This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which have particularly resonated with me.
If you’d like to explore further, I’ve also written a commentarial blog post about this talk and we’ve produced a podcast episode on it (Episode 2, if you’re already subscribed). I’d love to hear what you think!
Now, without further ado…
The following talk was given at the insight meditation center in Redwood City, California, please visit our website at audiodharma.org.
Tony [Bernhard?]: This is a particular treat for me to have John Peacock here with us today. And what can I say about John? John has been a monastic, in both the Tibetan and Theravadan traditions. He’s a scholar who translates in more languages than I can recognize… that’s probably true. And is currently… [is it] “Senior Mentor”? Is that your title?
John Peacock: No, no, I’m going to be Director of Master of Studies at Oxford University on [the] Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course.
Tony: There we go. And I guess I’m just gonna let John introduce himself and the subject matter, which will become clear shortly.
John: I hope it’ll become clear shortly. Well, I just want to thank the Sati center, and particularly Tony for inviting me to come here. It took him a while to get me here, but he’s got me here eventually.
What am I going to do today with you? Well, for a start off, one of the things I’m going to do is be contentious. Because I want you to engage in a conversation with me now. At the start of this procedure, the conversation is going to be rather one sided because I’m going to be providing you with quite a bit of information. But hopefully as we go through, it will develop into much more of an interactive thing and by the second day, tomorrow, I want it to be more interactive. Because I really want you to engage with material. Because in many ways, some of the things that I’m trying to do is to **strip a lot of Buddhist teaching of its religiosity.** To get it back to something, _perhaps_, and I do say “perhaps” because there’s no guarantee of this at all. So I put the perhaps even in scare quotes, perhaps to something closer to what the Buddha was actually doing.
Now part of that, really getting back to some kind of origins, involves understanding a lot about the Buddha’s background. Now I’ve obviously only got a short amount of time with you. So I can only do a certain amount of that. But one of the things, and I think was even in the little blurb that was written about this weekend was: of course, that **Buddhism does not arise in a vacuum.** Nothing comes out of nothing. Unfortunately, and this is actually what started me off on doing this with, particularly with Dharma groups. Because I didn’t used to do this with Dharma groups at all years ago. I only used to do this in academic contexts. Particularly when I was teaching Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol. Was to talk about the Indian civilization, background to the way the Buddha taught. But it became increasingly clear to me that a) most Dharma practitioners hadn’t got a clue about where Buddhism arose from, or how it arose.
And how in particular, I think this is a very important element, and I’ll come back to this probably tomorrow. But I’m gonna hold it out as a promissory note at this point. Which is that **the Buddha engaged absolutely intensively with his culture. And that’s what we need to do with our culture. If Buddhism is to become part of Western culture, in all of its varieties, North America, Europe and everything else, then it’s got to engage intensively with our cultures. This is what the Buddha actually did with his own culture. He engaged in this really deep dialectical tradition of looking at and critiquing what was going on there. Now the reason I say this, and I’m just going to say this very briefly at this stage, is if we want Buddhist practice or Buddhist values, rather than Buddhism, I actually don’t like that word. I mean, what does Buddhism actually mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. It was an invention of the Western Academy. It was an invention of academics, primarily. If anything really what Buddhism means simply “wake up-ism”. That’s all it means. Actually, that’s not too bad. I’d actually prefer wake-up-ism to Buddhism.**
**The Buddha engaged intensively with his culture. And if we want Buddhist values, or this thing that we call Buddhism, I can’t really dispense with the word even though I’d like to. If we want it to be part and parcel of what’s going on in, again, this big conversation, which is Western culture, in all of its changes at the moment and all of its turmoil. If we want it to become _not_ what I would call a rarefied hothouse flower that needs special conditions for its survival. when you buy these, particularly in Northern Europe, when we buy these things from California, we try to grow them in our gardens, they just die. You have to keep them in greenhouses and especially warm conditions for them to survive. And I see that going on with a lot of the traditions of Buddhism in the West. I’ve seen Tibetan Buddhist practitioners who look more Tibetan than Tibetans. And Theravadan practitioners who look more Theravadan and most Thais I know. It’s something about taking on this other culture rather than engaging with our own. I’m saying that right at the beginning because, in a way, that’s what we’re leading up to via this examination of the early Buddhist material. **
Now, what I’m saying is also, and where I’m speaking from, are the texts of the Nikayas. For those of you not familiar with it, these are the five basic elements of the Pāli Canon. “Nikayas” or “collections”. Pretty arbitrarily arranged actually. There was no real order to the way that the Pāli Canon was arranged. Middle length discourses, long discourse, one connected by topic, and one by graduated numbers. And then anything else that couldn’t be collected in those was bundled into the fifth Nikaya called the Khuddaka Nikaya. In England I call this the Nikaya of odds and sods. That they couldn’t actually put in anything else. There’s a lot of old texts actually, in this particular Nikaya. [¹] So this is where I’m speaking from. Going back to these texts, again, something I’d like to say right at the very outset, what we have in this material, the Nikaya material, some of which is very, very ancient. None of it actually written down in the Buddha’s lifetime, as I’m sure many of you will know. [This] is **an absolute goldmine of material, which I think, and this is my own personal view, and hopefully I’ll express this with you as I go through, material which has never really been utilized by the traditions.** The Theravada tradition, and this was part of the title, which is “Buddhism before Theravada”, **the Theravada tradition, let’s make it very, very clear. The Theravada tradition as we have it in all of its manifestations in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, all these places that it went to, is quite a recent product. It’s a product of the fifth century,** basically.
[¹]:(How do we know this is true? Who’s doing this research? Maybe it’s in The Shape of Ancient Thought?
**This figure called Buddhaghosa. Who writes this encyclopedic manual called the Visuddhimagga in Pāli, the “Path of Purification” or the “Path to Purity”. He really is the founder of Theravada as we know it. We know very, very little about what came before. In fact, Theravada is a later appellation. This tradition was called the Vibhajjavādans originally, which basically is a tradition of arguers. Who basically went around arguing and debating material. And if any of you are familiar with the Abhidhamma, you’ll find a book in the Abhidhamma called the Kathavatthu, which is the “Points of Controversy”. And that is them arguing with other Buddhist traditions of that period. **
However, before we get into this, let’s take you right back. Let’s go right back to ancient India at the time of the Buddha. **Ancient India at the time of the Buddha is a time of change**. Well, you’d expect that wouldn’t you, given that’s one of the Buddha’s basic teachings. But it’s changing. It’s a society which is in turmoil. It’s changing from, basically, republican states into more centralized power, monarchical figures. It’s going from an agrarian rural economy into a centralized city economy at this point in time.
So we have a culture which is in turmoil, it’s in ferment. And much of this is reflected if you go through the canon. If you through the canon, you’ll find that there is interactions between the Kosalans and the Vajjians and all of these different groups which are there all vying for power, all vying for territory. Now, all of this comes to fruition in the third century BCE, when of course, Ashoka unites most of northern India. Actually most of India, and he is the largest unifier of the Indian subcontinent under one rule up until the Mughals in the 17th century. So he is the person who brings it all together.
