Mind and the Material Elements

Contrasting Theravāda Primary Sources to their European Proxies.

Eisel Mazard: all rights reserved, all wrongs reserved.


In constructing their models of the mind, European philosophers have been preoccupied with the question of the subjectivity of empirical experience. Is this preoccupation shared by the primary source texts invoked in these debates (amongst modern Europeans)? Or, in some cases, can we identify modern interests being imposed onto ancient sources that were written with a very different set of theses and thematic concerns? This essay addresses some pivotal issues in the Buddha’s philosophy of mind, and in the problem of what Europeans have constructed out of it, in contrasting Theravāda primary sources to their European proxies. Reciprocally, the essay examines canonical primary sources that deal with material reality as something existing prior to and unconditioned by perception. This reveals both a philosophy of mind and a philosophy of matter that is incompatible with the recent interpretations of Gombrich (2009) and Wynne (2007) and that is in some ways a surprising contrast to the European tradition of imagining what Buddhism ought to be over the last few centuries —a tradition quite different from what the ancient texts have to say for themselves.

In the sutta genre of the Theravāda canon, we find the Buddha’s philosophy presented in two forms: in the context of debate, and with no context at all. The latter includes some highly schematized sermons presenting philosophical principles in lists (or even lists of lists) presupposing that the persons reciting the text already know the reason as to why the contents are important or, indeed, what subject they are supposed to be about. This format of this literature has been “strong” in the sense that it has remained extant over a period of so many centuries, but it has considerable weaknesses also; it is susceptible to thematic misapprehension, in the sense that the theme of a passage may be misunderstood while specific words remain correctly understood. Phrases, exhortations, and metaphors may be clear enough, without knowing the purpose to which they are employed; or with more than one possible purpose being debatable, especially if the interpreter has lost track of the theme.

In any given instance, the question of what the stated principle is supposed to be about is no trivial matter: the supposition is the work of the reader. In the Theravāda canon, e.g., the development of consciousness is described in the formation of the embryo in the womb, but it is also described in the philosophy of mind, and much of the same vocabulary is also used in simple exhortations on monastic discipline; and while it is possible to understand each of these principles in the contexts of separate debates (scattered in various scriptures) it is also quite easy to conflate or confuse them, perhaps especially where they are listed off with no such context. In short, if we are reading these texts as philosophy, the meaning can only be understood in context, and can easily be misunderstood without it. The thesis of a particular passage cannot be guessed by looking up the word “consciousness” in the dictionary (neither in a Pali dictionary nor in an English one) —on the contrary, we often need to understand the particular denotation of the word from its usage, examined in context, and cannot proceed from nebulous definitions (i.e., the other way around).

The burden is on the reader to compare the appearances of related principles in the contexts of various debates, poems and exhortations preserved in the canon. If two debates are genuinely unrelated, key terms (including many words equivocated with “consciousness”) may be used in significantly different ways. As with all other philosophies, Theravāda orthodoxy employed pliable notions in a variety of debates to various effects; consciousness itself is, certainly, a very pliable notion, as is mind and (as we shall see, below) so too is our English concept of “meditation”. In any particular instance, we cannot guess the thesis by looking at the definition of the word.

Many problems of interpretation arise from the eagerness of so many authors to adapt the ancient sources to suit modern concerns (the worship of tree spirits can become a thesis on ecology, etc.). In this essay, I would demonstrate that one important aspect of the Buddha’s philosophy of mind has been misunderstood and misrepresented in the historical process of constructing a definitive European interpretation. While there is some debate and diversity within that European tradition, I employ various examples to warn that ossified assumptions have the power to shape one generation of interpretations after another in becoming an implicit part of the apparatus of English-language scholarship (e.g., in the definitions provided by Pali-English dictionaries, and in methodological assumptions as to what evidence is considered, what omitted from consideration, and so on).

There is an influential philosophical statement in the PTS dictionary entry for upādāna (s.v.), in parentheses. The meaning of the word is said to be “literally that (material) substratum by means of which an active process is kept alive or going”. In the context of an essay, that might be merely one author’s opinion; considered as a dictionary definition, it is both misleading and misled. In a major new work by Professor Richard Gombrich (2009, p. 114) this same assertion is quoted from the PTS dictionary as if it revealed something about the titular subject of “What the Buddha Thought”. If the historical Buddha (or his redactors) had wanted to discuss such a “substratum” the Pali language certainly does not lack the words to express the notion (the English term simply means “a layer below”). Amongst the texts that Gombrich quotes and gathers together under this heading (reviewed in the following pages), I do not find one that even attempts to describe such a “substratum”; this concept only enters into his interpretation by means of this quotation from the Pali-English dictionary. In other words, the notion is spurious if we are proceeding strictly from the primary sources, because the dictionary does not define the primary sources, but merely collects together observations about them.

If we were sincerely trying to establish that upādāna is the substratum of the world of the senses, wouldn’t we check to see what the Buddha actually said about this subject, instead of starting from the dictionary? Once the dictionary’s assumption is foisted onto the source text, it is then possible to proceed to broader and broader generalizations that presuppose the modern definition.

How is it that Gombrich comes to present this argument that upādāna is the substratum of the world of the senses (in reliance upon that dictionary entry)? It arose as part of a larger (perhaps grander?) philosophical and philological project. In his recent work, Gombrich interprets Theravāda sources to try to prove that the historical Buddha’s philosophy was that “everything in our world… is process” and that there are no entities. (Gombrich, 2009, p. 160)

Despite the title given to the work, there are very few primary sources that link this thesis of Gombrich’s to the historical Buddha, and the sources that Gombrich invokes are (as I would now demonstrate) spurious to his purpose. Gombrich (id. 119) superimposes his own interest in the ontological difference between process and entity onto the Mahā-Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta. (PTS MN vol. 1, p. 256 et seq.) There is no such thematic concern in the primary source itself; this sutta is, instead, a (relatively well-known) debate on the nature of consciousness in-between lives, wherein the Buddha remonstrates a monk for his misconception that consciousness moves between one life and another. The orthodox thesis counterposed is that consciousness arises only as a consequence of material conditions, namely, those of conception, gestation and birth.

This sutta is one of many canonical sources wherein fine points of doctrine delineating Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) theories of incarnation are discussed as matters of grave importance (another example is mentioned in §8, below). This is a subject treated with solemnity and, at times, vehemence, throughout the literature; in the Mahā-Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta, the Buddha castigates this monk for his error at length, and proceeds to recapitulate many of the foundations of Buddhist practice. What Gombrich extracts from this context is an image of fire: in the midst of remonstrating the monk about birth and the arising of consciousness, the Buddha states allegorically that various types of fire are named after their fuel. A grass-fire is named as such because it is burning grass, and so on for a cow-dung fire burning dung, and other examples. The point here is wildly spurious to Gombrich’s assertion that “everything in our world… is process”; there is absolutely nothing in this text to suggest that the Buddha is implicitly “separating ontology from epistemology”. (id. 120)

I would pause here to draw attention back to my own over-arching concern: what I have called the weakness of these texts is precisely that such a misapprehension of the theme is possible. How is it possible for a modern interpreter to present a debate on this subject of obvious religious significance (i.e., incarnation) and apply it to an unrelated philosophy (ontology, as thought of in the European tradition of phenomenology)? Perhaps the first and most important thing to observe is that such a misreprestation is possible at all, although my purpose here is to refute it.

In the primary source text (and original context) of the Mahā-Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta, we witness the refutation of a non-orthodox view of consciousness and its reincarnation, in a specific religious and cultural context wherein orthodoxy is very narrowly defined. In this context, the Buddha teaches that there are various fires that are named in relation to various types of fuel, and that there are likewise many types of consciousness that exist in similar dependency upon the sensory organs and the things sensed. In the prior sentence, the shift from one thing being named after another (in the allegory of fire) and one thing existing in relation to another (in the theme or thesis of the passage) should indeed be noted: the difference between a grass-fire and a cow-dung fire (etc.) thus is likened to the difference between eye-consciousness and tactile-consciousness (etc.). The point is, simply, that there are many types of consciousness in the same sense that there are many types of fires; it is, perhaps, a weakness of the argument (not discussed in the scripture) that there is no interest in whether or not fires are merely named after their fuel, while (in some sense) “being” the same fire, nor, indeed, is there any possibility explored that consciousness might have many names and yet (in some sense) “be” one thing referred to by all. In the scripture, the point is simple, and, as I say, this is suitable enough as the context is not at all a discussion of phenomenology, nor ontology, nor epistemology, nor even the nature of language.

