A variation of this was sent to Venerable Dr Anaalayo Bhikkhu who was giving an online course in comparative studies of the Chinese Madhyama Aagama and the Paali Majjhima Nikaaya Apr-July 2011. They are different sources of the Buddha’s middle length discourses. A variation was also sent to Steven Batchelor, the well known lay Dharma teacher, on the 29th of May, 2011.
The Buddha had his own meanings for key terms he used:
It can be found in the discourses that the Buddha encouraged the acceptance of local dialects and not insisting on one’s own. He acknowledged, for example, that “a pot” may be called different names in different areas and we should just adopt the name used in the area we stay [when in Rome do as the Romans do] (Ref: PTS M iii 235 = M 139). On the other hand we find him saying that he uses common expression without misapprehending them (Ref: PTS D i 202 = D 9). One may notice that only concrete or common nouns are referred to in the first quote, not abstract nouns. So that there would be no contradiction in the Buddha giving new definitions to things like, kamma, jhaana etc. and sticking to them. We often find “in the Discipline of the Noble Ones” leading a definition and this indicates to me that such definitions should be applied consistently.
There are well known examples of the Buddha’s different definitions of terms, which all seem to shift the meaning from an external/physical focus to an internal/psycho-somatic/spiritual focus. I list the ones that come to mind as well as not-well know ones that I have encountered in my 20+ years of studying the discourses:
1. The “world” [loka] “In this fathom (~2m) long body with its perceptions and mind (mano), lies the world (loka), the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the path leading to the cessation of the world.” (Ref: PTS S i 61 = S 2.26; PTS A ii 49 = A 4.46)
2. “Action” [kamma] “Monks, I call intention action. Having intention one acts by body, speech and thought.” (Ref: PTS A iii 415 = A 3.3; PTS A i 104, (292) = A 3.141) I avoid saying “intention is action” as I think that is not an accurate translation and it can have the implication that there is no other action apart from intention, but the Buddha acknowledges three types of action: mental, verbal and bodily.
3. A “Brahmin” is not by birth, but by action. Ref: Dhammapada Ch 26. (There’s probably a better reference somewhere.)
4. A “Bhikkhu” (mendicant/fully ordained monk/fully ordained nun) is known not simply known by the wearing of the robe, but by right livelihood. Ref: Dhammapada Ch 25. (There’s probably a better reference somewhere.)
5. “Death” [mara.na] “For this, mendicants, is death in the Noble One’s Discipline: that one gives up the training and returns to the lower life.” (Ref: PTS S ii 271 = S 20.10) “Death” is not used for the end of an arahant’s life, that is called the “breaking-up of the body” [kaayassa bhedaa] (Ref: PTS D i 46 = D 1).
6. “Being” [satta] does not refer to physical form, but to mental states with certain defilements. The well known story of the Brahmin Dona’s conversation with the Buddha illustrates this well. There the Buddha said he was not various types of “being(s)” including human being because he had eradicated the defilement that could enable identifying him as such. (Ref: PTS A ii 37 = A 4.36). Also this term is clearly given a internal/psychological meaning at PTS S III 190 = SN 23.2:
Venerable sir, it is said, ‘a being, a being.’ In what way, venerable sir, is one called a being?
One is stuck (satta), tightly stuck (visatta), in desire, lust, delight, and craving for form; therefore one is called a being (satta). One is stuck tightly stuck, in desire, lust, delight, and craving for sensation … for conception … for emotions … for consciousness therefore one is called a being. Suppose some little boys or girls are playing with sand-castles. So long as they are not devoid of lust, desire, affection, thirst, passion, and craving for those sand-castles, they cherish them, play with them, treasure them and treat them possessively. But when those little boys or girls lose their lust, desire affection, thirst, passion, and craving for those sand castles, then they scatter them with their hands and feet, demolish them, shatter them, and put them out of play.
7. A “god” or “angel” [deva/devii] The Buddha called ‘god/goddess’ (devo/devi) those people who are moral. (Ref: PTS A ii 57-61 = A 4.53-54)
8. “Sangha” means the ones on the path, whether monk, nun, layman or laywoman. That is, the Noble Ones. (Ref: PTS M i 37 = M 7; PTS A iii 285 = A 6.10 etc. – reflection on qualities of the Sangha)
9. “Refuge” [sara.na] Action is our refuge (Ref: PTS A iii 71-4 = A 5.57 – the five reflections for all followers of the Buddha), definitely not the Bhikkhu Sangha; for the idea of the Bhikkhu Sangha as refuge see the probably corrupted text: PTS M I 24 = M 4 – note that they are not the words of the Buddha. Venerable Ananda’s words are: “We have a refuge; we have the Dhamma as our refuge” at PTS M III 10 = M 108. This is in agreement with the instruction from the Buddha on his deathbed. There is no occurrence of “tisara.na” or any variant in the first four Nikaaya according to a search I did with VRI CSCD using “tisara.n*”.
