Outer Freedom and Inner Bondage

In America and much of the West, the common understanding of the word “freedom” is something I might call “outer” freedom: Freedom from outside control and persecution, especially from government or religious institutions. The religious wars of post-Catholic Europe and the immorality of the medieval aristocracy shaped the concepts of rights and democracy in England, France, and the United States. When we talk about freedom, it’s traditionally a narrow subject that centers around government abuses and the legal system designed to bridle them.

That concept has grown to include other forms of persecution or control, perceived and real, such as social pressures and obligations. Traditional religious institutions have atrophied in western societies, partly because the faiths they advocate are a form of social control. For many people, the word “religion” is a now a pejorative, the opposite of which is “spirituality” or perhaps “philosophy.” The “better” words describe individual activities that a person can freely explore; the “worse” words describe communal values and social expectations. (I put these common judgements in scare quotes because they can be good or bad.)

Poverty continues to be a major problem, but the emphasis on individualism has led to its exacerbation. Government policies have shifted steadily away from social goods and towards the maximization of individual and corporate wealth. Of course, that means wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer people in practice because those already wealthy (people and corporations) can leverage the power of that wealth to an even greater extent to protect and expand their sources of income. The turn away from generosity this financial individualism produces causes the inequality to grow further. Individual people and corporations with more wealth than they could possibly use or need continue to amass more of it.

Many other forms of destructive ideology have rushed into the vacuum left by the collapse of communal values. Political ideologies, for example, appear very much like religious faiths, and they even form the basis of organizations that ostensibly are political parties but talk and behave like churches run by religious zealots. Propaganda weaves mythologies to explain events and motives, creating distorted world views designed to incite destructive passions and reinforce loyalties. In recent years, in America’s two-party system, we’ve begun to see the disintegration of the political system because these trends amplify irrationality and conflict.

I would argue that these disheartening social trends result from a kind of inner bondage. The human spirit been going fallow; like a plot of land, it naturally grows weeds rather than grains and fruit. Our much sought-after outer freedoms enable bad behavior and social disorder because people are controlled by their baser passions when left undeveloped. We depend on each other whether we think we do or not.

When human civilizations first developed in the ancient world, they realized the necessity of cultivating the human spirit to keep their civilizations stable from one generation to the next. They learned these lessons after experiencing bloody periods of civil and feudal warfare. Emerging from those disorders, they found ways to solve a central paradox of human society: For society to be free of barbarism, individuals must free themselves of their inner demons, which is accomplished through personal cultivation, education, and communal values.

In Buddhism, these inner demons are called bonds because they limit a person’s inner freedom by determining his thoughts, feelings, and actions in reactive and self-afflicting ways. The Buddha grouped these bonds into three basic categories: Desire, hate, and delusion.

The bonds of desire create emotional obsessions to obtain things we find attractive or pleasurable. When it becomes extreme, it causes us to lose control of our lives, such as the case with addictions and greed. The bonds of hate cause anger, discrimination, and violence. The bonds of delusion cause people to become confused about what is real and what is moral. All three of these bonds exist in the human mind because of a fundamental ignorance that creates this system of control: A Buddhist practitioner works to be free of this root ignorance and take control of their destiny.

If Western civilization is to halt the on-going devolution, I think it will need to return to these ancient lessons like those taught by the Buddha, Confucius, and the other great thinkers who helped to stabilize their civilizations in times of turmoil. With the global population and environmental crisis unfolding, we have a responsibility that goes far beyond each individual country or person.

An Introduction to the Middle-Length Agama

The Middle-Length Agama (MA) is Taisho No. 26, which spans 60 fascicles and 388 pages of the Taisho Daizokyo, Vol. 1. To put this in perspective, a page of Taisho prose typically translates to 1,500 words of English, so a complete translation of MA will probably be 600,000-700,000 words in length. In addition to this complete translation, there are over 70 individual translations of sutras found in MA that still survive as Taisho Nos. 27-98.

History of Chinese Translations

The history of the Chinese translation of MA is well documented in BDK English Tripiṭaka Series’s volume 1, which was published in 2013. It appears that MA, as it survives today, was actually the second complete translation to Chinese. The first was a collaboration between an Indian bhiksu named Dharmanandin and Zhu Fonian in the 384-5 CE. A second translation was produced by a team headed by Gautama Samghadeva only a decade later in 397-8 CE. Chinese records suggest both translations existed for several centuries before the first was lost.

