The Impossible

I keep running across writings about things that strike me as impossible or very nearly. They sound well and good upon utterance yet either the minute they are said or the minute they are understood and adopted by someone they negate themselves.

There are a lot of these kinds of contradictions and paradoxes around. A lot more than most of us would like to admit.

Some of these fall under the category of platitude ” n. A trite or banal remark or statement, especially one expressed as if it were original or significant”. A particular category of these can be called  Thought-terminating clichés.

Their purpose is to react to a situation with what seems like an obvious and final truth but they are more like a wall to end discussion.  They are often a way to silence cognitive dissonance. That is where what is going on in our heads is not borne out in reality yet we do not wish to question our own thoughts. By expressing something that on the surface seems definitive and that “feels right” in terms of satisfying any doubt, provided we don’t examine it too closely, we can attach ourselves to this false certainty and carry on.

Here’s a few general examples:

  • Think for yourself.
  • Don’t judge.
  • Nothing can be known.
  • Don’t blindly obey.

In the same kind of vein

  • This sentence is false.
  • I know that I know nothing at all. (Socrates)
  • There is an exception to every rule.
  • Practice moderation in all things. Including moderation
  • If all truths are knowable, then all truths must in fact be known.
  • This page is intentionally left blank

Sometimes these are quite humorous. [They remind me of some of the entries on the website Oddly Specific where things make their own peculiar kind of sense] They can run us around in circles, not unlike a hamster on a wheel as we chase their meanings. But because of the nature of many of the more cliché type as truisms or apparent truisms, mostly the latter, they rarely do get questioned to any degree.

Maybe truthiness is a better word for them. Truthiness means:

“In satire, truthiness is a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” 

Thanks Stephen Colbert!.

They can rather uncomfortable to deal with especially when used as the basis for debate in a non-satirical setting.   There’s a lot of truthiness in the blog world. I came across an article that somewhat relates to that.  The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism outlines some of the current problems in what is becoming a more hybrid world of media information.

Not all information is created equal. Most bloggers don’t sit with the Reuter’s Handbook of Journalism open in their browsers checking every line they write. [Nobody’s paying most of us to do that.]

And increasingly many journalistic sources are turning to bloggers and opinion writers to pass off articles that seem like news.

Many sites have a news format yet the writers have no journalistic credentials nor do they apply principles of journalism to what they write. That makes it kind of hard to sort fact from truthiness.

And sometimes it’s almost impossible.

Some related matters I came across while strolling through Wikipedia:

Self-refuting idea



Liar Paradox

List of Paradoxes

Performative contradiction


Mu (negative)

The Third Step

Wind, flag, mind moves. The same understanding. (source)

Whoever understands the first truth, Should understand the ultimate truth. The last and first, Are they not the same? (source)

Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth? (source)

Paradoxes such as these involve a duality and the answer is the resolution of that duality. It is not mere polemic but seeks to go beyond that. Not in a merging but in synthesis. These examples of koans are only a few of a type that directly address the duality. Note that koans tend to, either directly or implicitly, involve a speaker and a respondent (mondo or Zen dialogue). The resolution comes when both have the same understanding.

And within them are often other dualities to be resolved. When you deconstruct them from this point of view they portray a delightful range of interconnected or even entangled dualities. Reminds me of the DNA helix. The various pairs such as question/answer, teacher/student, koan/commentary, past/present, word/thing (nama/rupa), object/subject, confusion/clarity, here/there, time/timeless, movement/stillness, noise/silence, empty/full or full/empty, first/last, coming/going, relative/ultimate, illusion/truth, meeting/parting, alone/together and many others are all often encompassed into these explosive little epithets.

The resolution of duality through synthesis is a dialectical approach.

Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct.   from Wikipedia

Dialectic analysis most simply stated involves:

Thesis –> Anti-thesis –> Synthesis

This is quite relevant when we are talking about understanding and conveying the Dharma. A well known teacher has stated, rather strongly, the following”

People language is used by the ordinary people who don’t understand Dhamma very well and by those worldly people who are so dense that they are blind to everything but material things. Then, there is the language which is spoken by those who understand reality (Dhamma), especially those who know and understand reality in the ultimate sense. This is another kind of language. Sometimes, when only a few words or even just a few syllables are uttered, the ordinary listener finds Dhamma language paradoxical, completely opposite to the language he speaks. We can call it “Dhamma language.” You always must take care to recognize which language is being spoken.

