June 19, 2014

Four Ennobling Truths

The four noble truths are not true for everyone.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the eighth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

The four noble truths—that existence is suffering (duhkha), that suffering has an origin (samudaya), that there is a state of the cessation (nirodha) of suffering, and that there is a path (marga) leading to that state of cessation—is the most famous of all Buddhist doctrines. It is the first thing that the Buddha taught—the content of his first sermon, or in the language of the tradition, what he explained when he first “turned the wheel of the dharma” (dharmacakrapravartana)—after concluding that the enlightenment he experienced under the Bodhi tree could be comprehended by others. The “four noble truths” is the one phrase that most people know from Buddhism, the one thing they remember from their “Introduction to World Religions” course. Unfortunately, it is a mistranslation.

The key term is “noble.” The original Sanskrit term arya—adopted by the Nazis as the centerpiece of their racist ideology—was in ancient India an ethnic self-designation used by inhabitants of north India (whether they were invaders, migrants, or natives remains a topic of scholarly debate) to distinguish themselves from other inhabitants of the region. The Buddha reinterpreted the word, which means “noble” or “superior,” from an ethnic designation into a spiritual one, referring to those with an insight into reality superior to that of ordinary people.

It appears that arya became a technical term early on in the tradition, referring specifically to four stages on the path to nirvana, or more accurately, to those who have reached those stages: the four noble persons (aryapudgala). The first of the four are the stream-enterers (srotaapanna), those who have had an initial insight into the nature of reality, such that they have destroyed all causes for future rebirth as an animal, ghost, or in the hells, and who are destined to enter nirvana in seven lifetimes or less. The second are the once-returners (sakrdagamin), who have deepened that insight, such that they will only be reborn in our world, the sensuous realm (kamadhatu), once more. The third are the never-returners (anagamin), who have deepened that insight further so that they will never be reborn in our world again, but will achieve nirvana in “pure abodes” (suddhavasa) at the upper reaches of the heavens of the realm of subtle materiality (rupadhatu). The fourth type of noble person are the worthy ones or arhats, who have destroyed all causes for future rebirth and will never be reborn again, entering nirvana at death. The Buddha passed through all four of these stages on the night of his enlightenment, becoming an arhat.

Thus, the term that we know as the “four noble truths” should really be translated as the “four truths for the [spiritually] noble.” The truths themselves are not noble; the people who understand them are. And it is the understanding of these truths that makes them noble. Another translation might be the “four ennobling truths.”

There is an important teaching in this term: the four truths are not true for everyone. Anyone who has not achieved at least the level of stream-enterer is called an “ordinary person” or “common being” (prthagjana)—sometimes also called bala, meaning “childish” or “foolish.” We ordinary persons are foolish because we don’t know the truth. Specifically, we don’t know that existence itself is suffering, that suffering has an origin, that suffering can be brought to an end, and that there is a path to that state of cessation. We may know it intellectually, we might know it well enough to list it correctly on the midterm, but this does not make us noble. Only the person who has direct insight into the four truths is noble. And it is only for such people that the four truths are, in fact, true.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.


More at Tricycle:

BLOG: WHAT'S NOBLE ABOUT THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu on the doctrine that brings ordinary people to noble attainment. 


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aquademica's picture

Interesting to see ... thank you it's well done :)

wsking's picture

Ahhh! One Voice!
Okay, I read the Thanissaro article....If you cannot read the two articles about the Noble Truths and instantly see the differences in the suppositions and methods between Ven. Thanissaro Bhikku and Professor Buswell, I just don't know what to do with you? I feel like you are walking around with some kind of basket over your head that throws everything you see thru it into conflict.

The two articles are talking about the same general topic, but not the same specific topic. And both articles are using completely different language to make their different points.
This means the two articles are different. They are not in conflict with each other, and they support each other by filling out the topic in general.

Because the language is completely different, if you see conflict between the articles it is your own projection.I hope this explanation will help you to enjoy both articles easily without assuming tension between them. Fish and Turnips are not in conflict with each other either, but I can send you a "Save the Turnips" T-shirt if you really feel tension coming on about their co-existence. Ultimately, no self-existent concepts anywhere, either from our side or from their's, at all. No thing to receive, no thing to attain, no thing to loose, no thing to gain. Open. Spacious. Ahhh!
Granted, it will take some time to get there! LOL!
Gassho.

OneVoice's picture

Now I have a basket over my head. You cannot seem to keep to the high road, or maybe you don't understand the concept of ad hominem arguments. Again, may the readers of this thread exercise very careful discernment with regard to the this article and this comment thread.

wsking's picture

You look kinda cute in a basket!

wsking's picture

H! One Voice! Good Morning! Question: No, I don't know what "ad hominem" arguments are. Would you like to educate me and give me an exact example with Person A and Person B? sounds very interesting and fun. You can redo our discussion if you want in that format. Its a sincere question. Waiting with baited breath! Maybe we should spare other people on this thread, so email me at wsking28105@yahoo.com if you want to tell me about ad hominem arguments. I don't want to sound pedantic, but I don't know how to argue if I don't take it point by point because I get mixed up. If I take it point by point, its clear in my mind and in the readers.Happy day!