As late as the 4th c. CE, Indian Buddhist texts were still preserved in memory rather than in writing, and we see direct evidence of this in the Chinese descriptions of translation teams. Typically, a bhiksu who had a text memorized recited it in the original language, a bilingual bhiksu then provided a Chinese translation verbally, and scribes wrote down the translation. Thus, the lingual and writing skills were typically divided between two or more people, which makes sense given the difficulty involved. Literacy in Chinese, for example, was a skill separate from the spoken language given that writing was  ideographic rather than phonetic.

Comparing the Agama to the Nikaya

The Middle-Length Agama is organized in a similar way as the Majjhima Nikaya (MN) in the Pali canon, but it contains more texts arranged in a different order. MA is a collection of 222 sutras in five divisions, while MN contains 152 suttas in three divisions. Each division is subdivided into thematic chapters that typically consist of 10 texts each, though MA has a couple larger chapters ranging from 15 to 25 texts.

It’s clear that MA was recited in a program that lasted five days because its divisions are called Recitations titled “First Day Recitation” and so on. These recitations appear to divide the collection into roughly equal segments (60-100 pages), and they sometimes split chapters for this purpose.

When we compare the texts in MA to MN, it quickly becomes clear that the two collections substantially overlap, but about 65% of MA’s texts either have no equivalent in the Pali Canon or they are found in a different Pali collection. Unlike MN, which doesn’t contain brief suttas, MA has many sutras that correspond to texts in the Anguttara Nikaya. Scholars have made efforts to index the parallels between the Agamas and the Nikayas, but it becomes a complex task when we also consider Sanskrit and other Chinese sources. Indexing the major parallels is complete, but the indices aren’t 100% comprehensive yet. At this point, it appears that 10% (23 sutras) of MA is unique, lacking any surviving parallels in other Agamas or the Pali canon.

Actual side-by-side comparisons of MA and its Pali parallels are difficult to generalize beyond the fact that many are clearly variations of the same text. In some cases, one text seems stripped down and simple compared to the other; or they only share certain sections and not others. Numerical lists usually differ only in order, but the actual definitions can be quite different.

Thoughts about the Origin of Variant Sutras

Most of the texts in MA are single topic presentations that center around a parable or numerical list of ideas. Originally, they were lectures given as part of the Buddha’s attempt to educate his students from day to day. These lectures were memorized by bhiksus in attendance and recited regularly to preserve them, becoming a canonical oral tradition after his death. It seems reasonable to assume a couple things about these original lectures during the Buddha’s time.

The Buddha himself probably repeated some lectures more than once to different audiences, and he may well have varied the presentations from one occasion to the next. He traveled from place to place in a repeated circuit for several decades. Thus, some of the variations we see were likely different versions of the same lecture from the beginning. Two variant sutras that claim to have been taught at the same location may have been taught there during different visits, possibly years apart.

As the Buddha gained followers, they spread out across ancient India. Some traveled with him, but more and more probably did not. Lectures that had been memorized at a given teaching were recited in his absence and “copied” into the memories of other bhiksus. Different versions of the same lecture likely were created when recitations weren’t exact or portions of a lecture were forgotten and recreated. This might account for slight differences and texts with the same structure but very different content.

Evidence of Recall Errors and Correction in Early Sutras

One of the common differences I see between versions for a sutra are numerical lists that differ in order. The beginning and end of a list will usually be the same in each version, but the items in the middle of the list will be jumbled. This to me is evidence of recall errors. The beginning and end of lists or narratives are easier to recall than the order of items or events in the middle of them.

Indeed, some texts are structured in a way to make these kinds of recall errors less likely. As written documents, they read in a repetitive and stilted way, but the purpose was to provide error detection. An example is a list that incrementally adds more detail to each item. It resembles a common way to memorize a long series of numbers:

  • 56
  • 56-87
  • 56-87-90
  • 56-87-90-34
  • 56-87-90-34-76

When we recite this series, it’s easy to realize where something was forgotten, and we can reconstruct a forgotten portion by going back to an earlier item. The Water Parable Sutra is a good example of this method of building error correction into a text. Its items are recited like this (to paraphrase):

  • A person lays in water
  • A person comes up and looks around
  • A person comes up, looks around, and stands
  • A person comes up, looks around, stands, and wades across
  • A person comes up, looks around, stands, wades across, and reaches the other shore
  • etc.