10. “The Three Knowledges” [Skt: tri-vidyaa/trayii vidyaa; Pali: te-vijjaa] for the Brahmins it was knowledge of the Three Vedas which was available only to men of high caste, but the Buddha said: “in the noble discipline the three knowledges mean something different than the three knowledges of the Brahmins” and made clear what that meaning was. These three were open to anyone to realise as he had done. (Ref: PTS A i 163-166 = A 3.58 and PTS M ii 144 = M 91)
I think it is essential in understanding the Buddha’s teaching to know and consistently apply his definitions. This links with Ven. Anaalayo’s statement during his online course that it is important to understand the early discourses based on other material in the early discourses, not later material. I see letting the Buddha explain his own teaching, partly by taking note of and applying his definitions, as really taking the Buddha as the teacher, not someone else.
There can be at least these two approaches:
1. The Buddha used terms with many meanings, one word points to many things. This is the reverse of the example given above about “a pot”, many words point to one thing. It essentially means we need the commentaries to tell us which meaning the Buddha intended. Thus, we have a secret teaching and must rely on others to understand/interpret it. The Buddha said he did not have a secret teaching and that it was realisable by the wise each by themselves. I followed the “many meanings” approach for many years and can no longer do so, as I see it causes suffering.
2. The Buddha used terms and stuck to his definitions and he makes clear those definitions in the discourses. This is the approach I now follow and have found it cuts proliferation [papa~nca, in this case, of meanings] which the Buddha indicated is not a quality of his teaching (Ref: PTS A iv 228 = A 8.30 – 8 Thoughts of a Great Man). It seems to me, that it is only in applying his definitions consistently that the following qualities are realised for his teaching: svaakkhaato (well-spoken), sandi.t.thiko (visible), akaaliko (timeless), ehipassiko (verifiable), opanaayiko (progressive) and paccatta.m veditabbo vi~n~nuuhi (to be realised by the wise for themselves) Ref: PTS M i 37 = M 7; PTS A iii 285 = A 6.10 etc.
A very clear example, that I think is not appreciated, is the Buddha’s discussion with Angulimaala (Ref: PTS M ii 103 = M 86), which matches his avoidance of “death” for fully enlightened practitioner mentioned above:
“In that case, Angulimaala, go into Saavatthii and say to that woman: ‘Sister, since I was born, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well!’ “
“Venerable sir, wouldn’t I be telling a deliberate lie, for I have intentionally deprived many living beings of life?”
“Then, Angulimaala, go into Saavatthii and say to that woman: ‘Sister, since I was born with the noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well!’ “
Here I believe the Buddha showed that he uses terms “without misapprehending them”. Those who don’t understand his teaching properly, misinterpret what he says, as Venerable Angulimaala did. The Buddha said “birth” but I believe he did not mean physical birth and he knew clearly what he was saying. I don’t think he made a mistake by omitting “noble” the first time, but that birth was an internal/psycho-somatic/spiritual event, was his change in its meaning, which is consistent with all the other changes we have seen in the examples above.
I think that “birth” was “spiritual” was intrinsic to his definition. (By the way, this teaching is echoed in the Bible, as so many other Buddhist teachings are, at: John 3:1-6.) This, of course, would be quite challenging to anyone who had decided what the Buddha meant by certain terms and the whole philosophical/metaphysical interpretation that is common, but it makes “birth” relevant to this very life, here and now and ending suffering. “My teaching has one taste, that of liberation” (Ref: PTS A iv 200 = A 8.19; Ud 5.5, PTS pg 56) and I believe the Buddha meant liberation “in this very life” as this phrase is often found in the discourses to refer to the benefits of his teaching (Ref: many times in Diigha Nikaaya, e.g. PTS D i 157 = D 6).