People who are blind to the true reality (Dhamma) can speak only people language, the conventional language of ordinary people. On the other hand, people who have genuinely realized the ultimate truth (Dhamma) can speak either language. They can handle people language quite well and are also comfortable using Dhamma language, especially when speaking among those who know reality, who have already realized the truth (Dhamma). Amongst those with profound understanding, Dhamma language is used almost exclusively, unfortunately, ordinary people can’t understand a word. Dhamma language is understood only by those who are in the know. What is more, in Dhamma language it isn’t even necessary to make a sound. For example, a finger is pointed or an eyebrow raised and the ultimate meaning of reality is understood. So, please take interest in these two kinds of language–people language and Dhamma language. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu via Danny Fisher

Continuing on this topic from Dharmaweb Two Kinds Of Language: Everyday Language and Dhamma language  the author gives us many examples of this dichotomy. He introduces the topic and then defines quite a number of words. One of the words he describes in this way is Dhamma (Dharma).


The second word to consider is “Dhamma” (Dharma in Sanskrit). At the childish level of everyday language, the word is understood as referring to the actual books that contain the scriptures, the “Dhamma” in the bookcase. Or it may be understood as referring to the spoken word used in expounding the Teaching. This is the meaning of the word “Dhamma” in everyday language., the language of deluded people who has not yet seen the true Dhamma.

In term of Dhamma language, the Dhamma is one and the same as the Enlightened One. “One who see the Dhamma sees the Tathágata. One who sees the Tathágata see the Dhamma.” This is the real Dhamma. In the original Pali language, the word “Dhamma” was used to refer to all of the intricate and involved things that go to make up what we call Nature. Time will not permit us to discuss this point in detail here, so we shall mention just the main points. The word “Dhamma” embraces:

1. Nature itself;

2. The law of Nature;

3. The duty of each human being to act in accordance with the Law of Nature;

4. The benefits to be derived from this acting in accordance with the Law of Nature.

This is the wide range of meaning covered by the word “Dhamma.” It does not refer simply to books, palm-leaf manuscripts, or the voices of preachers. The word “Dhamma,” as used in Dhamma language, refers to non-material things. Dhamma is all embracing; it is profound; it includes all things, some difficult to understand and some not so difficult.

This is paradoxical to most of us-the same situations, sets of teachings etc having the possibility of being understood in multiple ways.  To help clear up this paradox we can return to a Zen perspective on stages of understanding language.  Note the dialectical approach with the resolution being one of synthesis.

    Stage 1: The pre-Enlightenment stage where reason and language must be thoroughly commanded and understood with regard to their intended meanings and referents.

    Stage 2: The Enlightenment stage where reason and language as means have achieved their goal and must be abolished or discarded so that they will not obstruct or dominate one’s experience of Enlightenment.

    Stage 3: The post-Enlightenment stage where one is able to freely use language for various purposes of instruction and verification of certain relevant experiences toward Enlightenment and where such use of language becomes an integral part of the goal achievement.

from On Zen (Ch’an) Language and Zen Paradoxes by Chung-ying Cheng

To add to the above consider what Ted Biringer wrote in the article Beyond the Gateless Barrier of Zen – Koan Introspection – revised

As writing is only discernible to those who have activated their (inherent) ability to read, so koans are only discernible to those that have activated their (inherent) observing cognition (the third of the Four Prajnas*4). In the Mahayana sutras and shastras this cognition is sometimes referred to as, “the eye to read scriptures” or the “Buddha-eye.” Just as writing appears “irrational” to an illiterate (and in fact is irrational to them) so it is with koans to those that have not activated the ability to “read” them. Thus, any appropriation or interpretation of koans by those that have not crossed the initial threshold of awakening (thereby activating their observing-prajna) is bound to miss the mark.

This is perhaps the most clear analogy regarding Dharma language, thought and understanding that I’ve come across.

Using an Example

From the amazing archive of the First Zen Institute which was begun by Sasaki Roshi we can consider texts such as those about the marks of Buddha as koans.  Here he is discussion the Holy Marks of the Buddha.

What are the thirty-two holy marks that appeared on Buddha’s body? If I give you this koan, how do you answer? You must observe every Buddhist term from all angles. You must not just accept the statement that there are holy signs of the Buddha’s physiognomy as physiognomical marks. In the morning the sun appears in the East, and after sundown the moon appears. Day and night come one after the other. The mountains soar high;the ocean is almost endless to the eye. In a week four days are clear and three days rainy. In spring the flowers bloom;in autumn the leaves fall. Farmers plow the ground in the spring and birds sing. These are the holy marks of the Buddha. Of course it was traditional to describe the Buddha’s body as the place to reveal the thirty-two holy signs. But you must penetrate to the inner meanings the Buddha very carefully set in his teachings.

