Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Best Dhammapada

Just the other day  someone gave me a book that proved to be yet another   translation of the Dhammapada. On seeing it my  first thought was: “Here we go! Probably another rehash of an earlier rehash.” I was  tempted to put it aside and not even bother flicking through it. But the blurb  on the back about the translator (Ph.D in Sanskrit from Harvard, associate professor of religion, and meditation teacher at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies) made me think that it might be worth at least a quick look. Recently I wrote a review of the truly awful - one couldn’t in all honestly call it a translation or even a rendering – a massacre might be a better description, by Tai Sheridan  which is everything a Dhammapada shouldn’t be. See
Glen Wallis’ Dhammapada; Verses on the Way, is not only everything this little Buddhist classic should be, I would go so far as to say it is the best Dhammapada presently available.
Someone once said poetry translated from another language is like a desired woman; if its beautiful its not faithful and if its faithful its not beautiful. Well, Wallis seems to have managed to achieve both. His translation has a cadence that reads exceptionally well, and given Pali’s stylistic and grammatical particularities this is quite an achievement. And just as important, it is as faithful to the original as you could want.  At the end of the translation Wallis has just over 100 pages of notes, but don’t let this put you off. These notes  include a learned  but accessible account of  the history, grammar and meaning of the Dhammapada and its place in Indian Buddhist literature. His comments on some of the similes and his numerous quotes from the suttas illuminate the verses in a way that really gives them depth and increased understanding.  Of course one could quibble (and so I will). “Unbinding” seems to be a rather odd translation/rendering of nibbana. But such minor things are more than made up for his truly informative comments on other technical terms. See what he says about bodhi on page 135.  From now on I  think I will stop using the terms “enlightened” and “enlightened one” and switch to “awakened” and “awakened one” instead. If you want a 100% word-for-word accurate translation of the Dhammapada get K. R. Norman’s The Words of the Doctrine with its 174 pages of notes on grammar, syntax, consonant groups, variant readings,  the eastern form of am, etc, and do your best to keep awake. If you want an accurate, readable translation with helpful notes that is true to the Buddha’s Dhamma get Wallis’ The Dhammapada; Verses on the Way. I couldn’t recommend it higher. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Where Is The Indasala Cave?

The Indasala Cave was the setting for one of the Buddha’s most profound discourses, the Sakapanha Sutta (D.II,263). In the discourse the Buddha addresses Pancasikha who is playing his harp and Sakya, also known as Indra.  The  discourse must have been a popular one in ancient times given how many depictions of the cave with the Buddha in it and Pancasikha standing nearby  have survived to today. The stone railing at Bodh Gaya, the oldest surviving Buddhist art (150 BCE ?), includes a depiction of the scene. 
Following Cunningham, I located the Indasala Cave in 1986,  included it in my 1992 book Middle Land Middle Way; A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India and since  then pilgrim’s have started visiting  the place again. But now a website called Nalanda Insatiable in Offering  (from now on NIO) is claiming another location for the  cave. Don’t let NIO’s strange name put you off; it is a  carefully researched and informative resource on the lesser known sites associated with the Buddha.   According to NIO the cave is actually on a hill named Pawati some 20 k north-east from Giriek  at the very end of the Rajgir hills. I visited  Pawati  during one of my journeys through Bihar years ago but failed to see the cave. It is a rather attractive place but is its cave the Indasala?  NIO’s claim is base mainly on the fact that Pawati a steep-sided hill rising suddenly out of the surrounding plain and Xuanzang’s account of his visit to the cave says that it was  on the side of  “an isolated hill”.  NIO has followed Samual Beal’s 1884 pioneering but inaccurate translation of Xuanzang’s travelogue. Unfortunately, the original Chinese says nothing about the hill being “isolated”, as Li Rongxi’s more accurate translation of 1996 shows. This, I think undermines NIO’s claim and thus we can still consider the earlier (Cunningham’s and my own) identification to be the true Indasala Cave. So if the cave on Pawati Hill is not the Indasala  what is it? According to Udana 39 there was another cave near Rajagaha called Kapotakandara, the Pigeon’s Cave. Now another word for pigeon in Pali/Sanskrit is paravata which becomes parawa in Hindi. I suspect that Pawati is a contraction of parawata and that the cave on Pawati Hill is actually the Pigeon’s Cave.