Gombrich proceeds to assert (with no source in the canon whatsoever) that “Fire is dynamic and appetitive: it seeks out its objects.” (id. 122) This is not the Buddha’s teaching at all: the only basis for Gombrich’s claim is an allusion to an unstated meaning in Mahā-Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta (as discussed above) that, “…the Buddha’s analaogy… that [fire and consciousness] are —or can be— classified according to their fuel.” (ibid.)

With no further evidence (nor a single further quotation) Gombrich then asserts that the Buddha’s “familiarity with Vedic thought surely guarantees that he had this in mind [scil., fire as dynamic and appetitive].” (ibid.) This vague suggestion is then referred back to throughout the rest of the book as if Gombrich had established the tenet as something the Buddha himself said or taught or knew. On the contrary, there is not one word in the source that he has selectively quoted concerning fire “seeking” its fuel, nor of it being appetitive, nor, indeed, does it broach the issue of process-vs.-entity that Gombrich speculates about. The text of the Mahā Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta does not support Gombrich’s own philosophy in any way whatsoever.

I would neither extract the allegory of the various types of fires from its context, nor would I abstract upon the theme without reference to the argument it originally served to illustrate. Cautiously, however, I would add that this comparison of the fires to the senses illustrates what ancient Buddhists considered an absurd assumption: we should not, apparently, suppose that there is any supernatural unity (nor continuity) between unrelated fires (one of grass, another of dung, etc.). In this context, the argument entails that it would be equally absurd to assume the unity of consciousness (amongst the senses, from one sense to another, etc., and perhaps from one mind to another, and one life to another). The continuity (or discontinuity) of consciousness is the major theme to which the Buddha’s sermon returns soon after this image of fire, with the greater (religious) concern being the precise definition of the “limited continuity” of consciousness between lives. This allegory does not attempt to prove to us that all fires are not linked, or not unified; it presumes that the audience would consider this absurd, and then offers an argument by analogy about the non-unity of consciousness.

This is not an anti-ontology, as Gombrich invites the reader to pretend. The significance of the allegory as a whole is only clear from the context of the dialogue: this model of the multiplicity of consciousness (wholly dependent upon the senses) excludes the stated view of the Buddha’s opponent that consciousness is continuous in-between lives. Fire merely arises in reliance upon various fuels, and is perceived and named in relation to those fuels; likewise, there is no continuity of consciousness without the “fuel” of the eye and the object seen, the tongue and the thing tasted, and so on. There is no “puzzle” as Gombrich claims (id. 120) in the transition between these paragraphs in the primary source text; the allegory makes sense as part of the argument it illustrates.

Gombrich’s entire line of speculation (about an unstated philosophical meaning, unrelated to the argument of the sutta as a whole, yet allegedly hidden in this allegory of fire) can be refuted just by looking back at Gombrich’s point of departure where the Buddha asks (in Gombrich’s own translation), “Monks, do you see that what has come into being is of a nature to finish through the finishing of its food?” (id. 120)

Gombrich dismisses this evidence by complaining that the text “has become banal”. (id. 121) He then proceeds to treat the “analogy between consciousness and fire” as something entirely separate from the thesis debated in the source. (id. 122)

Gombrich also misrepresents the Kaccāyanagotta sutta (also writ Kaccānagotta, PTS SN vol. II p. 17 et seq.) to create some corroboration for his interpretation of the fire allegory in question (above). Gombrich claims that this sutta concerns the refutation of “unchanging existence” (id. 160) —but, as I will demonstrate, this is simply not true. Nor is it true that this sutta contains the Buddha’s assertion of a model of “change or process” to replace an ontological model based upon a “presupposed” existence. (Ibid. et seq.)

The question asked in the original text of this (very short) dialogue is (very simply) the meaning of the term “correct doctrine” (sammādiṭṭhi, often translated into English as “right view”). The Buddha’s reply is a homily typical of ancient Buddhist literature, but one that does not (at first) seem to directly answer the question posed: the monk is instructed that those who see “the arising of the world” (lokasamudaya) as it really is do not regard the world as something that does not exist. Conversely, seeing “the end of the world” (lokanirodha) as it really is, we should not see the world as something that does exist. This may sound rather mysterious at first glance, but, if we read it in context, there is nothing mysterious about it at all. “The arising of the world” (lokasamudaya) referred to here is a completely standard term for human birth in Theravāda doctrine, and it appears as such in this sutta, with no exception to the rule; and, likewise, “the end of the world” (lokanirodha) is a standard term for nibbāna. For a very clear guide to the dogmatic meaning of both terms, we may refer to the Lokasuttanta of the Abhisamaya-saṅyutta’s Gahapati-vaggo (PTS SN vol. II p. 73) wherein the Buddha begins his sermon by asking aloud about this arising of the world (Katamo ca bhikkhave, lokassa samudayo?). He proceeds to answer his own question very clearly: the convergence of the eye, the thing seen, and eye- consciousness is “the arising of the world” (cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaŋ — and so on for the ear, nose, etc.).

I would emphasize that the text literally indicates the contact of these three coming together (tiṇṇaŋ saṅgati phasso). This trinity both presumes and propounds the prior and separate existence of (i) the organ of perception, (ii) the thing to be perceived and (iii) the consciousness corresponding to the faculty of the sense or senses. This is a clear indication that the model of knowledge advanced (or at least presumed) in these texts does not at all exclude the existence of the entities that thus converge with the senses. There is no basis whatsoever in these texts to suppose that the Buddha ever preached that the process of knowing invalidates the real existence of the thing the eye comes into contact with (nor of the eye itself, nor for the things heard by the ear, etc. etc.). There is simply nothing in these sources that supports Gomrbich’s thesis “that the Buddha argued against positing a category of ‘being’…”. (id. 144)

There is little room for ambiguity within the short span of the Kaccāyanagotta sutta itself: in the space of a few words, the image of the arising of the world is is applied to the standard Theravāda formula of salvation. The correct doctrine (or “view”), we are told, does not regard the soul as oneself (nādhiṭṭhāti attā me-ti) but instead perceives that suffering arises, and suffering ceases (dukkhameva uppajjamānaŋ uppajjati, dukkhaŋ nirujjhamānaŋ nirujjhatī’ti na kaṅkhati). Again, in contrast to Gombrich’s thesis, the text does not (in any way) insinuate that the process of knowing precludes the existence of entities.

In its original context, clearly, the turn of phrase about “the arising of the world” is merely a dramatic way of introducing nibbāna as a doctrine and practice in this context, redirecting the reader’s interest from the origin of the world to the origin of suffering, and then from the end of the world to the ending of suffering, with a sort of poetic prevarication upon these dogmatic terms (used here much as they are defined in the Lokasuttanta quoted above). The literary device is less confusing than my attempts to explain it: we should keep in mind that Buddhist salvation is literally “the extinction of birth” (scil. jātinirodha, as stated in the conclusion of this same sutta and found frequently throughout the canon). The pairing of such counterposed extremes thus seems natural in the language of the canon: “the end of the world” (lokanirodha) is here little more than a segue to “the end of birth” (jātinirodha). Both terms are alluding directly to nibbāna; they are certainly not used to make any claim about the substance or material existence of that world (neither a positive claim nor a negative one). There is nothing of ontological significance in this passage. As we shall discuss below, there are other primary sources wherein the material reality of the world is debated —but this isn’t one of them.

§5. In each of the passages examined, Gombrich’s thematic interest in quoting the text has been very different from anything the authors could have intended; simply, he is not quoting discussions of phenomenology or epistemology, but he is making claims about ontology as if this were the implicit theme of passages that are (explicitly and actually) about something else. In the next stage of this interpretation, after (i) counterposing processes to entities, (ii) sundering epistemology from ontology, and (iii) trying to argue that the Buddha (of the Pali suttas) denied the existence of entities, Gombrich (iv) extends the significance of the fire allegory (discussed above) by asserting that the implicit meaning he assigned to it (in the the Mahā Taṇhā-Saṅkhaya sutta) can be discovered again in the recurrent image of the five khandhas throughout the canon.

This word khandha is exceedingly common in the philosophical tracts of the canon (and appears adjoined to upādāna in the names of the five khandhas, e.g. vedanūpādānakkhandho, etc.); by changing the nuance we assign to the term we would indeed change the way many passages are interpreted. What is the interpretation Gombrich has proposed?