OneVoice's picture

I respectfully decline.

wsking's picture

You may decline, but I don't ! I looked up "ad hominem" on Wikipedia.
Its a "When are you going to stop beating your wife?" accusation. When you don't beat your wife, so it throws you off the topic and into the need for personal defense.
There is an outline of types. I shall peruse this more closely.
But what is its purpose if not for creating misunderstanding and slander, and we can't do that, its against our vows. Its Non-Virtuous speech: creating discord, misunderstanding and separation of friends by innuendo, lies and slander. That's not the purpose of a Dharma debate which is to attain clarity and deeper understanding for realization in meditation. Desu ne?
Nevertheless, I recognize the techniques in the list and have heard people use them in arguments in my life. But I didn't know about it as a technique, so this is something I should understand. Thank you very much!.
Gassho.

wsking's picture

I apologize as I see that I have been pedantic and flip in some of my responses. Forgive me, Im not used to this, but I will improve with your help and correction and thank you so much for the chance to do that. Humor just does not come across, does it? I will try to avoid it in the future, but promise me you won't think I don't giggle!
Gassho.

sangha dassa's picture

Dear Mitra, it is wonderful to have you on board. You certainly hit the ground running! I look forward to hearing more from you. It might be skillful to let this thread go. I get the feeling you have already figured this out. You have done a wonderful job. Thank you! I would also like to thank OneVoice. I can feel the commitment you have to the Dharma and it is much appreciated. May you both be well and happy. May you both be at peace. It is good that we have this plurality of voices in the Dharma. If every body is thinking the same. Nobody is thinking!

ph0kin's picture

Similarly the Three Treasures get mistranslated as "I take refuge in the Buddha/Dharma/Sangha", or even "I go to the Buddha/Dharma/Sangha for guidance". From what little I've learned, they were probably more correctly translated as "I go to the Buddha/Dharma/Sangha for refuge". The difference is subtle but does change the tone somewhat I think.

Devil's in the details.

Simialrly, the first Truth gets translated in older texts (and college courses) as "Life is suffering", but as Bodhi Monastery shows, the translation should be more like: Life involves suffering. Again, subtle but important difference.

http://bodhimonastery.org/the-four-noble-truths.html

Dominic Gomez's picture

An aspect of Buddhism often overlooked is the enjoyment of life. We forget that Shakyamuni lived a long, fulfilling life. The overemphasis on life as suffering seems to be a bias of Western religionists trying to understand the Buddhist philosophy of life .

HMA's picture

The word 'overemphasis' seems too ordinary to describe the importance that the Lord Buddha placed on realising the state of suffering, such imperfection! It seems to me that life is painfully imperfect. What is perfect'able' however, seems to be how perfectly we handle that. Furthermore, 'enjoyment' is perhaps, terribly ordinary; compared to the peace of going Beyond. I think the words must stay urgent, the teachings need to survive in the mind, urgent strong messages, to bring about discussion :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Life is imperfect for those who hunger for it to be perfect. But Buddhism teaches how to perfect our life-conditions so that we may experience la joie de vivre regardless of our lives' karma.

wsking's picture

Yes, I would like to reply to OneVoice and the previous posts:

Regarding the differing views in the two articles:
Linguistic analysis and etymology have always been a very important part of Dharma study and teaching, even to the point of unpacking hidden teachings in every vowel! A good teacher can quote scripture by heart and also explain the many layers of meanings in terms used, as appropriate for his audience. Discussing the levels of meaning and differing possible interpretations is not considered to be "throwing a monkey wrench" into the tradition, or trying to undermine it. The tradition is three thousand years old and there is a wealth of information and scholarship available for many lifetimes of perusal.

Regarding simple acceptance of a term and definition:
It is not correct that terms are commonly accepted among all schools because there are layers of meanings and different ways to consider them. There is always discussion and various possible ways of understanding terms. This is a sign of vigorous life! Not a fault!. A good teacher or a good translator knows what these historical issues are. Such translators are not usually punished or castigated for sharing them with us, but respected for their scholarship and generosity.

Regarding interpretations in the two articles:
There are wolves out to destroy all religion in the world, but we do not need to burn our translators at the stake if they offer different perspectives on a translation. Both interpretations of the phrase "Four Noble Truths" in these two articles have historic precedence, by the way.

Regarding the use and translation of "Noble":
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha made it very clear that he used the term "Noble" to describe the practice and behavior of a sincere renounced spiritual practitioner as distinct from the common social use of the term to name and describe the Brahmin caste. He made a very careful distinction between the substance of true practice and social title. I believe this was purposely done to remind Brahmins of the original meaning of their practice as spiritual guides and teachers, contrasting sincere practice by implication with the actual despotism and corruption of Brahmins in society - India's "Whited sepulchers". Thus, Buddha educated the hearer regarding his expectations of pure practice, while showing clearly what pure practice was not. The distinction is still useful today to measure our own practice against.

Regarding the audience to whom the Buddha taught:
The Buddha himself was a renounced and very experienced ascetic saddhu and so were his first students. He later taught laypeople, but his initial listeners were saddhus. His lectures are prefaced by introductions delineating where he taught and to whom he taught.

Regarding the place of spiritual truth:
You should know that in India people believe that spiritual truth realized by true yogis is higher than ordinary worldly view. In other words, the truth for yogis is different than truth for lay people. It is true for them because they have realized it as reality in meditation and are no longer bound to worldly ways of understanding truth. Thus they become substantially different from ordinary people, both in the depth of their developed spiritual gifts and in the depth of their understanding how reality truly is. This does not mean that ordinary people cannot attempt to realize it too, or to meditate on those truths too. Indian people believe that truly accomplished yogis perceive reality in a supreme way uncolored by attachment and aversion. This Hindu idea still exists today. The Buddha taught within this world view. Indian people honor those who renounce the world to attain this higher, ultimate, supreme reality, or "Union with the God-head". Indian people make offerings to yogis and sadhus, support them and give them the deepest respect and devotion because they believe that, if successful, such a person becomes a source of great blessings and protection for everyone. Indian people are very sensitive to "vibes" and they honor and love what feels sweet, holy, peaceful, innocent and safe. This is the origin of the Buddhist conception of the Sangha refuge.