Sasaki Roshi from p.4

From this perspective pretty much all of Buddhist canonical and non-canonical literature such as commentaries can be taken up in this fashion.

Many people would like to toss out most of the Buddhist texts in favor of more experiential practices. In my opinion that is somewhat jumping the gun. If one has not understood fully what they are rejecting then how can it’s value be ascertained? 

Some refer to this as the “baby out with the bathwater” approach. I would choose a slightly different metaphor. Suppose someone gives you a rock. If you don’t have the knowledge to determine it’s value likely it will be left on the road. But if you do have some knowledge of geology and you happen to know what kimberlite is you might want to ask, “Where did this come from? Can we go there? Can we get more?”

Experience alone does not always provide the necessary clues to determine what is worth keeping and what is worth throwing away. And knowledge alone does not provide the same depth that experience coupled with knowledge can give.

A Few Other Considerations

On Wild Fox Zen, Dosho Port recently wrote:

Dogen says, “Taking the backward step of transforming the self is the way to bring ease to the community” (Leighton and Okumura translation).

This comment has a number of angles. One is foreshadow for several stories that Dogen then tells about his encounters with tenzos who took radical responsibility for their service.

While I’m not going to take up the complete content of that, the point that is made regarding foreshadowing is important. In any text, such as Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye) one can take bits and pieces and discover quite a bit. But taken as a whole there is an inner resonance and greater significance to a great deal of it.  A literary technique like foreshadowing is often employed in longer works with larger thematic implications.

This is true of the entire body of Buddhist writing including the various Canons, commentaries, discussions and later works. It is true of koans, mantras, mandalas, rituals, meditation practices and every other artifact, if you will, that has acquired significance to people on the Buddhist path. This is why picking and choosing on a whim can be a fruitless endeavor. The sum is greater than the parts. Always has been, always will be.

Context is always important in trying to resolve difficulties on the path. To fully comprehend something requires more than just focus upon that one thing. There is always something else that accompanies it. Sometimes a lot of something elses.

The True Dharma-Eye is one of examination within context and with regard to connections. There is discrimination there but of a particular type. This has been mentioned in several of the quotes above.

The ordinary way of looking at things sees a thing on it’s surface but does not penetrate too deeply. A few characteristics may be noted, it is judged good/bad/indifferent and one then moves on to look at the next object. The Dharma-Eye encounters something until it is experienced in it’s most deep and broadest, connections intact and not artificially severed by the mind. Judgement is irrelevant since one is experiencing from a standpoint of equanimity.

The duality of subject/object is synthesized into dissolution.


What comes to mind upon thinking about this is the Tibetan style of debate. A debater with a particular point of view must state his opponent’s point of view with complete understanding before continuing on with attempting to demonstrate his own viewpoint.

This dialectical methodology, which results in both participants sharing understanding of a particular point-the synthesis and the point of the exercise-can serve to really enrich practice for anyone.

Moving out of the small imaginary worlds (Umwelt) we live in inside our heads a lot of the time and on to greater understanding takes a great deal of work and willingness. 

Dharma eyes, dharma ears, dharma senses, consciousness and eventually understanding all bring resonance and meaning to life.  We can state one thing, state it’s opposite but from there where do we go?

To reach the dialectical synthesis we must examine duality, not deny it as many wish to do. The complexity of duality is not a simple either/or. There are far too many connections to reduce it to that point. Nor can we say “All is one” with any confidence while we are cognizant of duality. That is simple denial. The situation is much bigger than all of that.

This is apparent in all Buddhist practices if we examine them from such a perspective.

We must be open to taking that third step.

More About Lists and Something About Jayarava’s Comment

The apparent division between oral and literate cultures is an ongoing issue under discussion in academia and increasingly in the public forum. It is relevant to Buddhists because it relates directly to the validity of Buddhist texts which are believed to have been transmitted orally for some time before being written down.

A previous post Lists brought up an interesting comment from Jayarava.

Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures. (I’m citing the discussion of his work by Donald Lopez in Elaborations on Emptiness, p.32f). I haven’t had time to follow this up. It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on. Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.