Instead of imagining the khandhas as merely “aggregations” (or “heaps”) comprising the physical body (inclusive of the mind and senses), Gombrich has pointed out their close association with allegories of fire, and so glosses the term as heaps of burning fuel:

So there are not just five heaps of fuel but five fires burning fuel. Like all fires, they are in a sense what they are made of; and this takes us back to the Vedic thought that fire is both object and subject. Moreover, they are not things but processes. [Gombrich, 2009, p. 124–5; the emphasis on “things” and “processes” follows the original.]

I will not question the attribution of this idea to the Vedas (questionable though it may be, that should be left to Vedic specialists); the problem I would point to is that there is no connection between this vague claim about “Vedic thought” and the fire allegories quoted from the Pali canon in Gombrich’s tract. Many aspects of “Vedic thought” are repudiated by the Pali canon, and the existence of an idea in the Vedas offers no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha subscribed to it.

Instead of primary source evidence, Gombrich offers us generalizations that remind me more of Schopenhauer (returned to in §8, below) than anything Gombrich has quoted from the canon: “… the subjective and objective presuppose each other and all experience requires both…”, he says. (id. 125) This is a false syllogism, even if it might appeal to the imagination: there is neither any evidence nor any logical relationship that would lead us from the interpretation of the khandhas as burning heaps of fuel to the conclusion that these fires (along with their fuel) are non-entities, and the relationship of subject to object is a premise that cannot serve as a middle term. Gombrich simply asserts (as his own opinion) that that “…the khandhas are not so much what we are as how we work…” (id. 145) —but this is not sufficient to conjure up evidence from wildly spurious texts.

Is it fair to characterize his evidence as wildly spurious to his argument? If the reader doubts the former examples, the next is wilder still. One of the most spurious sources plied by Gombrich is “…the Buddha’s statement that the world lies within this fathom-long body”. (id. 125) The poetic image he has alluded to does indeed appear in the context of a poem; it introduces the poem that concludes the Rohitassa sutta. (PTS SN vol. I p. 61 et seq.) In the context of all that has been said above (in §4), it will hardly surprise the reader to learn that the Buddha remarks that the arising of the world (lokasamudaya) and the end of the world (lokanirodha) are within the human body; the terms used here are completely standard in Theravāda doctrine, and they are used here with the same connotations as in the other example discussed (§4, above), in direct reference to salvation and the end of suffering (i.e., nibbāna).

The witticism that this sutta hinges upon is the contrast between the interlocutor’s question about traveling to the end of the world, and the Buddha’s laconic reply, that (so to speak) the end of the world isn’t a place that you can walk to, and yet, nevertheless, achieving nibbāna is “the end of the world”, in a manner of speaking, and offers the release from misery and mortality that the interlocutor asked about. Conversely, even a giant whose legs can reach from one ocean shore to another in a single bound could not come to the end of the world (by walking) after a hundred years. Both the dialogue and the poem are charming; however, they do not contain any evidence salient to the philosophical claim that Gombrich directly ascribes to this source (scil. that “…the subjective and objective presuppose each other and all experience requires both…”, id. 125).

There is nothing in any of these sources that supports Gomrbich’s thesis “that the Buddha argued against positing a category of ‘being’…”. (id. 144) If the Buddha had wanted to offer such an argument, it would be possible to quote a passage saying precisely that, i.e., “don’t posit a category of being”; given that canonical Buddhism is explicit about so many philosophical points of fine distinction, there are no grounds to think that this would would be left up to our imagination (and imputation). As I will demonstrate further below, the reason why Gombrich’s argument is such a poor fit with the sources we have is that it actually contradicts the philosophy of the mind and the material elements as it is propounded (in the Buddha’s voice, if not by the Buddha) in these ancient primary sources.

§6. If it is fair to say (after so much disclosure) that Gombrich had adopted a very difficult task (if not an impossible one) in trying to connect his anti-ontological philosophy to the canonical sources, the reader might now wonder why he made such an effort at all. With very few tethers between his argument and the canonical texts, this peculiar word upādāna (and the PTS dictionary’s peculiar definition thereof) assumes its crucial significance.

Philosophically (though not philologically), Gombrich’s argument proceeds from interpreting upādāna (id. 114) to re-interpreting the khandhas in terms of fire allegories (id. 124) and thenceforth offers broader and broader generalizations, reliant upon Vedic and other non- canonical sources.

The misconception that upādāna might suggest such a substratum is not new. It was already asked about and answered within the oldest part of the Theravāda canon (in referring to “the oldest part” I simply mean the first four nikāyas of the suttanta material, that I refer to as “the core canon” in contrast to the periphery comprising the fifth nikāya (inclusive of the Jātakas), the Vinaya literature, and the Abhidhamma, not to mention the commentarial literature, many centuries subsequent to the foregoing). Right in the middle of the Majjhima Nikāya there is a philosophical debate called the Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta (MN #109) wherein an anonymous monk cross-examines the Buddha on precisely this issue. As I asked before, if we were trying to establish that upādāna is the substratum of the world of the senses, we would directly consult what the Buddha said about this subject in the primary sources, instead of starting from the dictionary entry, wouldn’t we?

The Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta opens by asking about the five khandhas; as I’ve mentioned above, this is a frequently-occurring term in Buddhist philosophy that Gombrich interprets with special reference to the image of fire consuming its fuel (as quoted above, §5). The sutta presents a series of ten questions (followed by an addendum on an unasked question that either the Buddha or his editors thought someone in the crowd might have had in mind at the end of the discussion). The first question simply establishes the subject of the discourse: what are the five khandhas? They are listed by name in both the question and the answer, and, as aforementioned, the names incorporate the concept of upādāna: (i) rūpūpādānakkhandho (ii) vedanūpādānakkhandho (iii) saññūpādānakkhandho (iv) saṅkhārūpādānakkhandho, and (v) viññāṇūpādānakkhandho. (MN PTS vol. 3, p. 15–16)

Direct translation of this sermon will sound rather awkward: if we render the third in the sequence as “the aggregation of perception(s)”, the reader would be entitled to complain that this does not make sense in any language. That is a reasonable complaint, and many English translations of these sources leave readers with much to complain about.

So, to prevaricate upon the meaning of the word for a moment, I would turn to the definition that arises in the Cūḷavedalla sutta (also writ Culla-, PTS MN vol 1, p. 299 et seq.). This scripture opens with the Buddha asking rhetorically, “In what sense does the Buddha speak of ‘a self’”? The word for the “self” in both the question and the answer here is sakkāya, meaning the physical and individual person (i.e., not the intangible soul as disputed in many other dialogues). In reply to his own question, says the Buddha, it is only in reference to the five khandhas that the Buddha has spoken of this physical self. (Katamo nu kho ayye sakkāyo vutto bhagavatāti? Pañca kho ime āvuso visākha upādānakkhandhā sakkāyo vutto bhagavatā.) That is a much better clue as to the true meaning of khandha than anything we can dig out of the dictionaries.

Similarly, within the bounds of the Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta, the Buddha instructs us that the concept of individual existence that Theravāda orthodoxy repudiates (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) arises precisely from the common run of mankind perceiving a self or soul in these five khandhas (i.e., instead of perceiving them merely as they are, selfless and soulless, etc.). (MN PTS vol. 3, p. 17–18) Thus, the relationship between the khandhas and the physical person is quite direct; as I will show in the pages following, the relationship of these khandhas to the material elements is also quite direct.

In addressing the translation of the word, I would further point out that the khandha of perception is (strictly speaking) a category of “all that is perceived”, in parallel to other frequently-found dogmatic terms such as, “all that is misery” (dukkha-khandha) and “all that is moral conduct” (sīla-kkhandha). This quality of the word gathering together many diverse things under one heading seems to me a none-too-mysterious aspect that is lost in opaque renderings along the lines of “aggregates of perception” (and it is lost, too, in speaking of “heaps of burning fuel”).

In sum, the five khandhas comprise the sensorium of the body that we are directed (by Buddhist doctrine) not to regard as the self (or, in other words, it is a category of things that people of other faiths do regard as the self). The world of the senses, or the world as we know it, is this set of five aggregates, inclusive of the things themselves, our perception of them, and our thoughts and intentions arising in reaction to them. Gombrich’s suggestion that “…the khandhas are not so much what we are as how we work…” (2009, 145) may seem like a minor change in nuance; however, what the primary source texts tell us is the exact opposite, namely, that the five khandhas are the very stuff that the corporeal body is made of (inclusive of the mind).