Regarding hearing new stuff you never heard before:
Its okay. The tradition is vast. Dude, don't freak out! Just this week, after 45 years, I learned that "Na Ro" means "Little Pain". That is how Naropa got his name. "I have little pain." was his response when Tilopa asked how he was, after he had thrown himself off a cliff at Tilopa's suggestion. Live and learn! LOL!
However, you are very wise to be concerned about the scholarship of an author and the validity of the textual translation. Nowadays, we might be wise to be aware of political pressures also, especially as far as the Chinese might be concerned. You can always google these authors to find out about their background and training.

OneVoice's picture

The Buddha's teaching is not descriptive, but prescriptive. If, by their restrictive, purely etymological reasoning, the authors of this article propose to change the meaning of the Four Noble Truths from a universally applicable and unchanging ("noble") framework of practice and analysis for all practitioners to being a purely descriptive (and therefore quite useless) formula for those already realized, they contribute to the destruction of the foundation stone of the Buddha's teachings as a tool for the liberation from endless suffering of all beings. It may be stimulating for toss around theories or invent provocative ones to get published, but one must be mindful that what is at stake is keeping the Dhamma alive and undistorted for the benefit of all beings now and into the future. Suffering is real, and the stakes are high. What you call "freaking out," I call due respect for the Buddha's teachings and genuine concern for the welfare of all beings.

wsking's picture

Ahhh! But its not! and I will prove it:
Gassho.

wsking's picture

Dear OneVoice:

Let me examine your accusations from the top, point by point.

1. "Noble" doesn't mean universally applicable and unchanging. It means Arya Truth/Arhant Truth. The Truths found within the mind of realized beings.

2. Nothing is unchanging. This is Buddhism. Every thing changes.

3. There is no Universal Truth in Buddhism: there are two truths, relative and ultimate. The truths exist at the relative level as a path to realization, and at the absolute level as accomplished realization in the mental continuum of an Arhant. The Four Noble Truths exist both as the Path of Practice and as the Realization.Therefore they are called The Four Noble/Arya/Arhant Truths. The Truths are completely realized and true within the continuum of an Arhant, and becoming true within practitioners at lower levels of understanding.

4. You are projecting everything else onto the article. It does not intimate any of your accusations in nuance or implication. Stick to the subject matter.

You are projecting onto the article your 4 points:

1. That the author's explanation makes The Four Arya Truths a useless formula for those already realized.

If the Four Noble Truths are already realized, they don't need to be used as formula for practice any more. The Buddha himself said that once you cross the river, you leave the means of transportation behind. It doesn't mean that the transportation becomes false. It just means you don't need it any more.

2 That the authors' explanation destroys the foundation stone of practice.

Who does need the means of transportation, the Four Noble Truths? Everyone below the level of Arhant. Everyone who has not realized the complete truth of their meaning and implications. Therefore the position of The Four Noble Truths as the foundation of practice of Buddhist Dharma remains central to the doctrine as the cornerstone/foundation stone of practice.

3. That the authors' explanations toss around an unproved theory:

The definition of terms is in the dictionaries, both Pali and Sanscrit and is discussed in the Sutras by the Buddha. That is proof.

4. A) That the translators are killing the Dharma:

You can't kill an idea, it isn't alive.

B) That the translators are distorting the Dharma:

The Four Noble Truths remain as Practice for those below Arhant level and as Realization at it. What distortion is there? The Four Noble Truths themselves remain intact and in place in the doctrine. Their position has not changed.
This being so, you cannot say that they are in any way distorted.

C) That the translators are destroying the possibility of ending the suffering of beings in the future:

As long as the Dharma exists, the possiblitiy of using it as a means to escape the suffering view of self-existence will be implicit in The Four Noble Truths, the core doctrine of practice.

Based on the above facts and reasoning, these accusations against the authors are unfounded and illogical. They are based on emotion and not on reason or on fact. The thoughtful person must winnow emotional accusations from the authors' actual statements. No logical argument can support the conclusions of these accusations. May the readers of this debate exercise due discernment in understanding what is fact and what is accusation.

In closing I conclude that:
1. Arya beings no longer need to use the formula of the Four Noble Truths because they have realized all of them in their entirety and implications.

2. Those beings below the level of Arya being do use the formula of the Four Noble Truths unchanged as the cornerstone of practice.

3. That the authors' theory is upheld by textual proof and dictionary definitions.

4.That the authors' explanation does not change, kill, or distort the implications of the Dharma, the place and use of practice, or the future possibilities of Enlightenment for suffering people in the future.

No thoughtful person can avoid the obvious conclusion: The authors' motivation was only to inform not to destroy. Their scholarship is impeccable. The Red Herrings thrown over their work are defeated! TA DA!

The purpose of this debate is to clarify the place and purpose of the Four Noble Arya Truths in Buddhist doctrine, not for pride or conceit, and not to gain personal influence or power.Thank you for being a worthy opponent. But as you say yourself, your "pathological" mental state, (death- dealing clinging to the self-existence of conceptuality) has proven to be erroneous and, in this case, a stumbling block for you. May "Boing! Clarity!" dawn for you soon, bringing you happiness and joy.
Gassho.