Now, one of the things perhaps I ought to say at this stage is: actually Ashoka probably isn’t that far off from the Buddha’s death. Recent scholarly evidence [²] does _not_ put the Buddha’s date of death as about 483, which is the classic dating. Which is dated, actually, on a Sri Lankan text called the Mahavamsa. And there’s absolutely no reason why we should date the Buddha’s death at this point at all based on this ancient Chronicle. Because it’s more of a mythology anyway. The Buddha’s death is probably, and it’s been very forcibly argued, and anybody who wants the kind of references to the stuff at the end, please come and see me about it. His death has been dated more around 400 BCE. So puts him much closer to the Ashokan period [c. 268–232?] than ever before. There were probably people in the Ashokan period who either met the Buddha or knew people who did in that period.
[²]:What scholarly evidence? Who/What/Where does one find this?
The culture is in ferment. And one of the big actual aspects of the ferment that was going on in northern Indian culture at this time was religious. I hesitate to use that word because, actually, this is again another Western word. **And if there’s anything I’d like to do, it’s actually reform all of the words we use in Buddhism. Because hardly any of them actually ever mean what the Pāli terms mean. Or the Sanskrit terms mean. They were invented by Pāli scholars in the 19th century, and they cannot be blamed for it, because they were drawing on the only culture they knew, which was obviously Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity. And they drew upon and derived the vocabulary primarily from that. So most of the classic vocabulary we have that translates Buddhist terms is wrong. I wouldn’t even say just partly wrong, sometimes just completely wrong. And it gives a very misleading perception of what Buddhism was at this early stage. And it makes it look, and this is the reason why I’m saying this, it makes it religious. **
**Religion in that sense, the sense that we have of it in the West, isn’t really what they have in India and in the Indian subcontinent, even to this day, in many aspects. For example, most western religions, particularly the Middle Eastern religions would be described primarily as orthodoxies. They’re about what you subscribe to in belief systems. A classic example, and I don’t want to point the finger at any particular religious tradition, but I’m just using this as an example. A classic example is the Christian catechism. The Christian catechism tells it what it is to be a Christian. So you subscribe to a set of propositions, which you believe in. And most religious traditions in that sense are exactly that. They’re about particular propositions which are subscribed to as a belief system. And that is really what marks you out as a member of that church or that religious organization.**
**Whereas actually, in India, what we have are not orthodoxies, but ortho-praxies. Orthopraxies. They’re about what you _do_ rather than what you believe.** For example, Hindus, even today, are more defined by what they do than by what they believe. If any of you have ever been to India, … you will know that if you meet, for example, a Hindu from South India, and accept what they say about Hinduism and then go to northern India and look at what’s going on there and talk to Hindus in northern India, you’ll think of them as being almost completely different religious traditions. They will not look the same at all. And actually being Hindu is about, and this is where I want to get to to really start what I’m saying, is about what you do. That is what marks you. So actually Hindus from north and south have very, very different belief systems.
And I actually had a Hindu say to me once when I was doing some research out in India, I asked him what he believed. He said, “Believe? What’s that got to do with it? I’m marked out as being Hindu by what I do. Do I perform my rituals, my religious rituals, my rights, that I have to do?” And if you go back into ancient Indian society, this is the very origin of, not Hinduism, because actually and again I often say this, **[Hinduism is] wrongly attributed to the time of the Buddha. Hinduism did not exist at the time of the Buddha. What did exist at the time of the Buddha is something called Brahmanism.** Brahmanism is literally the religion of the highest class of Indian society. The Brahmins. And the Brahmins were traditionally scholars and priests. This is what they did. This was their job description as being part of that class. And more effectively, what they refer to themselves as, as did three of the other classes of Indians … they refer to themselves as “arya”.
This word, [“arya”,] which in Pāli and Sanskrit, “Aryan” which is the more familiar to most people, the Sanskritic term, is actually meaning “noble”. In fact this is the way that these people of northern India refer to themselves. As noble. And you were noble by being born into a particular race of people. And you were more noble If you happen to be at the top of the pile in Indian society. I’m sure we can think about this in terms of Western societies. We consider that there are those who think themselves noble by literally being born, for example, in Britain, into the aristocracy. Or being born into a certain moneyed strata of society. They consider themselves somehow above people. So actually, this doesn’t look so ancient when you look at it. It tends to be a human trait, to try and elevate yourself above others in some way or another.
Now, early Indians, known as Aryans, and the Aryan society was, basically, and the old story about this was they were people originated probably somewhere around the Caucasus and migrated down into northern India displacing the original population, who now form, basically, the southern Indian population. Because the languages [that] the Northern Indians brought with them, the Aryans, were Sanskritic languages. And the languages that are a completely different linguistic group in the south of India, these are Dravidian languages. They do not look the same, they do not sound the same at all. They’re a completely different linguistic base to them. Pāli, by the way, is a northern Indian Sanskritic. It’s what’s called a middle indo-Aryan dialect. If you really want it. A middle indo-Aryan dialect. Middle defines it in terms of being either early, middle, or late. So, Hindi is an is a modern Indian dialect, whereas Vedic Sanskrit is an ancient Indian dialect. Pāli is a middle Indian. So it grows out of that tradition.
So these Aryans had a very highly stratified society. Often people think, particularly those of us who grew up in the hippie age, tend to have this kind of false premise that India was a country of light and loveliness. It wasn’t. Ancient India was a highly stratified, rigid society, which was stratified into four classes of society with the Brahmins at the top. And the group at the bottom, which actually was still within Aryan society, and a group outside of Aryan society, which were known as Chandala. Chandala which is literally what became the untouchables of Northern Indian society, who now form themselves and call themselves Dalits, the oppressed of Indian society.
So this stratified society, four major classes of society. At the Buddha’s time, and we have to get this clear because again I see this misrepresented, at the Buddha’s time this was not caste. This was the class of Indian society. These classes were known as Varna.
Varna where the classes of Indian society. And Indian society even to this day is organized into Varna classes. Now, “caste” By the way, for those who don’t know, is a Portuguese word. It’s not even an Indian word. It was the first Portuguese settlers who settled in Goa, trying to define what was going on in Indian society because they saw these classes, but they also saw all these different trades within these classes.
So let’s just give you the four classes; I won’t give you all the technical terms for them. The four classes are basically the, the priests and scholars, the rulers and warriors, which actually at the time of the Buddha was the highest class of Indian society. Hence the reason why the claim that he was born into a Katya class [Kshatriya or kṣatra], the ruler and warrior class of Indian society. Then you have a mercantile class or wealth generators. And then you have menials, who do all the laboring work in Indian society. And then you have those who are outside the system. And these were probably the indigenous population who were displaced. So, that’s a snapshot of Indian society.
And as I said, lest you think that it’s all light and loveliness, there is an injunction in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of these people, often that word is used synonymously with this early strata of Indian society. They’re called Vedic people, the people of the Vedas. The four classes of Indian society are the people of the Vedas. Now the Vedas are great fun to read. They’re not philosophical treatises. Many of them have involved bits of metaphysical speculation, but most of them are about very, very practical things. And they’re poems, basically. They are often translated as hymns. But they’re more poems. And they are so called “revealed texts” they are revealed to seers or rihshis or Kavya, poets. So the poet is like a conduit from the gods, who’s writing this stuff down. Or actually not writing it down at this period, but composing it in the ancient Aryan language of Sanskrit.
Sanskrit becomes a dominating language of Indian society. And the Brahmins in particular hold Sanskrit as their language. And it becomes, as we see through the history of Indian culture, it becomes the lingua franca of intellectuals and rulers in Indian society. Even to this day in contemporary India, you’ll find Brahmins still composing poetry in Sanskrit. If you go to Sanskrit drama of the classical period, you’ll find all of the rulers and the Brahmins and that speak Sanskrit. All of the ordinary people speak something called Prakrit. And Prakrit means “debased language”. Where Sanskrit means “pure language”. And by the time it gets written down the script is known as Devanagari. Devanagari, the script of the gods. So it’s all about elevation. This stratified society, and if I get nothing across to you out of all this, I just want you to hear, a highly stratified society. No social movement between stratas.