The explanation given for the third khandha later in the same Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta offers some clarification, but neither enough for the interlocutor, nor enough for our present investigation: this “aggregation” of “perception” is a category that includes all perceptions, gross or subtle, interior or exterior, in the past, future or present, etc. (Yā kāci saññā atītānāgatapaccuppannā ajjhattaŋ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikā vā sukhumā vā hīnā vā paṇītā vā yā dūre santike vā, ayaŋ saññākkhandho, id. p. 17).

The formulation of that answer speaks to the meaning of what we’ve here called “perception” (saññā) and “aggregation” (khandha) —but it does not use the compound word that includes the concept of upādāna in-between (scil. saññūpādānakkhandho). It is therefore neither entirely repetitive nor entirely surprising to find that this particular dialogue contains other questions broaching the meaning of upādāna from other angles.

Granted then, that the five khandhas are very broad categories, that include the physical self, and the sensorium of the world as we know it (including self-perception), we are paraphrasing only a little to say that the second question in this dialogue asks after the “substratum” of the world of the senses. The term used in the original literally means “root”, and the questioner wants to know about the “root” of the five aggregations of senses and their perceptions (ime pana bhante pañcupādānakkhandhā kim-mūlakā?). (MN PTS vol. 3, p. 16)

The third question in this dialogue then presses further: the monk wants to know whether or not this concept of upādāna is in any way separate from the world of the senses, perhaps because he is dissatisfied with the vagueness of the earlier answers.

The second answer in this sequence indicates that these phenomena we perceive are rooted in the will (chanda-mūla). This answer might have satisfied Arthur Schopenhauer (i.e., it vaguely resembles the final conclusions of his philosophy, that willing is prior to knowing, etc.) but, evidently, it is not a satisfactory solution to the problem posed in this dialogue, as more questions follow.

The interlocutor is apparently struggling with the interpretation of upādāna as such a substratum providing the underlying “root” for the world we see and hear around us; or, we might say, he is wondering what that substratum might be, if we are willing to suppose there is one.

In contrast to the suggestive opening to the PTS dictionary entry on the subject, the Buddha’s answer here is direct and unambiguous: no, upādāna is not separate from the world of the senses: apart from the khandhas (i.e., perceptions and the things perceived, etc. etc.) there is no upādāna whatsoever (i.e., leaving that word without translation for the moment), and, vice-versa, there is no upādāna apart from this world of the senses, the five khandhas. (Na kho bhikkhu, taŋ yeva upādānaŋ te pañcupādānakkhandhā nāpi aññatra pañcupādānakkhandhehi upādānaŋ, Ibid.)

Question 6 in the sequence is still re-stating the monk’s same concern, but now with a new angle: how is it that the world of the senses comes to be known, what is the (underlying) cause of these apperceptions? If we were to use the English word “basis”, then the second question asked about the “basis” of the five khandhas in terms of their (literal) “root”, whereas the sixth question is asking about their (literal) “cause”. The question makes especially good sense in this context, i.e., keeping in mind the direction of the other questions before it. Thus far, the answers revealed no objective cause for subjective impressions; this may be what the questioner was hoping to hear about in response to the earlier questions also.

The Buddha’s answer here is very straightforward: the first cause (and origin) of our sense- impressions is material reality, named as the four material elements (cattāro mahābhūtā paccayo). The subsequent effects of the material world upon the mind are simply attributed to sensory “contact” (phassa, idem, p. 17; see the quotation in boxed text).

In extracting just the most salient points of the Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta, I am struggling to be brief:
(i) whereas most of the Buddha’s philosophy is addressed to the mind and the world of the senses, the Buddha was also (in various ways) asked about the “substratum” (the underlying root and material cause) of that sensorium, if we must use the word “substratum” at all, and,
(ii) in his reply, he specifically denied that upādāna itself was such a substratum (and, therefore, the PTS dictionary is misleading on this account). (iii) While it did not seem to be his preferred mode of opening such a lecture, when the Buddha was asked about the material basis of perception (etc.), his philosophy did include the material elements as something that exists prior to the impressions of the mind: material reality is said to make its impressions upon the senses, simply, through contact.

The world of the senses is therefore not autogenous in the Buddha’s philosophy (nor is it a process that lacks any reference to an entity) but ultimately arises from contact with raw material of another kind.

The strength of this interpretation (adding nothing, in my opinion, to what the source text states itself) is that it is consistent with (and even helps to clarify slightly) numerous other sutta texts dealing with the mind and its contact with matter.

For example, a pair of suttas in the Nānatta-vagga of the Dhātusaŋyutta specifically discuss the direction of the relationship between the contact (phassa) of the senses and the elements (dhātu). (Phassanānatta-sutta & No-phassanānatta-sutta, SN PTS vol 2, p. 140 et seq.) The purpose and thematic concern of the latter tract seems obvious if we read it with prior awareness of the aforementioned debate: apparently, it was important to iterate that the direction of contact relating the raw materials to our perceptions of them moves in one direction only. The hand may reach out, but the feeling of tactility is imparted from the thing sensed to the mind via the hand, never the other way around. However, the Nānatta-vagga itself does not provide us with a question-and-answer format, nor does it contrast the Buddha’s doctrine to a rival philosophy, as in some of the examples following below.

§7. The issue of “contact” (phassa) relating the mind to material reality is of special importance because, I would assert, it is not a metaphor: it is a direct statement of the Buddha’s philosophy, or, at least, it directly indicates some of his philosophical assumptions.

The Pali canon does, also, contain many metaphors about the nature of the mind, but it would be completely false to infer that one metaphor could provide a complete and exclusive model of the mind (to then draw further conclusions “ex silentio” and “apophatically”). If we sincerely want to understand the Buddha’s opinion as to the relationship between subjective and objective reality, we must start by looking at the debates that broach this question specifically, and that provide unambiguous answers to it.

By definition, a metaphor provides the reader with less information than a thesis read in the context of debate; instead, it provides that information in a form that is easier to visualize. The literary quality of such images (that may help to make Buddhist philosophy more evocative) rarely (or, perhaps, never) provides us with a thesis or a proof. Metaphors are ornaments to arguments, and if we read them without foreknowledge of the thesis they are supposed to illustrate, they mean nothing at all.

As shown above, Gombrich builds his model of the Buddhist philosophy of mind almost exclusively on (a selected sub-set of) canonical fire-metaphors. Gombrich’s own claim is that this fire is not an entity, but only a process; the author initially claims this in the first person, without any canonical source (Gombrich, 2009, 124–5) but, soon enough, he attributes this opinion directly to the Buddha. (id. 144)

Apart from particular problems internal to Gombrich’s interpretation, there is the more general problem of all of the evidence that is excluded by a method that selects (and proceeds from) a particular metaphor. There is no clear reason as to why we should give priority to the image of fire as opposed to (e.g.) the image of an ox-cart, or any other canonical metaphor.

The ox-cart is most definitely used to illustrate the Buddha’s philosophy of mind in several places, and we prejudice ourselves in selecting one image to the exclusion of the other. Without digressing too much into one example out of many, a strict interpretation of the ox-cart image (in isolation) as found in the Koṭṭhita-sutta (SN PTS vol. IV p. 162 et seq.) would offer the reader a model of the mind that was incompatible with any model based on the image of fire; moreover, neither model would broach the specific issues dealt with in the debate recorded in the Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta (quoted and discussed above).

In this dialogue, Koṭṭhita counterposes two possibilities: is it the case that the eye is “bound” by the things seen, or that the things seen are “bound” by the eye? (Kinnu kho āvuso sāriputta cakkhu rūpānaŋ saññojanaŋ rūpā cakkhussa saññojanaŋ…? ibid.). This “leading question” is repeated, with parallel syntax, for the sounds heard by the ear, tastes in relation to the tongue, and so on; but the sequence ends with with the question of whether it is the will that is “bound” by doctrines, or if it is doctrines that are “bound” by the will (…mano dhammānaŋ saññojanaŋ, dhammā manassa saññojananti?). At this stage, we might say “enjoined” rather than “bound”. Up until the final clause of the question, we might expect the same reply that we find in the Nānatta-vagga (very briefly reported above, in §6), i.e., we might expect a very simple answer concerning the direction of the influence between the objects perceived and the organs of perception. Instead, this sutta turns our attention from matters of perception to matters of doctrine, entailing a different sort of answer.