I’m also still pondering Bhikkhu Anālayo’s recent article about the distinctions in the way memorisation worked in Vedic and Buddhist Milieu, and contemporary research on memory. “The Vicissitudes of Memory and Early Buddhist Oral Transmission”, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2009, vol. 5 pp. 5-19. He also discusses the Buddhist uses of lists.

As to the second part of the comment, when this volume  of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies is available in on-line archives I’ll have a look at this article but for now I haven’t access to it.

But the first part of the comment brought a few thoughts to mind that are tangentially related. I don’t have the book which contains Lopez’s thoughts on the matter, but I am quite familiar with the work of Walter J. Ong. There is no doubt that Ong had a huge influence on communications theory, anthropology, post-modern philosophy and dozens of other disciplines. His thesis supervisor was no less than Marshall McLuhan so one can realize the influences of that luminary on his work as well.  While we might disagree with some of Walter J. Ong’s theoretical standpoints at present, he helped lay the groundwork, with highly original thought and theory, that a lot of current theory rests upon.

So the points to address are:

  1. Walter J. Ong has suggested that the making of lists is a distinctively *literate* activity and that such abstractions are not used in pre/non-literate cultures.
  2. It either means that Indian oral culture was completely unique in the level of it’s sophistication (and abstraction), or they started using writing a lot earlier than they let on.
  3. Certainly there must now be a question mark over whether the texts we have inherited “are the end products of an oral society”.

Ong’s theories and some of the criticisms of those theories directly related to this issue can be outlined (just a quick take-much more in the links at the bottom-particularly Chandler) as:

Technology and Consciousness

One of Walter J. Ong’s primary theses relates to the proposition that technology alters structure and function of consciousness. And that writing has brought about a radical change in consciousness. And therefore radical changes in cultures including values, political structures, self-perception and many other aspects. (see the criticism about Technological Determinism below).

Theorists involved in the comparative analysis of modes of communication frequently assume or refer to a binary divide or dichotomy between different kinds of society or human experience: ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’, ‘simple’ vs. ‘advanced’, ‘pre-logical’ vs. ‘logical’, ‘pre-rational’ vs. ‘rational’, ‘pre-analytic’ vs. ‘analytic’, ‘mythopoeic’ vs. ‘logico-empirical’, ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’, ‘concrete’ vs. ‘scientific’, ‘oral’ vs. ‘visual’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’. Such pairings are often also regarded as virtually interchangeable: so that modernity equals advanced equals civilization equals literacy equals rationality and so on. (Chandler)

Clearly one can deduce the dangers in this kind of thinking. It is a fundamental error to equate these concepts and where one concept such as literacy is in the primary focus to attribute causality to it when no such causality can be demonstrated.

This underlies many of the further criticisms of the theories presented. And is some ways I think it underlies the current “distrust” of what is written in Buddhist texts.

The “Great Divide” between the Literate and Non-literate Cultures

The “Great Divide” criticism has been suggested with regard to Ong’s work. There is no clear division between the time when oral transmission waned and writing ascended. It is not as though an entire culture one day just stopped talking and picked up writing instruments. So certainly the possibility exists that at least some of the Buddhist texts were written down earlier than was presupposed. They might have served as models for later writings. And the way they are written with the Vedic style mnemonic devices intact for the most part is also of some interest. (more on that later)


Ong has emphasized the accuracy of written work especially with regard to it’s replicability. One obvious example that belies this is the copying of medieval manuscripts in Europe. Changes are introduced due to error by the copyist, censorship, local inflections, dialectical adjustments, spelling variations due to change in language use etc. Consider the revisions the Christian Bible has undergone.

With the availability of early manuscripts some of this can be checked by way of comparison. Fortunately it has been the habit of Buddhists to write commentaries rather than to revise original texts on a wholesale basis. This allows, to my way of thinking anyway, a somewhat greater degree of confidence as to their accuracy.

Even when a snapshot of cultural contents are captured by a technological innovation such as writing, it is in the succeeding snapshots, quickly superceded. Culture changes, spoken language changes, conditions change and the repetition of cultural contents will also change even if they are codified. Consider how many “revised editions” there are of books for example. The Oxford English Dictionary is in it’s 2nd edition (20 volumes) but it is updated quarterly.

Technological Determinism and Media Neutrality

Technological determinism focuses on causality – cause and effect relationships – a focus typically associated with ‘scientific’ explanation. Any exploration of communications technology has to recognize the difficulty of isolating ’causes’ and ‘effects’, or even in distinguishing causes from effects. As an explanation of change, technological determinism is ‘monistic’ or mono-causal (rather than ‘multicausal’): it offers a single cause or ‘independent variable’. It represents a simple ‘billiard ball model’ of change (Chandler-Technological Determinism)

Culture is a highly interdependent complex and to apply such simplistic thinking is reductionist in the extreme.