The idea being basically that you had what was called a place within the society. This was called am ashrama. A place within the society. And you had duties that went with your place within society. So in late Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, you’ll find Krishna, in his conversation with Arjuna, In the Bhagavad Gita saying things like, “It is better to do your duty badly within your own class group, than to do another’s duty well.” If you’re a ruler and a warrior, don’t think you can become a priest and a scholar, if you’re a menial, don’t aspire to be any of the higher classes within Indian society. In fact, this was the very thing that Indian society feared at this time. Was that this social cohesion of the stratified society would break down if there was social mobility within the different strata of Indian society. In fact, there’s a hymn, or poem, in the Rigveda, which says if anybody sticks their head up to want to be in another strata of society, chop it off. It’s that violent. And what Indian society, and the Vedas in particular, one of the chief aspects of that set of texts, is the idea of order within it. And they have this particular term for it, which is called Rita, which is literally the cosmic order.
Rita is the cosmic order. And I think this is based, very simply, if you look through the Vedas, and this is again, I’m just forming the background of the Buddha’s world view. If you like around the world, you’ll see things have an order to them. And much of, for example, in the poems in the Rigveda, which is the oldest out of all the Vedas, most of the poems in the Rigveda are about such things as the sun, the moon, the monsoon, the winds. I always joke about it and say if you stand still long enough you get deified in Indian society. Everything gets deified: trees and water and wood and fire. Agni is fire, which is actually related in Sanskrit to the word “to ignite” in English. It comes from the same linguistic root. And so everything is deified within Indian society, everything is stratified.
Now, in many ways, one thing that you find that probably is a better side of Indian society at this time, is they don’t see themselves separated from the cosmos. The society is ordered just as much, if you like, as the cosmic order of things. Why I said It’s probably arrived at from empirical observation is because if you live in India as I did for quite a number of years, what you will see is great order to things. Now with climate change it’s less so. But when I was living there, you could literally predict the day on which the monsoon was going to break. And if it didn’t something was very wrong with it. You would know when the cold season [would arrive]. Basically you have three seasons in India: you have a cold season, a hot season, and a wet season. And that’s it in northern India. And they actually come in very great regularity. Or did up to this point. The sun and the moon, the waxing and waning of both. That’s very, very regular. The wind, this has a regularity to it as well.
And so there’s a lot of perceived regularities and this what the ancient people of India were doing, was seeing that there’s regularity in nature and the cosmos. And actually they were great stargazers. So they looked at the movement of the stars and the heavens as well. And this is where their astrology started to form, out of this particular observation. But they perceived that there was this regularity within human society and this regularity wasn’t arbitrary. If you like, it was given. It was part of the cosmic order. And if any of you have ever been perplexed as I initially was when I first encountered Indian society in its modern form, was why is what we now call the caste system so intractable? Well it’s intractable because it has this long history; it goes back to: this is the order of things. This is not an arbitrary aspect to it.
Now I’ve given you a snapshot so far. But one other aspect to this stratification of Indian society is the lower down in society you come, the more impure you become. This has nothing to do with cleanliness. This has nothing to do with how many showers you have a day. This is a metaphysical purity or impurity. The Brahmins are considered to be metaphysically pure by birth. Going down, the less pure you become. How are you going to get from one aspect, from the impurity of the lower stratas of society into the highest stratas of society? Be a good member of whatever part of society you are [in], and this is much more later Vedic than Upanishadic thought, and hope that you get a better rebirth in the next life. So there’s a fatalism to this. You’re placed in a particular aspect of society where you are and you’re meant to fulfill your duties and become a good member of that. Even if it’s a good, I don’t know, toilet cleaner. That’s what you do. Do it well and then you might get a higher rebirth. I hope you’re getting a picture of why the Buddha critiqued all this.
However, elements of the Buddha’s teaching also go back to the idea of order because this is very ancient Sanskrit. “Rita” is the word that’s used in ancient Sanskrit. The word becomes, as the language evolves and changes into the classical period and more of the time of the Buddha, it becomes a word you’re all very familiar with. It’s the word “dharma”. The word “dharma” has, well in Buddhist connotations, and it has many different connotations, but the word dharma literally meant “law”. The great first translators of Sanskrit material in India who used to work for the British East India Company in India, and we’re actually coming from a strata of English society at that point, or British society at that point, which is mostly they were in the judiciary. They were lawyers, the first great Sanskrit translator was a judge. Why did they become interested in all this? Because they heard “dharma” being translated as “law”. That’s why they became interested in it. And so this word still has this connotation of “law” or “order” going through it, or, let’s come back to the way we hear it more in Buddhist circles, “the way things are”. There is a way to the universe and the way things are. Now this becomes obviously changed in the Buddha’s hands and formed into something else. Because he engages with, as you heard me say, every aspect of his society. One of the things he engages with incredibly, and this is something that is very difficult to get unless you’re looking at the original languages, in great engages intensely with the language of Indian society.
Now this order, Rita, how did you keep the order? Well you did it through ritual. Particularly ritual sacrifice. In very ancient India that would have been animal sacrifices, as it still is in, say, Nepal, in some forms of Hinduism. Nepalese Hinduism still has animal sacrifice within it. Probably even the very most ancient forms of Indian society had human sacrifice, usually of those who are outside of Aryan society. All of this, by the time of the Buddha, the more literal animal sacrifices, there are probably still some going on as well, had been transmuted, perhaps, into symbolic sacrifices. And the sacrifices were all done around ritual fires. Anybody been to a Hindu temple here? Go into a Hindu temple you always find a ritual fire burning. All the rites of passage are performed around it. If you go to a Hindu wedding, which is often when non-Hindus most are invited to these things, you will see that the Brahmin priests will sit at the fire and they will make offerings on the fire. They use things like sesame seed, ghee, clarified butter, coconut, all these things are placed on the fire. And what are they meant to do? They’re meant to keep the gods happy. Gods in the plural here? Not with a big G just with lots of small g’s. These are called devas. **What does the Buddha do? The first thing the Buddha does is he demotes the devas. The devas are no longer outside of saṃsāra. They’re placed within saṃsāra.** I’ll make that just as a point at this stage. He doesn’t dispense with them; he puts them in their place. As being part and parcel of saṃsāra.
So, ritual. Huge element of Indian society, all of these rituals. Literally you cannot even, if you’re a Brahmin, to this day, cannot do anything without doing ritual. And if you happened to, I don’t know, even have a shadow of an untouchable cast upon you, you have to go through rituals of purification. Gandhi, when he traveled to South Africa and became a lawyer in South Africa in the late 19th century, when he came back to India, and started the movement that brought about Indian independence, he had to engage in all sorts of rituals to gain back his class and caste status. Crossing the black water was something that basically created impurity.
Let me just sum up what I’v said so far. Highly stratified society, no social movement, a society that considers itself to be noble by birth, a society that, to keep this order and to keep the order of things within the natural world occurring in the way they are expected to occur, has ritual as its dominant element. As its dominant element within it. Everything is governed by ritual. If you go back to the Rigveda again, and you look at many of these poems in the Rigveda, you will find that they’re devoted to things like: May the monsoon arrive on time. Some of these poems. May I have a male child. That’ll give you a [view] of how Indian society was skewed. May I have a male child, not a female child. it was a very patriarchal society. And women basically had the status of slaves in Indian society. They are not like Hindu women to this day [who] have elements of power within the patriarchy. Women were considered to be chattels. It was a male dominated society.
