Dhammapada, Stanza 2

Version 1:

Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
If, with tranquil perception, one speaks or acts,
Thence ease follows
As a shadow that never departs.

Version 2:

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
If you speak or act
with a calm, bright heart,
then happiness follows you,
like a shadow
that never leaves.

Version 3:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

(Note: Version 1 is from the John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana translation. Version 2 is from the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation. Version 3 is from the Acharya Buddharakkhita translation.)

At the Roots of Enlightenment, Part I

As related by the Pāli Canon, the Enlightened One spent his first seven days at the root of the Bodhi Tree (Tree of Enlightenment), near Uruvelā by the banks of the River Nerañjarā, feeling the bliss of deliverance.

At the end of seven days, he emerged from that concentration, his mind occupied with dependent arising.  In forward order, he thought:

That comes to be when there is this; that arises with the arising of this; that is to say: It is with ignorance as condition that formations come to be; with formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the sixfold base; with the sixfold base as condition, contact; with contact as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, being; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging and death come to be, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair; that is how there is an origin to this whole aggregate mass of suffering.

That was during the first watch of the night.  During the second watch, he was occupied with dependent arising in reverse order:

That does not come to be when there is not this; that ceases with the cessation of this; that is to say: With cessation of ignorance there is cessation of formations…

During the third watch, he was occupied with dependent arising in both forward and reverse order.

The mind of the Enlightened One was also occupied with the three defilements of lust, hate, and delusion as follows.  He surveyed the world with his Buddha eye and saw beings burning with the many fires and consumed with the many fevers born of these three defilements.  He uttered this exclamation:

This world is anguished, being exposed to contact,
Even what the world calls self is in fact ill…

Having emerged from deep concentration, occupied with dependent arising in forward, reverse, and forward and reverse order, occupied with the three defilements and its effects on the many beings, the Enlightened One saw that liberation does not come about through (love of) being, nor does it come about through (love of) non-being.  He thought:

Through the essentials of existence, suffering is; with all clinging exhausted, suffering is no more.

This is how the Enlightened One spent his first seven days (as related by the Pāli Canon).  First, in deep concentration, feeling the bliss of deliverance.  Then, by contemplating dependent arising, the effects of the three defilements on the many beings, and finally by affirming the cessation of suffering through the exhaustion of clinging.

(Note: This entry is a paraphrase of Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, pages 30 – 32.)

First Enlightenment, then…?

In the next few posts, we will follow the Buddha’s post Enlightenment journey, following him as he moves from the root of one tree to the root of another during the first few weeks of his Enlightenment.   If the question What would I do if I was enlightened? ever occurred to you, there is no better guide than the root of our great practice, the Buddha himself.

Indeed, I find the descriptions of the post Enlightenment period of the Buddha very instructive when it comes to demystifying our practice.  Understanding Enlightenment is most likely beyond description and something that can only be attained through direct experience.  This makes it ripe for all sorts of misconceptions, many of which I have bought into!  Looking at the Buddha’s story – the story of an Enlightened One – is a good guide towards understanding this path in its beginning, its middle, and its end, even if this guide can only be an indirect one at best.

And for those of us on this path that strive in our own way for the relief of suffering of all beings irrespective of what we think about the Big-E, the Buddha’s story can inspire and comfort us as we face challenges that are not unlike those faced by the Enlightened One himself!

Dhammapada, Stanza 1

Version 1:

Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
If, with perception polluted, one speaks or acts,
Thence suffering follows
As a wheel the draught ox’s foot.

Version 2:

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
If you speak or act
with a corrupted heart,
then suffering follows you —
as the wheel of the cart,
the track of the ox
that pulls it.

Version 3:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

(Note: Version 1 is from the John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana translation.  Version 2 is from the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.  Version 3 is from the Acharya Buddharakkhita translation.)

The Dhammapada in Translation

It becomes clear once you read various translations of the same Buddhist scripture, whether it is the Dhammapada, other Sutras from the Pāli Canon, or passages that relate central doctrines such as those concerning the five skandhas as objects of clinging, there is not a consistent way of rendering in English crucial Buddhist concepts.  This is definitely to be expected given the subtlety and complexity of Buddhist concepts, the integral relationship between grasping these concepts and practice of the Buddha Way, and the fact that Buddhism in its myriad forms is still young in English speaking countries.

