The One

The Bukhan mountain range is not too far from South-Korea’s capital city, and cool enough to spend the summer. Bhukhan is furthermore known as the seat of the monk Seongga (or Seonga) who lived during the Tang dynasty of China, the era of emperor Gaozong. Seongga went to China and came back as a Línjì chan monk. (chan = zen, and línjì = rinzai in Japanese)

Part 3 of Korean Jogye Anthology describes Seongga’s monkhood and how he penned down his Seongga gwigam (his ‘guide to seon’ [chan/zen]). In this guide Seongga shows himself as a proponent of both “Patriarchal Teacher Seon” and “Ganhwa Seon”. The latter, Ganhwa Seon, is about what the West knows as koan, and what China and Korea know as huatou, respectively hwadu.

Seongga sunim (sunim = monastic) introduced this hwadu: “What is the single thing?” As many western zennists have scant knowledge of the Buddhist philosophy, this “What is the single thing?” came to be abbreviated to “What is it?” leaving “the single thing” out — and leaving thousands of zen-pupils in the woods. Nevertheless, this “single thing” is at the heart of the most important refutation as the historic Buddha had it. “The One” is in early Buddhist philosophy an unthinkable something.

We find the probably oldest and most historically “true” instance of the discussion around “The One [thing]” in the Pali canon of the Southern Buddhism, the Songs of the Elder Bhikkhuni (Théri-gāta. 5.9 ——; a bhikkhuni = a fully ordained Buddhist nun; a théri = an elderly nun with at least 12 years standing).
This occurred somewhere between the 6th and 5th Cent. aD, somewhere in Northern India. In this Théri-gāta we read the conversation between the bhikkhu (monk) Sariputta and the bhikkhuni Bhadda Kúndalakésa. Bhikkhu Sariputta asks: “What is the One”, and bhikkhuni Bhadda remains silent. Much later she will find the answer all by herself and will Awaken to the Truth of Buddhism.

Why did Bhadda remain silent? Some commentators state that she used to be a Jain nun before she came to the Buddhist sangha. But the mention that she was a Kúndalakésa, someone with dreadlocks, makes that hard to believe. The unclothed Naga sadhus in this part of the world have dreadlocks, but there never have been female naga sadhus. It is furthermore hard to conceive the naga sadhus as being hindu, let alone brahmin. This was and is a religious movement in and out of itself. There were and are Saiva ascetics; they wear dreadlocks. Saivists are devotees of the Hindu god Shiva who receives the name The One, as being one of the manifestations of the ultimate in Hinduïsm. Could there have been Saiva nuns, in those days? Possibly, possibly not.

Nevertheless Bhadda(1) could have been raised in this belief of The One, and in becoming a Buddhist nun she must have received the information that this precisely was what Buddha refuted. Hence, in conversation with bhikkhu Sariputta (the son [putta] of the woman Sari) she doesn’t dare to speak for fear of making a serious mistake — in the eyes of Buddhists, that is. Deïsms, in whatever shape or form they appear, think higly of The One.

Let’s assume that this conversation is the first instance where there is mention of The One, and that scribe-monks, shortly after Buddha’s demise, picked up on this theme and used it twice more, after which these two more instances became part of the early Pali canon. That is, it is highly likely that the conversation between the monk and the nun actually took place, but whether the next two instances in the Pali canon are historically true is less evident.

Whatever the case may be, the theme of The One returned once more in the form of a meeting between a Brahmin monk and a Buddhist bhikkhuni: “The One, what is it?” the monk asks. And she, according to the Pali canon: “Sabbé-sattá áhára thítika — all things subsist on food.”

We might say that this is one of the first huatou / hwadu / koan: What is … (nonsense question)? Answer: …. (nonsense in the eyes and ears of outsiders).
Nevertheless, this refutation of The One is not nonsense. It’s an ultimate truth in Buddhism: there is not such a thing as “a first instance”, a One as Creator/Destroyer, or a One “tout court”. Underlying all things are multiple causes and conditions. It never occurs that óne thing arises on the basis of óne prior thing or óne instance. Multiplicity is the answer, not a One.

Since this Buddhist concept of oneness, as the (non-)thing that precedes the dichotomy between the singular and the plural, which therefore is beyond words, must have been rather “en vogue“, the early 8th Century hindu philosopher Sánkara made it the pivot around which his Advaita Vedanta is woven. He however strongly believed in The One in the old sense of the Hindu-word but added that this One comprises all there is, and that all there is is a manifestation of The One, the whole.

(1): in Pali language Bhadda = auspicious; she received this name upon taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (dharma) and the Sangha.