HMA's picture

Agree OneVoice. Thank you.

wsking's picture

Yes, I share your concern for the purity and safety of transmission, but this is not a new explanation of the Four Noble Truths, it has always been there. The Four Noble Truths are realized truths. Those who realize them are the Noble/Arhant/Arya beings.The Four Noble Truths are not realized in their entirety and implications in the minds of ordinary beings or they would not be ordinary.
The author never says that ,having been realized by Arhants, the Four Noble Truths and their implications are not attainable by ordinary beings, nor does he say they are proscribed for practice by ordinary beings! That must be your projection. When I said, " Dude! don't freak out!" I trying to make you laugh by telling you a funny story.
Guess that went over like a lead balloon! :-)

Also I disagree that the Sutras are not descriptive. If someone doesn't describe it for you, how will you recognize it? How will you do it? The Dhammapada is nothing but descriptions of what real practice looks like. The Sattipatthana Sutra is nothing but description,"The monk dwells in mindfulness upon the breath body...." What practice has not been described to you to follow? Other sutras are full of descriptions, "Sariputra, it is like this...." And even more are filled with logical eliminations of false concepts so that the meditator can reason and align his insight with ultimate reality. Therefore, describing what realization is like is not useless.
It takes time to realize all the Four Noble Truths, and even more time to realize the implications of all four of them in tandem. It seems to me knowing that someone else has already succeeded in making the Four Noble Truths complete within their mindstream is a great incentive. It doesn't make the practice and analysis useless. Quite the contrary. Possibility is hope, isn't it? Please correct me if I misunderstood you.Three Bows.

OneVoice's picture

The authors specifically say: "The truths themselves are not noble; the people who understand them are." What is their basis for saying this? A very dubious etymological argument. Is it useful or accurate to strip Four Noble Truths of the universal and timeless applicability for practitioners? No. By stripping it of this meaning are they proscribing it from practitioners? Yes. They make no mention of the fact that the Four Noble Truths can be used as a tool in the practice by ordinary people. You have projected that into their argument. Their language is: "Only the person who has direct insight into the four truths is noble. And it is only for such people that the four truths are, in fact, true." The Buddha's teachings are prescriptive, not descriptive. That is to say he never describes things that are not useful in the practice and point to the goal. Idle descriptions. If he were to set out the Four Noble Truths as something that is only true for those who were already attained, but not true for ordinary people, then it serves no practical function. Again, you must stick to the sensational argument the authors have actually presented. They say the Four Noble Truths are only true for the four noble persons.

wsking's picture

Hi! Three bows:
Ahhh! Now I see why you are so upset. I think I might be able to remove your anxiety. If you would allow me to point out where you are making a mistake?

In Buddhist terminology Noble has a specific meaning. It means an Arya/Arhant being, someone who gained insight into ultimate truth/shunyata/emptiness/non-self-existence, ie. the complete ultimate realization of the Four Truths.

Noble does not mean pure, or timeless, or of the lineage of nobility in politics and government. Noble does not mean true or universal. Noble does not have any of the western connotation of the word noble. It means Arhant/ Arya being. Period. Unless it is in the phrase " oh noble son of noble family." in which case it means well-born of family lineage or of Brahmin caste.

The Four Truths are called Noble because they exist in completion within the mind stream/mental continuum of that Noble/Arhant/Arya being. Therefore, they are called The Four Noble Truths, or the Four Arya Truths. When such a person attains that insight at that moment, Boing! Instantaneous! they become an Arhant. Before that moment of realization/attainment they were not an Arhant. So you could well call them The Four Ennobling Truths.

On that basis the authors say the truths in themselves are not noble, but those who realize them are. Do you see the difference?

BTW I don't like to use the word attainment because at that level there is no person attaining, nothing to be attained, no getting. Its just a fading away of obstruction, boing! clarity! Once I asked Geshe Rabten if you could say that Enlightenment is received or attained? He said, "Study!"

I don't think the authors intend to imply any denigration of the Four Noble Truths. It doesn't mean we can't practice them. Good night.

OneVoice's picture

1. Stick to the argument and stop pathologizing my mental state, which you have done in every one of your posts. 2. You would do well to check your "knowledge" against Thainssaro Bhikkhu's article linked to on this page. 3. The Buddha's teaching on guarding the truth includes not speaking with authority about things you don't really know. That would explain Geshe Rabten's advice and would protect readers of this thread from being thrown off course by your speculations about arhantship (boing! clarity!).

wsking's picture

When Venerable Geshe Rabten said "Study!" he was saying no. Enlightenment is not received, and it is not attained. There is no self-existent person to receive it, nothing to receive, and no self-existent person to attain it. It does not exist as object or goal. It is just realization. It is not an object to get, nor is it an object to be given. It is simply comprehension beyond anything we have understood so far. Its not Tomato Sauce you can get to put on your spaghetti, and its not sauce I can give you to put on your spaghetti. Host and guest do not apply, giver and gift do not apply, receiver and gift do not apply. That being so, by elimination where are you standing? Boing! Clarity! Honey, its a gob-smacker! Ah, well, poor little thing....

wsking's picture

Dear One Voice:
I have made my point. Thank you. Gassho.

OneVoice's picture

May the readers of this article and these posts exercise due discernment about the information presented here.

sangha dassa's picture

Thank you so much for your offerings above dear mitra. You range wide and deep! How long have you been moving in Dharma circles? I have the feeling you may be an ordained practitioner, is this the case? I am picking up on a heart felt commitment to the monastic Sangha! First let me chime in on your appreciation for the efforts of scholars. I shudder to think where we would be without them! They sometimes get a hard time because of their special gift, from people who feel that they are stuck in their heads and, alienated from their feelings. In some cases this may be so. In others it is entirely false.