All I’ve given you so far is just a little picture of Indian society. Perhaps one other element I ought to add in is: the whole purpose of living this way, of living and performing the rituals and to engage in keeping the order within society… I always think this [element?] of contemporary India, I always think is very amusing because ancient India had this absolute horror of chaos. Yet you go into an Indian city and it’s complete chaos, usually, in the modern world. But the whole purpose of all this was to live well. That’s what it was, to live well.
I’m not going to write this stuff on the board because I think you’ll just hear it how it comes out. Because **the Sanskrit for living well is “Suastika”. That’s the Sanskrit. The word which actually for _not_ living well is “Duastika”. That little word “du” comes into “dukkha”. Because the word “dus” is D-U-S in Sanskrit. This word “dus” has many many connotations. It means something dirty, something unpleasant, something painful. It had all of these connotations within it. And when we add the final bit to it to get the word which actually was one of the elements of Indian society which was “dukkha”. Then the “kha” part was “space”, the word “kha” meant “space”. So “dukkha” was a dirty space. A dirty place to be in. An unpleasant space to be in. And was often used in ancient Vedic society to refer to the hole into which an axle fitted in a wheel. And the hole was filled with dirt and grease and grit and went round and round and round.**
**The other connotation of the word “dukkha”, again from ancient Vedic Sanskrit, this is nothing that the Buddha invents. This is what’s there already, is of a wound inflicted by an arrow. Being hit by an arrow, and you pull out then and you’re left with a gaping hole there. So it has a sense of lack, as well. Something which is suppurating, too. Now, as you can see, this is why the word suffering simply does not do the word dukkha justice. No matter which way you want to look at it. “Suffering” is a very, very inadequate translation of this word “dukkha”. And I always say this to any dharma groups I teach these days, I’d like to naturalize this word. So we don’t have to go around explaining it all the time what dukkha actually means. Because it does not mean suffering. It means anything unpleasant or actually qualified by lack in your life.**
Getting away from the historical stuff, just a bit of Dharma teaching here for a second. Direct Dharma teaching. Dukkha is _what you’re experiencing right now_. Anything that you find you want to have changed at this moment in time as you sit there. As I drone on, it might be, “Oh, God when is he gonna stop?” It might be, “I wish the chairs were a bit more comfortable.” Or “I wish it was a bit warmer or a bit sunnier or a bit cooler.” Or whatever it might be. It’s whatever’s going on for you right now. Dukkha is not something happening in the future. Dukkha is what is going on for you right now.
Now, **the ancient Vedic people did not use it in quite that way. That’s very much what the Buddha does. He takes this distinct term which is found within the Vedas and he uses it in a particular way to describe a fundamental aspect of human existence. This is what he’s doing. He takes his starting point as something which is spoken about in Indian society and is something to be moved away from, dukkha, in experience, to go towards su, sukha, suastika, good life, a more blissful experience of life. And he defines it quite differently.** How this comes about.
Now, **the avoidance of dukkha in ancient Vedic society was by the performance of rituals. There was an awful lot of belief in the efficacy of the performance of rituals. I don’t know how good you are on your Pāli, but let’s test you for a second. Because rituals performed around the fire to keep everything going in the order, it was expected to be kept in, was actually, in Sanskrit, referred to as this. Yes. “Sanskara”. Or saṅkhāra in Pāli. So a saṅkhāra was literally, as the word in a prakrit, the word “saṅkhāra” literally meant a religious ritual that you engaged in, or a habit that you engaged in. I’m [?] engaging in samskaras; I’m keeping the world going in its order.**
**Now, the performance of your rituals, you either did well or you did badly. You either kept the gods happy or you didn’t. The outcome of that, another very familiar word that you know. And actually, even in more Pāli circles, we tend to use the Sanskritic forms this, which is this word, “Kharma”. So if you performed it well, that was good kharma. If you performed it badly, it was bad kharma. That was all that [was] meant. It was literally a kind of ritual, religious activity you engaged in, in order to create this cosmic harmony within the world. **
This is the sort of thing that the Buddha’s engaging in. This kind of language. However, before we get to that I’m going to give you one more bit of the jigsaw puzzle before moving on to the Buddha’s actual engagement within some of this stuff. Is that within a highly stratified society that I described and I only described as a kind of thumbnail sketch, within this highly stratified society, **what do you get within anything that tries to keep an order in place? Dissidents. You get people who basically try to buck the system in some way to get out of that system. While in Indian society, they did that by running off to the forests. These were the first dropouts. They were the first dropouts and they had a different vision about what it was to lead a good life and to gain purity, to not be reborn in particular unpleasant circumstances. And this became, eventually, it became a set of literature which is very ancient. Some of it goes back to the time of the Buddha. In fact, the Buddha quotes it. And he deliberately misquotes it. To make fun of it. And these are called Upanishads.**
Now the Upanishads, and the word “Upanishad” literally means to draw close and to listen. So they were obviously teachings given by individual teachers, and actually if you go to these very ancient Upanishads, you’ll find that’s exactly what they are. They’re teachings given by a particular teacher to a close group of disciples, usually within a forest setting. And interestingly, the first, well the two major first Upanishads, the most ancient ones that we can date historically, are written, or well composed. I keep saying written, they’re composed. Because this is all oral at this period of time. They’re composed roughly in the area where the Buddha lived. Pancha Kosala [?] lived In this area. In the forests of that area, so these would have been familiar to the Buddha. Or this figure who we call the Buddha. They are familiar from that particular area.
And the first one is called the Brihadaranyaka. Aranyaka is the Sanskrit word for forest. So it’s literally “a composition of the forest”. Interestingly, **you are seeing a breakup of society, because these are the dropouts. But you find that [on] just a few occasions in these early texts, particularly in the Brihadaranyaka, you find that there [are] a few women teachers occurring in it.** Not many, but you get a few popping up within it. So these are the dropouts. They have a different vision about Indian society. They pick up on some late metaphysical stuff within the Vedic tradition. They are more interested in knowing what future rebirths are going to be like, what it is that drives that mechanism of rebirth, or actually _reincarnation_ rather than rebirth in this instance [⁴] And they speculate about the nature of the universe. And they speculate about the nature of the human individual and its relationship with the nature of the universe.
[⁴]: (Some day I need to get clear about the difference between these two.)
**Two major terms they come up with is this, “Brahman” which describes the nature of whatever is. Everything is considered to be of one taste. And they call that Brahman. And Brahman comes from a word “to expand”, “to be expansive”. And within the individual, the word “Atman”. Which was of the same nature of Brahman. It was a little bit, if you like, of the universal within the individual. This was the whole idea. Both of these were considered to be unchanging. Fixed.**
**All change was considered, a word within the Upanishads that you very rarely get in Indian Sanskritic Buddhist texts, they were considered to be “Maya”. Maya this word, which means illusion. The real was considered to be unchanging. Anything that was changing was unreal. So, the phenomenal world that we inhabit was unreal**. Now, some of these texts, probably the first Brihadaranyaka was probably composed between 600 and 650 BCE. So it’s earlier than the Buddha. And it’s coming up with these terms. Interestingly enough, within Greek society, you’re getting similar ideas coming up. By the time you get to Plato, Socrates, you’re getting the idea of speculation about the nature of the real. And the real was considered to be that which didn’t change. And if you like, throughout the history of Eastern and Western thought there has, as Nietzsche says in one of his works, been a sort of revenge against time. Anything that was within time is considered to be unreal, and only that which doesn’t change is considered to be real.
