Thursday, January 21, 2010

The significance of Dhamma eye in Buddhavacana

[updated: 22 January 2010]

In earlier drafts of my Master's dissertation I started exploring a number of avenues as I tried to trace the historical development of certain concepts insofar as they might have had a bearing on the understanding and practice of the Fifth Precept. Along the way I considered the concept of Buddhavacana in relation to what might be accepted as an utterance of the Buddha, but largely omitted my ideas owing to lack of space. So I would like to take the opportunity of sharing here an observation about this concept. It's a concept that's largely treated in Mahāyāna Buddhism, where using Sanskrit spellings is the usual convention and where discussion concerns Mahāyāna sūtras I'll use these spellings. However, I'm more at home with Pāli and as the discussion proceeds to draw on early canonical materials, I shall switch to mainly using the Pāli forms. I hope this doesn't cause much inconvenience.

In my dissertation I quoted the Pāli-English dictionary to translate the term vacana as 'speaking, utterance, word, bidding' (Rhys-Davids and Stede:1921-5). I made reference to investigations carried out almost 30 years ago by Graeme MacQueen (1981,1982), which has established itself as a key work in scholarly discussions about who and what the Buddha might have authorised as regards his teaching. Its currency, at least for the study of Mahāyāna, is evident from the way Paul Williams cites from it in the second edition of Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.

The interpretation of Buddhavacana can vary according to whether it is regarded historically or ahistorically. Is it legitimate to trust more than what the historical Buddha Gotama (or Sakyamuni) is recorded as having taught? What about his disciples? Were they necessarily Arahants? Or is the criterion more on the speech itself? So is there an ongoing process of 'revelation'?

One of the initial clarifications MacQueen makes is that taking even the Pāli canon as the primary text Buddhavacana becomes not merely what the Buddha uttered, but also what some disciples uttered (1981:306). MacQueen then leads us into an analysis of pratibhāna ('inspired speech') and the other prati-bhā constructions (1981:310-314). He discerns two categories: “Someone is invited (usually by the Buddha) to have something 'occur' or 'be revealed' to him, whereupon he gives a doctrinal, prose discourse” (310) and “Something spontaneously 'occurs' or 'is revealed' to someone and he gives notice of this; after having been invited (usually by the Buddha) to give expression to his inspiration he gives a verse of praise” (311). Even with this latitude, MacQueen remarks towards the end of his first paper that the sūtra-piṭaka “was in fact established as a stable body of literature quite early” (315). In conclusion he states, “Hence it is fair to say that the concept of buddhavacana, historically understood, put strong limits on the contribution people's pratibhāna could make to the corpus of religious truth. By and large, then, the religious community did indeed see itself as belonging to a closed tradition.”

However, with some of the early Mahāyāna sūtras, the interpretation was changed – “a closer look reveals a startling break with traditional Buddhism”(1982: 49). MacQueen analyses especially the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, “generally considered the earliest of the existing sūtras of the Perfection of Wisdom group and, in fact, one of the earliest of the existing sūtras we possess.” The very mention of perfect wisdom in the title indicates a new emphasis – the source of what the Buddha expressed, thereby legitimating further expression as long as it came from that source. MacQueen quotes the opening dialogue in which Venerable Subhuti advises Ven. Sariputra that “Whatever, Venerable Sariputra, the Lord's Disciples teach, all that is to be known as the Tathagatha's work” (49). MacQueen highlights that Subhuti thus gives voice to extended Buddhavacana and it comes from his own mind. As he notes, there is a process whereby what is authoritative is “not so much that which has been spoken by a particular individual at a particular time as it is that which is of the highest value from the religious point of view.” Such a view lends itself very much to an ahistorical interpretation of Buddhavacana (51). MacQueen goes on to present a broad twofold division between roughly faith-based and wisdom-based traditions, the latter of which is central to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. where “The function of a Buddha is precisely to make known such [liberating] wisdom [or prajñāpāramitā] to others” (52).