Its interesting what you had to say about sadhu's i.e. world renouncers. People who show their commitment to the Dharma through taking ordination - of one kind or another. On reading/hearing the early discourses of the Buddha. I get the strong impression that he had a strong conviction that this impulse of the spirit was important in our awakening. But I guess it depends on the motivation - and insight of individual practitioners - as to whether they benefit from this kind of change. The Buddha went forth from home into homelessness. It seemed to do him the world of good so I am not surprised that he encouraged others to do the same.

I am not convinced that a celibate monastic existence is necessarily a good thing - in, and of itself. I am not sure that letting go and a truly loving heart can be correlated with a particular lifestyle. I am not sure it can even be equated with a particular teaching. It seems to have a lot more to do with the inner reality of the heart/mind. I know that 'brahmacharya' has been equated with celibacy in India for millenia. The Buddha was clearly committed to this model of the holy life. Along with many others in his day and, down to the present. We would only really know for ourselves whether or not our heart was free of desire and, if we had deep feelings of love and good will for all beings! Nobility cannot really be defined by another. It does not have a lot to do with external appearences or, fraternities. It is a heart/mind without self concern, without self-image, that is fearless, without bias, lost in the sweetness of release. xxoo

wsking's picture

Hi! Good Morning! You are an early bird! Don't get mixed up: saddhu/saddhu-ma, yogi/yogini are HINDU Sanscrit for male and female renunciates respectively. The BUDDHIST Pali terms are bhikkhu/bhikkshuni for male and female renunciates. Hinduism and Buddhism are not the same, altho the later comes out of the former, and quite a few concepts and terms are shared between the two traditions.
In the VAJRAYANA tantric tradition of Buddhism, serious lay practitioners are also called yogi/yogini. It is a lucky chance in linguistic history that yogi/yogini and daka/dakini, both terms from Sanscrit, do not become bhikkhu/bhikkini in Pali !!!LOL!!!
Pali is the original language of canonical Buddhism, and Buddhist Sanscrit, slightly different from Hindu Sanscrit, became the later canonical language. A canonical language is one into which the original sacred texts are written. In Buddhism, the sutras were first an oral tradition, later, they were written in Pali, and later still translated into Buddhist Sanscrit. Thus many discussions of terminology, nuance, and implication arose in translation circles. These issues are still with us today. The exact same thing happened in translating Biblical texts from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, Latin, and later into modern roman languages. Its not easy to find terms in another language with exactly the same connotations as the original language. Its always a search for the one that comes closest to the original meaning, but its very seldom totally precise, so we all have to dance a little between possible translations and nuances. If you look in the glossaries of recent books on Buddhist philosophy by authors like Thurman, Hopkins, Lopez, Thanissaro, etc. you will often see several English words listed as possible meanings for the original Sanscrit/Pali/Tibetan/Chinese terms. The trick is to memorize all of them. I expect you to do that by the end of next week. :-D Its SO much fun!! (but at least do some of the most common little by little.)

sangha dassa's picture

Hi Mitra, I am being a bit loose in my usage. I am equating the terms 'samana' (pali) or, 'sramana' (sanskrit) with the word 'sadhu'. A sa·dhu also sad·dhu - in Hinduism - is an ascetic holy man. I guess you could call a 'samana' a kind of ascetic holy man - from an earlier era. I am not sure if so-called 'Hindu' sadhu's would have trouble in seeing the Buddha, as a sadhu! As the Buddha was later co-opted into the Vedic pantheon. They probably don't recognise Buddhism as a distinct religion different from their own. Anyway, both samana's and sadhu's were/are committed to some kind of renunciation. I get the impression that the definitions and practises of renunciation, were diverse in the Buddha's time, as they are now. I was also trying to highlight the difference between renunciation as a behavioral norm adopted by a religious community and, insight into the nature of letting go! As in, the abandoning of the five hindrances - for instance - in meditation practise. Your discussion about the Dhammapada and, the Buddha's distinctions between a true Brahmin, in contrast to a 'born Brahmin' - in the caste system. Is dealing with a similar theme.

The Buddha was a (Sanskrit: Śramaṇa; Pali: samaṇa) They were a non-Vedic Indian religious movement parallel to but separate from the historical Vedic religion. They were 'Contemplatives'. Literally, a person who abandons the conventional obligations of social life in order to find a way of life more "in tune" (sama) with the ways of nature.
Samaṇa; The Pali word for shramana (a wandering monk; a shramana is one who renounces the world and leads an ascetic life for the purpose of spiritual development and liberation). I guess Sadhu's feel they are doing much the same thing. xxoo

wsking's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful input. As you say, it is best to be precise in your terms, if you can be. A saddhu is a Hindu renunciate and a Sramanera is a Buddhist renunciate. They are not the same at all, their vows and practice are different. There are some similarities of course, which all religious renunciates share, but the philosophy and life style are different.
When I say that the Buddha was a saddhu, I am talking about the time of his formative practice before he became Enlightened and before he created the Sangha. He was a Hindu saddhu in a contemplative school. He was skeletal, renounced more than one grain of rice per day, wore his hair in dredlocks wrapped up into a cone shape on top of his head, and meditated until his skin was falling off. All his first disciples were also members of the same sect and followed similar practices. They were very heavy duty dudes! Go to Google Images and type in "saddhu". and you will see what the Buddha probably looked like.( "Aren't you glad you can use "Dial".?)
During his time, the Jain sect with its "sky clad " yogis was also popular. The Buddha later spoke against this particular ascetic practice for his sangha, so we might guess he himself was not a member of the Naga Baba sects. But he may well have been a naked saddhu of another sect. I have never heard if anyone knows. One thing is for sure, he was not the chubby cheeked guy in a yellow dress with well-oiled,clean, curly hair and pink fingernails that we see in popular art !

