obligation of texts” (“Having learned, in accordance with the capacity of one’s own wisdom, one or two collections (nikāye), or even the whole of the Three Baskets, and the memorization, recitation, and expounding of it…”) is also probably an anachronism, since it is unlikely that, in the Buddha’s own lifetime, his teachings were already formulated into a Tipitaka, with scholar monks memorizing it by heart. This is more probably an invention of later scholar monks, who preferred being scholars to being actual serious practitioners of the system. And the finalized, standardized system itself, it should be borne in mind, is more a product of these scholars than of the actual practitioners. The situation in Buddhist Asia remains pretty much the same to this day. The scholars speak with a much louder voice than the people seriously following the system, who often prefer to remain silent. Also, it strikes me as odd that venerable Cakkhupāla would have waited until he had been ordained for five years before asking what the obligations of monkhood are. But stories, and sometimes even scriptures, require a certain suspension of disbelief.
     The claim that the Elder and his sixty companions walked 2000 yojanas is yet another howling exaggeration, considering that a yojana is somewhere between 7 and 13 miles (depending upon which authority makes the calculations—the Burmese measurement, based upon the commentaries, is 13). The measure is supposedly the distance that a team of bullocks can pull a plow in one day. So if we are to take this seriously, the venerable Elder and his companions walked approximately as far as the circumference of the entire Earth. Burlingame, in his translation of the text, renders it “twenty leagues” instead of 2000, which would be much more likely, and may have been the original figure before some author “heroicized” the details of the story.  
     The four bodily postures discussed by the monks before the rains residence begins are reclining, sitting, standing, and walking. Elder Cakkhupāla has chosen to avoid lying down as an optional ascetic practice, or dhūtaṅga. There are still monks to this day who never lie down. My own teacher, ven. Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya Sayadaw, for instance, never lay down until he had no choice, during his final illness. 
     So the reason why ven. Cakkhupāla does not recover from his ailment by using the medicine is that, after putting the nose drops up his nose, because he remains in an upright position the medicine simply drips back out his nose, and has no effect. It would be easy to point out that he could have just tilted his head back, so that the medicine would stay up his nose…but Cakkhupāla was a hero, and heroes don’t play by our rules. If they did, they wouldn’t be heroes.
     Why does the Elder so obstinately keep his mouth shut when the healer questions him about how he took the medicine? This is another aspect of dhūtaṅga practice. The Visuddhimagga, for example, exhorts bhikkhus to keep their dhūtaṅga secret, like a thief conceals his hidden treasure. In fact according to that text he should inform only his own teacher of it, or some other respected Elder before whom he declares his intention. There is a story of two monks sharing a cabin. One of them is a practitioner of “the sitter’s practice,” and the other is not. One night there is a thunderstorm and, during a flash of lightning, the non-sitter sees the other sitting upright in the middle of the night. He asks him, “Do you do the sitter’s practice, friend?” Whereupon the other, who had not been horizontal in years, immediately lies down and says “No.” Then the very next night he starts the sitter’s practice again. So Cakkhupāla, although stubbornly silent with the healer, was a bit lax in his practice by informing all of his companions about his resolution for the rains retreat. 
     The healer’s struggles to talk some sense to the Elder represent one of the more interesting and poignant themes in the story, in my opinion. The theme in question is that of worldly common sense butting heads with saintliness. First it was the Elder’s brother trying to talk him out of his rash decision to throw his wealth and worldly life away, then it is the healer trying to get him to lie down for the sake of his health, and later on in the story it is the nephew trying to persuade the Elder that by not continuing on his way with him he is practically committing suicide. But to a saintly being like Cakkhupāla, such common sense is seen more as an obstacle and hindrance to the Goal than as anything else. It is a kind of paradox that in order to have what it takes to be a genuine saint, essentially a superhuman being, one must have at least a touch of irrational, wild-eyed fanaticism; being purely sensible is just too lukewarm to make the grade. While reading the story it struck me that the younger brother, the healer, and the nephew speak with the most modern voices in the story; modern people probably can relate to them better than to someone like Buddha, Cakkhupāla, or the faithful villagers. Cakkhupāla in this sense is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, who exasperates modern readers by being so damn christlike—simply forgiving people who try to swindle or even kill him, and continuing to love them like brothers. Favoring worldly common sense has become very much the fashion in modern times, which helps to account for why genuine saints have become such an endangered species. Worldly common sense has evolved into an overwhelming juggernaut.
     When it is said that the Elder became a “dry-visioned” arahant, what it means, primarily, is that he became an enlightened being not endowed with psychic powers such as the ability to remember his own past lives. Traditionally it is Vipassana meditators who make this attainment, with cultivators of jhāna getting the psychic powers. But also, of course, it’s a kind of play on words, since a blind man is “dry-visioned.” I’m not sure about Pali, but in Burmese the word for the eyes going blind is the same as the word used to describe a well or stream going dry in the hot season. So we have some poetic imagery here. Also, I may as well point out that it would appear that the Elder became enlightened while practicing walking meditation. Walking meditation should not be neglected.
