On the brahmin who said "huṁ"

The fourth sutta of the Udāna (Ud 1.4) concerns a particular brahmin who the Buddha encountered shortly after his awakening. It is called the Huṁhuṅkasutta. It is included also in the Vinaya, where it is called the Ajapālakathā. In the Vinaya it is part of the ongoing narrative of the first days after awakening, and thus confirms that it is in fact the first encounter the Buddha as Buddha has with another being.

The brahmin is said to utter the syllables, huṁ, huṁ. The commentary interprets this as a sign of his haughtiness and conceit, which has so far as I know been followed by all translators (Brahmali, Anandajoti, Strong, Ireland, Thanissaro, etc.), as well as by me in the past.

What if we were all wrong?

The Chāndogya Upaniṣad

Those who have followed my work on the Buddha’s teachings as a conversation with the people around him would know that I frequently refer to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the oldest, largest, and most important of the Brahmanical Upanishads, and the one with which the Buddha had the closest connection. I believe we have sufficient evidence to conclude that it was in this tradition that the bodhisattva studied before awakening.

But the suttas are aware of four Upanishadic traditions, including a group known as the “Chandoka brahmins”, who studied the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. And while connections with the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and most frequent, the suttas do not lack allusions or connections with the Chāndogya as well.

Each of these is associated with a specific Vedic text, and emphasizes the specialty of that text. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka is part of the Yajur Veda tradition, and emphasizes the action of the ritual and sacrifice. It begins with a lengthy discussion of the mystical significance of the horse sacrifice. It is no coincidence that it is here that we find the emergence of the doctrine of karma.

Just as the purpose of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka is to expand the mystic and contemplative wisdom implicit in the actions of the ritual, the Chāndogya unfolds the meaning of the words of the ritual. It belongs to the liturgical tradition of the Sāma veda, and was studied by those brahmin priests who recited the liturgy.

the mystic syllables (stobha)

The first chapter of the Chāndogya unfolds the significance of the liturgy, especially as contained in the mystic syllable om, called the udgītha, “chanted aloud”. The udgītha begins every ritual.

Now, there are twelve sections in this chapter dealing with the udgītha. The thirteenth and final chapter shifts to a secondary topic, the stobha or tonal interjections. These are uttered during the ritual. They are syllables that by themselves are meaningless, but to which the Chāndogya assigns a contemplative meaning within the liturgy.

Twelve such syllables are assigned specific meanings in Chāndogya Upaniṣad 1.13.

Ayam vāva lokaḥ hāukāraḥ , this earth [is known by] the syllable ‘hāu’; vāyuḥ hāikāraḥ , air by the syllable ‘hāi’; candramā athakāraḥ , the moon by the syllable ‘atha’; ātmā ihakāraḥ , the individual self by the syllable ‘iha’; agniḥ īkāraḥ , fire by the syllable ‘ī’. Āditya, the sun, is represented by the stobha ū ; nihava, the welcoming hymn, by the stobha e ; the Viśvadeva gods by the stobha auhoyi ; Prajāpati by the stobha hiṃ ; prāṇa by the stobha svara ; food by the stobha ; and Virāṭ by the stobha vāk .

Then we have the thirteenth and final stobha of the thirteenth and final section of the chapter (1.13.3). The number thirteen is repeated in the text, and surely has a significance; it is the portion that is left over from the complete cycle of twelve (months, etc.). The final stobha is, according to the Chāndogya, the vedopaniṣad itself, the hidden meaning or connection of the Veda. It contrasts with the twelve stobhas that are defined with a single term.

The thirteenth stobha is said to be anirukta and saṁcara. Anirukta means “undefined”, “inarticulate”, “inexpressible”. It has a practical meaning: unlike the “sung aloud” udgītha, this is barely muttered, hardly audible. But it’s lack of audibility is its “secret meaning”, for it is the inexpressible reality that is the primordial divinity, brahman. This is why it is the final word on the interpretation of the Sāma; just as the ultimate action is stillness, the ultimate expression is the realization that reality cannot be expressed. The interpretation of the liturgy moves inevitably to the silence beyond liturgy.

And that movement is reflected in the unusual choice saṁcara here. Native commentators say this can mean that the meaning of the word is variable, that any meditation can interpret it as they please; or that it is the immanence of divinity moving within all things.