Have you read Stephen Batchelor's book about the life of the Buddha? Examining the sutras, Stephen tries to re-create the life of the Buddha within the historical and political realities of his time. This refreshing and realistic look at the possible life of the Buddha is very informative, based on the information we have in the sutras, and very inspiring. He creates a picture of a sincerely spiritual man well-aware of political pitfalls, and very good at sidestepping them, leveraging his positiion when necessary, and wisely creating a sangha to last into the future. Its wonderful. A very different and refreshing way to see the Buddha. It's time to go to the beach! Take that book! LOL!

sangha dassa's picture

Dear Mitra, I get the distinction between renunciates of different traditions but I think you are also muddling definitions with regard to sramana's. You say: "A saddhu is a Hindu renunciate and a Sramanera is a Buddhist renunciate." Yes, but not exclusively so. Assuming 'sramanera' is another word for sramana. There are others in modern India who refer to themselves as sramana's - or something similar - in the Jain religion. They are also a heterodox tradition and they like to make it clear: they are not the same as the 'sky-clad' saddhu's! I was told this when I visited the Jain temple in the dear park in Sarnath. Both the sky-clad saddhu's in India and some of the Jain monks, are naked renunciates. But the Jains don't follow the same precepts.

The sramana's of the Buddha's era did not belong to the Vedic tradition, like so-called Hindu saddhu's. However, they were not all followers of the Buddha either. They seem to have been part of the religious milleu in that period. As saddhu means 'good' as in the Buddhist refrain: sadhu sadhu sadhu i.e. well said! It implies that a saddhu is essentially a 'good person'. At least a genuine one would be. You are probably a saddhu, in the literal meaning of the word (this was the sense in which I was using the term). The sramana's - now and then - were not just Buddhist. I think the Bodhisattva and his first disciples in the dear park are referred to as samana's in the early discourses? What about his earlier teachers. What were they called?

I refer to 'so-called' Hindu saddhu's, because the designation 'Hindu' is - thought to be - of Muslim origin. It does not seem to have come out of the Vedic tradition. The religion of the Vedas is referred to as 'Sanatana Dharma' (eternal dharma). The 'Indoo's' are thought to have been the folk on the other side of the Indus river. They were 'called' Indoo's by Muslim invaders. In an early wave of invasion into what we now 'call' India. So as there really are no inherently existing sramana's, saddhu's, Hindu's or, Buddhists for that matter - and no India or America except by popular designation. I might just go and have a cup of tea and an aspirin and a good lie down. xxoo

From Wiki:
The Śramaṇa tradition gave rise to Yoga, Jainism, Buddhism, and some nāstika schools of Hinduism such as Cārvāka and Ājīvika, and also popular concepts in all major Indian religions.

wsking's picture

Dear SD: Thank you.

wsking's picture

Hi! SD, this is fascinating stuff! Thank you so much! Who knew! ? I had to laugh at the end. Don't forget that the tea and aspirin are also existing by popular designation. But that doesn't mean you didn't take them! Don't forget you took them! XXOO right back acha! Kiddo, I am no saddhu! Heels, jewelry, perfume, make-up, ....no! No way! My head is not shaved anymore! Of course, I do think of them completely differently than I did before, they have a kind of papery thin transparent quality to them and I just use them.

I believe the Buddha had at least two famous teachers that we know of: Alara Kalama, who taught him the Samadhi of the Realm of Nothingness, and ???? Sorry, since the stroke I've lost a lot of names in my head. ...ummmmm. Senior moments! la, la, la, la!

Let me see if I can find it: ..ah, Uddaka Ramaputta ,who taught the Buddha how to attain the samadhi of the Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-perception. Anyway, both of them died at the time he attained Enlightenment, because the Anguttara Nikaya, part 2, says he considered going to them to share his insight, but saw, thru his new clairvoyance, that they had both just passed away. So sad, wasn't it? And that is from the book, "The Buddha and His Teachings", pages 66 and 67., published by the Buddhist Missionary Society in Kuala Lumpur, 1988. by Venerable Narada Thera, my preceptor at Bambalapitya, Sri Lanka who has now passed away too.
Ok! Good night. Three bows. P.S. Why do you say "so-called Hindu Saddhus" ? Either they are or they aren't! Why use "so-called" ? What are you implying? That they are fakes? Even so, they are worthy of respect because they mark the Way. Desu ne? Please explain, Im confused.

sangha dassa's picture

Hello Mitra, pleased to hear something about you - and your journey. Sounds like quite a ride you have been on! You have a nice up beat vibe! I look forward to getting to Sri Lanka sometime soon.

I referred to 'so-called' Hindu's not out of disrespect. I was drawing attention to the fact that the followers of the Vedic tradition have their own Vedic sanskrit word for the religon they practise i.e. 'Sanatana Dharma' (eternal dharma). Although many followers of Sanatana Dharma now identify as 'Hindu's. It is thought to have been Muslim invaders - from a bygone era - who came up with the term. We were having a playful discussion about words, their meanings and use. So, I thought it would be appropriate to look at some of the other words we were using as well.