Additionally media is not a one way street. People affect media which further affects people in something of a feedback loop. One also has to consider the fact of vested interests who wish to manipulate, consciously or subconsciously, the media. There are factors of hegemony as well as other cultural factors that feed into the loop. Media of any type is not a neutral element.


Ethnocentrism in a rather general way means to view a situation from one’s own particular view point exclusively and to impose that viewpoint or framework of analysis upon another culture with little or no regard to the relevance of the other culture’s indigenous explanations or theoretical framework.  It is often an institutionalized mindset of dominant cultures and privileged groups. 

Litwin writes:

To be able to visualize sentences and to consider them as referring to a realm of
“truth” or “mind” that is connected to but separate from the physical world meant the genesis of a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. These developments led to especially Western values of privacy, individual freedom, democracy, objective fact, and technological control.

Causality in any of these instances has not been nor can it  be established definitively or even tangentially. And many of these values are not exclusive to Western culture.

On Ong’s most well known book from 1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word:

Ong devotes the first three chapters of seven to “thought and its verbal expression in oral culture” something which he admits is likely to seem “strange and at times bizarre” since we are so immersed in our own literate culture (Bingham)

These kinds of statements used to appear with some regularity in anthropological literature as well, particularly in studies related to culture and personality.  But as biases were increasingly challenged there emerged, and is emerging, a clearer picture.

Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed. Differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated….There is a real danger that seeing non-literates societies as different from ours may be associated with seeing those who live in such societies as inferior to ourselves. The notion of ‘primitive mentality’ is now rejected by most anthropologists, though it survives amongst some conservative theorists. And the alternative danger of romanticizing ‘oral’ societies as more ‘natural’ than those in which we live is no less a problem. (Chandler)

Unfortunately in popular cultural mythology though such challenges to bias are not often considered.

Problems with Developmental Theories

Developmental theories in general carry a lot of baggage. Due to the evolutionary paradigm early stages labeled as simple and later stages labeled as complex or refined come to represent growth. And complexity comes to represent somehow “better” in terms of value judgement. (Just compare this with controversies of primacy in  Buddhism!) And it does not take into account parallel forms of advanced communication.

Developmental theories are often simplistic in nature. That leads to a certain type of reductionism.

Reductionism and Graphocentrism

Walter Ong maintains: “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.” Or, like Jack Goody, one may regard writing to be “a technology of the intellect.”(Burkdall)

Graphocentrism (Chandler) is to place the written utterance in a relative position of higher importance than spoken words. It is often used by intellectual elites to bolster political and social positions. It is also often tied to developmental theories. In the comment Jayarava left regarding listing as a literate activity early Buddhist texts would somewhat belie this. There are so many lists and counted items. Consider Ven. Shrivasti Dhammika’s comments in his post on Oral Transmission:

Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in…Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc.

Anyone with familiarity with the Vedas will realize this.

Writing is but one method of recording data accurately for later retrieval or wider dissemination.  I would like to bring up several parallel or pre-existing cultural developments in data recording that are overlooked by Ong’s theories. It’s a bit of a tangent from the lists issue but it demonstrates that there are other possible methods of accurately transmitting important cultural contents.

Several Examples that Fall Outside Most Communications Theory Paradigms

Ong’s form of literacy focuses on phonetic alphabets. It therefore omits the pictographic for example which is an alternative form of development.

Consider Chinese writing. There are many types of Chinese script including pictographs, ideographs, compound pictographs, compound ideographs, semantic-phonetic compounds, simple and complex numerals. There is some discussion that Chinese writing is wholly ideographic, meaning that written symbols directly related to ideas without speech as an intermediary step but this has been challenged . (One such challenge is in the article Ideographic Myth by Mark Swofford.)

Ong’s thesis on literacy deals with the most widespread writing types which are phonetic type alphabets  (phonemes and morphemes and related syntactic structures-ie verb tenses indicated by suffixes). With the diversity of written types in Chinese language there is no accounting for them in the theory. Does that make Chinese written language a cross between writing and art? Perhaps. I don’t know. The prevalence of the practice of calligraphy and the use of calligraphy within artistic productions among Chinese intellectuals throughout history brings up this question.