That thirteenth mystic syllable, undefined and ever-shifting, is huṁ.

Our unnamed brahmin is not some random caricature of an arrogant priest. He is a devotee of the Sāman Veda, one of the Chandoka brahmins, one who understands that the ultimate truth of divinity is only expressed through the inexpressible.

phonetics

The syllable huṁ is not meaningful, but nor is it arbitrary. The Sanskrit cardinal vowels have a sequence: a, i, u, where the a is produced with the mouth fully open, and u with the mouth nearly closed.

Thus the choice of u here reflects the place of the syllable as the last of the stobhas, the most closed-off and phonetically indistinct sound sound just before silence itself.

the longevity of huṁ

While not rivaling the ubiquity of the opening syllable om, huṁ nonetheless went on to have a distinguished career in later Hindu texts, where we find the phrase huṁkāra (“maker of huṁ”) many times. We even find the reduplicated form huṁhuṁ as in our Sutta, for example in the later literary work Bṛhatkathāślokasaṁgraha 21.146.

It was featured in Shaivite tantra, and there is even an entire tantra devoted to it, the Hūṅkāra Tantra. From there it was adopted by the Tibetans in such texts as the Ḍākārṇava Tantra, where it is said to be recited at the end, reflecting its phonetic quality exactly as in the Upaniṣad.

It remains no less popular today, so much so that most of those those reading this will probably have recited it at some point. It retains its place as the final syllable in the most famous mantra of all: om mani padme hum.

Thus the very same syllable that the Buddha used as an example of the mysticism that we should not follow is used as a mystic syllable by Buddhists, 2,500 years later.

the rest of the sutta

The sutta itself is brief. The brahmin does not display any signs of arrogance. Rather, he approaches the Budddha when he has arisen from meditation, and politely asks him what makes a true brahmin, which the Buddha answers with a single verse.

As usual, most of the text, both prose and verse, is part of the shared vocabulary of the suttas and is not distinctive of this sutta.

There are, however, two unusual phrases, both of which are shared with the Chāndogya.

  • Nikkasāvo “free of stains” occurs elsewhere in only one verse in the negative; the same verse is found at both Dhp 9 and Thag 17.1. Kāsāva means “stain, dye” and is usually used in a literal sense, rather than as a metaphor for defilements as here. It appears in the same sense at occurs in the same sense at Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.26.2, mṛditakaṣāyāya, which is, I believe the only occurrence in this sense in early Sanskrit.
  • Brahmavāda “divine doctrine” occurs nowhere else in Pali. In Brahmanical texts it has the sense of “orthodox Vedic doctrine” (Atharva Veda 11.3.26a, 15.1.8a; Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 14.7.3.1; Chāndogya Upaniṣad 2.24.1), comparable to the sense of Theravāda (“doctrine of the elders”). Here the Buddha, as so often, adapts the meaning to his own ends.

Thus we have three distinctive terms, all of which are found in the Chāndogya, reinforcing the connection between the Sutta and the Upaniṣad.

Brahmavāda is, I think, particularly important. The fourth line of the verse is:

Dhammena so brahmavādaṁ vadeyya
they may legitimately proclaim the divine doctrine

This speaks to the overall theme of the text as a response to the liturgical tradition. One does not become a speaker of “divine doctrine” by merely reciting the words meaninglessly (which is what the Chāndogya Upaniṣad itself critiques), nor by assigning correct meanings to the words (as the Chāndogya teaches for the most part), nor even by uttering the unutterable through the syllable huṁ (which is the esoteric final meaning of the Chāndogya).

A true brahmin is nihuṁhuṅko, “no reciter of the mystic syllable huṁ”, but rather, one who has mastered the Buddhist path, realizing the “veda” as taught by the Buddha.

the fifth line

The connection between this sutta and “pride” is only suggested in the last line of the verse. But a closer inspection shows that this is not as clear as one might hope.

Following the mention of the “divine doctrine” the verse has a fifth line. This is highly unusual, so unusual that it is in fact the only five-line verse in the Udāna. The line itself is found in the earlier Aṭṭhavagga (Snp 4.3:4.4).

Here the fifth dangling line follows a line that is already grammatically complete; in the fourth line, the demonstrative so answers the relative yo in the opening line. Perhaps the fifth line was added to downplay the importance of the term brahmavāda.