You can find the NIO website at
The top photo  is of Pawati Hill and the second is of me in the Indasala  Cave in 1986
Below are some ancient depictions of the Buddha delivering the Sakapanha Sutta. The  last  sculpture has some wild animals charming over the rocks around the Indasala Cave; a delightful touch.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Romantic Love

Almost everyone has fallen in love at one time or another, perhaps several times. So for most people “love” is that exciting and sublimely agitating urge for intimacy with another, felt vaguely in the area of the solar plexus. Discussions on love almost always include something about what is called erotic love, romantic love or amour, eros to the Greeks, kāma, lokassādare or rati in Buddhism. This is the love that makes the world go around, as the saying goes. It is the love that has inspired some of civilisation’s greatest literature, art and music. It is the love everyone longs to experience and hopes will last forever.
Falling in love as we understand the experience today was not very common during the Buddha’s time, any more than it was in other ancient cultures. The prelude to and purpose of marriage was not love. People married to preserve property and produce legitimate progeny, and therefore most marriages were arranged by parents. Young people were paired off soon after they reached sexual maturity so they had very little opportunity to fall in love. If love grew, it did so after the marriage. Despite this, sometimes young people did manage to fall in love with each other or sometimes those already married fell in love with someone other than their spouses. Illicit romantic and sexual relationships happened despite the lack of opportunities and strong social disapproval.
Today romantic love commonly blossoms quite suddenly. One person sees another, is immediately attracted and then falls in love with them. He or she then attempts to make contact with the person they desire in the hope of attracting their attention and getting to know them better. If things go as hoped and their interest is reciprocated, a romance will result. If shyness, insurmountable social differences or other barriers make close contact with the loved person impossible, they may secretly worship them from afar, pining for them and dreaming or fantasising about a relationship with them.
Of course, not all love start by suddenly “falling” into it; sometimes it grows slowly. The scriptures identify at least four stages in this gradual awakening. It begins with seeing (dassana), seeing leads to association (samsagga), association leads to intimacy (visāsa), and intimacy leads to amorousness (otāra, A.III,67).  Romantic love can last for weeks or months, although if requited it will last much longer. But sooner or later, it either fades, sours into dislike, or becomes more settled and evolves into conjugal love.
Romantic love has all the defining characteristics of other types, although in a much more exaggerated and unruly form. Couples in love are intensely interested in each other; much of their time together is spent talking to each other about the minute details of their lives. They care about each other too, about each other’s happiness and well-being and particularly that the love they share continues and grows stronger. They empathise with each other, and in romance this is usually described as “two hearts beating as one”. Desire for intimacy is heightened. During the first flush of love, the couple involved can hardly bear to be out of each other’s sight and the desire for sexual intimacy often has a desperate, urgent quality to it. In fact, so closely is romantic love associated with sex that the physical act of sex is commonly called “making love”. In no other type of love is positive feeling so dominant, sometimes overwhelmingly so, although it is commonly punctuated by episodes of despair and distress, anxious longing and shattered hopes. Arguments followed by reconciliations, or separations ending in reunions, seem only to intensify the partners’ attachment to and longing for each other’s company. Sometimes couples will even create such situations so that they can savour the reconciliation. The scriptures say: “When a couple or a husband and wife frolic in private with romantic love they chide each other ‘Dear One, you don’t really love me; your heart is elsewhere’. They chide each other like this falsely so that they can then love each other more passionately” (Ja.VI,378).