An interesting example of non-written data recording and list-making can be found in Kipayu strings used by the people of the Incan culture in Peru. They were used as methods of recording events, transactions and other data.


the quipu (or khipu) is a fascinating communication device used in the pre-Columbian world for everything from accounting and record keeping to, it is believed, recording detailed text… names, words, a full written language not in symbols but in lengths of string and knots tied at points along them. from en Peru

It is something that could be replicated and transmitted to others and those with an understanding of the process could “read” the strings and glean the message contained therein.

The use of pictographs as a recording and memory device is as old as the images in the Lascaux caves or the rock images (petroglyphs) in the Australian desert. (See Petroglyphs link below for more on this type of communication)

Since I mentioned the Australian desert it might be pertinent to bring up the subject of songlines as well.

Songlines, or Yiri in the Walpiri language, are tracks across the landscape created by Mythical Aboriginal ancestors when they rose out of the dark Earth and traveled, creating mountains, valleys, waterholes – all the physical features of the land. from Songlines 

The songlines of the Australian Aboriginal people are in addition to their mythological orientation and clan designators,  a form of data keeping that is passed on through the generations. Each clan is a keeper of the songlines relevant to their area. A songline is like a connection between nodes in a network of the landscape. It lists relevant landscape features for the nomadic traveler. It is like a non-visual form of map in this regard.

Many of the features delineated by the song lines appeared in petroglyphs across the Australian continent.

Examples from contemporary aboriginal art show that many of the symbols are similar to those from the petroglyphs.  The petroglyphs are thought to be associated with journeys taken and function as proto-maps just as the  songlines do. Images from Jinta Desert Art-Iconography 

thndlt  Thunder and Lightningkang Kangaroowthole Waterhole

These are somewhat abstract symbols, which are non-phonetic yet carry a particular meaning in a semiotic manner.  They demonstrate that many cultures without phonetic writing can indeed produce products of the mind that do indicate:

…a new kind of silent thinking—of a private, interior mental dimension. This led, in Ong’s view, to the individualism, abstraction, and intellectual separation from the human lifeworld that are part of what characterizes Western culture. (to reiterate the Litwin quote above)

These characteristics are not limited to Western culture by any means. And all of the examples given demonstrate that to some extent.

Uluru Australia-a meeting point of many of the songlines-(photo 2001)


I would even propose that writing is another form of art rather than a technology, as much as song, decoration and painting, in that it is a recording of a snapshot of particular mental or physical events in time. Technology is a Western paradigm to denote a particular category of creative elements developed in any given culture. There are many other ways to view cultural creations. (There’s a dissertation in that assertion likely so I won’t put it all here.)

So thanks to Jayarava for the comment. I don’t get much chance to deal with this kind of stuff as I didn’t think any of the readers of this blog had interest in what may be a rather esoteric set of subjects. So it’s been kind of fun to dig into this a little and I appreciate that opportunity.

Links on Questions about Buddhist Texts

Modernism and post-modernism– on Ven. Sujato’s blog

Ven. S. Dhammika has numerous posts on the subject of Buddhist and other ancient texts (not all directly related to this discussion but tangentially interesting) as well, such as:

Links on Cultures and Anthropological Topics Mentioned

Petroglyphs – Pictographs – Cave Paintings – Geoglyphs – explanations with good photos

Types of Chinese Characters from Omniglot-writing systems and languages of the world

The Origins of Chinese Script– examines the myths and archeological evidence

Khipu – Pre-Columbian Communication and Unlocking the secrets of the Quipus discusses the archeological interpretation of Pre-Columbian string and knot communication techniques

Songlines across the Wollemi-on discoveries of lithographic images and their tie to songlines in Australia

First Australians-an excellent documentary on the Australian aboriginal history entitled First Australians told from the viewpoint of the First Peoples.

The Songlines-a video clip and discussion page for the Australian Government’s digital learning initiative

Links on Linguistics, Communication Theory and Related Philosophy

Walter J. Ong – a summary of his work from Wikipedia

St. Louis University archive of the work of Walter J. Ong including some of his essays and papers

ORACY ! by Hosein Moeini – gives a brief overview of some of the criticisms of Ong’s theories

Communication Theory/Orality and Literacy-a paper from Wikibooks outlines Ong’s theories, contributions and influences within the scope of Communication Theory

Critical Thinking and Media Shifts: Exploring the Ethical Implications of Technological Change through the Thought of Walter Ong and Other Media Theorists by Rory Litwin (paper presented at MIT6 conference April 24-26, 2009 MIT)

Biases of the Ear and Eye: ‘Great Divide’ Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism-Daniel Chandler outlines numerous criticisms of various theorists including Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Ong and others in a well researched discussion

Technological or Media Determinism by Daniel Chandler

Review of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy:The Technologizing of the Word by Art Bingham

The Persistence of Writing by Thomas Burkdall in EDUCAUSE Review

Gratitude vs Gratification-a little Pali exercise

“Monks, these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.” Dullabha Sutta: Hard to Find

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

I have gratitude.