Plato and Socrates do it in their own way by putting the real into a metaphysical reality. And in fact, in Indian society, these are the metaphysical realities of Indian society. **Brahman is defined as pure consciousness in some of the Upanashadic. Atman is described as that which is pure consciousness. The whole, kind of, movement within Upanashadic thinking was to reunite Atman with Brahman. Or see the lack of difference between the two.** And you find this pursued through the whole Advaita tradition which is based on these readings. **I would actually say [that] in later Buddhism, these ideas _infect_ later Buddhism, as well. And I use that term deliberately. Because they are basically Brahmanical, later Hindu ideas, that re-insert themselves into the development of Buddhist thought and philosophy at some point in time.**
But that’ll be for later. We’ll get to that. At this point in time, **I think all you really have to understand is that these are the two metaphysical realities that are being spoken about. This one, of course, is the one that the Buddha is going to deliberately attack. Whenever he, almost paraphrasing David Hume, when he says, I can’t actually find within my experience anything that is unchanging. Any one fixed point that I could access empirically. Now, this is the doctrine of Anattā. Literally not-self. Not no-self. And I just want to make a point, a plea really, to hear it as what is not-self. Not that there is no-self. What is not-self? There’s a lot hangs on one little English constant here. Because there’s a huge difference between “no” and “not” in this.** And again I’ll return to that when we get to the Buddha’s examination, of his critiquing of these ideas as they occur.
Now, before we go on any further, let me give you a flavor of what was going on in the latter Vedic period that gave rise to these Upanishadic texts. And this is probably the most famous one. **The Buddha uses this in a particular text called the Aggañña Sutta, which is in the Digha Nikaya, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha. And again, you’ll find elements of it misquoted deliberately. To make fun of it. Because this is actually called the poem of creation. The Aggañña Sutta is a huge joke, by the Buddha, that the Theravada tradition takes literally. Because they’ve forgotten the context in which the joke was made, which was actually attacking this particular piece of Vedic literature.** [⁵] … Let me read it to you. I think it’s best. You’ll get the flavor, it’s not that long. Let me just read this to you.
[⁵]: If this is true, this is a big freaking deal.
“There was neither existence nor non existence then. Neither the world nor the sky that lies beyond it. What lay enveloped? And where? And who gave it protection? Was water there deep and unfathomable?”
Notice the series of questions.
“There was no death then, nor immortality. Nor of night or day was there any sign. The One…”
This is Brahman.
“The One breathed airless by self-impulse. Other than that was nothing whatsoever. Darkness was concealed by darkness there. And all of this was indiscriminate chaos. That One, which had been covered by the void, through the might of tapas…”
“Tapas” is the Sanskrit word; there’s not really a direct translation, which is why I didn’t translate it on this. Tapas is the the fire behind creation, the fire behind the cosmos. It was used in yoga, some of you might know this through yoga, the word “tapas” means austerity. That which literally burns up impurity.
“…through the might of tapas was manifested. In the beginning, there was desire, which was the primal germ of all minds. For the sages searching in their hearts with wisdom, found in the non-existence the kin of existence. Their dividing line extended transversely. What was below it? And what was above it? There was the seed bearer. There were the mighty forces. There was impulse from below, forward movement from beyond. Who really knows? And who can declare it here? Whence was it born and whence came this creation? The devas are much later than this world production. Then who knows from where it came into being? That from which this creation came into being, perhaps it formed itself. Or perhaps it did not. He who surveys it in the highest region, only he truly knows it. Or maybe he doesn’t.”
It’s an open series of questions in many senses. But all based in the origin of the universe and the origin of creation.
One particular scholar has actually looked at this poem in a great deal of depth in the Vedic Sanskrit and mapped onto it the twelve links of dependent origination. [⁶] Again, the Buddha is playing with something that predates him. Not actually inventing anything, but giving it his own spin. Actually turning it into a teaching tool for something else to be said. This is the way, and I’m really gonna say this … and I’ll say it quite a number of times throughout the day. But this is really the way that you should hear the Buddha’s teaching. It’s in relationship, obviously, to all this cultural stuff, which I’m only giving you a very brief taste of. It’s in relationship to all of this cultural stuff. But it’s _in relationship to turning away from the metaphysical and bringing it to the actual._ To what and where we actually live. One of the things that I don’t think the Buddha is up to at all in his teaching, and actually, that’s the way what we refer to as Buddhism is actually considered within traditional cultures, it’s not Buddhism. It’s Dharma. Or it’s the Sasana. It’s the teaching or the way things are.
[⁶]: Where can one read about this?
**This is what the teaching is. It’s not an ism, in that sense. So what he’s doing is _he’s trying to take it out of consolatory metaphysics._ Anything that will bring you consolation, but isn’t rooted in this world at all. In fact, in many suttas, he said, “we stray outside of our habitat, the moment we start to look for metaphysical explanations for things. We literally get nowhere. There’s a very famous text in the Digha Nikaya again, which is known, some of you might know it, called the Tevijja Sutta. And again, this is a sutta that points up the uselessness of the metaphysical. In fact, in one particular instance it’s described as a staircase to a house being built at a crossroad with no house round it. And it’s just going up into the sky and goes nowhere. Literally goes nowhere.**
So, **this is his critique of the metaphysical. Now, it is all based on the kind of societal understandings that he inherits.** It’s quite clear when we go through the Pāli Canon, and we do it with this more cultural, linguistic, historical eye, that so much of what the Buddha is saying maps on directly to stuff which is there already, within either the Vedic tradition or within the Upanishadic tradition.
The dropouts, as I described them, well they have a name. They’re called “Shramaneras”. What does the Buddha do? He forms an order of Samanas, or Shramaneras. These shramaneras of the Upanishadic tradition, probably the kinds of people … even the kind of mythology we have behind the Buddha’s life … these are the kinds of people he would have probably studied with initially. These would have been shramanera traditions. There would have been yoga traditions of some form or another. The tapas, the austerities, these were all part of these yoga traditions. So this is the kind of stuff the Buddha inherits. Actually,** I want to question that word as well. Buddha. The word never occurs in any of the texts. Have you noticed that? [⁷] Ever. That word is a later appellation. Again, it’s applied to somebody.**
[⁷]: There is that verse 183 in the Dhammapada, “This is the teaching of buddhas.” Perhaps it doesn’t have a correlate in the Nikayas?