As a brief example, I recently begun looking into the five skandhas and how it comes up in my daily experience and in my practice.  As a first step, I turned to the Pāli Canon as well as modern texts that discuss the skandhas to get a better idea of what I was looking for.  Whereas many accounts agree on the terms used for the first and fifth skandha (‘form’ and ‘consciousness’ respectively), the terms used for the second through fourth vary widely.  With respect to the fourth, I found: ‘volitional formations’, ‘formulation’, ‘impulse’, and ‘mental formations’.  With respect to the second, some presentations used ‘perception’, while others used ‘thought’.  These terms vary dramatically in their meanings.  If I only look to one presentation, I may be led astray in working with the skandhas.  But looking at the various presentations together, it is no longer obvious what the skandhas are.  (And this doesn’t touch upon the fact that the word ‘consciousness’ has many different uses and whether any one of these uses matches those found in the Buddhist scriptures is an open question.)

This is all very exciting and confusing!  There is so much to discover as we continue this tradition that goes back to the Buddhas throughout the ages.  To celebrate this complex web of translations, I will regularly post different translations of the Dhammapada, focusing on one or two stanzas each time.  My hope is that looking at the various passages side-by-side will both allow us to get a better idea of what is being talked about and complicate our understanding of Buddhist scriptures.  In this space of ease and confusion, great vows can be made, the Way can be cultivated afresh, our practice can be kept alive!

Thank you for reading With(out) Bounds and partaking in this ongoing work of understanding the Buddha Way – in our minds, our bodies, and our hearts.

The Blessed One’s Radiance

Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha begins with the birth of the Buddha.  Since it is drawing from the Pāli Canon, it relates the wonderful and marvelous qualities of the Bodhisatta.  This gave me a chance to read once again the description of the Blessed One’s radiance.  I find this passage particularly moving as a description of the Dharma and the Buddha’s role as a teacher.

In Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s translation, the passage reads as follows:

When the Bodhisatta had passed away from the Heaven of the Contented and entered his mother’s womb, a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared in the world with its deities, its Māras and its Brahmā divinities, in this generation with its monks and brahmans, with its princes and men. And even in those abysmal world interspaces of vacancy, gloom and utter darkness, where the moon and sun, powerful and mighty as they are, cannot make their light prevail – there too a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared; and the creatures born there perceived each other by that light: “So it seems that other creatures have appeared here!”

The Bodhisatta’s light is measureless.  It penetrates all lands, even those that exist in utter darkness.  And when it reaches these spaces of darkness, it allows the beings there to perceive one another, to say to themselves: There are others in this dark land.

At retreat, either with Ven. Samu Sunim in Toronto or Haju Sunim in Ann Arbor, we are encouraged to keep our meditation light bright and strong.  The light of meditation does not give any answers.  It does not solve any problems.  It makes bright what was once dark.  And in that bright space it is possible to see things clearly as they arise, as they are present, and as they disappear.

May the light of mindfulness shine in your corner of this world and allow you to see forms, feelings, thoughts, impulses, and consciousness as it arises, as it is present, and as it passes away!

(Note: the quote is from Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, p. 3.  Ven. Samu Sunim is the founder of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom.  Haju Sunim is his Dharma heir and is the resident priest at the Ann Arbor temple.)

Bhikkhu Nānamoli and the Life of the Buddha

This week I am starting another book on the Buddha’s life.  The Life of the Buddha is written and arranged by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.  The book presents the Buddha’s life as related by the Pāli Canon and some commentaries.  The interesting feature of this book is Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s introduction of voices or speakers.  There are six voices: two narrators that set up events, one voice that corresponds to Ānanda, another to Upāli (who recited the Vinaya at the first council after the Buddha’s Parinirvana), yet another voice to someone from or after the first council when the Pāli Canon was formed, and a chanter for the poems, verses, epics, and hymns found in the Canon.  With these voices, the book reads like a program you might hear on the radio.  If only it were performed this way!

Since I have just started it, I cannot say much about it yet.  But for those interested in the life of the Buddha, this is another source that comes highly recommended and has been enjoyable to read so far.

