Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Contextualising attā (Attā and Anattā: Part Two)

Having introduced Horner's essay on Attā and Anattā and related some of the (more) open questions around the meanings of attā, we now consider the third and final part, where Horner presents various passages containing ‘attā’ (or more, exactly, “the logical opposite of an-attā”, which she regards as “too much overlooked”.

For example, from S. i. 140. [SN 6.2.2] Gārava Sutta (Respect):

Tasmā hi attakāmena,
mahattamabhikaṅkhatā;
Saddhammo garukātabbo

Horner translates as (my italics):

So he to whom the self is dear,
Who longs for the great self,
Should homage to true dhamma pay.

Yet Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as (again, my italics):

Therefore one desiring his own good,
Aspiring for spiritual greatness,
Should deeply revere the true Dhamma.

and Bhikkhu Sujato renders it:

Therefore someone who loves themselves,
aspiring to transcendence,
should respect the true teaching.

There is considerable variation in these, but the second and third translations both avoid using the word ‘Self’, though Ven. Sujato does assign to mahattama transcendence, which is not the conventional. My knowledge of Pali is not sufficient to be clear on this, but the key to the translation of the second line is how one deals with 'mahattam' (or 'mahatta[m]') - the PTS dictionary translates 'mahattam' as 'greatness' (from the Sanskrit mahattva). So technically Horner's translation of this line looks erroneous, though they may well share linguistic roots. However, I think the key point is that the second line reinforces the first one, so the sense is actually correct.

More generally, I notice that other modern translations of some of these passages replace references to 'self' by something vaguer, with conventional meaning, or otherwise gloss over the words. Whilst in some cases this may be closer to the intended meaning, it seems to me that more often it’s rooted in a particular limited view of self, entailing some aversion to writing ‘self’ without qualification. Sometimes there’s even an insistence in the footnotes that any reference to attā can’t be metaphysical, as is the case for the following famous passage that Horner includes in her list:

tasmā attadīpā attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

Horner translates this as:

Wherefore fare along with self as island, with self as refuge, and no other, with dhamma as island, with dhamma as refuge, and no other. (D. ii. 100, etc.)

But in a footnote Walshe is adamant it can’t be other than a reflexive pronoun.

Yet Horner was not convinced by the conclusions of Walshe and those with similar views and I believe that by reprinting the essay in the ‘70s she purposely wished to re-express her view:

As the idea of brahma in the Pali canon has been overlooked—in spite of the ever recurring brahmacariya, the Walk to or with Brahma, the Sublime—so has that of attā. Both were of the utmost significance in the Upanishads. Both have a significance, even if we have not yet assessed it, in the Pali canon.

Substantially, she proposed a philological basis to glean the meanings, but she indicates it would require far-reaching studies across the Vinaya and Nikayas and furthermore a proper understanding of Indian cultures and beliefs at that time.

She starts us off with a selection of quotes around the use of “brahma” and “dhamma”, suggestive of affinities with. They include:

He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.

[S iii 119 [SN 22.87] Vakali Sutta]


And a teaching to Vasettha where the Buddha referred to himself using the terms dhamma kaya, brahma-kaya, dhammabhûta, and brahmabhûta. The passage is from D. iii. 84 [DN 27] Aggañña Sutta, and is as follows:

He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma” [dhamma kaya], that is, “The Body of Brahma” [brahma-kaya], or “Become Dhamma” [dhammabhûta], that is, “Become Brahma” [brahmabhûta].

Academic Response

So what has been the response to Horner’s paper? When I search online I can find few citations; in fact, it seems to be little known, not even listed in Google Scholar.

Even so there have been a few scholars who have delved into the subject matter. Among them was Joaquín Pérez-Ramón, who made a bold attempt to explore at length in his thesis, Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism (De Gruyter), which is partially accessible via Google Books.

A general sense of his position is expressed in his reflection about the Buddha:

Is it not far better to say that what he affirmed and what he denied were not one and the same thing? When he affirmed the existence of attā against the materialists, he affirmed the reality of something objectively true. When he denied the attā against the eternalists, he did not deny the true attā, but the attā of the eternalists that is wrongly identified with the khandhas.

(from Pérez-Ramón's concluding section, page 302)


I find this a fair assessment, but his work was considered controversial; reviews found aspects useful, but seem to be critical — it seems that whatever the philological analysis, if it came to conclusions that challenged prevailing views it would not be regarded favourably and might just be dismissed as intellectual speculation (see e.g Vijitha Rajapakse’s review for the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies).

The book is a reworking of the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Bombay under the title: 'The Anattavada in the Suttapitaka' (page v). At 1810 pages it seems that the institution had a very liberal attitude to limits, but I feel sorry for the examiners! The considerable length may explain why the author has seemingly inverted the presentation by devoting the first half of the book to numerous references containing attā: part one (of only two) is entitled ‘The Existential Self’ before treating — in part two, ‘The Metaphysical Self’ — attā and anattā more together. However, with Horner starting mainly with anattā, I find the ordering odd; I think a more balanced approach to treat them alongside each other all along, a more natural process to show how there might be complementarity instead of apparent contradictions or inconsistencies.

It would have been interesting for Pérez-Ramón to have disseminated his ideas more widely and continued with his research, but he passed away only a few years after its publication [In memoriam]. However, it looks like Arthur Wells took up the baton with his Master’s thesis: The Early Buddhist Affirmation of Self (Atman) in the Logic, Parables and Imagery of the Pali Nikāyas.

I was only made aware of his work very recently; it seems not so widely circulated. At least it has been considered and cited in the academic literature and it does get occasionally mentioned in online discussions. I wonder why Pérez-Ramón went to such great lengths in his research. It may be due to his own religious convictions; he was a Jesuit who explored interreligous dialogue, especially mysticism - among his other publications is Misticismo Oriental y Misticismo Cristiano, Caso Típico: Teresa de Jesús. Having studied some of the imagery of St. Teresa of Avila, I add this to my reading list. Other Buddhist scholars have also been interested in this mystic; Lance Cousins wrote a paper about her, suggesting parallels with the path of purification as expressed by Buddhagosa.

More recently, Chanida Jantrasrisalai’s PhD thesis has examined in depth the meaning of language in the Indian context — around terms such as Brahmacariya, Brahmakāya and Dhammakāya. It’s entitled, Early Buddhist dhammakāya: Its philosophical and soteriological significance and available to download from the University of Sydney. It's the Dhammakāya tradition that I wish to explore next.

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