The bliss of new love can be strong enough to affect a person’s appearance and behaviour. It can give them a smiling, dreamy, faraway look or a twinkle in their eyes. It can make them appear preoccupied and uninterested in normal activities or give them a spring in their steps, at least when their relationships are proceeding smoothly.
Apart from possessing the defining characteristics that all loves share, romantic love has its own unique features. It is initially triggered by visual contact. “Love goes to one who is seen, there is no attraction to one who is not seen” (Rāmāyaa V,26;39). Its primary focus is the body; for males the face, breasts and hips, and for females the face, shoulders and chest. Certain body shapes evoke more desire than others, depending on cultural norms, and some of these can be very peculiar. In China until the beginning of the 20th century, males found abnormally small female feet intensely erotic. Now most people would be revolted by such deformities. Only a hundred years ago in the West, a pale and pudgy was in, now tanned and slim is the fashion. In ancient India both men and woman were erotically aroused by what was called the tanuromaraji, the line of hair going from the pubis to the navel. Just how particularly romantic love can be about physical features is suggested by this description of female beauty from the scriptures. To be alluring to a man, a woman had to be “fifteen or sixteen, not too tall and not too short, not too thin and not too fat, not too dark and not too fair”. (M.I,88) The presence or absence of even small and otherwise insignificant features or details can make the difference between arousal and disinterest. The pathways of eroticism and romance are not always easy to fathom.  
Another important feature of romantic love is its tendency to distort perception. Buddhist scriptures refer to being blinded (kāmandha), befuddled (kāmamatta) or intoxicated (kāmāsava) by love. A person in love sees everything about their beloved as exceptional. A young man might say of his beloved: “her hair is like silk”, “her teeth are like pearls”, or “her eyes sparkle like stars.” But when we observe her various body parts they do not seem to be significantly different from anybody else’s. People in love do not say things like this in flights of ecstasy; they really believe what they say. Love makes their eyes see things in a different if unrealistic light, which can lead to problems. When the wild passion fades as it inevitably must, and the loved one is seen with a more critical eye, disappointment can set in. What before was a cute or delightful quirk may become an annoyance. When one person is besotted by another who does not love them with equal passion or perhaps not at all, they can be open to being exploited by them. They might be asked for and gladly give expensive gifts, money and favours. The besotted person’s family and friends can see what is happening, that the love-struck is being taken advantage of, but they themself cannot see it. Romantic love can be, as they say, blind.
Most of all, romantic love seems to operate outside the will. The term “falling in love” is a very appropriate and descriptive one. As in actually tripping or being pushed and falling, you cannot stop until you hit the ground. A person does not choose or decide to fall in love; a surge of dopamine, oxytocin and other hormones in the system decides for them. The pull of romantic love and sexual delight, the promises they whisper in the ear, can be very hard to resist. Occasionally one of the Buddha’s monks would appear to be progressing well, developing calm and detachment, experiencing the joy of simplicity and silence. Then suddenly “he hears that in a particular village or town there are women or maidens fair to look upon, lovely, with the wondrous beauty of a lotus. When he hears this he loses heart, falters, cannot keep strong, and is unable to continue the training. Then he acknowledges his weakness, gives up the training and returns to the lay life”(A.III,90).  
Abandoning the life of a celibate monk or nun for romance is one thing, but people sometimes take extraordinary risks or act with unbelievable irresponsibility because they are under the spell of sexual desire or romantic love. It is romantic love’s unruly, distorting and distracting qualities that made the Buddha very cautious of it, and of course he was by no means the only one. The Jains, Hindus, Stoics, Gnostics, and the early Christians all saw romantic entanglements as pulling one’s energy and attention away from more spiritual aspirations. Saint Paul said: “I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7,1-35).  Except for the reference to pleasing the Lord, the Buddha could have addressed these same words to his monks and nuns.  