But it is in this fifth line that we find the word ussada, literally “swelling”, “prominence”. This word is usually interpreted as meaning “proud, vain”; compare the English word “proud” in the sense of “raised above a surrounding area”.

But this sense of ussada is poorly established. It is a poetic term. Sometimes, especially in the Atthakavagga, the context suggests a a close connection with “pride” (Snp 4.10:8.4, Snp4.14:6.4). But this connection is less obvious elsewhere (Snp 3.6:14.4, Iti 97:8.4, Ud 1.4:2.1 = Kd 1:2.3.6). Its absence is a sign of a true brahmin (MN 98:11.19, Dhp 400:2, Snp 3.9:36.1).

It is glossed in our oldest Sutta commentary, the late canonical text the Niddesa. This does not link it with pride especially, rather explaining it as sevenfold: greed, hate, delusion, conceit, views, corruptions, and deeds (Mnd 10:105.4). Ven Bodhi, in his most recent translations, renders it literally as “swelling”.

Thus the fifth line is of dubious authenticity of itself, and the word in it that is taken as “pride” does not unambiguously connote that sense.

the narrative flow

Finally let us briefly consider the narrative or structural context. This sutta appears at one of the crucial junctures of the Buddha’s story, literally the first words he spoke to another being after awakening. We do not hear what happened to the brahmin.

If we compare similar critical moments, a pattern appears. When studying under his former teachers, he practiced under the very best of the contemporary masters of the Upanishadic meditation. This is what gives his critique of their teaching force; there is no power in rejecting a petty doctrine. In the Digha Nikaya, after the first two suttas, each mighty in their own way, the Buddha encounters a brahmin teacher and converts him: Pokkharasadi. he was one of the most respected and influential teachers at the time, and the implications of this reverberate through the Digha Nikaya. In the end of the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha teaches sixteen brahmin meditators, all students of a renowned meditation master.

Thus at prominent positions, the redactors wanted to include powerful moments where the Buddha responded to the very best of the pre-existing religious traditions. Criticizing an individual proud brahmin is no great feat, as it is something that he would have been criticized for in his own tradition anyway.

Here, in this special moment, the Buddha encountered a supreme mystic, a devotee of the silence that follows the end of all words, one whose life was devoted to the true meaning, not the surface significance, of being a brahmin.

Thus recognizing the historical context lets us elevate the sense of the sutta as a whole, raising its importance beyond a random encounter, and making a statement whose spiritual relevance is just as potent today.

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I’m surprised you jumped this in your talk. The details at the end of the section would have been too much, but this opening sentence seems to me to be the linchpin of your whole argument?

Thank you for a great talk. Venerable Nirodha was enjoying it particularly.

:pray:

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Thanks for this analysis, Bhante!

Wow, this is an impressive list of names! To those we can still add the German Karl Seidenstücker—but interestingly, Fritz Schäfer got it better!

He has ein Mantras murmelnder Brahmane, “a brahmin murmuring mantras”. :+1:

Probably in this case, his policy to ignore the commentary saved him a wrong track.


Added:
The team Maitrimurty/Trätow who translated the first 10 khandhakas of the vinaya into German have obviously been unsure what to make out of this. They make him a grumpy brahmin, with “grumpy” (“mürrisch”) in brackets.

I actually like Schäfer’s “murmur”. Perhaps murmuring comes closer to what happened than reciting, which has a bit the connotation of “repeating aloud”.

Further edit:
I still found Fritz Schäfer’s translation online.

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Maybe I should have included it, but anyway it seems you found your way!

(For those not there, I gave a talk last night on this topic, which mostly covers the same ground but with more jokes, so check out https://lokanta.live/, it will be added there soon.)

Oh wow, that’s great.

Indeed, yes, I’ll change it from “recite” .

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Fascinating…I always thought it was Brahma Sahampati!

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Is Huṁ related to or associated with the sound/mantra Om?

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Thanks, Bhante, I will have to make some changes in light of your findings. This does indeed make the whole encounter much more meaningful. Thanks for the research!

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That was later.

That’s discussed a little in the essay, but yes, om is the beginning and hum the end. That whole chapter of the Chandogya discusses om.

Awesome, I’m just so lucky I get to have the time to pursue these questions.