The upshot is that when we take all of these early texts in Pali and Chinese as a whole, we get a sum total of surviving lectures by the Buddha, however much they had evolved over the centuries before they were codified as written canons. I don’t think we can know for certain which are more original than the others when we group the parallels together. In some cases, a larger version might have been an amplification; in another case a smaller version might have been restored from an incomplete memory. In still other cases, we get two or more opinions about what something means.

As I continue my translation efforts, I intend to collect the versions of each sutra into a single document as individual studies. I plan begin working out a good format for this next month.

Wealth, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Human beings are like rats: We like to acquire things. I recall a rat I once took care of for a friend. I had never known a rat before, so it was a learning experience. The most striking thing about the rat to me was that it had a home, a little dome in which to eat in private, and it liked to store all the food it could acquire there.

It had a food bowl in its cage, but it never ate at the bowl. When I put food in its bowl, the rat would hurry over and pick through the day’s winnings, stuffing as many valuable items into its mouth that would fit and stowing them in its house–and with a sense of urgency! Not knowing exactly what a rat likes to eat, I gave it biscuits, seed, nuts, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. From time to time, I would hear it eating in its home, but I had no idea what it was eating. I assumed it took the food it wanted to eat and left the rest.

When I cleaned its cage and lifted its home up for the first time, I discovered the things it didn’t like to eat but wanted to add to its larder anyway. I learned that rats are indeed like people. They have things they want to use now and things they want to accumulate for some future time that may never come. The desire to possess something that might be useful someday but not today wasn’t invented by humans.

Wealth in Material

In the human world, we have material wealth in addition to food that we acquire and use. We own land, homes, vehicles, appliances, clothing, and a whole gamut of personal items. We take it to a level of abstraction never known before modern technology: Wealth in the form of numbers in an account that exists in a computer system. Like the rat, we acquire and accumulate wealth because we want to use it in our daily lives but also because it has some value that makes us desire having more of it.

Our society has become one obsessed with quantities rather than function. We fill our larders for the future, then continue filling beyond present and future need. Worse, we fill our larders so that we can compare them to the larders of other people and feel happy we are ahead of them. At the end of a person’s life, this turns out to be an absurdity similar to a pet rat stowing great piles of unwanted food when it’s well fed every day. The desire to acquire takes on a life of its own, providing a sense of satisfaction when nothing is accomplished but to move something from one place to another.

Wealth in Knowledge

Knowledge is very similar to this. Like wealth, knowledge can be acquired, and it has value because of its usefulness. Knowledge makes it possible to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and acquire new abilities. Knowledge can also be lost when it isn’t used.

If I want to translate an ancient language to English, I have to acquire the knowledge about both languages, my readers, and the original author of the ancient text. Otherwise, the translation will be inaccurate or impossible to comprehend.

Knowledge, though, like material wealth, activates the rat in people. We like to acquire it for reasons other than its use. We want to know everything about a subject and become an expert in it. We want to defeat others in debates by never having the wrong answer. We want to have complete certainty about the unknown. We want to enjoy the pleasure of learning new things.

A single person can study a subject and never reach the end of all the knowledge that can be acquired about it. They can become very admiring of themselves and other people who have become experts in a topic, yet they may only know a fraction of all the knowledge about it that exists. There is simply too much to learn in a single life span. The acquisition of knowledge, like material, can become an endeavor without a purpose beyond piling more into one place.

Wealth in Wisdom

This brings me to another subject: Wisdom.

Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge. It answers “Why?” questions, like why we value one thing more than another, for example. In discussing wealth of material and knowledge, I’ve been careful to avoid mixing in wisdom. People can do the same thing for foolish or wise reasons.

A person can acquire great financial wealth for the purpose of creating a charity that can help society as a whole, or they can acquire great wealth to control society with the power than it makes possible. Knowing which goal is wise and which is foolish is the acquisition of wisdom.

Like material and knowledge, wisdom comes in different kinds. There is wisdom about what is wise in our personal lives. Why are we in a given career? Why do we have the friends and relationships that we choose? Why are we pursuing the long-term goals that we’ve set for ourselves? These are difficult questions whose answers change over the years. The answers never seem to be final. Experience and perspective as we move through life make us re-assess the answers. Often, though, we neglect asking these questions until the answers become so obsolete that we have to stop and rethink our lives.