Furthermore the importance of the wisdom is enforced by quotes indicating that the Buddha refused to appoint a successor saying that the dharma would succeed him, for which MacQueen gives several canonical references (53). One of these is the following: “And the Lord said to Ānanda: 'Ānanda, it may be that you will think: “The Teacher's instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!” It should not be seen like this, Ānanda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline, will, at my passing, be your teacher” (DN II 154). This naturally and readily legitimises succession in a way that reduces the primacy of the historical context of the Buddha and all his disciples.

The key word here would appear to be Dharma, but rather than discussing this term, MacQueen just states: “the essence of Dharma is again liberating wisdom” and has a footnote referencing verses 460-4 of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. Yet Dharma has many meanings in the canon – for instance, the Pāli-English Dictionary devotes four pages to its entry, so it's this term that I want to explore here.

In one sense Dharma may be maintained by the teachings that are kept through recitation and this appears to be the fundamental meaning with regards to transmission. The sūtra records that having stressed to Ānanda the importance of memorising this sūtra exactly word for word, the Buddha explains: “For as the dharma-body of the past, future and present Tathagatas is this dharma-text authoritative” (Verse 462 translated by Conze (1994: 267)).

(Now I switch to Pāli spellings :-).

The emphasis is on preserving the text, but the text serves only to point to that Dhamma, and not the basis of insight alone. If Dhamma is what needs to be preserved, then what is said about it in the canon to make it so special? Rather than talking about Dhamma as an object that has been produced, we can focus on the action or faculty of Dhamma realization; in terms of liberating wisdom, it makes sense therefore to specify these in terms of seeing. I'd suggest that such a Dhamma faculty is fittingly conveyed by the formula the “pure spotless Dhamma eye,” (viraja vītamala dhammacakkhu) which is the eye that can see things as they truly are. If one is to argue that inspired utterances are legitimate Buddhavacana, then this statement indicates some support for that Dhamma eye to be a necessary requirement.

So it's worth investigating this formula further. Such an attainment is characteristic of breakthrough as mentioned early on in the Vinaya accounts of the Mahāvagga (Great Division) with reference to the first lay disciple, Yasa in Mahāvagga 1.15 verse 9 (a passage that also includes the ubiquitous formula: "as if set upright something that had fallen; lit a lamp so that those with eyes might see shapes ...") It's mentioned further in many descriptions as the basis for subsequent progress to the eight Aryan states. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a practitioner in the Therāvāda tradition, who himself addresses issues of authenticity and authority in ‘When you know for yourselves...' The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas, makes the statement:

“Traditionally, the texts state that uncertainty about the Dhamma ends only with the attainment of stream-entry, the first of the four levels of Awakening.”

Ven. Thanissaro has also written a two part article discussing stream entry, and indeed there's no mention of in the first part (before Stream Entry), which includes developing the Seven Factors of Awakening. However, in Part 2: Stream-entry and Beyond, Thanissaro indicates its profound significance:

“This standard formula — it is repeated throughout the Canon — may not seem that remarkable an insight. However, the texts make clear that this insight is not a matter of belief or contemplation, but of direct seeing.”

I think it adds weight to the value of the Dhamma eye (and the need to attain it). Another view echoes this, coming from my own tradition of Dhammakāya. This is what the founder, the late Chao Khun Phramonkgolthepmuni had to say on the matter:

“Now the virtues of the Sangha. The Order of disciples is twofold. That is, ordinary disciples, and Noble Ones. Ordinary disciples differ from the Noble Ones in that they do not possess the dhamma eye, which the Noble Ones do. Here, therefore, only the virtues of the Noble Ones are implied. There are four pairs, eight in all. The stream enterer path and fruit, the once-returner path and fruit, the non-returner path and fruit, the emancipated path and fruit.”

(from a book on his life and teachings by Terry Magness ).

It's echoed in contemporary teachings from the temple on the Four Noble Truths:

Such Buddhist nobles have overcome craving, even though some have not yet attained Nirvana - they have seen and known Nirvana via their Dhamma eye i.e. by meditational insight.