Instead of reiterating the now-familiar issues of cause and effect, the four material elements, etc., the Koṭṭhita-sutta offers the reader an evocative image of two oxen put to the harness. One ox is black, the other white: just as it would be inaccurate to say “the black ox is bound by the white ox”, it would be equally inaccurate to say “the white ox is bound by the black one”. There’s a third aspect here, that is binding them together: the yoke or the chain around their necks (…ekena dāmena vā yottena vā saŋyuttā). In this context, the monk Sāriputta sets down the axiom that it is neither objects seen that put the eye in their thrall, nor the eye that binds the things seen in chains; rather, the bond or the yoke that relates the two of them together is desire (Evameva kho āvuso na cakkhu rūpānaŋ saññojanaŋ, na rūpā cakkhussa saññojanaŋ, yañca tattha tadubhayaŋ paṭicca uppajjati chandarāgo taŋ tattha saññojanaŋ).

If an interpreter wanted to lean very heavily on this passage, and treat this as an epistemological (and/or ontological) tract, they could misconstrue this as a model of the mind quite different from (and incompatible with) the basic assumptions quoted from the Gahapati-vaggo, above (and even more difficult to reconcile with Gombrich’s speculative theories based on fire-metaphors, and other theories of mind). Such an approach would be utterly misleading, even if it were sincere: understood in its original context, the discussion is really driving at the “yoke” of religious conviction.

The point of philosophical contention here is the relationship between doctrines (dhamma) and the will (mano), concluding both the question and its answer (na mano dhammānaŋ saññojanaŋ, na dhammā manassa saññojanaŋ). The question is formulated to confound Buddhist assumptions: if it had simply asked in a plain and unsophisticated form, “are doctrines an obstruction or fetter to the will?” the answer might be an astonished and equally simple, “no” (because the canon propounds these doctrines as an avowed form of emancipation, liberation, etc.). Instead, the question of how belief is binding upon the mind is carefully construed in parallel to Buddhist assumptions about perception. The primacy of desire (chandarāga) in the reply reflects the real interest that the question was “leading” us toward in the first place: the eye and object were counterposed to induce us to question whether or not the mind is fettered by these doctrines, in the same way that the senses are (presumed to be) fettered by the things perceived. Simply put, the subject-matter debated in this discourse is not the cause-and-effect relationship of material reality and subjective apperception. This again returns us to the issue of thematic misapprehension, a weakness of even such a bold text as this one.

Canonical metaphors may be pliable and vague when examined in isolation, but they were each used to a particular purpose, to illustrate a particular thesis, in the intentions of their original authors. We cannot start with the metaphor, and then presume to arrive at the thesis through inference, especially not across the huge gap of centuries that separates us from the cultural assumptions of the canonical authors and the historical Buddha.

There is, therefore, a special importance in the identification of non-metaphorical statements about the Buddha’s philosophy of mind, so that we know the referents the metaphors would illustrate. In examining the “contact” of the senses with the material world, I would assert, we are not examining a metaphor at all.

At the conclusion of an illustrious career, Gombrich’s book (of 2009) comes to a totally incompatible set of conclusions about the fundamental issues of mind and matter in the most ancient Buddhist sources. He claims that the Buddha presented an epistemology with no ontology —and he does so by interpreting exactly the same issue of upādāna in relation to the world of the senses. (Gombrich, 2009, p. 120, 125 & 141)

To be clear, an epistemology is a theory of knowledge, and Gombrich is claiming that the Buddha’s model of the mind does not rely upon any ontology; in this context, the latter term denotes whatever actually exists, or anything the philosophy asserts (or assumes) to truly exist, prior to (and unconditioned by) our knowledge of it.

In the European tradition of philosophy, the relationship between ontology and epistemology is usually fraught with problems: this is primarily because of the legacy of Christian theology (wherein the supposed existence of the Christian god becomes the main problem for both epistemology and ontology to “solve”) and, secondarily, because of the concerns internal to empiricist debates (dating back to the Skeptics of ancient Greece) challenging any assumed correspondence between our perceptions and material reality.

For people who have grown up with this set of concerns inculcated into them by an education in European philosophy, it may be difficult to read a tract from ancient India without imposing these thematic expectations onto the text. It is important that we do not assume that the historical Buddha shared any of these European concerns —not because it is impossible but because it is misleading to assume that any ancient text was first written with the intention to answer the questions of moderns. It is more frequently the case that there is a considerable gap of culture between the two.

Schopenhauer, for his part, was convinced that our senses do not communicate material reality to us directly, but only through the distorting “lens” of subjective experience (vitiated by the will and, at the same time, failing to perceive the will for what it is). Throughout his mature works, he chose to describe the distorting aspect of subjectivity in pseudo-Hindu terminology (e.g., “the veil of Maya”) and also in pseudo-Buddhist terminology (derived from 19th century translations of Mahayana sources). Schopenhauer’s casual appropriation of ideas from ancient India and medieval China had tremendous influence upon European assumptions about Buddhism in the generations that followed. In a recent essay, Urs App has demonstrated that this reciprocal influence actually took place within Schopenhauer’s lifetime: the German philosopher’s innovations had already been ascribed to Buddhist sources in a textbook of 1856. (App, 2010, esp., p. 63–64)

After Schopenhauer’s death, his interpretations of Hindu sources were similarly imposed onto the originals, with tremendous repercussions within India, as well as in the European appraisal of Indian philosophy. (Hacker & Halbfass, 1995, p. 297 et seq.)

The influence of Schopenhauer on the PTS editors is not a subject of speculation. C.A.F. Rhys- Davids (herself a pivotal figure in this history, and longtime president of the PTS) wrote that virtually all of the European critics and commentators of her generation, “…have followed, consciously or unconsciously, the direction of Schopenhauer’s pointing finger…”. (Rhys-Davids, 1898, p. 47)

In addition to the one PTS dictionary entry on upādāna aforementioned, Gombrich’s interpretation of the Buddha’s philosophy of mind relies very heavily on the same dictionary’s abstract generalizations on the meaning of the word saṅkhāra. (Gombrich, 2009, p. 139, cf. 141) The latter dictionary entry contains a statement on “the blending of the subjective-objective view of the world” that could easily be a paraphrase of Schopenhauer; conversely, it has no basis whatsoever in the primary source texts of the Theravāda canon. We may compare Gombrich’s statement, already quoted in §5, that “…the subjective and objective presuppose each other and all experience requires both…”. (id. 125) This is indeed one, coherent philosophy espoused in these sources; however, it is not Buddhism.

If the Buddha had ever wanted to make a statement about “the blending of the subjective- objective view of the world”, he did not lack the words to do so; the burden remains for the interpreter to either show that the primary source text contains such an idea, or else to (frankly) admit that this is someone else’s philosophy (perhaps the interpreter’s own) and that it cannot be found in the original text. If there were any canonical basis for this assertion, Gombrich would quote the canon itself to prove it, and not the dictionary, wouldn’t he?

§9. In contrast to classical Chinese, Latin, or Greek, the dictionaries that we have to assist us in reading the Pali language are of very poor quality, and, as I have tried to show with a few examples above, the scholars who formerly controlled the PTS were very bold in writing their own philosophies into their own dictionary.

In looking up nibbāna, we do not find a definition of what the word means in its canonical usage, but, instead, we find a statement of what these few Europeans thought that it ought to mean.

The PTS dictionary’s entry for nibbāna (s.v.) goes far beyond the jurisdiction of lexicography in declaring the concept to be, “…purely and solely an ethical state… [i]t is therefore not transcendental.” This notion is supported by selectively quoting a few 20th century scholars to the effect that nirvana is (despite what you may have heard about Buddhism) really just the same as “eternal salvation” found in “other religions” (which is to say, Christianity); the reader is dissuaded from investigating evidence to the contrary with a warning that such primary source material merely reflects, “…the dogmatising trend of later times”. This may have been the personal philosophy of some of the European authors and editors who produced the dictionary in question, but it is so far outside of the remit of Theravāda tradition that it may be called heresy, and it is far outside of the reasonable function of a dictionary entry. It does not take much of an expert to ask, in response to this dictionary definition, “If nibbāna is not ‘transcendental’, then what is?” Further, “If nibbāna is not a stark contrast to ‘eternal salvation’ in ‘other religions’, then what is?”

Once in a while, the dictionary’s defiance of the primary sources becomes overt. In the aforementioned entry for saṅkhāra (s.v.) we are told that, “None of the ‘links’ in the [“dependent origination” formula] meant to the people that which it meant or was supposed to mean in the subtle and schematic philosophy (dhammā duddasā nipuṇā!) of the dogmatists.” This is a strange digression for a dictionary entry to offer: it demonstrates that the dictionary’s authors are openly contemptuous of their sources, and it even hurls an insult toward the ancient authors of the primary source texts (albeit an insult in parenthesis, and in untranslated Pali). In the context of Buddhist dogma, it is especially disturbing to see that the editors of the dictionary had been discarding evidence on the pretext that it was merely the work of “dogmatists”.