Now, let me just say something about the biography of the Buddha to try and situate him in relationship to this material. Let’s say **the biography of the Buddha is not a biography. The biography is more in Western terms, what we refer to as a hagiography.** It’s much more like something like a biography of the saints in Christianity, which tells you something important about what it is to be a Christian and to suffer martyrdom or what it might be, than it ever tells you about the actual life of the person. Interestingly, when we look through the Pāli Canon, what biographical details do we find of the Buddha? Virtually none. **The most biographical information that you’ll find, generally, is situated in the Majjhima Nikaya, in the Middle Length Discourses, in a discourse which is known as the Ariyapariyesana.** Which is “The Noble Search”, “The Sutta of the Noble Search”. There, he gives a little bit of information about his own background, about training with two bhamanical teachers there, because it relates to something he wants to say. Now, we can probably believe these, there’s absolutely no reason for these bits to be there. They don’t actually add a tremendous amount. So actually, the small bits of biography we have in the canon are probably accurate. They are not excised and they don’t do anything, they don’t lend anything. **But the full blown mythology, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with, of the Buddha’s life is exactly that. It’s a mythology. The first biography was written of the Buddha five hundred years after he died. It’s something written by somebody called Asvaghosa. The Buddhacarita, which is a Sanskrit text. Just on the cusp, really, of the development of the Mahayana as a fully blown movement. And there we see changes starting to occur to the nature of the figure of this person who we call the Buddha. **
When we go back to the early texts, and this engagement with the society, what do we find? We find a very, very different figure from the mythology. What is interesting about, and **I encourage you to go out and read Pāli and learn Pāli, because what you get a sense of when you look at it in the original, is somebody who has a personality. A distinct personality. He makes jokes. The jokes don’t come across very well in English. He puns. Classic way of making a joke or making a point. He puns between words that are found in Sanskrit and their derivations in Pāli. To make points. Again, usually at the disparagement of the early tradition which is there. So what he is doing, what he’s engaged in, let’s put it on one level, let me put it in one level what he’s doing. What he’s engaged in is a deep level of social critique. And ethical critique of his society.**
Probably most of you know, not all of you know, **one of the critiques he’s making is [about] this stratification of the society. People considering themselves to be noble or arya by birth.** Now, you see this within India, to this day, as I say; I referred to this earlier on. This has been so intractable through the history of India, this idea that there is this purity that runs through the element of society which you’re born into. **The Buddha completely engages with that and tries to get people to see that, actually, being a Brahmin has nothing to do with birth, but everything to do with virtue. With activity. With the actions that you actually engage in. How you comport yourself in your daily lives. This shows whether you’re a Brahmin or not. If you take a text like the Dhammapada, then you find, of course, that the Brahmin is used to refer to, often almost synonymously, to the bhikkhu. To the bhikkhu, who has achieved arahantship. Somebody who’s actually achieved something. The Brahman is one who’s really achieved something by virtue of what they do in their ordinary life. **
**He’s engaging in this deep deep critique. And he does this across the board, in every element of society. And I think we’re at the very early stages of doing this, both from what I call a dharma-practitioners level, and from a scholarly-level, we’re beginning to examine how deeply across the board this goes. Even, and I was talking with Tony as he picked me up from the airport yesterday, even saying that, even Four Noble Truths, and that’s a bad translation of it anyway, Ariya Sacca, is a joke. It’s a joke directed at brahmanical society. Ariya Sacca. Arya, “noble”. Sacca, “truth”. Well it’s ambiguous actually, in Pāli, the word Sacca. It _can_ mean truth and “Satya”, the Sanskrit version of it, is what the Brahmins refer to as the Truth of the Vedas. But “sacca” can mean just what is. Or existence. _That_ something is. So these are the Noble Is-nesses. And what the Noble Is-nesses turn out to be are not the immutable truths of the Vadas and of the Brahmins, the noble ones who hold them sacred. But here’s your immutable truth, or Is-ness. Dukkha.**
So **he’s taken it _again_ from the metaphysical and placed it in the real. They look, in other words, _outward_ for signs within what later became the texts of Brahmanism, but in those days were the oral tradition, they look for it _outwardly_ in those sayings of the rishis and the kavyas, the poets and the rishis, who supposedly invented this stuff. And it’s all based in metaphysics and is based in the metaphysics of the gods, of the devas, and the rituals that are performed around it. And the Buddha brings it right back and says: you are experiencing dukkha. That’s your nobility. **
Now, **this word “Arya Sacca” as well, this phrase, actually that’s appended much later, the word “Arya Sacca”. The ex-professor of Middle Indo-Aryan Dialects at Cambridge, that shows you how esoteric this is. Roy Norman once said, “Out of all the possible translations of this term,” and I remember hearing him say it, “Out of all the possible translations the term ‘Arya Sacca’, ‘Four Noble Truths’ is about the worst. That’s almost inscribed in, in our kind of Buddhism, isn’t it? This is where we start: Four Noble Truths. Well, actually, one way of translating this, can again, which I think takes it much more into the pragmatic, is “Ennobling Truths”. Ennobling. It’s that which we are ennobled by inquiring into.**
**So if we inquire into dukkha, yes, we _can_ seek nobility, the nobility of the Brahmin. But not by birth. But through the nature of our inquiry into it. We find it in the ennobling action of discerning the cause, or discerning the origin of dukkha. By actually beginning to realize its possibility of stopping. “Dukkha niroda”, the third, so called, truth. The word “niroda” is a fascinating word as well in Pāli. The word literally in Pāli means “to stop leaking”. I think it brings up kind of a whole [score of] unedifying images. Which it’s meant to. It’s a kind of incontinence. That everybody is suffering from. I’m sorry, it’s there in the texts. This is not just me.**
**It’s this image of leaking, incontinently, the asavas and everything that’s derived from the asavas. The fetters, the hindrances, everything that we leak out into the world. … That word literally doesn’t mean leaking; it can mean cessation; it was what was done, again, it’s the use the Buddha made of language. Because he was speaking to ordinary people. If you don’t want to lose all the goodness and all the nutriments out of a paddy field, you’ve got to shore it up. That act of shoring it up was called niroda. To stop it from leaking. So you don’t lose, actually, all of the fertilizer, which would probably have been animal manure that would have been placed in it, which is literally like _the crap_ that’s placed in it, to stop it from leaking out. Where we’re stopping the leaking of the crap in a different way. By visuddhi, by purity. Again, a word that’s used in the texts, but in a different way from [how] the Brahmins would use [it] about purity. **
**And finally, this ennobling activity is by walking a way. I prefer the word “way” or “way-making” to the word “path”. Path seems to me a straight line, a route march from A to B. And often, unfortunately, because of the linear structure of what we refer to as the Eightfold Path, it looks like: I take this route march from view, to mindfulness and concentration, and all the rest of it. It isn’t that. It’s complete interaction and interweaving of all of these eight aspects to actually make our way through the world. There’s been a very good point made recently, you could actually even reverse the structure of the Eightfold Path and make the way-making the way-of-making is to understand the dukkha.** You can actually do that as well. [⁹]
[⁹]: Was it Batchelor who said this? If not, whom?
So we’ve gotten to this point now where we’re beginning to look at the engagement and how this pans out in the way the Buddha is actually beginning to say things. I think I ought to pause and see if there’s any kind of questions because, as I said, I don’t want this to become a complete monologue.
Questioner: So you say the word “Buddha” is not really in the canon at all?
Q: And that the Buddha referred to himself as the Tathagatha?
JP: The Tathagatha. Yeah.
Q: So when does that word come to… it just means to awake, right? … Buddha?
JP: Buddha means “Awakened One”. That’s all.
Q: So when in history does someone come up with the word Buddha? Because the Buddha didn’t even use the word.
JP: No, he doesn’t use the word. Buddha is, again, part of Brahmanical society. So … the word “Buddha” would be used to refer to a see-er in Brahmanical society. So I think it’s, again, an application of a piece of wording that’s occurring at a much later period. To kind of authenticate this figure who[m] we now call the Buddha within a tradition which places him firmly back in Indian culture.