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I do not see this message in Ud1.4. At best it expresses: Real holiness, being a real holy person,is by the Buddha always described in terms of behaviour: having really abandoned all evil, doing only good, having a purified mind. And this cannot be realised by mere rituals, rules, and one is not holy by birth, caste, or reciting mantra’s, offering animals, wearing certain cloths, being a Buddhist, being a monk, being born in a certain family, being famous, being experts in scriptures, being an expert in Veda’s, being an expert in rituals, expert in vinya, sutta’s etc. I like that very much.

The Buddha does not say here that using mantra’s is wrong. At least i do not see this. It surely does not say the Tibetan Buddhist do something wrong, or are practicing some mysticism.

The Tibetans use these mantra’s as practice of purification and also protection (addes later, green) But then we must also realise that these recitations often are part of an extensive practise of: taking refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, expressing devotion towards the three Jewels, offerings to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, asking protecting, confessing misdeeds, visualisation of the Buddha, teachers. Contemplating emptiness and more.

I think it not very mystical that mantra recitation can have great effect on body and mind.
Because sound has a great effect on body and mind. There is a very close relation between sounds and emotions, emotions and sounds. And also between sound and becoming grounded or rather aroused etc etc. Certain sounds of a drum can really also give rise to feelings of strenght, power, manly energy.
Sounds can calm body and mind or can arouse it. Sound is not just sound, it represents a frequency and energy, and has a deep effect on body and mind. In a non-conceptual way. This is not mystical.

Varjayana is from a very deep level of understanding of reality. Non-conceptual. And that is for many mystical but not for them. For yogi’s this level of energy, of chakra’s, of nadi’s, frequencies, is not mystical at all but just as real as we experience via tactile sensations a coarse body.

Unconsciously all buddhist practice vajrayana. because by practicing Dhamma we all give rise to changes in the subtle body. Vajrayana makes use of this in a very direct manner. Which has also risks.

Really interesting. i feel. It is so unfortunate that this tantric knowledge would disappear. We are left with a quit coarse understanding of body and mind. Unfortunate.

Anyway, I do not see any support for the idea that Ud1.4 says we cannot make use of mantra’s or that Tibetan Buddhist do something wrong.

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Om Mani Padme Hum refers to the Divinity of the Jewel of the Lotus of Enlightenment, in Mahayana Buddhism, available to Buddhists in all forms of Buddhism, in a sense referring to the Teaching of The Lotus Sutra by which Buddha Teaches the only Way to Enlightenment is through the Teaching of The Lotus Sutra, and that that’s how He was Enlightened as Bodhisattva Never Disparaging many eons ago, long before His Awakening to the Law as Shakyamuni. Supreme Perfect Enlightenment comes from The Lotus Sutra, while in Theravada Teachings, Buddha Taught the Awakening for Arhatship. So there is room for every true Teaching. And even the Vedas are not invalid. If properly Taught, they can also lead one to liberation from the material clutches of the world of birth and death. Remember, that’s what we are seeking after here.

All glories to Shakyamuni Buddha!

:grin:

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What a beautiful interpretation, good work on your research :pray:

As a person born in Hindu tradition, I used to chant “huṁ” both meaninglessly and meaningfully, this interpretation invites people to practice Buddha’s path to realise the true teachings of “veda”(ehipassiko). After I read the previous interpretations, I can acknowledge that previous interpretations were not the nature of inviting to practice the Buddha’s path.

Thank you again for your research Bhante!

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I didn’t realize it was still a living process! Could you share with us the context? Is this a common mantra? When is it usually recited?

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Sadhu!

First of all Bhante, amazing work and an inspirational essay. There’s so many things I can raise and think to ascertain the meaning. Usually, suttas are very straightforward, without riddles and games, but this one (probably due to the Vedic connection) is kind of like an open riddle.

I would like to think out loud to hear your @sujato and @Brahmali’s opinions if I may!

We’re told to be nihuṁhuṅko, not huṁhuṁing, which I think might mean multiple things, perhaps at once.

  1. Murmuring in conceit.
  2. Muttering mantras in general.
  3. Accepting the huṁ doctrine.

I think there’s a bit of a double-entendre here with both the huṁ being a mystic syllable, but also the sign of conceit. What is the conceit here?