(Note: To purchase the book, click on the following link – The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.)

Schumann on the Birth of the Buddha

Following the theme of the Buddha’s birth, I will briefly present Schumann’s reconstruction of the events from The Historical Buddha.  The source of his reconstruction is the Nidānakathā, the introductory narrative to the book of takas.

Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, set out for the home of her parents in Devadaha in order to have her child there.  The rough journey along the way brought the birth on before Devadaha was reached.  She stopped near the village of Lumbinī.  There, with no medical assistance and with only the shade of a Sāl tree to protect her, the young Siddhattha was born in May of the year 563 BC.

Most likely Māyā gave birth to the young Siddhattha standing up since standing births were the custom at the time.  But the birth itself must have been strenuous for Māyā.  Exhausted, she was brought back to Kapilavatthu.  As Schumann puts it: “Joy over the birth of the newest member of the Gotama family was soon overshadowed by worry over the increasing weakness of the mother.”

For divinatory purposes, the wise man named ‘Asita’ was called in.  He inspected the three-day-old child and prophesied, on the basis of bodily marks, that the young Siddhattha would become a Buddha and set the Wheel of the Law in motion.  Realizing he would not live to see Siddhattha as the Buddha, Asita wept and impressed on his nephew Nālaka that he should become a disciple of the future Buddha.

Two days later, eight Brahmins performed the ceremony of naming Siddhattha.  They too prophesied great things for the young Siddhattha.  Either he would grow to become a Buddha or a mighty king.

But for Māyā, the end was near.  As Schumann recounts: “Seven days after giving birth, like so many mothers in tropical countries, she died, quietly and uncomplainingly.”

What strikes me about this account is the Buddha’s mother.  Māyā’s pain and struggle is unearthed.  The hardship she must have gone through to give birth to the Buddha is brought to view.  Although it is common to trace our common practice to the Buddha since it was he who became enlightened and turned the Wheel of Dharma to wipe the dust away from our eyes, it should not be forgotten that the Buddha came from Māyā.  There, at the coming into being of the young Siddhattha, there was also the passing away of Māyā, the Buddha’s mother.  In that great coming and going we have a glimpse of the Dharma.

Schumann’s reconstruction stands in stark contrast to the cosmic and mythic portrayal of the Buddha’s birth from the Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta.  But either one would be incomplete without the other.  There is beauty and wonder in the cosmic portrayal that can ignite the mystery in our practice.  There is stark realism and hardship in the other that can awaken us to the great matter of birth and death.

(Note: This brief presentation of Schumann’s reconstruction is taken from his The Historical Buddha, pp. 6 – 9.  For problems with dating the Buddha’s birth to 563 BC, see pp. 10 – 13 in the same book.)

The Wonderful and Marvelous Birth of the Buddha

Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was born.  There are various accounts of the events that took place, some that seem more realistic and historical in their presentation, some that seem more mythical and cosmic in scope.  In section II.2 of In the Buddha’s Words (called ‘The Buddha’s Conception and Birth’), Ānanda recounts before the Buddha and a group of monks the wonderful and marvelous features of the Blessed One’s birth.  Here is a brief retelling of what he said.

Ānanda, having heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips, said that the Bodhisatta, mindful and clearly comprehending, appeared and remained for the whole of his lifespan in the Tusita heaven.  Clearly comprehending and mindful, the Bodhisatta then passed away from the Tusita heaven into his mother’s womb.  Upon descending into his mother’s womb, a great radiance surpassing the divine majesty of the devas appeared in the world.  And in those abysmal world intervals of vacancy, gloom, and utter darkness, where the sun and moon cannot make their great light prevail,  the beings reborn into this realm perceived each other by that great radiance and said, “So indeed, there are also other beings reborn here.”

Once descended into his mother’s womb, the Bodhisatta and his mother were protected from all harm by four young devas.  His mother became intrinsically virtuous, refraining from killing, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from abusing wine, liquors, and intoxicants.  After ten months, the Bodhisatta’s mother gave birth to him standing up and he was first received by devas, then human beings.  Once born, the Bodhisatta did not touch the ground since the four devas that protected him and his mother received him, set him before his mother, and said, “Rejoice, O queen, a son of great power has been born to you.”