     Another significant and somewhat poignant theme of the story, for me anyway, is the faithful support, often extreme faithful support, of the lay community. Although the tale is rife with exaggerations, the laypeople begging monks to stay, doing all they can to support them, and rolling on the ground in tears when they go, is not necessarily an exaggeration. To this day there are still devout Buddhist laypeople like this living in Asian villages. On the other, more cynical hand, it does appear that the praise of very supportive laypeople like Anāthapiṇḍika, the occasional assertions that they attain great prosperity and happiness, even sainthood, as a result of their merit, and the contrary assertions for those who are lax in their support, could be seen as a kind of monkish propaganda. A predominant theme of the text Petavatthu, or “Ghost Stories,” for example, is the rather propagandist idea that you will be reborn as an afflicted spirit if you do not conscientiously and unfailingly support the Bhikkhu Sangha with all that it needs, and that you may become a deva if you do. Such teachings are also staple fair for Burmese laypeople listening to the sermons of Burmese sayadaws. But still, it’s not entirely a bad thing. Rather than excessive, zealous, unquestioning support for monks in the West, practically the opposite situation prevails there, so that if Asian immigrants suddenly stopped supporting the Bhikkhu Sangha in the West, it would probably collapse, and very quickly. From what I have seen, the generosity of American lay communities is insufficient to provide a single monk with a daily bowl of food. This, combined with the aforementioned worldly common sense that is in fashion, has contributed to make Western bhikkhus another endangered species, with the total population amounting to only a few hundred throughout the world—fewer than mountain gorillas. So, better too much generous support than not enough. If you support monks you may be reborn as a deva.
     The “concluding invitation ceremony” mentioned twice in the story is a formal act of the Sangha called pavāraṇā, held on the last day of the three-month rains residence, in which all the monks who have spent the residence together invite each other to admonish them with regard to their lapses in monastic discipline. This ceremony has degenerated into a meaningless formality in Burmese monasticism, with, as an unspoken rule, nobody answering each other’s invitation, since the proportion of Burmese monks who actually try to follow the rules of monastic discipline is somewhere around 2%, with the corresponding proportion of Burmese monks in the West, from what I have seen, being approximately 0%. Many of them do take the “obligation of texts” very seriously, though; and many Burmese monks are phenomenal scholars, with very few Western Buddhists capable of rivaling even a mediocre Burmese monastic scholar. They are very dogmatic by Western standards, and don’t exercise much critical thought, but they know the texts forwards and backwards, including even the rules of discipline that they don’t follow.
     When it is said that monks are fully enlightened with “mastery of the discriminative knowledges” (paṭisambhidā), the meaning is essentially that not only are they enlightened, but they also understand Dhamma systematically and in fine detail, so that they are able to expound it fully. This detail is a hint of the predominant intellect- and system-orientation of the commentarial literature.
     One interesting problem which the story brings up is the case of Arahants, fully enlightened beings, who are desirous of seeing the Buddha. Wouldn’t an Arahant be without desire? There are various ways of looking at the issue. It is my understanding that, according to orthodox tradition, an Arahant may still have good desires, such as a desire to pay respect to the Buddha, but no longer has unskillful or bad desires, such as a desire to hit somebody, have sex, or put sugar on one’s cereal to make it taste better. But as I see it, desire is desire, and wanting to see the Buddha is still desire, which an Arahant should have risen above. So I consider one plausible explanation to be that, an Arahant still experiences all sorts of feelings, in accordance, perhaps, with brain physiology or the momentum of past karma, but that, being perfectly mindful, the karmic power of those feelings is neutralized. They feel the desire, but they do not identify with it or allow themselves to be attached to it. Another explanation of the enlightened beings being desirous of seeing the Buddha is that this story is just a legend. The desirous Arahants might fit into the same category as the 50 million saints living in Sāvatthi.
     With regard to Him of the Ten Powers and to the eighty Great Elders, the One of Ten Powers is of course the Buddha. I’m really not into lists, so if you want to know what those ten powers are you’ll have to find it elsewhere, like here. I will say, though, that the first power, allegedly, is omniscience. The eighty Great Elders are the eighty monks who were the most eminent of the Buddha’s disciples, not including the two Chief Disciples, vens. Sāriputta and Mahā Moggallāna. Each of them was foremost in some regard or another; for example, ven. Mahā Kassapa was foremost in dhūtaṅga, or ascetic practice, following all of them at the highest level, ven. Upāli was foremost in mastery of monastic discipline, and ven. Sivalī was foremost in fortuitously receiving requisites. (Consequently, images of the fortunate Sivalī are common in Burma, and I think in Thailand also, as talismans of good luck. He is always portrayed as standing and holding a fan, alms bowl, and walking stick.) Most of the good monks mentioned in the Pali texts are members of this group, with the group itself presumably being an anachronism, developed with the growth of legend.