Now, the thing I would actually begin to say, and I hope you, with what I’ve said so far, is get a little perspective on this, **I think the Buddha is far more radical than the character who’s come down to us. He’s actually far more radical than that. And by actually even using the word Buddha I think we, even in that way, sometimes de-radicalize him.** Although I often, in my Dharma teaching, in my strait forward Dharma teaching, I actually say, **one of the good things about the word Buddha is it offers us a challenge. Because if the Buddha is an awakened one, then it means we are fast asleep. That’s actually what defines saṃsāric or circular behaviour. Is a kind of sleepwalking. Whereas the figure who we refer to as the Buddha has woken up to the way things are. That’s the character of his awakening.** Now in Vedic terms, Buddha would have been somebody who had woken up to the truths of the Vedas. To the truths of the upanishads and that. But it’s a later appellation basically, is what I’m claiming.
Q: And this awakening process, there is nothing to actually do, it’s sort of an act of seeing, or an act of recognition?
JP: I think awakening is not… actually how would I put this? I would actually say that **awakening is process rather than big bang. This is not striking light on the road to Damascus stuff. This is little mini awakenings. We wake up from time to time and then fall back to sleep. That’s what goes on. The more you can keep this prolongation of that process of awakening is what characterizes, I think, a figure who would be referred to as a Buddha or an arahant or whatever. So it’s an ongoing process. I don’t think it’s an end. Again, I think there’s a big metaphysics behind this. We want to see Nibbana as a big place to end up at. Nibbana as I’ve often said, and I know Tony’s quoted me on this, Nibbana is a verb.** I’ll say much more about this as we go through.
Questioner: You pointed out how one Hindu area would be very different in their practices and beliefs from Hindus in another area. I’m wondering, abstractly, would they all unite in the belief of One-ness of God, Love of God, or would they all accept a saint like Ramakrishna? Or would they differ even on that level?
JP: They differ in all of that. **If you look at the Hinduism as it’s come down to us, the classic what they call the “astika” tradition, which is those who are within the six major philosophies of Hinduism, actually very few of them are theistic. So, for example, Sankhya Yoga, the Sankhya tradition, which is a very ancient tradition, probably goes back to just after the Buddha’s death, the Sankhya tradition does not have a concept of a theistic god within it at all. This wasn’t unusual in ancient India, by the way. Theism as we know it, more mono-theistic type ideas, only start to evolve much much later.** So by the time you get to a figure like Ramakrishna in the 19th Century, who you were talking about, well he’s just been interfused with so much Christianity and some kinds of Advaita thinking, which also are very much theistically oriented, but in the early traditions there’s not that much. Even **the Buddha’s main rival, the Buddhist tradition’s main rival in the early years was Jainism. … Jainism again doesn’t have a god within it. So that whole idea of theism is a much much later idea in Indian thought.** So the Buddha was radical but not that radical in that sense about that.
Questioner: **Would “dissatisfaction” be a better word for dukkha than suffering?
JP: Dissatisfaction actually is a better word for it. But … how would I put it? I think “dissatisfaction” is a little flabby in English.** But it does cover it. I can’t actually, and this is why I say in dharma circles, there ought to be much more of a naturalization of the word dukkha once we begin to understand it. Then it ought to be used as opposed to any one English word for it. I was doing this with a group quite recently, teaching a retreat, and I was trying to define dukkha and I came up with thirty two words in English that would probably cover some aspect of dukkha. And then I said, “You can add to them”.
Q: **Those would be things like dis-ease?
JP: That’s right. Irritation. Lack of contentment. Yearning. Striving. Lack.** You could come up with an enormous lexicon of words that would cover this. And really, if you think about it, **it’s a spectrum word. That’s why I say dissatisfaction sounds a little flabby, because in a way it does include suffering. It really does include tragedy. And loss. And all of these things that every human being is going to experience in their lives. And the aging process and all of these things. Which can be real suffering. And sickness. But it’s also that minor irritation. As I’ve often described in my more retreat situations where I teach, I have this beautiful description of it once by Ling Rinpoche who was actually the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor. And I took quite a number of teachings with him when I was in India. And he said that dukkha was like this, he said it wasn’t like being stabbed. It wasn’t really sharp and painful. It was like slowly rubbing your arm against a brick wall.
JP: Yeah. It doesn’t start off that painful, either. But you keep on doing it… it gets more and more and more painful as we do it.** But, yeah, dissatisfaction’s okay. But I have as many problems, probably, with that as suffering.
Questioner: Probably Buddha delivered his talk in one of the northern Indian dialects of his time. And when was [the] Pāli Language available … when [was the language] developed?
JP: Okay. Perhaps I will say something just about Pāli in general. Well first thing is, I think many of you will know. Perhaps not all of you… is that **the Buddha did not speak Pāli. [¹⁰] He spoke a northern Indian dialect. He probably spoke a number of them, actually. Not even one. Because when we go through the Pāli you can find dialect words from other prakrits, other Indian languages, in there. If you go around that area of northern India where the Buddha taught, even to this day, if you go from village to village, sometimes they will have their own vocabularies within those villages. Now I think, because the Buddha was talking in a fairly circumscribed area, he probably knows a lot of these dialect words and is using them. So. Pāli was an attempt, at a later period, the period of the compilation of what we now know as the texts, to find a homogenized language. One language that would encompass all of those different dialects that he’s using at that stage. Now strictly speaking, again, it’s a middle-Indo-Aryan dialect. It’s a prakrit. So it’s closely related to spoken languages. So it reflects the idioms of spoken languages. Particularly the Nikayas. If you look at Buddhaghosa, it doesn’t. That’s a much later form of Pāli. But the Pāli of the Nikayas is very much a spoken language stuff. Now it doesn’t get written down until the first century BCE. The end of the first century BCE. It’s written down in Sri Lanka. Up until that point it’s been an oral transmission of the material. Up til that point. **
[¹⁰]: Gombrich disagrees in his 2019 Buddhism and Pāli.
Q: In what language was teaching transmitted orally for five hundred years?
JP: That would have been Pāli. It would have been Pāli. It would have been a way they would have homogenized the dialects. So they would have found a way. The only way to think about Pāli, it’s a strange thing, is if you are trying to reflect… I’m trying to think of an example… well an example I can think of in terms of English literature. Let me give you one in terms of English literature. It might sound similar. Is that Charles Dickens, in his works, often tries to reflect, say, London dialects. Now, the way that it’s written isn’t exactly the way a Londoner would speak. But it very very closely reflects it. And I think that is what’s going on with Pāli. So it’s a way of recording the Buddha’s speech. And that’s happening and taking place probably very very soon after the Buddha’s death. That way of recording his speech. So it’s recorded speech, as opposed to direct speech that’s being used there. And the written stuff is simply the formalization of that.
Q: One more question, you said awakening is more of a process, rather than a big bang. **What about Enlightenment?
JP: Not a word I ever use. Enlightenment, it’s again, it’s a nineteenth century word that’s used. I must admit to my own prejudices here. Because I don’t actually like the word Enlightenment. I think the word Awakening is: a) It’s much more linguistically accurate to the term which is being used, which is linked to the word “boddhi”, which means “to wake”, “to awake”. So the wakening is a process. I actually think, even in, from a scholarly point of view, but even in a practical sense, that is actually what it’s about. As I was saying to this gentleman over here, you know, this process of “waking up” is what we are trying to do. It’s not as if… Enlightenment still sounds to me “Big Bang”. And also, one final comment about it, Enlightenment is what occurred in the West in the eighteenth century. Not what occurred to the figures in the Buddha’s tradition. So I think there’s a lot of historical stuff in there. **
Q: Thanks. I just wondered if, during this series of talks, if you would have something to say … during your talk sometime will you have anything to say about why the Eightfold Path was chosen over the Ten-fold Path? This has been a problem I’ve had for some time; the ten-fold path seems to make a great deal more sense than the Eightfold Path.