I just read an account of the backgrounds of the Buddha's first disciples. The story goes, that one of them was the 'rishi' who predicted that, the future Buddha would become a 'great man' when he grew up. The others were the sons of the other Brahmins that had also been invited to see the baby. Their fathers had told them to keep an eye on Siddhartha, and they did. It seems to have paid off! So I guess they were 'lapsed' Brahmins who had taken to 'self mortification' as a way of practise. Its not something I am very good at! Pass the chocolate - please? Best wishes, sangha dassa

wsking's picture

Dear SD: No chocolate for you!

wsking's picture

Dear SD: You are quick and smart. You should study a lot more about this stuff. It seems you really enjoy it, don't you?
Gassho.

wsking's picture

Hi Three bows:
SD, with all due respect I have to tell you that when I talk about words, terms, meaning and their use in scriptures I am NOT "playing around." That is not allowed. I don't play around when discussing the Dharma. That doesn't mean I'm not playful upon occasion and when appropriate. We seem to have an inherited cultural proclivity towards Puritanism and raging fundamentalism that is sanctimonious, fawning, egregious, self-righteous,bordering on mental illness, and very annoying. It has nothing to do with serious, no-bullshit practice, or serious and sincere understanding and discussion of the Dharma. To loosen that energy up, when I see it, I play and be funny. It has a purpose. It is a tool.

It is very heavy and serious karma to misrepresent the Dharma and create false impressions and/or expectations in people by your behavior or speech. To be imprecise on purpose or out of laziness could lead other people into despair and confusion. Woe to the person that does this! The only time I ever saw Lama Yeshe angry, really angry, furious! was when a Westerner did that. Lama Yeshe made it very clear that the whole burden and weight of transmitting the Dharma purely and intact to future generations of suffering people was totally up to us, on our shoulders, that three thousand years of tradition, all those lives, all those scholars, all those insights in their purity and depth depended on us for their survival or they would be lost forever.That the lives of lamas in Tibet who were tortured, murdered, killed, and all the years of their practice could only come to beautiful pure fruit if we bore the burden of the transmission.

This opened up a whole new way of thinking of "respect".
We suddenly had an insight into how Asian people respect the ancestors in ways we had never really understood before. It was overwhelming. It made the entire weight of the past an immediate and living presence we had to carry right now. Its profundity was/is beyond my ability to express. Its like I feel those masters all around me, breathing me, being thru me. I have to be careful. It is like being in total time right now. All of it present. To be the fulcrum in the present for all the millions of those lifetimes in the past, to feel the preciousness of all their efforts and difficulties, to be their voice, their representative, the shadow they caste into the future and beyond....just don't mess up!

You wanna play around with that kind of respon-sibility?

Many of us have a serious problem in relating to Dharma because of its overwhelmingly male presence in positions of power and influence. Many of us come from broken homes and are looking for the Daddies we never had. All that loneliness and desire to be loved by a father figure gets projected on the monks. Its not healthy for us and its not healthy for them. If they are native teachers, they have no idea what is going on in our heads, so it puts them in a dangerous position, even when they are unaware of it. We have to be careful and examine ourselves frankly to see how the energy is going and whether or not it is reasonable. Also Ego always loves to use ideas and religion to prop up its self-importance. It can be murderous in its jealousy and competition..Watch out!

Be careful of what you say and how you say it, if you can. It is really important. Pure speech has sanctity and power.

Now I need to take a tylenol, eat some more chocolate, and go to bed myself! LOL!

sangha dassa's picture

Dear Mitra, this is something I just found on a site called:
Frequently Asked Questions on Buddhism.

Question: Who followed his example after he became a wandering recluse?
Answer: Kondanna, the young Brahmin, and the four sons of other Brahmins who had predicted his future just after he was born.

There is an extract - cited below - I found on the net, that gives a traditional account of the early life story of Siddhartha. I am still digging for the account I saw earlier on. Where it mentioned how Kondanna and the other four ascetics were connected with the early life story - in greater detail. If you find out something about them please share - if you feel like it. So yes, I now see - from the story line below - how the aged ascetic Devala [I just read another text giving him the name: Asita] was not one of the five. Thank you for that correction.

I respect what you have said about talking over Dharma teachings. I did not mean that we should play around with the teachings. I was pointing to the light hearted elements of our discussion. I like to enjoy myself and have a bit of fun if I can help it. I don't feel I am disrespecting the Dharma in so doing. I do the best I can to communicate that which means a lot to me - as clearly as I can.

Extract:
On hearing the news, Devala an aged ascetic came to congratulate the king. When he saw the child, he realized that he would become a great religious teacher. Knowing that he would not be alive to witness the unique event, he blessed the royal family and quickly left for his sister’s home. He advised his nephew, Nalaka [who has a sutta named after him] to take to the homeless life in preparation to receive the teachings of the future great religious teacher.

On the 5th day after birth, 108 Brahmin priests were invited to attend the ceremony of naming the newborn. 7 of them held up 2 fingers, prophesying that the child would either be a World Ruler or Buddha. Kondanna, a famous Brahman raised one finger indicating that the child would attain Buddhahood. The child was named Siddhattha, meaning one who successfully attains the desired goal. With Metta, sangha dassa

wsking's picture

Dear SD,

That story states that four sons of Brahmins followed him at the time of his renunciation. Surely they must have been childhood friends.

But, It doesn't say that they were the sadhus in Sarnath at the Deer Park, whom the Buddha met after his Enlightenment. I wonder if they were? Wouldn't that be cool?

sangha dassa's picture

From the writings of Ven. Narada Mahathera:

The First Five Disciples

The five learned monks who thus attained Arahantship and became the Buddha's first disciples were Kondana, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahānāma, and Assaji of the brahmin clan.

Kondana was the youngest and the cleverest of the eight brahmins who were summoned by King Suddhodana to name the infant prince. The other four were the sons of those older brahmins. All these five retired to the forest as ascetics in anticipation of the Bodhisatta while he was endeavouring to attain Buddhahood. When he gave up his useless penances and severe austerities and began to nourish the body sparingly to regain his lost strength, these favourite followers, disappointed at his change of method, deserted him and went to Isipatana. Soon after their departure the Bodhisatta attained Buddhahood.