a "good luck charm" representing ven. Sivalī

     Speaking of Elders, I may as well point out that, technically, the venerable Elder Protector of Vision was not really an Elder, since an Elder, or Thera, is a monk who has been ordained for at least ten rains, and, by the time of the end of the story, ven. Cakkhupāla had completed only his sixth. But he was a saint, and a great hero besides, so the title is probably honorary.
     Sakka, King of Gods, owner of the levitating Paṇḍukambala Throne, is none other than Indra, star of the Rig Veda and patron deity of the early Indo-Aryan proto-Hindus. His profound change of heart and conversion to Buddhism is pretty obviously a supreme example of machiavellian religious propaganda indulged in by the early Buddhist systematizers—but we needn’t dwell on that. The point of the throne heating up is that, evidently, when someone performs an act of tapas or spiritual austerity so intense that no ordinary being could accomplish it, the throne, by some invisible connection, becomes so hot that Sakka/Indra cannot sit on it in comfort. So in such a case he is bound to help that person, if only so he can sit down again. Although in this case he is given the further incentive of not wanting his head to split apart. 
     One little point in the story which is of interest to the biologist in me is the little indagopaka bugs that the venerable Elder steps on while doing his walking meditation. The bugs are red, and come out of the ground after a heavy rain. Now, the climate, flora, and fauna of upper Burma is very similar to that of the ancient Ganges Valley, and in Burma the only creatures that fit this description are not insects but a kind of large, velvety, vermillion-colored ground mite which the Burmese call nat thami po (“goddess bug”) or nat thami khun thwei po (“goddess betel spit bug”). At the beginning of the rainy season they come out in great numbers and can be seen slowly bumbling all over the place. If this is the right creature, however, then the story is guilty of one more, minor, anachronism, since the Elder steps on them at the end of the rainy season, whereas, as a rule, they come up out of the ground only at the beginning of the monsoon. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Indra’s cowherds are supposed to be. Despite being arachnids, like spiders, they’re totally harmless and kind of cute, in a creepy sort of way. I like them, and bless them when I see them. May they be well and happy.
     On the one hand this story is a kind of fairy tale replete with gross exaggerations, blatant anachronisms, and flat-out impossibilities, from a modern, Western point of view; but then again, that is the style of ancient heroic legends, and besides, the story also is an interesting one with some subtlety as well as genuine wisdom. With regard to characterization, for example, there are some well-known personality types met with even today: the proud, pedantic doctor who considers his word to be law for his patients, the cocky, borderline-rude youth (the Elder’s nephew), the stern old fellow of few words that the nephew meets at the city gate, and at the end of the story the group of busybody monks wanting to play the tourist and stirring up trouble, this time by “tattling” on another monk to the Buddha. All in all, though, I would observe that the bulk of the story really doesn’t fit the context of the verse very well, at least not the commentarial interpretation of it, and I would guess that the story was fitted to the verse some time after the fact. The first verse of a Pali text is an important one, and the commentators needed a suitably good story to accompany it, so it may be that they chose this one regardless of whether or not it was really the inspiration for the verse. Technically, the Dhammapada is not considered by critically-minded scholars to be particularly ancient anyway, and is certainly not included in the oldest “core texts,” so most of the Dhammapada itself may not represent what the Buddha actually taught—not in his own words anyway. But it doesn’t matter. Authenticity, and even objective truth, let alone worldly common sense, are really not the point. The point is this: Does it help you to Wake Up? 
     And now back to the word-by-word exegesis of “Dh.1” that started this post. This part is the “anticommentary” I warned you about. Most of the explanatory stuff has already been inserted, in blue print, but there is one longer observation I will make here, and that is with regard to the commentarial interpretation of the word dhammā, as in “dhammā are preceded by mind.”