There is also wisdom about society. We have individual lives, but we exist in larger societies that have their own goals and group wisdom. A company can begin life making a given product that’s innovative and useful. It changes people’s lives for the better. Over time, the company’s purpose can change from providing that innovation to simply controlling a stream of income. The answers to its “Why?” questions can go unquestioned for far longer than an individual person’s do, and its wisdom can dwindle away or grow depending on whether its managers and employees make a habit of asking them or not.

Wisdom also can be about a person’s inner life, which is the kind of wisdom religions and philosophies like Buddhism acquire. This type of wisdom draws conclusions about basic questions like why we are unhappy and why we are satisfied in one situation or another. They ask questions that drive all the other forms of wisdom. They are the core questions whose answers inform the “Why?” questions about relationships, careers, and society.

Unfortunately, these core questions are also often the last “Why?” questions that we ask, and many people only ask them in times of crisis and turmoil. They don’t spend enough time developing the answers, and so personal and societal wisdom goes underdeveloped, being based on poor answers to these core “Why?” questions.

Societies and people who make a conscious habit of acquiring wisdom have a better sense of purpose, have the ability to correct themselves, and have the flexibility to adapt to change. When wisdom is neglected, we become more mechanical in our behavior and thinking.  Habits are difficult to change, systems are difficult to reform, and ideological paradigms become inflexible.

Modern society in America has become very good at acquiring wealth in material and knowledge but not wisdom, and this turning away from wisdom has been exported around the world. It is to me the root cause of many crises that we face in the world, such as income inequality, ethnic conflicts, or ecological disaster, and only wisdom will allow us to solve them.




The Place of the Chinese Āgamas in Buddhist Literature

The Chinese Buddhist canon is unique in that it contains a record of the scriptures and philosophical texts that were circulating in Central Asia and India during the peak of Buddhist literary creativity between 0 CE and the arrival of Islam. Most of the major works were translated several times over a period of about 500 years or so, meaning that we can note their historical development by comparing these “snapshots” preserved in Chinese. It’s also thanks to Chinese historical records that we can date many of these texts.

The Chinese Āgamas are an important piece of the historical puzzle of Indian Buddhist history. Most of the original Sanskrit or Middle Indic canons that the Chinese Āgamas preserved were lost when Buddhism was disbanded in India. The only complete early Buddhist canon that still exists is preserved in Pali by Theravada Buddhists in countries outside of India. To my knowledge, we otherwise only have fragments of original language Āgama texts discovered by archeologists and quotations in secondary works like Abhidharma and Mahāyāna texts.

Like the Theravada Buddhists, the Indian schools of early Buddhism maintained a canon of five divisions:

  • Dīrgha (Long)
  • Madhyama (Middle)
  • Saṃyukta (Thematic)
  • Ekôttara (Incremental)
  • Kṣudraka (Minor)

These are Sanskrit equivalents of the five Pali Nikāyas: Dīgha, Majjhima, Saṃyutta, Aṅguttara, and Khuddaka. Each Āgama or Nikāya is a collection of individual texts that relate a teaching by the Buddha or a chief disciple.

These collections had their genesis from the initial sermon that the Buddha gave to his first five disciples. Throughout his teaching career, the practice of memorizing teachings and events and preserving them as an oral tradition built up a living canon that continued on after his death. It was several centuries later that these oral traditions were set down in writing. I say oral traditions because the Chinese Āgamas suggest that, by the time they arrived in China (circa 4-5th c. CE), each major branch of early Buddhism had an alternate version of the original oral tradition.

Scholars have begun to compare them to the Pali and to fragments of Indian works that exist. What they have found is that while the basic teachings and historical events are shared between each canon, they are seldom identical and vary a great deal in presentation and wording. Indeed, there are even differences in understanding the meaning of basic words because of Sanskrit rather than Pali derivations.

What has been striking to me is how certain parallel texts are very close in wording when we compare the Chinese to the Pali, while others are very different. There is also only a partial overlap: That is, that the Nikāyas have texts that are absent from the Chinese Āgamas and vice versa. It’s clear that the early Buddhist canon was not a word-for-word preservation like the Christian Bible, but rather a fuzzy body of literature handed down through multiple lines of transmission.

Efforts to translate and publish the Chinese Āgamas to English began during this decade, most notably with publications by the BDK translation project and also Dharma Drum Buddhist College. I had explored the Āgamas in the early 2000s during a period of study and translated a few of them in 2004. I am taking this effort back up because of the need for a careful rendering these difficult texts to English. It will give scholars and practitioners alike a way to get a better understanding of early Buddhism as a whole.