Europeans seem to be unduly credulous in handling a dictionary. Culturally, we are not conditioned to scrutinize a dictionary the way we would an essay; instead, we imagine that the definition exists prior to (and separate from) matters of personal opinion, much as we are taught to imagine the “laws” of chemistry and physics to exist prior to the reactions they merely classify and describe.

We are first taught to use dictionaries in childhood, and this may create the impression that these hallowed books shall always know more than we do. Certainly, English-speaking children are taught that dictionaries represent a more perfect standard of the language than what we hear in our own parents’ dialect and accent; the dictionary is held up as a more perfect standard than what we may read in newspapers, or see on the signboards that surround us. Even in adulthood, dictionaries continue to have a crucial role in the Western model of education, whereby classes are primarily a forum for testing what we have managed to learn in isolation. Culturally, it is easier for a Westerner to question their professor than to question their dictionary: in our system of education, very little time is spent learning from the tutelage of actual persons, and, conversely, students spend a great deal of time alone, in direct reliance upon such “reference books” at every stage of their intellectual development.

More fundamentally, the Western approach to knowledge presumes the separation of opinions from facts, with every hypothesis presumed to be unproven. Perhaps it is for just this reason that we are so reluctant to question a dictionary definition as merely a type of opinion; once we do so, the dictionary ceases to define reality, and is instead revealed as a skein merely strung together from so many old hypotheses.

This, too, is a matter of epistemology: the presumption that the meanings of words are things that are fixed for us, set down on paper as something factually known (not questioned as opinion) establishes both the limit of possible debate, and provides the playing field for debate to ensue, in the Western imagination. If this supposition is taken away, suddenly, there are new fears as to how we are to engage with philosophy at all. Those fears may be more valuable than the cultural assumptions that make us feel secure when we begin to unravel Buddhist philosophy; there is indeed nothing that should reassure us in turning to the dictionary.

European scholars seem to have a deeply inculcated habit of proceeding from dictionary definitions to definitive-sounding claims about what a philosophy “is” or “should be”. Especially (but not only) in the context of a dead language that has had so few scholars working upon its corpus, this way of thinking is deeply flawed, and, in the study of Theravāda Buddhism, it exacerbates the flaws that are already inherent in the dictionary itself. Proceeding instead in this lexical way, from definitions to generalizations, inserts the opinions of the dictionary’s authors into the more ancient text (though, as in the examples above, the two may be radically incompatible). The alternative is to speak clearly in two separate voices: if we first let the ancient texts speak for themselves, we shall ourselves be allowed to speak in our own voice, and upon our own authority, thereafter, with our own definitions to defend.

§10. My own interpretation (following below) adds neither speculation nor abstraction to these two polarities of the knowing and the known in the Buddha’s philosophy: the material elements (that are said to be the stuff the senses have contact with) seem to me very palpable in their significance, and the meaning of our contact with them is nearly percussive in its simplicity.

This turns out to be a matter of contention. Wynne (2007) has offered a book-length treatment in support of the view that the four material elements of the Pali canon are implicitly meant as subjects of meditation. Were Wynne’s argument accepted as valid, it would entail that earth is not earth and water is not water; instead, a number of discourses on material reality would be transformed (through his re-interpretation) into discourses on “formless meditation” on the “undivided essence” of a view of reality that he attributes to pre-Buddhist “Early Brahmanism”.

From the outset, Wynne makes an important concession that the four elements appear in a list of six, wherein the final two cannot possibly be meditative themes. (Wynne, 2007, p. 30) Instead of accepting this as evidence that neither the four nor the six were intended as meditative themes by the original authors, Wynne suggests that the last two items on the list may have been added erroneously. (Idem, p. 30-1) There is no evidence to support this contention; Wynne is simply asking the reader to ignore what the text actually says because of the proffered possibility of what the text hypothetically could have said. If evidence that directly contradicts the hypothesis can simply be ignored, we are already “moving the goalposts” to prejudice the outcome of the inquiry.

Wynne proceeds to make the definition of the word āyatana as mystical and mystifying as possible (“sphere”, “unmanifest sphere”, etc.) so that the combination of this word with the names of the material elements in some of the source text will be compatible with his meditative interpretation. (Idem, p. 32) Thus, the mere mention of the material elements in the source text is supposed to support the supposition that, “…the objects of meditation are the elements themselves, in their unmanifest and undivided state or ‘essence’.” (Idem, p. 36)

To this I must object. When the word āyatana is combined with “the eye” it means neither more nor less than “the function of the eye”; when it is combined with “forest” it means neither more nor less than “a place in the forest”. It happens that we do not have one word in English that can neatly denote both uses; however, this is the simplest kind of linguistic asymmetry, and it certainly does not entail that the word was vague or mystical to its authors in its original (cultural) context. In the medium of English I have never once heard anyone describe a camp-site in the forest as their “sphere”, nor have I ever heard anyone describe the function of their own eyesight as a “manifest sphere” (nor as an unmanifest one). Only by rendering āyatana in such an abstruse way does Wynne make it seem possible to imagine that the material elements were describing the “formless meditation” he tries to advocate for.

The weakness of his argument is also evident in the struggle to support it with wildly spurious passages of the Mahabharata. Given that the Mahabharata was written in a different era, by followers of a different religion, and in a different language, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would be willing to suppose that the passing appearance of the Sanskrit word avyakta as an epithet for Brahma (in the Mahabharata) would be able to guide our interpretation of Buddhist philosophy (in Pali sources, written many centuries earlier, etc.). (Idem p. 38; cf. 48–9 & 117)

I do not find any justification for such a mystical reading of the four elements as Wynne supposes. As an important example, it would be impossible to apply Wynne’s interpretation of the same material-element terminology where the words appear in the debates between the Buddha and the non-Buddhist philosophers recorded in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta. (DN #2, PTS vol. 1, p. 55–56) Here, we find these same terms used to describe a decomposing corpse: when we die, the earth returns to the earth-element, the water returns to the water-element, and so on. (Cātummahābhūtiko ayaŋ puriso yadā kālaŋ karoti, paṭhavī paṭhavikāyaŋ anupeti anupagacchati…, ibidem.) In this context, we cannot possibly be reading a description of meditative states, because corpses do not meditate.

The corpse is being described by a non-Buddhist philosopher (named as “Ajita of the hair-shirt”) who argues that nothing supernatural happens at death: from his perspective, the point is that the corpse merely reverts to its component parts, and popular religious beliefs about funeral rituals are a scam. The terms employed seem to be incontrovertibly concerned with the physical elements that the body is composed of, and that constitute material reality generally. In this context, clearly, these terms can have nothing to do with any “formless meditation” such as Wynne is willing to imagine; if they had any implicit spiritual connotation whatsoever, they would make no sense in this explicitly anti-spiritual argument. The words both indicate something material in their denotation, and moreover, they seem to be somewhat “materialist” in their connotations.

My interpretation of the four elements as the terminus (and ultimate referent) of sense-perception is thus much more limited and material than Wynne’s treatment of the same terms. Simply, I suppose that these elements are the stuff that composes both the human body and the world around it.

This does bring to mind some of the same thematic concerns observed in the extant fragments of the major pre-Socratic philosophers Anaximander (c. 610–545 B.C.), Anaximenes (c. 546 B.C.), Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.) and Empedocles (c. 493–433 B.C.), but I would tend to emphasize how very little the Greeks had in common with canonical Buddhist concerns. These Greek thinkers were primarily interested in theorizing about the elements on the grand scale of the cosmos whereas the texts within the Pali canon typically associate the elements with the “microcosm” of the human body (including its decomposition at death, as aforementioned) and the operation of the senses. A typical inspiration for the Greeks would be climatic conditions, such as the fact that clouds apparently produce both rain and lightning (i.e., both liquid and fire thus seem to be produced by air) with the implications of this transformation immediately applied to the nature of the world on the largest scale imaginable. In the Pali canon, within the same Sāmaññaphala- sutta aforementioned, we can see that a major concern for pre-Buddhist thinkers was the status of the soul alongside the four material elements comprising the body.

