The Bodhi tree behind
the Mahabodhi temple
in Bodhgaya


The Unborn's travel through time

At the occasion of Maitreya's remembrance day

The fragment

At the occasion of the February 7, 2008 remembrance day of Maitreya, the future Buddha on earth, it seemed appropriate to quote a single verse from the Sūrangama-samādhi-sūtra(1), chapter 109:

4. "Finally, O Drdhamati, I myself, Maitreya, and the thousand bodhisattvas of the Auspicious Period (bhadra-kalpa) have all received the prediction [of future buddhahood] conferred in the presence of those who have acquired the certainty of the non-arising of dharmas (anutpattikadharmaksantilabdhasammukavyākarana)."

It is the above 'non-arising of dharmas' that will be the subject of the following reflection.
One could translate the first part of this Hybrid-Sanskrit composite
anutpattikadharmaksanti as "(having) patient endurance (ksanti) (in seeing) all phenomena (dharma) as unborn, uncreated (anutpàttika)."

The second part of the composite: labdhasammukavyākarana is slightly confusing since sammuka seems to occur in no grammar or dictionary, whereas muka and mūka do, though not in any sense that would be useful in this composite. We might perhaps assume that the original manuscript contains a spelling error and conclude that here mukha is meant: 'in person'. If this were the case we might translate the second part of the whole composite as "the by oneself, personally (mukha) obtained (labdh) definitive declaration (or certainty, vyākarana - also: grammar)."

The entire sentence
anutpattikadharmaksanti|labdhasammukavyākarana could then be given as "The by oneself definitively obtained certainty that all phenomena, when considered with patient endurance, are unborn, uncreated."

Grammar as vehicle of Indic religious systems

The earliest veda(2) — scriptures that are the source of later hinduism — is considered to be the Rigveda. Here we find the first mention of the unborn (abhū). The Agni-section has, "The Unborn (god Rudra) upholds the earth." And in the Váruna-section it says, "The Unborn supports the heaven."

Again in the Bhagavad Gita, equally a Hindu scripture, Lord Krsna speaks to Ārjuna and says, "Although, indeed, I am unborn and imperishable, although I am the lord of the creatures, ...

These Vedic scriptures present 'the Unborn' grammatically as pronoun and noun.

In later centuries the composers of the Upanishads, belonging to the same religious system called Hinduism, make an effort to redefine the personal nouns used in the veda and present them as more abstract concepts. These Upanishads too have lots to say about the unborn, unarisen, but the through-and-through nouns in the Vedic scriptures are now presented as qualifiers, as in the Kathā Upanishad: "The Soul is never born, nor does it die; not having come to exist will it again cease to exist. It is unborn, eternal, permanent and ancient. It does not die when the body dies."

In the Udāna (VIII,3), a collection verses belonging to the Buddhist Pāli-canon, Buddha uses words that seem similar to the Kathá Upanishad's 'unborn, eternal, permanent and ancient'. Here Buddha says,

"Verily, there is the unborn (ajātam), the unarisen (abhūtam), the unmade (ákatam), the uncomposed (asànkhatam). Were it not for this unborn, unarisen, unmade, uncomposed, escape from this world of the born, the arisen, the made, the composed would not be possible."

Neither the Udāna nor other early Buddhist Scriptures render an explicit answer as to what the unborn (ajāta) or the unarisen (abhūta) is. However, no Buddhist Pāli Scripture gives us an ajāto: the Unborn, or an abhūto: the Unarisen in the sense of pronoun and noun, as in 'He, The Unborn' or 'It, the Unborn Substance'.
Throughout the Pāli Scriptures, it seems, we should understand the unborn, the unarisen as qualifiers pointing to Knowing (añña, pañña), and/or to Liberated (buddhi), that is, to the sole eternal reality of Enlightenment.

As the English language does not make a visual difference between 'the' preceding a noun and 'the' preceding a qualifier, correctly understanding the content of the Vedic, Upanishadic and early Buddhistic words such as abhū has taken some time and has in the past lead many to assume that really, Buddha taught a form of Hinduism after all.