This is the conceit, claiming that the ultimate dhamma can’t be explained. Buddha instead takes a more Wittgenstein approach, expressing the expressible and being silent on the inexpressible. There’s a few suttas about specifically linguistic issues, Snp5.7 comes to my mind:

“One who has come to an end cannot be defined,”
replied the Buddha.
“They have nothing
by which others might describe them.
When all things have been eradicated,
eradicated, too, are all ways of speech.” SNP5.7

So, sabbe saṅkhārā can be defined, explained and exhausted, rather than being mystical things that are beyond comprehension or language. Only in their absence is silence, exhaustion of linguistic efforts.

Which is why I would urge you to reconsider this perspective:

Immediately the weirdness of the fifth line made me think about what you said about huṁ being the 13th and silent syllable.

Thus perhaps we can see the fifth line here is like the 4+1 of 12+1 of an Udāna?

Especially the use of a poetic and ambiguous term like ussada, literally “swelling” (which is what the fifth line does, that is, swells outwards the fourth line and completeness of the poem).

These are all tied up with yatatto, self-restraint, which is ironically, what the poem doesn’t do. It goes above and beyond. But bāhitapāpadhammo gives us another clue in the very opening. A brahmin who has removed bad dhamma, not just bad character or traits, but perhaps also wrong doctrines.

All these brahmanical references are coming to a complete circle with Vedantagū, Mastery over Vedas, vūsitabrahmacariyo, Completing the Brahmanical journey (rather than the abstract divine journey, but specifically the historical contextual Vedic and Brahmanic attitudes).

So, it’s not about a holy person in abstract, who has completed the holy life, mastered the words of elders; but it’s an open critique of Vedas and Brahmanical doctrines.

But it’s not a complete discarding, but rather, appropriating the language and using the good ideas and making something else out of it.

Finally, the brahmin remaining silent on the answer (and us not even being told this fact) is very appropirate. He doesn’t huṁ anymore, there’s only silence.

To recap, I think:

  1. Nihuṁhuṅko deserves a special attention beyond just a declaration against mantras, but specifically the paradoxical doctrine of huṁ. These are the very first words Buddha speaks, and it’s very poignantly about what is worth speaking about and what is to be silent about.
  2. There’s a good chance 5th line is an authentic part of the text, as it makes contextual sense. It demonstrates the swelling of Vedic liturgy par excellence.
  3. I get a very Wittgenstein feeling from the sutta overall. Borrowing from Tractatus, it’s like 1st and 7th propostions: “The world is everything that is the case. / Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
  4. Overall, with certain poetic tricks and unusual metaphors, it’s Buddha showing his mastery over Vedic doctrine and linguistic means; and for a complete Brahmanical journey, we must abandon impurities of the previous teachings. In one sutta, it’s both a credential of some sort, a critique and a resolution.

Very interesting and deeply rich with history and ideas this sutta is, Bhante. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. :slight_smile:

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That’s an interesting take, and well argued. I had considered the “extra-ness” of the fifth line, although ultimately I felt that it’s simply not really the style of how the Suttas do things. But if one were to restore it, your argument would be how to do it.

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I know, but it was just too good of a coincidence not to consider!

This is the peek of my posting here, henceforth I should be silent. :melting_face:

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I’ve been going through Dhammapada parallels and found this line in Tibetan Udānavarga:

https://suttacentral.net/uv-kg33/en/rockhill?lang=en&reference=none&highlight=false

A man is not a Śramana on account of his shaven head, a man is not a Brāhmana because he says “Om!” He who knows what is virtue, and who is pure, he is a Brāhmana.

A man is not a Śramana on account of his shaven head; a man is not a Brāhmana because he says “Om!” He who casts away all sins both great and small, he, because he has cast away sins, is a Śramana, a Brāhmana.

Just if Ven. @sujato needed even more proofs to support this translation. :slight_smile:

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Thanks, but it seems to be a mistranslation (in English or perhaps the original Tibetan).

We have the Sanskrit for this, and it says:

na muṇḍitena śramaṇo na bhoḥkāreṇa brāhmaṇaḥ

Where the uttereance is not “om” or “hum” but bho, i.e. a term of address used by brahmins. The Pali expression is bhovādi, found at MN 98:11.3, Dhp 396:3, etc.

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