Whereas one of the pre-Buddhist philosophers (Ajita, as quoted above) does not allow for any soul at all, another (named Pakudha Kaccāyano, who is equally non-Buddhist) extends the list of four elements to allow a soul-element alongside the material components (producing a unique list of seven). (DN #2, PTS vol. 1, p. 56) Needless to say, the latter philosophy, also, was repudiated by ancient Buddhists. (Cf. Mahādiṭṭhi-sutta, SN PTS vol. 3, p. 211)

All of this indicates that various theories of the material elements were in competition in this period of ancient India; and, as stated, this partly resembles (but also significantly differs from) debates in pre-Socratic Greece. However, it is primarily from Plutarch’s retrospective writings (46–120 B.C.) that we get the impression of these Greek philosophies being held up for comparison and being counterposed in a seeming debate (i.e., this is misleading, both in the chronology and geography that separated many of these philosophers). By contrast, the evidence of the Buddhist debate and, thus, competition between various (Buddhist and non-Buddhist) theories of the elements is internal to the Pali canon (indeed our sources are all within the first four Nikāyas, and are thus roughly simultaneous in origin). Thus, as I say, the resemblance to pre- Socratic Greece is very limited, though real.

There is a clear indication that the Buddha shared some of these basic presuppositions with his philosophical opponents in a passage found in the Dīghanakha-sutta (MN #74) and a parallel phrase found in the Brahmajāla-sutta. (DN #1)

In the Dīghanakha-sutta, the Buddha states that the physical body arises from the four material elements (cātummahābhūtika, a term always meaning the list of four as discussed: earth, water, etc.), from the mother and father, and it is then built up with boiled rice and milk (the term is specific, but we may take license to imagine that this simply means food of whatever kind); then, without a pause, the same sentence goes on to detail the impermanence of the body, its susceptibility to disease, its soul-less-ness, suffering, and its inevitable decomposition. My present interest is only in highlighting that the four material elements are presupposed in the first part of this distinctively Buddhist philosophical argument. (MN PTS vol. 1, p. 500; see boxed text.)

The wording here is nearly identical to the non-Buddhist view quoted (from an unspecified opponent) in the Brahmajāla-sutta (DN #1, PTS vol. 1, p. 34) —except, of course, the philosophy supported by these words in the latter source is markedly different from the Buddha’s own. What they have in common (verbatim) is the presumption that the body is composed of these four material elements and, anon, must decompose because of the impermanence of these component parts.

The most obvious contrast between the two sources is the status of the soul or “true self” (atta). The philosophy that the Buddha quotes from “some monks or brahmins” (…ekacco samaṇo vā brāhmaṇo vā…, id.) concerns the composition and decomposition of the soul (atta), whereas the Buddha’s comments (quoted above from Dīghanakha-sutta) concern the composition and decomposition of the physical body. However, both passages indicate the four material elements in exactly the same manner (alongside the agency of one’s parents and nourishment by way of milk-porridge) in the formation of the person.

The comparison is self-evident:

ayaŋ attā rūpī cātummahābhūtiko mātā pettikasambhavo… [Brahmajāla-sutta, op. cit. supra]
ayaŋ… kāyo rūpī cātummahābhūtiko mātā pettikasambhavo… [Dīghanakha-sutta, op. cit. supra]

These are not the only appearances of the same phrase in the canon, but I think this contrast (above) is sufficient to demonstrate the point. For those who would question just how fine this distinction was, in counterposing the body (kāya) to the soul (atta), we seem to have the perfect source in the Mahānāma-sutta (MN PTS vol. v, p. 369–370) where the Buddha reassures a monk that he need not fear death because of his intellectual accomplishments and his degree of having disciplined his own mind. We are then told that the situation is comparable to a jar of oil (or clarified butter, ghee) that is shattered in a flood of rushing water; the oil (or butter-oil) would nevertheless rise to the top; likewise, highly refined consciousness (citta, described at some length) rises to the top, despite the shattering of the container and the metaphorical rushing water all around. (Id.) Here, too, we find the same phrase quoted before (…kāyo rūpī cātummahābhūtiko…) as part of the same description of the utterly-impermanent physical body; however, it would certainly be easy for a layperson to misinterpret this as a doctrine of consciousness escaping the decomposition of the body (i.e., something equivalent to an immortal soul) and the wording of the Buddha’s doctrine is remarkably similar to some of his opponents’ philosophies (discussed above).

Within the core canon, there is a remarkable tract that explains the Buddha’s own changing attitude toward the elements, prior to his nirvana: this is the Catudhātu-vagga of the Dhātu Samyutta, and, more specifically, the Pubba-sutta found therein. (SN PTS vol. 2, p. 169 et seq.) Implicit in this sutta is the fact that various theories about the material elements existed prior to the Buddha’s awakening and that he responded to them in his own intellectual development; explicitly, we learn that his own attitude toward the four elements changed as his own philosophy progressed (or, so to speak, as he discovered his own road to nirvana).

It is perhaps significant that the chapter (vagga) opens with a very short sermon (the Catudhātu- sutta) simply stating that there are four elements, and naming the four (earth, water/liquid, heat/ fire, and wind/air). The Pubba-sutta is then the second in the sequence comprising the chapter; it commences with the Buddha stating that he had questioned the value of these four elements prior to his awakening. The question he posed pursues a philosophical direction that is markedly different from the use that the four-element theory was put to by the non-Buddhist philosophers in the aforementioned sources (of §11, above). What, he asks, is the enjoyment (assāda) resulting from each of these elements? Secondly, what is the unhappiness or drawback (ādīnava) arising from each of them? Thirdly, what is the liberation from each of them? (Idem, p. 170; see boxed text.)

Prima facie, the Pali case-ending uyā lends itself to a number of possible meanings: looking at these sentences in isolation, we cannot really specify if the question concerns our enjoyment “in” these elements, or if it is enjoyment arising from them, or if there is some other relation between the material elements and what we make of them (as enjoyment, unhappiness and liberation, respectively). In the paragraphs that follow, however, the ambiguity disappears, because the Buddha gives overwhelming emphasis to the impermanence of anything that originates from each of the four material elements. [Idem] Each of the material elements, we are told, is impermanent (anicca) and “bad” in the sense that it causes suffering (dukkha); moreover, each is utterly subject to change, implying decomposition (vipariṇāmadhamma). (Id.)

Clearly, this line of inquiry has some basic presuppositions in common with the more materialistic (non-Buddhist) philosophers quoted before from the Sāmaññaphala-sutta. The prime locus presumed for the discussion of the four elements is the physical body and personal experience of a human individual. I would draw attention to the fact that this chapter does not contain any distinction between “real” and “unreal” such as many modern (and Mahayana) interpreters commonly ascribe to the Buddhist philosophy of mind: neither the material elements nor the pleasures that arise from them are said to be unreal (nor illusory). On the contrary, a few pages later the same chapter instructs us quite explicitly that each of the elements is indeed really enjoyable: if our interactions with the elements were not so enjoyable, people would not become attached to them in the first place. (No cedaŋ bhikkhave, paṭhavīdhātuyā assādo abhavissa nayidaŋ sattā paṭhavīdhātuyaŋ sārajjeyyuŋ…, id., p. 172, cf. p. 173-4.)

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the enjoyment arising from material reality is unreal in contrast to the unhappiness arising from the same situation. Neither the pleasures nor the miseries are said to be an illusion in contrast to the liberation from the elements. There is no criterion of the real separating these aspects; on the contrary, the cyclical, repetitious form of the source text deals with each of these aspects in parallel, using precisely the same terms for all.

Clearly, in this chapter as a whole, the Buddha is advocating for liberation, and calling for his followers to shun both the delights and miseries that arise from the material elements; however, I would emphasize that the whole discussion treats the material elements as something real, and also treats the mental effects that arise from material reality as something equally real.

Simply put, the text is about reality as the Buddha taught it, or as he presumed it to be in the course of teaching his doctrine; as such, it does not share any of 19th century European philosophy’s trepidations about epistemology, ontology, and so on, nor does it have any common ground with later Mahayana conceptions of the world as an illusion. Instead, with a degree of repetition that might well reflect passion, the text remonstrates that we ought to know this reality as it truly is, and that the Buddha’s followers are those who thus understand the four material elements as they truly are.

In reflecting on his own progress, in the same chapter’s Pubba-sutta, the Buddha states that he only considered himself to have achieved awakening after he truly understood these four elements, and the enjoyment, unhappiness and liberation arising from them. Before he had understood this, he did not consider himself fully-awakened. (Id., p. 170) The crucial contrast is not between the real and the unreal; instead, the chapter contrasts the correct understanding of material reality to an incorrect one.

This would seem to ascribe tremendous significance to the four material elements in both the development of Buddhist philosophy, and in the Buddha’s own progress toward awakening as he defined it. For reasons I have already stated, I would insist that we cannot understand the philosophy of mind presented in these texts if we allow the elements to become abstractions (such as we’ve seen in Wynne’s meditation theory). In all of the sources consulted, the treatment of the four elements expressly concerns the relationship of mind to matter (and not of mind to an abstraction, nor of mind to a mere topic of meditation).