Two different instances in the Pāli Nikāyas (Diii-127 and Mii.240) show the difficulties of the early brotherhood encountered when confronted with translations into non-Maghadese languages. (It is said that Buddha's native language was that of the kingdom of Màghada.) However, we have to turn to Pāli sources to become aware of the efforts one had to make in order to understand one another.
Buddha says in these Pāli manuscripts, "... the monks should not be content to rightly grasp the meaning (attham sammā ganháti) and wrongly accuse the phrase (byañjanāmi micchā rópeti)", while the point is that "the monks should agree on the meaning and not argue over the phrases that are multiple (nānam)."(3)

At a later moment in time the then Mahāyāna sangha repeats this thought, for "the Bodhisattva-bhumi goes still further and says that a bodhisattva should listen with reverence even if the Dharma is preached in Prakrit [and not in Pāninian Sanskrit], for a bodhisattva cares more for the substance (artha) than for words (vyàñjana)."(4)

A slow revolution

As the greater part of the orthodox Small Vehicle Buddhism slowly but steadily evolved into the direction of the Larger Vehicle, the Mahāyāna, new interpreters and new compilers of Buddhist thought found new expressions for the old unborn, (ajāta) or unarisen (abhūta). Not because they wished to confront the old schools on the field of mere words, but because the content or substance of the old "unborn" changed. They furthermore produced or uncovered manuscripts in some Sanskritic, Prakritic or Khotanese language. A large section of the original Teachings became in some way or another reproduced, commented on or elaborated on. A fairly early Mahāyāna example is the Avatámsaka Sutra where all 'old' Teachings are presented in a new context and new wordings. Another example is the Lankāvatāra Sutra written in (Hybrid or Buddhist) Sanskrit.

To repeat: as of the first/second century Buddhism spread further abroad, especially into the Kashmir-Gandhāran regions, and to the South-East, whereas the old school of the (restructured) Theravāda had already carved out a niche in Sri Lanka from where it would migrate to Siam and Burma (Thailand and Myanmar).
The divide between the Old and New Schools broadened, even when they shared the same new homelands such as the now northern regions of Pakistan or the Bamiyan plains in Afghanistan. It seems that especially in those regions the monasteries of either orthodox Small Vehicle Buddhism and those that evolved into the directions of more Mahāyānistic communities debated by word of Scripture rather than in personal contacts. The Dharma exegesis of these post-Small Vehicle, pre-Mahāyāna schools became more complex, more elaborate, perhaps at the cost of experiential knowledge acquired through meditation. The full-out Mahāyāna schools that followed would build on that.

The 'culture shock' caused by migration of Indian monks to western regions, and ordination of monks born in those western regions called for renovation. E.g. the Pāli anatta, no self, and abhūta, unarisen, did not disappear, but a new vocabulary in 'new' languages arose.
This left room for an additional content to old and accepted words and concepts. One replaced the Pāli abhūta with anútpatti, unborn, uncreated, and the Pāli concept of (an)atta, (not-)self, received an additional noun: dharma. That is, the new schools absolutely accepted the old experiential knowledge that ultimately there is no self, no enduring substance in living beings, but some of them concluded furthermore that there is no substance or '-hood' in things either (e.g. tablehood in tables). Hence the new Sanskritic anutpàttika-dharma, "the (fundamentally) unborn, uncreated phenomena".
And since it takes perseverance to really come to know this experiential knowledge one added the word ksanti: anutpattika-dharma-ksanti, "(having) patient endurance (ksanti) in seeing all phenomena as unborn, uncreated."

(1) Curzon Press 1998
(2) According to B.B.Lal, former head of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Rigveda (or Rgveda) was written down before the "beginning of the second millennium BCE." Others situate this first of four vedas much earlier, and some refuse to "historicise" the text.
(3) Aspects of Buddhist Sanskrit, Sarnath 1993, p 59
(4) S.N. Dutt, Bodhisattvabhumi, Patna 1966, p.175

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