     The reader may have noticed that, after defining the word dhammā, or “dharmas,” in the verse as the three aggregates of mental states (in Abhidhammic jargon, cetasikā)—perceptions, feelings, and every other kind of mental state—the commentator then has to explain why the Buddha would say such a thing as “mind precedes mental states” when technically it isn’t true, considering that mind and mental states do not occur one after the other but simultaneously. The verse is interpreted to have the meaning that consciousness is more important than mental states, which seems rather odd, and which appears to have nothing to do with the story of Cakkhupāla. I accept that it is possible that this is the originally intended meaning of the verse, but being a critically-minded Westerner I have little choice but to be skeptical.
     It is true that the commentary provides other possible meanings for dhamma, i.e. virtue, practical philosophy, and mastery of Buddhist literature, but there are still more possible meanings for the term. In fact dhamma is one of the vaguest terms in the Pali language, and can mean just about anything. Literally it is related to the verb dharati, meaning to bear, to support; so dhamma literally means something along the lines of that which bears or holds up. One of its earliest, pre-Buddhistic meanings was “law,” possibly in the sense of that which holds up society, or that which must be upheld by the individual living in society. As a Buddhist philosophical term it came to mean, like Spinoza’s substance or “sub-stance,” that which stands under and holds up the apparent qualities of experiential phenomena. So dhamma can mean something as general as “phenomenon” or “thing.” Add to this that, as I have read somewhere or other, dhamma interpreted as “mental state” as opposed to consciousness itself appears to be a Buddhist innovation, and may not have originated with the Buddha himself, and it becomes more plausible that the first verse of the Dhammapada was originally saying something quite different from what the commentator would have us believe.
     If dhammā is interpreted generally as “phenomena,” or, as I have it, “ways of being,” then what we’ve got is a more radically idealist interpretation, which is also more in harmony with the origin story. Even the most traditional, orthodox Theravada Buddhism admits that karma is a mental state which conditions everything pleasant or unpleasant that we experience in life; so in this sense our own mind creates our destiny. But Abhidhamma, which according to non-Burmese authorities did not come  directly from the Buddha himself but gradually arose over the course of a few hundred years, adopted materialist ideas that were commonly accepted in ancient Indian philosophical circles; and since Abhidhammist interpretations and jargon permeate the commentarial literature, the idea that the world is an outward projection of our own inner “issues” was largely downplayed in favor of a more materialistic, more mechanistic, more classically “scientific” explanation of Samsara. Mind is still a major player of course, but it must stay in line with all of the other “ultimate realities” posited by Abhidhamma. But if dhammā in this famous verse really means worldly phenomena and not just cetasikā, then the message of the first two lines is not merely a technical quibble over the relationship between mind and mental states, but an overt assertion that we are creating our own reality; that we make our own bed, and then we lie in it.
     One moral of this story—not the story of venerable Elder Protector of Vision, but the story of commentary—is that there is some benefit to be had from reading the commentarial literature. Many of the stories are fascinating, and provide a kind of cultural atmosphere for the philosophy found in the suttas. In order to understand something, it is good to learn as much about it as possible; and stories like the ones in the Dhammapada commentary contribute to a comprehension of Buddhist culture much in the same way as the stories of Samson and Delilah or Lazarus rising from the dead themselves constitute significant bricks in the edifice of Western culture. Also, if one is reading a Pali text and comes across a strange word or incomprehensibly convoluted sentence, the commentaries may help. Sometimes their guess may be no better than yours, but sometimes they get it right. On the other hand, confusing Buddhism with Buddhaghosism can be a serious stumbling block for someone wanting to understand what the Buddha really taught. A real understanding of Dhamma doesn't come from books, not even from the Tipitaka itself.