I would thus affirm my earlier contention that the Buddha’s statement about the contact of the senses with the four material elements (in reply to the sixth question of the Mahāpuṇṇama-sutta, MN #109) really does indicate an interaction between the mind and palpable reality. However, while I would repudiate the interpretation offered by Wynne on various grounds, I may also point to one specific link between the material elements and “meditation” (sensu stricto).

One of the problems with Wynne’s approach to these ancient texts, and a problem endemic to European appraisals of Buddhist philosophy generally, is the refusal to define and delimit “meditation” (i.e., to admit of a direct equation between the English word and some limited number of Pali terms). Wynne (2007, p. 28) offers an important concession in passing that the word yoga does not really mean “meditation” in the Pali canon, although it is a fact that he would prefer to ignore; to this we must compare his somewhat evasive admission (Ibid, p. 8) that some words may or may not really mean meditation at all, but that we should proceed without any declared standard of what the English-language concept is employed to represent (or misrepresent) in the Pali primary sources.

In thus constructing his meditative interpretation of the material elements in the Pali canon, Wynne (id., p. 29) is willing to induce the term samādhi into his argument as if it could be easily mistaken as an equivalent for jhāna, amidst much of the misdirection already described in his very vague (and mystical-sounding) interpretation of the word āyatana. The fulcrum of this line of reasoning (id., p. 29–34, 38) is that:
(i) the canonical texts concerned are not about the material world, but instead,
(ii) they implicitly mean to describe an unmanifest state or “essence” of these elements, somehow bundled up in “formless meditation” as Wynne defines it. How does he define it? As “…the goal of consciousness without an object…” (Idem, p. 28; cf. p. 48)

At one point, Wynne admits that he is examining a passage that is not about meditation at all, but he proceeds (despite this admission) to foist his theory onto the source text: the primary source, he confesses in passing, is about “…the current state of the saṅgha…”. (Idem, p. 46–7) Indeed, the original Pali is very obviously broaching monastic discipline, and does not contain any information on Wynne’s notion of “awareness without an object”. Simply put, Wynne’s interpretation is neither true nor false, but entirely spurious.

Similarly, where he inserts the concept of a “meditative object” into a dialogue that does not contain any such term whatsoever, Wynne describes himself as “…read[ing] ‘a good deal between the lines’…” (id. p. 100, cf. p. 96–98). In attributing words that are absent, Wynne misrepresents the text in a fundamental way: he intentionally changes the subject-matter that the allegories were intended to illustrate. This is not a problem of translation, but of the ethics of interpretation; in these two instances, at least, the thematic misapprehension of what the text was originally about is not accidental, but is a deliberate ploy. This may be the case in other instances that lack such admissions from the interpreter.

My own interpretation is predicated on the precise opposite of the two tenets I’ve ascribed to Wynne, above:
(i) these canonical texts are indeed concerned with the material elements that comprise the world in general, and the human body in particular, and, (ii) it is very much the world as seen, touched, smelled, etc., that is broached in these terms, both in reference to the body, the corpse, the senses, and also to the world as a sensorium.

Wynne’s argument falls apart internally as soon as we admit that meditation is an English- language concept that we must delimit (howeverso imperfectly) with some stated equivalence to some limited number of Pali terms (excluding others). From this we could draw a third conclusion, that
(iii) we must not forget that the English word meditation denotes a European concept, not a Buddhist one.

We find the term in the popular translation of the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius (121–180 A.D.) —scil., a title that is also translated as “private thoughts” or simply as “notes to myself”. This shows the range of meanings that the English term has encompassed in recent centuries: it has been used to denote everything from Christian prayer to solipsistic thinking, and includes autobiographical reflections in-between. In assigning this vague and obfuscatory word to an even greater range of Pali terms, we neither clarify the ancient language nor make ourselves any clearer in English.

With all this having been said, we must also observe the tremendous importance placed upon the correct understanding of the four material elements in primary sources such as the Pubba-sutta (discussed above) where it is related (somewhat autobiographically) in the development of the Buddha’s own philosophy. To this, I would simply add that the four material elements appear in a “list of lists” as a doctrine of equal importance to jhāna (i.e., Buddhist meditation, sensu stricto) in the Mahāsakuludāyi-sutta; indeed, in this source, the material elements are the next set of doctrines (in a sequence that is quite possibly arbitrary) after the four jhānas themselves. (MN PTS vol. 2, p. 16–17)

In reading about the four material elements in the context of the dialogues quoted in this essay, I think it would be impossible for anyone to imagine that this theory originated with the Buddha, and, certainly, the Buddha did not teach this as his own revelation. Instead, the four elements arise in debate as an unchallenged philosophical assumption, employed by the Buddha himself but apparently borrowed from the common stock of cultural assumptions readily available to him. As we have seen in the Sāmaññaphala-sutta, above, these same concepts were at the disposal of non-Buddhist sages, who employed them to advocate for very different philosophies. However, once sundered from such a context and simply presented in a list of “things the Buddha taught” (and that monks must memorize from a list of lists) all of these nuances are lost, and the outstanding fact simply becomes that this was an idea enunciated by the Buddha. In this manner, it seems to me, many mere nouns were advanced to the “front rank” of doctrines, as C.A.F. Rhys- Davids puts it, in the course of the canon’s composition and redaction. (Rhys-Davids, 1935, p. 724)

I first wrote on the problem of subject-and-object in Theravāda Buddhism in 2002, when I could not yet read Pali myself; at that time, as now, I found that the problem only exists because there is very little interest (among Europeans) in allowing the primary source texts to speak for themselves. The Buddha taught that the eye is not the fetter of things seen, nor (vice versa) that things seen are the fetter of the eye. Rather, the two resemble each other much as two oxen, and the yoke that binds them together and oppresses them is desire. (SN Koṭṭhita sutta, PTS vol. 4 p. 162) It is desire that Buddhist philosophy would problematize, not the cognition of objects itself (i.e., neither epistemology nor ontology, in the European tradition of these terms); the merely material relationship between the body and the world is neither the locus for Buddhist philosophy nor meditation.

In constructing their models of the mind, European philosophers have been preoccupied with the question of the subjectivity of empirical experience, but it is both unfortunate and unfair to impose these debates onto ancient Buddhist texts, to then pretend to discover the affirmation of modern views in the ancient dialogues of the Buddha. In the interpretation of philosophy, the modern author has the power to manipulate the ancient text like a puppet, and thus to create the illusion that he and his source speak with the same voice.

New philosophies deserve to be evaluated as new, whereas the ancient sources ought to be evaluated in terms germane to their cultures of origin and their authors’ original intentions. In short, we must be very careful in how we lend our voices to the ancient texts, in order to avoid ventriloquism. Apart from misrepresenting the source, the other course shows a weakness of character on the part of the ventriloquist: if his own philosophy had any merit, he would present it as his own invention, and would not pretend to discover it in the words of some other author. It is, perhaps, only in the context of Theravāda orthodoxy that it is necessary to say that a new philosophy is not necessarily a bad one; however, I am insisting that it is bad to pretend that it is not new.


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The Buddha et al. Dīgha-Nikāya [DN]. Vol 1, 1889 (T.W. Rhys-Davids & J.E. Carpenter, editors); Vol. 2, 1903 (T.W. Rhys-Davids & J.E. Carpenter, editors); vol. 3, 1910 (J.E. Carpenter, ed.). Pali Text Society: London.

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A Note on the Pali Text Used in this Article.

The text quoted here is based on a comparative reading of the Cambodian edition (wherein the DN was first published in B.E. 2501-2503, with succeeding volumes of the suttas in successive years) and the Sri Lanka Triptiaka Project’s e-text (SLTP). The latter is based on a comparative reading of the bilingual Sinhalese edition (BJT) and the Pali Text Society (PTS) editions. The Cambodian edition is itself based on a comparative reading of Cambodian and Thai manuscript sources with the earlier PTS editions. Variations from the PTS are footnoted throughout the Cambodian edition. PTS page-numbers are reproduced throughout both the Cambodian edition and the SLTP for ease of comparative reference. My thanks are owed to the volunteers at the SLTP, and also to the Japanese charity (now known as the Shanti Volunteer Association) that supported the (post-war) reprinting of the Cambodian edition. The latter volumes do not have conventional publication data, and are normally cited as published by the Buddhist Institute, Phnom Penh.

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