I just wanted to say regarding so-called saddhu's! I don't believe that all those who are called saddhu's are the real deal. A true saddhu is a genuine saintly person. It is not the religious trappings that determine whether we have a good heart, or not. It is the quality of our inner life that matters. I believe there are true saddhus in all the religious traditions and, outside them as well. With love, sangha dassa.

wsking's picture

So when the Buddha was little they left to join the forest ascetics? That means they were a lot older than he was. That means they were "set in their ways" more or less. Say they were about 15 years older or so. They would have been about 40 or 50 years old! It also says that "...they deserted him...soon after their departure he attained Buddhahood." SD, if that isn't a profound teaching on the effect of bad friends, I don't know what is! If even your good virtuous friends can hold you back, better to "be a rhinocerous in the forest"! and go it alone. Im so glad he had the strength to disagree. Never trust a man who cant dance!

Watch out for "Hangers on" and their expectations. They can bring you down.

wsking's picture

Off thread. Im stopping.
Gassho

wsking's picture

Dear SD: we are no longer discussing the article.
Gassho

sangha dassa's picture

I love Mr. Batchelor too! I recently read 'Living with the Devil'. I hope he keeps plugging away at it. He opens my eyes to so much and entertains in the process. xxoo

wsking's picture

Thank you.

sangha dassa's picture

I still have a vague recollection of when I first heard them. I thought 'yep'! THIS GUYS MAKING GOOD SENSE! Then after dragging this bag of bones through a few Dharma oriented meditation courses. I thought: Oh shit! This suffering business is a bit truer than I care to know about! The Buddha taught his truths for 'investigation'. As we investigate under his guidance they become more 'real' for us. We all have vast potential for ennobling suffering. And I guess we hope it gets a little more noble all the time. We don't want to become Buddhist hypochondriac's. Always seeking and applying temporary antidotes to suffering, and not aiming at the cure. When we have liberating insight into the cure - the third ennobling truth. We may then be of real benefit to others.

“Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace. ” - (Ajahn Chah)

The Buddha was not a philosopher or a religious zealot. He was a pan-dimensional map maker. Many feel that the Buddha was an explorer and discoverer without equal. The problem is: we have disciplines like philosophy and science! So we try to squeeze the Buddha into our known categories of learning. When really, what the Buddha discovered is something of an entirely different order. The Buddha was ahead of his time. His discoveries were timeless. An even bigger problem is: we may never catch up to him. Before we damage the 'planet' (ourselves) - in ways that are difficult to remedy. That is the tragedy of our times. So much, for the theory of our 'ignorant ancestors'!

Below is an extract from an early discourse where the Buddha refers to a 'noble' disciple. But I don't think he is using noble, in the sense of being a stream-enterer etc.

"Abandoning covetousness for the world... Abandoning ill will and hatred... Abandoning sloth and torpor... Abandoning restlessness and remorse... Abandoning doubt... secluded from unwholesome states he [she] enters upon and abides in the first jhana...This, brahmin, is called a footprint of the Tathagata, something marked by the Tathagata, but a noble disciple does not yet come to the conclusion: 'The Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed... The Sangha is practising the good way!'' (The Buddha - MN 27)

I am not sure it is of that much importance how nobility is defined. The Buddha was not an elitist he was a good and loving friend with great compassion and wisdom. It does not matter where we are in our journey into the Dharma. We just need to support each other along the way. Big Love, sangha dassa

wsking's picture

Hi! Three bows!
I love the use of that term "Pan-dimensional map maker"!
It sounds wonderful. What do you mean by that?
:-)

sangha dassa's picture

I try to understand the Buddha on his own terms. How he describes himself! I may not agree with everything that he has to say. But I still honor and love him. So, did the Buddha represent himself as 'what we call' a philosopher? I never get this impression. You probably know more about this than me. So tell me if you know something I have missed up till now. He often seems to present his teachings in the context of discoveries. Something he has known and seen - directly.

"Vision arose, clear knowing arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before... "And, monks, as long as this knowledge & vision of mine — with its three rounds & twelve permutations concerning these four noble truths as they actually are - was not pure, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening..." - SN 56.11

Out of his liberating vision and compassion the Buddha spent his life 'showing us the way' to liberate ourselves. In great detail, from the first step to the last. How to avoid the bad-lands or, which way to go when we are lost in them, not knowing where to go! He leads us out of the realm of the ordinary and conventional state of incoherence into bright and illumined Dharma realms of liberated life. Where the so-called ordinary is revealed in a new and transformed light. We emerge out of our deeply delusional sphere of activity into realms of being were we 'actually' let go of things - outwardly and inwardly - that prevent us from moving into a new knowledge and vision of reality. This is what I mean by new dimensions of being. Until we are finally freed from 'the taint of being' as well. No more being = no more suffering. In the noble awakening of the Buddha the being/non-being duality does not apply. The highest bliss that is the complete release from suffering is: Nirvana! Happy travels! xxoo

Pamela Gayle White's picture

Mightn't the term simply have different layers of meaning?

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

If you're looking for a different perspective on this, read Thanissaro Bhikkhu's piece "What's Noble about the Four Noble Truths," which presents a counterargument.

conroy.r's picture

I think that the perspective in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's piece is not so much different as wider. The meanings of words are not "out there", and the nobility of the noble truths is as elusive as the heroic quality of Beethoven's Eroica. The original etymology does help us not to pass over the word as a familiar object, but I guess any attempt to reduce meaning to etymology is going to fail simply because people sense that there's more to it than that.