When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother’s womb, he was unsullied and unsmeared by any kind of impurity.  Two jets of water, one cool and one warm, came forth from the sky for bathing the Bodhisatta and his mother.  Once born, the Bodhisatta stood firmly on the ground, took seven steps facing north, and with a white parasol over his head surveyed each quarter and said, “I am the highest in the world; I am the best in the world; I am the foremost in the world.  This is my last birth; now there is no renewed existence for me.”

At this point in Ānanda’s recounting of the wonderful and marvelous features of the Blessed One’s birth, the Buddha added, “…remember this too as a wonderful and marvelous quality of the Tathāgata: Here, Ānanda, for the Tathāgata feelings are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; perceptions are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; thoughts are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear.”

This exchange between Ānanda and the Buddha is very touching.  Ānanda’s devotion to the Buddha clearly shines through the way he expresses the wonderful and marvelous qualities of the Blessed One’s birth.  And for us, today, Ānanda’s devotion included his memorizing the Buddha’s discourses, which were then repeated aloud and memorized by the other monks at the first council held after the Buddha’s Parinirvana.

Clearly, this recounting of the Blessed One’s birth pushes modern realist sensibilities like my own to a somewhat uncomfortable extreme.  Read poetically, or as a myth, and this uncomfortableness subsides.  But as Bhikkhu Bodhi reminds us both interpretations are necessary to see the Buddha.  And, if I may add, watching our reactions to this story arise, hang around, and eventually disappear is also an integral part to our understanding the Buddha, his life, and the practice that he gave us.

(Note: The quotes and paraphrases of both Ānanda and the Buddha are taken from In the Buddha’s Words, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi, section II.2, pp. 50 – 54.  The original source is the Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya.)

Interpreting the Buddha

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to section II: The Bringer of Light of In the Buddha’s Words, he argues that there are two general perspectives of the Buddha in the Pāli Canon.  The first general perspective views the Buddha as a human being working to see in and through his human frailties the path to enlightenment and the way to teach this path to his disciples.  This perspective is one that is most amenable to a broadly non-supernatural, humanistic interpretation of the Buddha and, more generally, Buddhism.  It is definitely one that I have emphasized in various posts on this blog and in my own thinking about practicing the Buddha way.

But there is another important and often neglected perspective.  This one situates the Buddha as “the most recent member of a cosmic “dynasty” of Buddhas constituted by numberless Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past and sustained by Perfectly Enlightened Ones continuing indefinitely onward into the future.”  From this second perspective, “the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his supreme attainment over countless past lives and was destined from birth to fulfill the mission of a world teacher.” (In the Buddha’s Words, pages 44 and 46)

As Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “A correct view of the Buddha can only arise from the merging of these two perspectives, just as the correct view of an object can arise only when the perspectives presented by our two eyes are merged in the brain into a single image.” (In the Buddha’s Words, page 45)

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words resonate deeply with me.  There is always a danger in interpretation that we end up reading more of ourselves into what we are interpreting than the thing itself.  (Indeed, it might be that we are always playing in a web of interpretations in this respect!)  I see this most clearly when I practice listening deeply to others, sometimes seeing that I hear more of myself in their remarks than their own meanings and intentions.  (For example, treating a tired ‘hello’ as meaning the person does not want to talk with me rather than meaning that they are simply tired or had a rough day!)

This applies just as much to textual interpretation.  Of course, although I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s statement that we ought to merge the two perspectives as we study the Buddha’s life, this leaves open what overall perspective will result.  And if we take his metaphor literally, we should not expect any one interpretation to result, but a myriad of interpretations in part depending on the “eyes” of the interpreter.

Although this possibility of an abundance of interpretations might be unwelcoming, I think it is important to bring these questions about interpretation (as all questions about Buddhism) back to practice and how we cultivate the Buddha way in our lives here and now.  Many bows of gratitude to Bhikkhu Bodhi for bringing to light the interpretative life of the Buddha.  I hope to explore this theme in upcoming posts and in my own practice.

May we all benefit from looking deeply into our views and interpretations, whether fixed or flowing, in our daily lives!