(The Buddha's First Teachings: The Cessation of Suffering by Phrabhavanaviriyakhun)

Are all utterances of equal value among those who hold the Dhamma eye? There might be different levels of response to this question. In terms of secular or historical authority, we might expect a process of 'graceful degradation' whereby the greatest authority (from whom there are no doubts about proclaiming Buddhavacana) are the utterances from a Buddha; these are followed by utterances of a Chief Disciple, then the Arahat in general, then Anāgāmi (Non-Returner), Sakadagami (Once Returner) and finally the Stream Enterer (Sotāpanna). Recall both lay and ordained can be members of the Āriya Sangha, though it's said that a lay person can't survive as an Arahat without ordaining very quickly.

If we assume the necessity of the Dhamma eye, then for the historical context we should consider questions regarding the sustenance of its practice. Did the Buddha make any remarks about its prosperity? If we consider this, then we may find a historical override to perpetual argumentation in the Buddha's prediction that his dispensation would be limited: “, Ānanda, the Brahma-faring will not last long, true dhamma will endure only for five hundred years.” (Vinaya: Culavagga X: I.6, I. Horner trans.). It is made in the context of the establishment of the bhikkhuni order and the recorded detrimental affect (halving the time of dispensation) grates against modern sensitivities, but it should not be dismissed out of hand as the account makes clear that gender is no barrier to attaining nibbāna.

What might the impact be on Buddhavacana? If this statement is true historically and we assume the necessity of "true dhamma" for the extensions to Buddhavacana, then it would appear to restrict such extensions to no later than the 1st century CE and it would imply a more conservative view of what constitutes early Buddhist texts. It would certainly negate assumptions that the transmission of any text per se legitimates or supports in perpetuity the extension of Buddhavacana.

However, this statement does not imply that henceforth there will be no new Buddhavacana. The statement about "true dhamma" is made only with respect to Buddha Gotama's dispensation since, at the very least, it is recorded that there is Buddha Metteya still to come in this world cycle, who in turn will set forth "true dhamma". But again, we may ask what is this "true dhamma"? Some scholars have interpreted this only as a historical material corpus of texts (transmitted orally or in written form). Yet I think it likely that the present canon is substantially a reliable record of what was originally said, so it seems unlikely to me that this is what the Buddha was referring to. A more pertinent interpretation in my view is that the Buddha is referring to dhamma practice, sublime practice, difficult to discern, that is essentially based on the Dhamma eye. Thus the statement is more fundamental: it states that the core of what he taught as practice (i.e. the 'Middle Way' etc.) would be lost.

At first glance, pondering the implications of this can be discouraging, but if we continue to focus on the faculty of the Dhamma eye in relation to "true dhamma", we can ask is it sufficient to proclaim Buddhavacana (as well as necessary)? If it is sufficient, then there arises the possibility of new Buddhavacana if the Dhamma eye is re-discovered without the historical material presence of a Buddha.


Rhys-Davids and Stede, Pāli-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society, 1921–5. [Available online at:]
Conze, Edward trans. 1994[1973]. The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines [Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra], Sri Satguru Publications
MacQueen, Graeme. 1981. Inspired Speech in Early Mahāyāna Buddhism I. Religion 1981 vol. 11, Academic Press, 301-319
MacQueen, Graeme. 1982. Inspired Speech in Early Mahāyāna Buddhism II. Religion 1982 vol. 12, Academic Press, 49-65

1 comment:

LV said...

" A more pertinent interpretation in my view is that the Buddha is referring to dhamma practice, sublime practice, difficult to discern, that is essentially based on the Dhamma eye. Thus the statement is more fundamental: it states that the core of what he taught as practice (i.e. the 'Middle Way' etc.) would be lost."

Very good point. I think contemporary readers and scholars unconsciously assume a modernist view that he was referring to the survival of the socio-historical religion of "Buddhism" or the survival of the Sangha institution with the 500 year prediction. As SN 16.13 and AN 5.79 make clear, the issue of "true dhamma" and the survival of the Sangha were not synonymous in his mind (i.e. the Sangha may survive, but it becomes a peddler of "corrupt dhamma"):