However the Buddha had a deep enough understanding of the human heart to know that despite the many tribulations romantic love could bring, it was also a source of great happiness and a real benediction. He often spoke of what he called “the satisfaction and the dangers (assādañ ca ādīnava)  in sensual pleasure” (M.I,85), of which romance and sex were the most significant.  And there is satisfaction in romantic love – the wonderful feeling of being cherished and having someone to cherish, the companionship, the fun, the exhilaration of sex and the delight of sharing things. It can also nourish virtues such as loyalty, giving, unselfishness and patience.
The Buddha was also realistic enough to understand that whatever he said most people would fall in love and probably wish to marry. Therefore he encouraged his lay disciples to be responsible in their intimate relationships. The third of the Five Precepts, the rules of behaviour that all Buddhists undertake to live by, is the vow “I take the Precept to avoid sexual misconduct”. Although this precept is primarily about sexual behaviour it overlaps with romantic love because the two are so closely connected. Wrong sexual behaviour was, the Buddha said, intercourse with those under the guardianship of their parents, i.e. under-aged; those protected by Dhamma, i.e. monastics or those who had taken a vow of celibacy; those already married; those undergoing punishment, i.e. prisoners; or those bedecked in garlands, i.e. already engaged to be married (A.V,264).  This does not mean that one already married will never fall in love with such people but it would be wrong from the Buddhist perspective to encourage and pursue such feelings. Romantic love should not be confused with dalliance (nandi or kāmarāga). There can be sex without love just as there can be love without sex. Some people have a strong appetite for sexual gratification and little or no interest in emotional involvement or long-term commitment. They may pretend to be emotionally attached to someone but only as a strategy to get more sex. The Buddha called this sort of thing “sport” (dava), perhaps similar to the Greek ludus, and is what we are talking about when we say that a particular person “sees love as a game.”  

Monday, February 3, 2014

What Is Love?

Over the next few weeks I am going to talk about love, a project not as easy as it might seem. Because although love is often talked about, eagerly professed, praised, and said to be the solution to many, sometimes to all, problems, there is no consensus as to exactly what  it is. It is quite normal to speak of true love, puppy love, hard love, love at first sight, the love that dares not speak its name, platonic love, unrequited love, love-hate relationships, universal love and love with open eyes. Psychologists refer to “love styles” or “bond varieties”. We also have many words and phrases for those mind states that are not love but which hover around its edges - affection, fondness, warm feelings, kind regard, closeness, liking, devotion and so on. The Buddhist scriptures contain numerous words for love such as  ādara, atthakāma, dalhabhatti, hita, kāma, lokassādara, manāpa, matteyya, mettā, paṭibaddhacitta, paṭisanthāra, pema, petteyya, piya, sambhajeyya, sampiya, siniddha, sineha and vissāsa. Some of these words are synonyms, while some refer to distinct types of love.  Although it is not always easy to find exact English equivalents for them, others can be identified with certainty. For example paṭibaddhacitta means infatuation, petteyya is love of one’s father, kāma is erotic or sensual love, and vissāsa means  innocent trusting  love, such as small children have. However, the most widely known Buddhist word for love is mettā, Sanskrit  maitrī.  Okay! So what is maitrī? It is usually translated as universal love or loving-kindness, i.e. a love that is undiscriminating and free from clinging and attachment. The Culla Niddesa defines mettā like this: “Mettā means having a friendly nature and behaving with friendliness.” Buddhaghosa was being more specific when he wrote: “Mettā is characterised as promoting the welfare of others and its function is to focus on their welfare. It manifests as the removal of annoyance and its proximate cause is seeing the lovable nature of beings. It succeeds when it makes ill-will subside and it fails when it gives rise to clinging attachment.”(Visudhimagga 318).  
Personally, I think the best definition of mettā comes, not from the Buddhist tradition, but from the Bible. In his epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul used the Greek word agape, which is usually rendered as charity or love or sometimes brotherly love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” This passage is not just beautifully written but accurately descriptive. What Christianity calls agape would be the same as what Buddhists call mettā. This is more than a happy coincidence; it could act as a meeting point between the two religions.
In the next post I will look at other aspects of love.