More gender

To continue the entry of January 20th on gender, it seems necessary to explain the (Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pali word bhiksunī, resp. bhikkhunī.
On page 128 Beata Grant (“Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China”) laments the fact that Linji Master Jizong Xingche in several 19th-century publications is not recognizable as “the nun Jizong Xingche” but is rather referred to either as Jizong or as Xingchue, without “absolutely no indication of her gender … without the usual character ni [nun] that is usually appended to the names of female monastics.”

The character -ni stands for the last syllable of the Sanskrit/Pali name “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“. It translates as “fully ordained female monk”, more precisely “female alms gatherer”. The male version = bhikshu, resp. bhikkhu.

Where at all -ni is added to the name of a Chinese female monk it is the last syllable of this “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“, an appellation that in Chinese is approximately pronounced as “bishunii“. Therefore, if at all ni is added to the name of a chinese female monk such as Jizong Xingche one would expect something like Jizong Xingche Ni.
However, especially the Linji Chan tradition would consider it highly improper to designate a realized Master as a female being – or a male being for that matter. Therefore none of the Linji Masters in Beata Grant’s book will ever have been described as Master xx-xx-ni. This would be unthinkable if not an insult.

Cittā’s gātā


A recent article about a Japanese scroll in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston mentiones how this scroll is considered to be the first in which an actual landscape is depicted, not a Japanese landscape, but an Indian one: Vulture Peak near the city of Rajgir in the state of Bihar. Vulture Peak is one of those places that frequently occur in Buddhist canonical texts, both the Southern and the Northern manuscripts.

One of Buddha’s contemporaries, the bhikkhuni (senior female monk) Cittā, daughter of a king or chieftain and over 80 years old climbed the slopes of Vulture Peak and had an enlightening experience. Her gātā (song, poem) occurs in the so-called Therīgātā, the “songs of the senior nuns (therī)”.
Following the absolute correct transliteration of Hermann Oldenberg and Richard Pischel (“Therī-gāthā”, PTS, London 1883, p. 126, 28-30) the second half of the gātā runs as follows:

Having laid down my upper robe (samghāti), having put down my almsbowl (patta),
leaning against a hard rock (amhi selamhi) the liberation of my heart overwhelmed me.

These two sentences are followed by a thanksgiving at the address of the Buddha’s Teaching (buddhassa sāsanam).

nikkhipitvāna samghātim pattakam ca nikkujjiya/

nissannā(1) c’amhi selamhi atha(2) cittam vimucci me(3)/

tisso vijjā anuppattā katam buddhassa sāsanam.

1: Skr.: nissah – overwhelming, powerful. We cannot overlook the fact that “pure Pali” does not exist. Cittā had learnt the Vedic lore written in Classical Sanskrit (either in Brahmi or in Devanagari script). She adopted the regional language Pali but couldn’t help inserting a Sanskritic word such as a declination of nissah: nissannā.

2: Atha is an indeclinable copulative and is used in enumerations: and, and, and: ánd I laid down my robe, ánd I put down my patta, ánd I leaned against a rock, ánd I was overwhelmed.
3. cittam vimucci me: my heart/mind/thinking (root: cit) became liberated (vimucci). Compare the “… akuppā me cetovimutti” in Buddha’s First Teaching (Dhammacakkappavattanasutta) : the liberation (vimutti) of my heart (ceto) is undeniable and final (akuppā). (“Me” is pronounced as in “case”.)

Two individuals published their translation of this verse of Cittā’s online.
In “First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening” (Berkeley, 1991) we find :

Robe thrown down,
bowl turned over,
leaned on a rock,
then great darkness opened.

One instance in the Therā-/Therīgātā (Th 1, 1034) has a passage containing ‘darkness’. It has andhakāra, being (mental and fysical) blindness, and also darkness, dullness, bewilderment.
Generally the root tam or tim, dark(ness), is used. Nor a declination of andhakāra or one of tam/tim occurs in the original transliteration.

Another online source, Sutta Central-site, allowed a translation into German language. It closely follows (if not copies) the above translation with one exception: the mention of ‘SELBST’ (written in capitals! — ‘self’):

Die Robe hab ich abgelegt,
die Bettelschale umgestülpt,—
im Fels ich stützte da das SELBST:
Die Dunkelmasse ich durchdrang.

As stated, the editors blindly followed the above-mentioned “great darkness”, and added the Self to the mix.
Speculating on what could have caused these editors to use ‘self’ (Pali: atta, Skr. atman) is useless and would amount to the category of wrong speech. Suffice it to say that the root cit (as in ceto…) cannot be translated as ‘self’. Nor committed Oldenberg and Pischel an orthographical error in writing atha instead of atta. Both the Brahmi and the devanagari alphabets give the sounds th(a) and tt(a) as two very distinct characters; no transliteration mistake is possible. Besides, a sentence with atta instead of atha would have become unintelligable.