Indra’s cowherd


  1. What is the one unchanging constant that remains with us from birth until death?

    1. Is this a trick question?

      From the perspective of Theravada, ultimately, there is no unchanging constant. There are some things which could be said to be a constant from a conventional point of view, like impermanence, unease, and no self, and I suspect that, in a sense, bare consciousness could be a constant, but if we want to be orthodox, then there is no unchanging constant. All conditioned things are inconstant.

  2. Yes, it is a trick question! The answer is in combining the words birth and death - breath!
    Perhaps, from a physical point of view, that is why awareness of breathing patterns can calm and center us or when we are unfocused and breathing erratically.

    1. Well, if you want to consider breath to be a life-long constant, I could come up with a dozen more that would also fit the description. How about a heartbeat? That would be more constant than breathing, considering that one can hold one's breath, whereas stopping one's heart is more difficult and life-threatening. From the traditional Buddhist point of view, chronic unease would be another one of these.

  3. Ok, two constants, discounting the details of the rest of the cardiovascular system.

  4. I am Curious about the interpretation that sotapanna could have meant something totally different in the early times. So if I understood it correctly it could describe a person who has taken refuge and wants to go against the stream of worldly/material by sincerely practising the eightfold path and doing their best to uphold 5precepts and on occasion the 8 precepts? If so there may be people like this in the modern age bit I would they have seen the hardest thing I.e the self as per the formula? or was the bar always high and unattainable by a person living in the west?

    1. It wouldn't mean so much going against the stream of worldly life as entering the stream of a spiritual life. It wouldn't necessarily fit into any stock formula. It would mainly just mean conversion of one's orientation to a life of Dharma, or just conversion to Buddhism. I don't think Western people are unable to live dharmic lives, although it is somewhat more difficult since Western cultural conditioning has become so un-dharmic.

  5. So if one does enter a more dhammic life whilst living in a western country, how do you know what sign posts are if there is no stock formula wrt to "progress"? Great post btw allot of new things to learn

    1. If living one's life in spiritual terms becomes the most important aspect to one's life, then I would consider that a pretty good signpost. But I'm not insisting that becoming a sotapanna necessarily had exactly this or that meaning originally. I have just considered that it may originally have been less extraordinary than becoming an almost enlightened saint, based upon a few statements here and there in the texts. I may someday get around to writing a blog post on the subject.

  6. Perhaps I should have worded it 'the most immediate constant' regarding breath. Although the heart continues to beat when one holds their breath it is the air from that breath that keeps the heart beating.

  7. So there is a distinction between breath (the air taken in by the lungs) and breathing (the mechanical action of the lungs).

    1. You can breathe all the way out and hold it that way too. Also, you could argue the other way round: It's the beating of our heart that allows us to take those breaths. It is true that the ancient Indian yogis had a thing for the vital essence of prana, but really, nowadays you could be hooked up to a machine that automatically oxygenates your blood without you having to breathe at all. There are lots of processes which are vital to biological life, and breathing, or rather gas exchange, is only one of them. But I'm not sure what all this has to do with the article.

  8. Well, it started as a 'trick question' but it's way out of breath now.

  9. Regarding Dhammapada first verse, it got my mind confused for an hour after reading your analysis of the relationship between mind and mind states. I never thought of it so complicated. From the first time I read W. Rahula's translation, I understand it as if the mind is defiled, suffering soon follows and vice versa. First four verses are related and I read it as a whole. If one get too technical in interpretating ancient materials one's mind get stuck. Words and sentences formation themselves are subjective in interpretation. The more one think the more one engaged in mental proliferation. Cultural, temporal and karmic differences all affect our perception at any one point.

    Breath and heart beat are both vital signs of being alive. But only breath but not heart beat can be used as a meditation object. And when breath slows down and become really subtle, paranormal phenomena can occur......:).