JP: The Ten-fold Path. It’s not really canonically substantiated.
Q: It is in one of the suttas.
JP: It is in one, but, you know, **some of these things are often added. … I mean, I will say more about that process that goes on. Because that is something which occurs throughout the history of the development of the canon. That things start to get added. Now, I don’t want to suggest that everything I dislike is added. But some things are clearly added. And you can see that they are. Because they are coming, again, from Brahmanical society and being added back in. The majority of what goes on in the canon is the Eightfold Path. Not the Tenfold Path. But you do find variance. You do find variance. **
**It’s often the frequency with which something occurs which often is the validation of it. Often it’s idiosyncratic-ness is often a validation of its accuracy. If it doesn’t actually correspond with something that’s further in, and also being kind of homogenized within it, often from a scholarly point of view, it’s actually… that’s a place to look quite closely. Because you are probably getting to something quite accurate. [¹¹] As, you know, a friend and colleague of mine at Oxford once said, Richard Gombrich, he said, “If a man can walk and talk for forty-five years and not contradict himself at some point…” And that’s exactly what the Buddha was doing, he was teaching for forty-five years. And changed his mind about some of his ideas. Then actually, looking at some of these differences within the canon are actually quite interesting. Highlighting, often, the way he changes his mind about things. One particular thing, I’ll say this right at the beginning, one particular thing he changes his mind about is a kind of settled monastic tradition. He has no inkling, in the earliest texts, of a settled monastic tradition. In fact he doesn’t even recommend [that] monks should travel together. He says that two monks traveling together are like bracelets on a woman’s arm. They simply jangle. So he does change his mind on a lot of things.** But I’m not going to mention that directly, because I think it’s one of those things which is not so canonically substantiated.
Q: Thank you very much.
[¹¹]: Didn’t he just argue against himself here?
Questioner: I appreciated your comment about the Buddha’s attempt to take metaphysics and actualize it. Very heartwarming. With the real. So of course this whole conversation could be… is very metaphysical. And the danger of metaphysics is, when you get in the higher ionosphere, is to become light-headed. And not come back. And to become unreal in your metaphysics. So metaphysics is always there. And there’s a great quote, maybe you can help me with the source of it, “All acts presuppose philosophy. And all philosophy engenders acts.” It’s a great quote. Because whatever you do, you’re driving your convertible down the street and enjoying a certain way of life, there’s a philosophy behind that. As opposed to living as a bhikkhu. Or even coming here. So metaphysics is there. We are thinking animals. So if you just comment about what the role of metaphysics… but again, to actualize it. I find it very heartwarming… which is a signature of Buddhism itself.
JP: **I think that one of the main things that the Buddha is really getting us to become acutely aware of is that whole process. Of where we begin to think outside of the actual. Every moment we start to think outside of the actual. I mean one of your great American philosophers, William James, once said, “Even common sense is the metaphysics of the masses”. Common sense is the metaphysics of the masses. Because basically what it takes in is assumptions. About the way things are. And so wherever there are assumptions, those assumptions are not actually questioned a lot of the time. A lot of our thinking is guided, for example, by language. [¹²] And I think all this stuff, I was going on about, the Buddha’s playing with language of his own time, and often punning with it and doing various things with it, is again to highlight how language will lead you in a particular direction. None more so, actually, both in Sanskrit, Pāli, and English, as the language around the self. The fact that Buddha doesn’t cease to use the first person pronoun in it, what he ceases to do is believe in the first person pronoun. **
[¹²]:Alan Watts talks about this in a way that really resonates with me. He discusses how verbs and nouns are much more fluid in Eastern languages, and how we in the West often reify patterns because we think that nouns are real things, not merely patterns.
**And that’s a question that has often gone on in even Western thought, … really up until quite recently. Even Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher, in the 1950s is saying, he says it in _Philosophical Investigations_, he says, “I have the strange feeling that the self is merely a grammatical problem.” Because it’s actually the way we form sentences. It has to have a subject. We believe that the subject is a real subject. It actually exists. We say, “I am happy. I am sad.” As if there’s a substantiality to the I. Now it just might be a product of the way we form English sentences, that we have to have that grammatical subject. But some sentences we are not misled by, as I often try to point out. “It is raining.” What’s the “it”? Or where is “it”? So I think it’s really kind of, I think what the Buddha is really trying to do is get us to engage very intensively with our assumptions. Our ways of being misled by language. Our ways of being misled by tradition. Our ways of being misled by authority. All of these things. So it’s a really really deep investigation and inquiry that we are engaged in. An inquiry, as I would put it, into the Actual. That’s what we are inquiring. Into the actuality of our lives.**
There is a sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya, some of you again might know it, it’s called the Rohita[ssa] Sutta. And it’s there… a deva comes to question the Buddha. Why a deva? A deva is a god here. Well a deva is coming to question, I think again this is the way, I think it’s probably a story the Buddha’s told, rather than an actual thing. It’s been included as an actuality, this deva comes to question the Buddha and there’s a whole section of the Samyutta Nikaya called the Devasamyutta. Which is all these devas coming to question the Buddha. What he’s trying to do? He’s trying to parody and make fun of the idea of gods, for a start off. Because the gods are coming to have to ask the Buddha a question. And the question is about finding the end of the world. He said, “I’ve been walking forever and cannot find the end of the world. I have traveled hither and thither to find the end of the world. But I still can’t find the end of the world. The end of the world of dukkha. And suffering.” And the Buddha said, “You will not find the end of dukkha by traveling. But only by being in this body.” Or as he calls it, “this fathom-long carcass.”
**The origin of the world and the end of the world is to be found within this fathom-long carcass. Nowhere else. Now, again, that fathom-long carcass. I’m kind of using questions to add on to some of the things I was saying. Fathom-long carcass. What’s that all about? Well, a) obviously it’s the physical body, but actually when the Brahmins were performing rituals, they would draw a figure of a human being in the earth which represented the cosmos. And the Brahmins were saying that this figure represented the cosmos and that was where all truth was to be found. Metaphysics, again. In the cosmos. With the gods and everything else. Now the Buddha says, “This fathom-long carcass endowed as it is with its eyes, its ears, its nose, and everything else, _that’s_ where it’s to be found.” This is where we find liberation, awakening. Not in some, again, metaphysical un-reality. **
**He also says, interestingly, in this other sutta … It’s in the Samyutta. He says in this little sutta, I think it’s the Sutta of the Hawk and the Quail. He says that when we stray outside of our natural habitat, just like an animal that strays outside of its natural habitat, it encounters danger. And that’s when we start to go off into metaphysical thinking, that’s when we become in a dangerous situation. We are ungrounded. We are literally not grounded in anything we can know. So the teaching is always to bring us back into the known. And the knowable. Not into that which cannot be known. It’s a good little thing to do in the day. Just think how often our thought strays off into some kind of metaphysical thinking which isn’t grounded in what we actually know. Which is in a belief, a projection, a supposition… our thinking is doing this all the time. So when we hear metaphysics, we don’t have to think of big metaphysical religious or philosophical systems, we can think of just when does our thought become ungrounded in that which is an actuality? That can be smelt, tasted, touched and known in this way.** Sorry, that was a long answer to a short question.
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. Please comment with corrections. Thank you.