I have gratification.

The orientations and nuances are subtle yet indicate quite different feelings. Gratitude involves another. Gratification involves the self.

Here is something of an illustration.

  Gratitude Gratification




Synonyms acknowledgment, appreciativeness, grace, gratefulness, honor, indebtedness, obligation, praise, recognition, requital, response, responsiveness, sense of obligation, thankfulness, thanks, thanksgiving   delight, enjoyment, fruition, fulfillment, glee, hit, indulgence, joy, kicks, luxury, pleasure, recompense, regalement, relish, reward, sure shock, thrill
Antonyms ingratitude, thanklessness   disappointment, dissatisfaction, upset
Relationship Other-oriented, reciprocal, active, relational   Self-oriented, non-reciprocal, passive, non-relational


The row labeled Relationship gives some indication of the differences between these two perspectives.

The reason this whole comparison came up was due in part to the recent Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I’m writing this just a few days before Christmas and also to frequently hearing and reading of people expressing gratitude for things such as the sunrise, warm weather, the ocean, frost on the trees, flowers, rainbows and mountains.

I do know that there are many traditions that ascribe, if not consciousness, then at least some type of life force, mana, universal awareness or the like to many of these items but it is only the Buddhist context, and particularly that which is in the Dharma, the teachings, being addressed here.

As well there were some gratitude expressions I noted for certain personal abilities and situations such as going hiking, living in the city, living in the country, the comfort of a bed, sleeping late.   In these latter cases it was not about receiving the opportunity to do these things (gratitude) but simply about the personal enjoyment of them-the satisfaction received from one’s own choices and activities. (gratification)

Then there were a few cases where gratitude was expressed for one’s own pain, suffering and problems. This  kind of negatively focused gratitude seems to be a distortion of self-gratification into a display of masochistic martyrdom. An embracing of the opposite of gratification, being disappointed etc and attempting to elevate it into a noble endeavor. Still a highly self-involved activity and one to which  gratitude may be misapplied. Sometimes it can even make one feel rather heroic to adopt this attitude.

Yes we can be grateful for lessons learned from hardship but to cling continuously to the pain and suffering accompanying that hardship or even glorify it, is to carry on either living in memory rather than the present or in a state of delusion and this is perhaps not a helpful or useful exercise. It is like an exercise in trying to purify the experience of pain and suffering with a gloss of happiness without addressing the pain and suffering, and their causes themselves. It is a type of self-delusion and self-victimization.

One prominent example I came across was that of a cancer survivor, Barbara Ehrenreich who has just written a book called Brightsided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America on the Self-Help and Happiness industries. While undertaking cancer treatment she encountered an attitude that is rather hard to fathom. A reviewer Bart Farkus describes the situation in this way:

It’s hard to say whether it’s sad or merely pathetic that when she expressed a pragmatic attitude — instead of the ultra-positive attitude that’s expected from those battling the dreaded scourge — she was viciously attacked by those who would never even consider a negative thought about their disease. Ehrenreich recounts how many cancer sufferers wax philosophic about how their lives are so much better now that they’ve had life-threatening cancer, and that cancer itself is a “gift.” Ehrenreich ultimately discovered that mere annoyance at her breast cancer was enough for other members of her support groups to castigate her and even attack her for her attitude.

There is a certain disconnect with reality in this kind of approach. Gratitude for the “gift” of suffering is highly misplaced and unrealistic. It is true that being able to more fully appreciate life is a lesson learned from suffering but a “gift” is something one would wish to give to others as well. Is cancer that kind of situation?

The Pali Words  

Not being a Pali scholar by any means, nonetheless I undertook to examine the words gratitude and gratification in Pali anyways.

In English they both come from the same related Latin root words of gratia and  gratus which mean agreeable, favor, thanks, congratulate, gratitude, grace which may account for the frequent overlap in meaning.

In Pali however the gratitude and gratification words are delineated in completely different ways.