This example added to the list above makes 11:
11. “Birth” [jaati] in line with the others above, is not meant to be understood as physical in the Noble One’s Discipline, as the conversation with Ven. Angulimaala makes very clear. (Ref: PTS M ii 103 = M 86)
If we look at the Paali text describing the first of the three knowledges (paragraph 371) realised on the night of the enlightenment, which deals with the PAST, we can notice that the words rebirth [puna-jaati] and life [jiivita.m] do not occur at all. What does occur is “birth”, many births. If we apply the definition identified above, then what I think becomes clear is, the Buddha saw in the past [of his current life] the repeated process of birth and death, which I can only understand as a psychological process: ego’s arising and passing. Buddhadaasa Bhikkhu of Thailand tended to this understanding.
If we look at the Paali text describing the second of the three knowledges (paragraph 372) realised on the night of the enlightenment, which is about the PRESENT, we can notice that the word “being” is used. There is no “other” before “being”. If we apply the definition identified above, then I can only understand it as a psychological process again: the Buddha took the knowledge of the patterns he saw in his past and then mindfully watched for them in the present. He saw the being [ego] arise in the present moment, due to defilement and pass due to the ending of the supportive conditions. I have to interpret this as beings within himself, which is quite the opposite of “other beings”, otherwise this knowledge is not relevant to me ending suffering in this very life.
If we look at the Paali text describing the last of the three knowledges (paragraph 373) realised on the night of the enlightenment, which is about the FUTURE, it says he could see the future was free of the taints which caused that whole process. So what I understand is, the Buddha cut the causes of the patterns as they were about to arise and freed himself of them.
Thus the three knowledges become very (only) relevant to me for ending suffering in this very life. I would discourage anyone who interprets the Buddha’s teaching in a way that is not relevant to this very life from doing so, as they may be misrepresenting the Buddha and heaping up a lot of negative effects [akusala vipaaka].
It is well known that the Buddha changed the meanings of words he used. Maybe some or many of the examples above are not so well known. Having understood the relevance of applying the Buddha’s definitions consistently, I think we should examine a related issue, the possible relevance of semantic shift. Semantic shift deals with the possible changes in meanings of words, AFTER the Buddha passed away, changes that I think he would not have agree to and which make his teaching ineffective.
Buddhist studies seems not to have yet completely incorporated impermanence as a working principle, though this is an essential principle of the Buddha’s teaching. It is well known in linguistics that language changes over time, most quickly in meanings of words, much more slowly in grammar. The former is called semantic change or semantic shift, but this has not been addressed in Paali studies, as far as I know. I recently obtained a copy of the only book which may start to look at this topic, “Linguistics in Pali” and have yet to read it. Semantic shift can happen as quickly as one or two generations. As you know, Paali’s history, before being written down, covers nearly 400 years from the time of the Buddha. So, many generations, but where is the research on changes in the meanings of Paali words?
One possible example of semantic shift: I have a theory that the current “translation” of sati as “mindfulness” is the result of semantic change, where the meaning of “mindfulness” has been transferred to sati and the original meaning of sati as “memory” has been all but lost. Semantic shift in Linguistics acknowledges that an earlier meaning can be totally lost. I think there has been great change in the meaning of sati and jhaana. Whereas we find the Buddha talking about jhaana much and sati little, in the modern Theravaada Vipassanaa meditation tradition, it is the other way round. I have written an article about this analysing the Paali texts using the study method reportedly given by the Buddha in those texts themselves. During the time I studied with Dr Rod Bucknell, he pointed out that the position of sati in the Chinese lists of the Enlightenment Factors changes. I take this as evidence of the change of meaning (semantic shift).
The commentarial traditions holds there were different meanings the Buddha used for one word and its evidence is that one definition cannot be used in all occurrences of the word. On the other hand, it may be that as the meaning of another related word changed/developed a new meaning, it replaced certain other words in the texts. For example:
Possible original text:
The Buddha’s teaching [Buddha-saasana] has one taste, that of liberation.
May have been changed to:
The Buddha’s teaching [Buddha-dhamma] has one taste, that of liberation.
as “dhamma” came to be understood as “teaching” rather than another original meaning. Thus the original meaning becomes just one of many possible meanings, or is totally lost.
So coupled with the change in the meanings of words, would be changes in the texts as a result of the former. This would result in the situation that one meaning cannot be applied to all occurrences. This makes it a quite difficult or challenging field of study.
For the average person coming to the Buddha’s teaching, I’d suggest, just put aside things that do not seem relevant to ending suffering in this very life. That’s what I did with the three knowledges mentioned above for a long time, but now they make sense, because I applied the Buddha’s code.