Thanks for the context!
Arbel wants to revise the meaning of this central doctrinal term against the traditional commentators, the linguistic specialists who compiled the dictionaries, and those who have worked for decades of their lives to understand and translate this material. Now, maybe this will happen! Experts get things wrong! But we need strong and direct supporting evidence, and such is lacking.
It’s not wrong; it’s also not unknown to all the scholars who preceded her. This is really entry-level scholarship. Compare Gabriel’s post:
He gives historical context, good reason to be sceptical of the Dictionary entries, and an actual historically relevant example. I’m not saying you’ll get better scholarship here than in peer-reviewed Phd-level work, but I’m not saying you’ll not get better scholarship here!
Note that in the cited passage, the sense of “separation” is still strong. The point is that once honey from different origins has been mixed, it can’t be separated out again. I’d say this is a signpost on the way towards the meaning of “discriminative intelligence”, but not there yet.
There’s a reason this sense is missing or secondary in Pali dictionaries: the texts don’t support it.
This is not exactly untrue, but it’s misleading. The meaning of words is generally not derived from “clear definitions”, but from usage and context. Indeed, contextual meanings are superior to formal definitions, which can only ever act as a shorthand.
It’s a rhetorical strategy, destabilizing traditional interpretations by asking for unreasonable standards of evidence; the work of Gregory Schopen is full of this kind of thing. Best ignore it.
There are plenty of cases showing that viveka means “seclusion”:
- SN 5.1: yena andhavanaṁ tenupasaṅkami vivekatthinī
(the nun) went to the Dark Forest seeking seclusion.
- In the Vinaya, a monastic who lives in too-close company with others is urged to be “secluded”. (Bhikkhuni pacittiya 36)
- Snp 4.7: A mendicant is urged to “train in seclusion” (Vivekaññeva sikkhetha), alone.
- In the “Viveka Sutta” (SN 9.1) a mendicant stuck on thoughts of the household life is urged to desire seclusion, having entered the forest.
This is the reason why everyone says viveka means seclusion: because there is abundant textual support for it. Of course words have different meanings in different contexts, but if a researcher wants to establish this different meaning, they need to do the work. Arble attempts to do so in the following passage.
The passage cited is from one of a stock series of suttas, talking about how a meditator who practices a long time “flows” to Nibbana like the Ganges flows to the sea.
The text cited is by Anuruddha at SN 52.8, and is virtually identical to the discourse spoken by the Buddha at SN 45.160. The difference, which is a critical to the argument at hand, is that SN 45.160 speaks of the eightfold path, whereas SN 52.8 speaks of satipatthana. This shows that this passage has no special relevance to satipatthana at all, it is merely that it is one of Anuruddha’s favorite topics, so he brings it in here.
SN 45.160 ends with a description of how the mendicant practices the eightfold path:
a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go.
(For the commentarial explanation of this passage, see Ven Bodhi’s note 7 to the Maggasamyutta, Connected Discourses.)
Here SN 45.160 introduces a set of four terms: seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and letting go. The first three are said to be “relied on”, and hence must be supporting factors of the path.
Sticking with seclusion, this refers to seclusion with the body, both as physical aloneness and as being separated from bad deeds, and mental seclusion from hindrances, aka jhana. These things support the practice, leading to the ultimate seclusion of Nibbana.
Arbel makes a couple of interpretative errors.
- The formula is applied to all aspects of the path, and has no special relationship with satipatthana.
- The formula does not say that “by seeing clearly” the practitioner develops viveka.
On the contrary, SN 45.160 shows that the causal arrow points the other way around: one develops (the path, including satipatthana) relying on seclusion. Of course causality is always both-ways, but the point is, the argument doesn’t prove what she wants it to prove.
Arble has painted a misleading picture by leaving out crucial elements and quoting out of context. Viveka is a central doctrinal term. If your argument to re-evaluate the entire doctrinal significance is based on a dubious reading of a slight variation of a stock passage in a marginal sutta by a disciple, then you have a weak argument.
Do we? The jhanas haven’t even been mentioned.
Terms like “one-pointed” and “concentration” do not adequately express the relevant ideas in the Pali, and here Arble seems to be merely repeating the stock ideas of the 20th century Vipassanavada. But the Vipassanavada is not supported at all in the suttas, and that jhana is developed by the 4 satipatthanas is exactly what we would expect.
The satipatthanas, as the seventh factor of the eightfold path, lead to the 8th factor jhana, exactly as it is stated in the very first sutta of the Maggasamyutta: “Right mindfulness gives rise to right immersion”.
Again, as MN 44 says, satipatthana is the samādhinimitta (cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā), i.e. the basis and foundation for samādhi.
Even leaving all that aside, on what basis can anyone claim that satipatthana is not “some practice of one-pointed concentration”? After all, the primary practice of satipatthana is mindfulness of breathing, which is exactly the kind of “one-pointed” practice that such critics are thinking of.
So in conclusion, the text Arble is citing doesn’t say what she says it does, and even if it did, it would be merely repeating the mainstream position of the suttas.
Right. It seems her argument is that jhana means to “discriminate” the senses, rather than “be secluded from them” in absorption. The problem is, there is no grammatical way this could work.
To explain a little further, the opening phrase of the jhana formula is this:
quite secluded from the senses
vivicca is a verb form of viveka in the absolutive sense, denoting a completed past action: “having become secluded”.
eva is a common particle, denoting either simple emphasis or exclusivity.
kāma has a variety of meanings, but here it is an ablative plural, meaning “from the senses”. Technically one might construe it as an instrumental, “through the senses”, but this wouldn’t make much sense. The obvious meaning is that in deep meditation one withdraws from the five external senses. It could also be extended to mean seclusion from sensual desire, however, this is unlikely, as sensual desire is always expressed in the singular; in any case, this is covered by the next phrase, “secluded from unskillful qualities”.
Let us assume Arble’s argument is correct. In that case, viveka here would play the same role as terms such as vicaya or vīmaṁsā elsewhere. These clearly mean to “discriminate” or “analyze”. In such cases, where the verb acts on the noun, the accusative is used, not the ablative. Here is an example from MN 118:
taṁ dhammaṁ paññāya pavicinati pavicayati parivīmaṁsaṁ āpajjati
they investigate, explore, and inquire into that principle with wisdom
The argument is not just unsupported by the text; it’s grammatically impossible.
But they’re not. See my A Swift Pair of Messengers for a refutation of the idea that people were getting enlightened without jhanas. In short, the basic problem is that people rely on narrative portions, and draw unwarranted inferences from them, when it is clear that they are quite unreliable and inconsistent between versions. The doctrinal passages, where the Buddha explicitly defines the path, always include jhana as a central factor required for seeing the four noble truths.