Gratitude Words Pali Gratification Words Pali
grateful :(adj.)

kataññū; katavedī; ramanīya; sukhāvaha.

gratification : (nt.) paritosana; pasādana. (f.) ārādhanā; saṃsiddhi.
gratefully : (adv.) kataññutāya. gratify : (v.t.) toseti; rameti; pamodeti; pasādeti. (pp.) tosita; ramita; pamodita; pasādita.
gratefulness : (f.) kataññutā. gratuitous : (adj.) mudhā dinna; nimmūlaka; ahituka.
gratitude : (f.) katavekitā. gratuitously : (adv.) nimmūlena.


Notice that there is almost no overlap between the two categories of Pali words. Most of the gratitude words have a similar root of kata. The gratification words have diverse roots. The only possible overlap may be between the words ramanīya under grateful and ramita under gratify but I don’t know enough about Pali to be able to differentiate them. The rest of the words don’t appear to have any relation between categories.

And the Pali words in each category have different meanings. Here are some of the examples of their meanings and the meanings of related words.



Kataññu (adj.) [cp. Sk. kṛtajña] lit. knowing, i. e. acknowledging what has been done (to one), i. e. grateful often in combn with katavedin grateful and mindful of benefits


Katavedin[kata + vedin, see kataññu] mindful, grateful


Pasādana (nt.) [fr. pa+sad] 1. happy state, reconciliation, purity, granting graces, gratification


Sampasāda [saŋ+pasāda] serenity, pleasure


Sampasādana [saŋ+pasādana] (nt.) tranquillizing  (in the description of the second Jhāna); happiness, joy

Pali Text Society’s Pali to English dictionary

It is quite clear then that in Pali gratitude and gratification are markedly differentiated.

And this is reflected in various ways in the Pali canon. Instances of gratitude are marked with a sense of reciprocity as the opening quotation indicates as well as this one.

  “Monks, I will teach you the level of a person of no integrity and the level of a person of integrity. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said: “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful, doesn’t acknowledge the help given to him. This ingratitude, this lack of acknowledgment is second nature among rude people. It is entirely on the level of a person of no integrity.

“A person of integrity is grateful & acknowledges the help given to him. This gratitude, this acknowledgment is second nature among fine people. It is entirely on the level of a person of integrity.

{II,iv,2} “I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world. But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one’s mother & father.” Kataññu Suttas: Gratitude

Instances of gratification or satisfaction are marked with an exhortation to share one’s wealth and well-being. It becomes a question of integrity and ethics.

“That’s the way it is, great king. That’s the way it is. When a person of no integrity acquires lavish wealth, he doesn’t provide for his own pleasure & satisfaction, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his parents, nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his wife & children; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his slaves, servants, & assistants; nor for the pleasure & satisfaction of his friends. He doesn’t institute for priests & contemplatives offerings of supreme aim, heavenly, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven. When his wealth isn’t properly put to use, kings make off with it, or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. Thus his wealth, not properly put to use, goes to waste and not to any good use. Aputtaka Sutta: Heirless (1)

Or gratification and satisfaction are tied with craving. This is most often the case in the Suttas since the enjoyment of the feeling of gratification/satisfaction is directly tied to craving.

“Now suppose that there was a leper covered with sores & infections, devoured by worms, picking the scabs off the openings of his wounds with his nails, cauterizing his body over a pit of glowing embers. The more he cauterized his body over the pit of glowing embers, the more disgusting, foul-smelling, & putrid the openings of his wounds would become, and yet he would feel a modicum of enjoyment & satisfaction because of the itchiness of his wounds. In the same way, beings not free from passion for sensual pleasures — devoured by sensual craving, burning with sensual fever — indulge in sensual pleasures. The more they indulge in sensual pleasures, the more their sensual craving increases and the more they burn with sensual fever, and yet they feel a modicum of enjoyment & satisfaction dependent on the five strings of sensuality. Magandiya Sutta: To Magandiya

A few further examples of the many:

Adiya Sutta: Benefits to be Obtained (from Wealth)

Khaggavisana Sutta: A Rhinoceros

So in expressing gratitude two questions may be asked. Grateful to whom? And what is to be done by way of reciprocity included in that gratitude?

Language References:

English to Pali dictionary

Pali Text Society’s Pali to English dictionary

Buddhanet’s Pali to English dictionary

Buddhist Door’s Buddhist glossary

A Little Message at Christmas

To everyone who stops by here I wish to thank you for your time, comments, efforts, thoughts and interest in the Dharma.

May you be freed from suffering.

गते गते पारगते पारसंगाते बोधि स्वाह

gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā