Showing posts with label Biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Biography. Show all posts

28 September 2018

Edward Conze: A Study in Contradiction

I wrote this introduction to Edward Conze for my book on the Heart Sutra

No introduction to the Prajñāpāramitā would be complete without some reference to the eccentric German scholar, Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979), aka Dr Edward Conze. I think this is particularly important because his reputation is rather inflated. There is no doubt that he was a gifted linguist and a pioneer of studying the Prajñāpāramitā texts, but he was also a snob, a racist, and a misogynist. People who are in no position to judge still rave about what a great scholar he was, but much of his scholarship is tainted by poor attention to detail and infected his peculiar personal religion. Since I am in the business of revising the history of the Heart Sutra, I may as well put Dr Conze into some perspective as well.

The key historical source for Conze’s life is his own Memoires of a Modern Gnostic (1979 I & II), written at the behest of Jan Willem de Jong (see Wiles 2018). The Memoires were published in two parts, the first being more biographic, the second his impressions of politics, people, and places. Conze wrote a third part, in which he gave frank opinions of certain people and included comments from parts I and II considered libellous by his lawyer. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, as far as I can tell Muriel Conze destroyed part III and no copies remain. Which is probably just as well judging by parts I and II. Some years ago I asked Sangharakshita about the rumour that he had a copy and he definitely does not.

Jan Nattier (2003) noted several principles for extracting historical information from normative texts such as Buddhist sutras, one of which was the principle of embarrassment. This states that if something is included in a text which reflects poorly on the author, then it is likely to be true, for few authors set out to darken their own reputations. A great deal of what Conze says of himself reflects poorly on him and social changes in the last 10-15 years have not improved the outlook. Indeed some admissions approved by his lawyer in 1979, would very likely see him arrested in 2018.

Conze is a difficult figure to pin down. His own mother apparently said of him, “He himself is nothing at all, just a bundle of contradictions” (Conze 1979: I 29), though elsewhere it is apparent that their relationship was difficult. Reading the Memoires we meet a man who has many of the prejudices we might expect of someone with his privileged background, but who is nevertheless an avowed Communist and denounces his own class. He hates warmongering but is constantly engaged in personal conflicts, and harbours animosities based on perceived weaknesses and faults in others. He declares his own genius, but is, for all that, a rather sloppy editor and translator (something he admits); he is an industrious worker, but a rather lazy intellectual. He can say things like “Ever since the radio was introduced in the early twenties, I have hated it with all my heart and all my soul” (I 103), then a few pages later casually mention something of importance that he heard on the radio (I 113).

Conze was an intellectual who rejected science as a “bag of tricks” and instead embraced the anti-intellectual pursuits of astrology and mysticism. His “life-long acceptance of magic... has not been so much due to theoretical considerations as to the early acquired intuitive certainty that beyond, or behind, the veil of the deceptive sensory appearances, there lies a reality of magical, or occult, forces” (I 32).  This classic matter-spirit dualism, to go with his elitist, social dualism, is key to understanding his exegesis of the Heart Sutra. Even though he appears to adopt a language of non-dualism: his realm of non-dualism lies beyond this one. His is very much a dualistic non-dualism, with a Platonic/Romantic distrust of his senses.

Above all, in writing this, I want to correct the bias with which Conze is presented to the public. The picture of the mega-star scholar toiling selflessly to bring the Dharma to the people is contradicted by his own account of himself. For one thing, he made it clear that he despised the common people. “Speaking of ‘hoi polloi’, it has always been a cornerstone of my beliefs that there are two qualitatively distinct kinds of people... ‘the Noble ones’ and ‘the foolish common people’... the elite and the canaille” (I 52). The word canaille literally means “a pack of dogs”. Of course, this kind of bigotry, along with overt racism, was instilled into people of his social background from an early age and it would have been remarkable if he had risen above it; though this does not excuse it or make it any more palatable.

At times Conze seems to have something of a Messiah complex. For example, when he says, “From early times onwards it has been my conviction that I have come from a higher realm... and that I was sent to the Western barbarians so as to soften their hearts by teaching them the Holy Prajñāpāramitā" (I 55). And yet he had no tolerance at all for people he considered his social inferiors, let alone for "barbarians". A messiah who hated the people he had been sent to save.

Early Life

Adelle Köttgen & Ernst Conze
Date unknown. Family photo from Ebay

Edward Conze was, as he admits, a man of his class and age (1979 I iv). In other words, he was an early 20th Century, German bourgeoisie. The Conze family owned textile manufacturing plants in the small, but wealthy town of Langenberg, in Northern Germany near the Ruhr Valley (2016: xvii).  His mother's family,  the  Köttgen's were also "textile barons" (Heine 2016: xvii). Conze describes the 1903 marriage of his parents, Dr Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962) as, "a marriage between two factories" (I 1). 

Ernst Conze studied law at Bonn University (gaining a doctorate) then joined the Auswärtigen Amt (Foreign Office), where he served in Berlin and Antwerp, before being posted to Britain as a Vice Consul. Eberhart was born in London, in 1904. However, the family soon returned to Langenberg where Ernst became a magistrate in Wipperfürth and Cologne. He became District Court Director in Düsseldorf, and from 1924 to 1934, he held the office of President of the Reich Disciplinary Chamber (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 262). Adele was a painter of some talent, even exhibiting her work in 1930 (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 875). In old age, Adele converted to Catholicism and moved to a monastery near Heidelberg.  

Eberhart's paternal grandfather, Gottfried Conze, was deeply involved in the monarchist politics of the German Empire under Wilhelm II and in "the Protestant Church" (Lutheran?). One of his great-grandfathers, Gustav Köttgen, was part of the nascent Communist movement in the mid-1800s. Frederick Engels came from the same region and a similar background and Conze claimed some familial relation to him (though it is not clear how they were related).

His parent’s marriage was unhappy and he did not have a good relationship with his mother (I 4). He notes that she had great potential but was forced into the life of a small-town hausfrau with no prospect of escape. She was bored and bitter and since young Eberhart leaned towards his father, she included him in the enmity she felt for Ernst Conze. His younger brother, Wolf (b. 1906), however, was the object of her affections. This seems to have affected Conze's relations with women generally. Accused of grooming a young woman in one of his classes he complains that it is ridiculous because she is blond and he does not even like blonds but prefers women who look like his mother.

Despite the nationality of his parents, being born in London entitled Conze to British Citizenship. Both his parents were Anglophiles as well as Anglophones. When he visited England in 1924 he renewed his citizenship and thus, when he fell afoul of the Nazis, he was able to escape to Britain.

Conze's attitude toward the National Socialist Workers Party or "the Nazis" is instructive. Fundamentally, Conze resented authority, but more so when he perceived power to be wielded by people he considered socially or intellectually inferior to himself.  He described Hitler as someone literally possessed by demonic forces but he also says that Hitler "illustrates the danger of allowing the lower middle classes to exercise power" (I 9). Hitler was not one of the social elite and thus lacked the upbringing and education to fit him for leadership (I 11). Indeed, it is likely that the mocking epithet "Nazi" reflects the same social prejudice, since it was a German shortening of Ignatius. The German bourgeoisie of that time would often tell jokes in which the butt was a Bavarian peasant named Nazi (Forsyth 112-3). 

Conze claims to have hated the Nazis, though he shared some of their views on race and democracy. He was deeply prejudiced against Africans and people of Africa heritage; e.g., “In due course [Notting Hill Gate] was finished off by the blacks, who slowly moved down from Paddington Station” (I 64). He writes about being "driven out of Notting Hill by the blacks” (I 102), but also notes, “My further comments on the negrification [sic] of Notting Hill Gate manifestly contravene the Race Relations Act of June 1977. They are therefore removed to Part III” (I 65). Dr Conze's bowdlerised remarks passed in 1979 but would be considered hate speech now. Even when he writes positively of Jewish people, he cannot help but use racial labels in essentialist ways. That someone is "a Jew" or "Jewess", for example, is always made clear, whereas he does not insist on referring to, say, Tucci, as "Italian" or de Jong as "Dutch". It is a curious fact that the mainstream were at the time, and are now, all too willing to overlook Conze’s overt racism. 

Conze recounts that his first contact with Buddhism was aged thirteen when he read an account of Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn (I 6). His interest in Buddhism continued through his university days. Shortly after gaining his PhD, he was introduced to Theosophy and astrology by Prof. Verweyen (I 9). Later on, he says that “the Conze family had always harboured a number of Theosophists though they were usually of the Rudolf Steiner persuasion.” (I 31) As a child, an aunt gave him a copy of Annie Besant’s translation and explanation of the Bhagavadgītā: “I was terribly excited by it” (I 31). In 1939 he also became a convert to astrology. He writes:
“Astrology has set me inwardly free from the claims a technological society can make on my allegiance. It has convinced me that Science, its basic, ingredient, has little cognitive value, but is rather a bag of tricks invented by God-defying people to make life increasingly unbearable on Earth and finally to destroy it” (I 32).
We should keep in mind that Conze was 10 when World War I broke out and 14 when it ended, through his teens and early 20s he must have been acutely aware of the impact of the war and the crushing burden of reparations. He lived through, though does not mention, Germany's brief period of hyperinflation. Combined with his background and what we know about his parents, we can imagine why Eberhart saw the world in apocalyptic terms. Another sign of the contradictions at work in Conze is that just four pages later in his Memoires he writes that:
“In the [1935 book] ‘Scientific Method of Thinking’ I spelled this out for practical Englishmen by saying that mankind was doomed unless [it] could apply to the ordering of Society the same kind of Scientific Methods which had led to all these discoveries in the Natural Sciences and that dialectical materialism provided that method” (I 36).
The idea that dialectical materialism might be in any way related to the scientific method demonstrates that, like many anti-intellectuals, Conze is almost entirely innocent of any knowledge of the subject that he hated. In any case, astrology and Theosophy were to influence his views far more than science throughout his life and were only reinforced by his contact with the well-known Japanese Theosophist, D. T. Suzuki.

As a young man, Conze had an intellectual infatuation with Communism. In 1932 he published his magnum opus, The Principle of Contradiction. The book is concerned with the philosophy of dialectical materialism rather than the practical or economic aspects of Marxism. Conze has said of the book, "In fact it contains all my later ideas without exception" (1975: ix). This is a telling statement. Conze already knew what he thought about everything before he approached Buddhist texts more seriously. Subsequently, his method was to look for and find confirmation of his views in those texts. Anyone who adopts this approach is bound to succeed.

His anti-authoritarian attitudes led him to help organise political activities, particularly once the Nazis rose to prominence and then power. Conze' communist affiliations in Germany and Britain later caused his application to work in the USA to be declined. Curiously, for a Communist, Conze appears to have nothing good to say about the working classes. The best we can say is that working class people seem to avoid his direct gaze and disapprobation. Judging by the Memoires, the point of Communism was to bring down the ruling elite, destroy the modern world, and take us back to the pre-industrial society; it was not to hand the means of production to the workers. Speaking of his visit to Spain in 1936 he says "In rural Spain I caught a glimpse of pre-Industrial man and I realized how much we have lost." (I 19).

Despite apparently being a Marxist, Conze appears to have no sympathy for class struggle, let alone class warfare. He was unembarrassed about dividing society into the elite and the dogs, to call himself a member of the elite, and to suppose that the elite ought to be in charge. We can only imagine what Marx would have made of this bourgeois attitude. Conze's was more the intellectual communism of the unhappy rich boy trying to get back at the parents who did not love him, than the practical communism of an oppressed worker seeking a fairer world. But he does not see this. In a classic case of psychological projection, describing English communists, Conze writes: "Most came from Public Schools and harboured obscure resentments about their parents, headmasters and the [Officer Training Corp]." (I 21).

Most relevant to the history of the Heart Sutra, young Eberhart showed early promise as a linguist, claiming that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages (I 4). Heine (2016) suggests that these included German, English, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian, Sanskrit and Pāli. His family's wealth allowed him to pursue a university education in a desultory fashion, moving around half a dozen different universities until he found a teacher to his liking. He describes himself as "rebellious", but I suspect he simply felt superior to his teachers. Being unwilling to put up with anyone he judged inferior and having more or less unlimited funds, he simply moved on. Surprisingly, given his approach, he completed a PhD in philosophy at the University of Cologne in 1928 (aged twenty-four). His post-graduate studies saw him continue the pattern of moving around.

He moved to Britain in 1933, largely to escape the Nazis. His stories about this vary. Early in the Memoires, he says he was warned by Nazis to flee in a rather bland encounter over the flying of a flag from his balcony, but later (I 40, n.1) he recalls being chased by the Gestapo and hiding from them in a mental hospital. There are many times in the Memoires where he seems unsure about whether to be humble or to brag and ends up humblebragging. In his introduction to the recent reprint of Conze's Principle of Contradiction, Holgar Heine (2016) suggests that, in fact, it was the public burning of most of the copies of the first German edition of this book by Nazis soon after it was published that led Conze to leave Germany.

We can only presume that it was around this time that Eberhart became Edward because he does not say. Conze had a variety of jobs during and after the war, supporting himself by teaching evening classes in German, psychology, and philosophy. Later, some bequests made him financially independent. The one permanent academic position he was offered was in the USA and the government there saw him as an undesirable alien because of his past as a Communist and his unwillingness to cooperate with them on exposing other communists. He saw the immigration officials as inferior and thus toyed with them for his own amusement, but it backfired on him. For a time Conze continued to be interested in left-wing politics and he made connections in the British Labour party, particularly with Ellen Wilkinson. Together, the two wrote anti-fascist pamphlets and two short books.

On fleeing Germany, Conze had married his partner, Dorothea Finkelstein, as much as anything to prevent her from being sent back to Germany and certain death because she was Jewish. This marriage of convenience (at least as far as Conze was concerned) did not last long; they separated soon after the war, briefly reconciled, but then Conze embarked on a series of affairs with his students that he took little or no trouble to hide. In the Memoires, he recounts, over several pages in small type, sexually assaulting a female student as though it were an amusing anecdote (II 116-118). On reflection he says:
“I did not want a wife at all, but a servant who would look after me while I was doing my scholarly work. If it had not been for the servant shortage which set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all” (I 31).
Conze and Dorothea were eventually divorced in 1962. Conze had met Muriel Green, who was to become his second wife, some years earlier in 1948. The two lived together as a married couple and Muriel changed her name to Conze by deed poll. However, their marital status occasionally caused problems for him, as it was unusual, even scandalous, at the time. Conze credits Muriel with providing the material stability that enabled him to continue his work. He was apparently incapable of any domestic task. However, before he met Muriel, Conze went through a crisis.

A visit to Spain in 1936 left him feeling disillusioned
"From the very start I saw clearly that a huge senseless tragedy was shaping itself, that many people (two million by the end) would be killed for nothing whatever and that few would gain anything from all this turmoil."
His comments on the situation in Spain led to a series of vituperous clashes with members of the British Labour Party, who were, to be fair, at that time under the influence of the Soviet Union. Conze says that he abandoned leftist politics at this point, but one imagines that he jumped before he was pushed. Already averse to many aspects of industrialised, "urban civilisation", Conze was now thoroughly disillusioned with the left, with modern democracy and secularism (I 26-7). Aged 35, he found that he was at an impasse. In short, he had a mid-life crisis. In his memoriam for Suzuki, he says:
“My political faith had collapsed under the impact of Stalinism and of what I had observed in Spain, my marriage had failed, my job seemed distinctly bleak, I had even started to consult psychoanalysts, and there seemed nothing left that I could live for.” (Conze 1967)

Midlife Crisis

Conze & Suzuki
It was at this point that Conze turned to religion, specifically to Buddhism. He credits this to his acquaintance with three men: D. T. Suzuki, Har Dayal, and Graham Howe. Of these three, Suzuki seems to have been the strongest influence. Zsebenyi (2004) suggests that it was reading Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism that helped Conze to see a way forward. 

Suzuki’s wife, Beatrice Lane, was a major figure in the Theosophical world. While he retained his ties with Zen Buddhism, Suzuki frequently presents Zen in metaphysical terms borrowed from Theosophy. It seems to have been Suzuki who introduced the vocabulary of “the Absolute” and “the Transcendental” into Buddhism. Given Conze's existing preconceptions about the world, we can imagine how this mystical absolutism might have appealed to him. Indeed, it led to a radical change in lifestyle for a period.
Under the impulse of D. T. Suzuki’s message I then withdrew into a private wood belonging to a Quaker friend of mine in the New Forest, and practised as much meditation as can be practised in this evil age. (1967)
This was the wood called Sandy Balls, located near Godshill Village, in the New Forest, Hampshire. The owner, Aubrey Westlake, warned him that the hut was unheated and none had dared to over-winter there, but Conze, determined to live an ascetic life, did so. He joined an irregular community of Tolstoyan Christian Communists, eccentrics, and gypsies. The local villagers apparently decided that Conze was a spy and reported him to the police. When this failed to produce the desired result, they tried to set fire to the wood. This was during WWII which Conze avoided serving in on medical grounds but also as a Buddhist conscientious objector.

Conze applied himself to meditation, probably using Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga as a guide. As a result, he says, that he “experienced a great elation of spirit” (I 45). Living an ascetic life left Conze with the symptoms of malnutrition, such as chronic diarrhoea and degeneration of the gums leading to the loss of all his teeth (I 47). His description suggests that he had scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency common amongst sailors before 1747 when James Lind described the efficacy of citrus fruit in preventing the disease. The combination of malnutrition, cold (“very cold indeed” I 46), sleep deprivation, and long periods of meditation probably contributed to the delusions he apparently experienced: “Unbidden, several psychic faculties came my way” (I 46). A great deal has been written about the effects this kind of punitive ascetic lifestyle can have on religious experiences. On top of this, Conze was already firmly convinced of a matter-spirit dualism that would have dominated how he interpreted any interesting experiences that he might have had. Such strong convictions can only be confirmed in the mind of the believer.

Conze does not say how long this period was, though it only takes about four weeks for the first symptoms of scurvy to appear. After an unspecified time, he was inclined to stop: “I also felt that I had gained as much insight as I could bear in my present body or realise in our present social circumstances” (I 47). No doubt the physical suffering caused by this lifestyle would have been difficult to bear; malnutrition causes extremely unpleasant symptoms. In the introduction to Further Buddhist Studies, he relates,
"Thereafter I decided to adopt an indirect approach and thus between 1946 and 1968 remained content to edit and expound the ancient Sanskrit texts of the philosophia perennis."
Note here the reference (in Latin) to the idea of the Perennial Philosophy. This is the idea that all the worlds religions share a single metaphysical truth and all traditions aim to realise that truth. This view was popularised in Britain by Aldous Huxley and the Theosophists. Conze seems to have been a fervent believer in this view.

At about the same time as the deterioration of his health due to malnutrition was making his retreat untenable, his first wife, Dorothea, asked him to move back in with her for the sake of their daughter. So he moved to Oxford and was assigned a job in the Ministry of Agriculture. This led him back into the world of academia.


Living in Oxford, with an undemanding job, gave Conze time to study and access to research materials in the Bodleian Library and the India Institute. He took Sanskrit lessons from Prof Burrow and met F. W. Thomas, with whom he collaborated on a translation of a Sanskrit Jain text. Academic connections led to further literary ventures and, after 1945, to invitations to teach abroad, including in Germany. Summing up the factors that enabled him to become a Buddhist scholar he cites:
“…unusual innate intellectual ability is only part of the story. I have also had the good fortune to be able to devote my entire life to continuous and almost unbroken studying and have kept up my one-man monastery through thick and thin” (I 51).
In fact, Conze lived with his wife, who he apparently saw as his servant, and this is hardly a "one-man monastery". He has already admitted that he eschewed meditation after the disaster of his retreat in the New Forest. Conze was no monk.

Lacking a permanent academic post, he made his living teaching evening classes in psychology and philosophy. He might have had a position in the USA, but his past as a Communist prevented him from ever being more than a temporary visitor in that country. And even then immigration officials and his attitude towards them made travel there difficult for him.

Conze produced some general books on Buddhism as well as editing and contributing to an anthology of Buddhist texts. This was at a time when books about Buddhism in English were still uncommon, and most of the books that did exist betrayed the misconceptions of the early European scholars. As such the books were well received and two, Buddhist Scriptures and are Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, are still in print (if only in cheap Indian editions). While Conze's work was an advance on what came before, his idiosyncratic take on Buddhism meant that he often simply substituted one set of misconceptions for another. This was partially corrected by the appearance of more genuine books about Buddhism, but Conze was so influential that his views altered the narratives of Buddhism in the West. 

Despite his personal animus towards so many people - his wife referred to him as "the old man who hated everyone" - Conze had a number of productive collaborations, for example, with Jan de Jong, Giuseppe Tucci, I. B. Horner, and Lew Lancaster. For D. T. Suzuki he expressed “unlimited admiration, little short of idolatry” (I 78). However, D. T. Suzuki is also a problematic figure. McMahan singles Suzuki out as a Romantic Modernist:
"In his discussion of humanity and nature, Suzuki takes Zen literature out of its social, ritual, and ethical contexts and reframes it in terms of a language of metaphysics derived from German Romantic idealism, English Romanticism, and American Transcendentalism" (McMahan 2008: 125).
John McRae has pointed out that Suzuki's approach is frequently incomprehensible. "[His] most cherished methodology seems to have been to describe some aspect of Zen as beyond ordinary explanation, then offer a suitably incomprehensible story or two by way of illustration" (McRae 2003: 74). Conze adopted a similar strategy in his exegesis of Prajñāpāramitā. As far as Conze was concerned, the literature pointed to a perennial Truth beyond the comprehension of most people. It is the scripture of a spiritual elite of which, again, he believes himself to be a member.

Given his other comments, we can presume that Conze saw a confirmation of his own views in Suzuki's ravings about Prajñāpāramitā, especially in Suzuki's rejection of logic. I also think Conze realised that this was a field in which he would never be inferior to anyone because there was no competition at the time. With his typical German energy and industry, he could easily and quickly dominate the empty field of Prajñāpāramitā Studies and never have to answer to an inferior mind again. His obscurantist approach allowed him to exclude would-be critics simply by affirming contradictions like "A = Not A". How does one argue with a man who insists that logic and rationality play no part in the Truth? What's more, he could assert that as a meditator, he had special knowledge (I think few people realised the brief extent of his experiment with meditation or that the principal outcome was not insight, but scurvy and derangement). Conze was the tailor who made the Emperor's new clothes, according to a design by Suzuki. The crowds of scholars and Buddhists who knew no better simply went along with it (and largely still do). 

Conze set himself the task of translating all of the Prajñāpāramitā texts into English. In a number of cases, as with the Heart Sutra, this also involved editing the Sanskrit texts. Conze wrote a long essay outlining the extent and history of the Prajñāpāramitā literature (1960) and published a lexicon which was intended to be expanded into a dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā (1967b). These now circulate as pdf files and despite their many flaws have not yet been superseded.

Surprisingly little subsequent work has been done in this field since Conze. At least some of this reluctance must be because Conze made the subject seem unattractive to rationally minded students of Buddhism. The very qualities that made him the king of Prajñāpāramitā may well have ensured that there was little interest in following his example.

I will make some specific comments on his approach to the Heart Sutra below, but can here cite comments by Harrison & Watanabe about Conze's work on the Vajracchedikā. Rather than creating a critical edition, Conze takes an unsystematically eclectic approach to the text.  It is based mainly on Müller's edition but occasionally he changed the wording, conflating the various manuscript sources arbitrarily. He does not list the differences between his witnesses exhaustively (2006).
"Nevertheless, most subsequent translations and studies have relied on Conze's edition, and philosophical questions have also been addressed on the less than solid foundation it provides. Here lies a major problem" (Harrison & Watanabe 2006: 92; My emphasis).
In the notes on his translation of the Gilgit and Afghan manuscripts of Vajracchedikā, Harrison (2006) shows that the major problem involves the negations. Conze takes a metaphysical approach to these, whereas Harrison shows that they were probably intended as an epistemic observation: see my essay The Use of Negation in Vajracchedikā. Similar problems attend Conze's other translations. His work is unsystematic and directed toward confirming his idiosyncratic, Theosophy-inspired, anti-intellectual personal religion. As he admits:
“I am constitutionally incapable of registering meaningless details correctly (that is the price of being an intuition type). Even when reading proofs I miss most of the misprints, because I automatically read, not what is there, but what ought to be there. In addition, both my interest and my training in grammar leave much to be desired…” (I 92)
Unfortunately, the details that Conze misses are not “meaningless” but have quite major implications for how we understand the text. In the case of the Heart Sutra, his mistakes garbled two passages. Curiously enough, so little scrutiny did his work receive that these mistakes went unnoticed for almost seventy years. Such was his mystique and the expectation of nonsense that he created. Note that reading what ought to be there is exactly the method that I ascribed to Conze above. I believe this unconscious bias operated on many levels. Conze pursued confirmation of his beliefs and found it. 

Similarly, Conze’s translation of the Large Sutra is randomly eclectic. He does not rely on a single edition, but chops and changes, drawing first from this and then that source without any clear boundaries. He acknowledges that some will find this method “questionable” (1975: x) which is an understatement. On the other hand, almost none of the research agenda he sets out in his introduction has been followed up. Again, he did a lot of work himself, but only a handful of scholars continue his work. As he says, the translation [of the Large Sutra] is a continuation of his work on the Abhisamayālaṅkāra; a text “so elliptic and cryptic that a translation was considered impossible” (I 68-9). Now that we have a good edition (Kimura 2010) of the Nepalese manuscripts that he describes as “often unbelievably careless and corrupt” and a good facsimile edition of the Gilgit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (Karashima et al 2016), we can judge Conze’s methods quite accurately. It is often difficult to match his text to the available Sanskrit texts because his primary orientation was to the Abhisamayālaṅkāra rather than the text itself. As we will see this results in a whole other layer of confusion as regards the Heart Sutra.

Such issues will seldom surface for the average reader since they mainly read translations by popular religious figures. These people often don't bother to learn Sanskrit but simply paraphrase Conze and offer a few etymologies of varying accuracy. On the whole, religious translators have been oblivious to problems in source texts and simply gloss over any difficult passages as though they make sense. However, if there are problems with the source text, the translation is unlikely to be better. Dealing with Conze’s translations reveals him to be one of the most quixotic and idiosyncratic of Buddhist translators. Indeed, Paul Griffiths (1981) singles Conze out as the foremost practitioner of “Buddhist Hybrid English”, in which a translation uses mainly English vocabulary but is presented with Sanskrit syntax. In Conze's case, the choice of vocabulary often boggles the mind as well. Harrison brings this out in the introduction to his translation of Vajracchedikā.
"I has been a long cherished ambition of mine to make a translation of a Mahāyāna sūtra in which nobody courses in anything, speaks thus, or produces a single thought... although we have thoughts, think them, entertain them, although thoughts arise and occur to us, we never 'produce' them. Linguistic oddities such as this are best avoided" (Harrison 2006: 136).
Although Harrison does not say so, all of these examples of linguistic oddities are drawn from Conze's oeuvre. Conze was a great mangler of the English language. With Conze, we must constantly be on the alert not just for awkward translations but also for erroneous translations. Conze frequently allows his metaphysical imagination to inform his translations – very many verbs seem to mean “exist” in his vocabulary when very few of them mean that in Sanskrit. Being concerned, as he is, most of the time, with absolute being, he tends to torture his translations so that they appear to share his obsession. It took me many years to realise that Conze had fundamentally misunderstood the Prajñāpāramitā.

In his chronology of Prajñāpāramitā, Conze lumped the Vajracchedikā and Heart Sutra together as a period of contraction in Prajñāpāramitā texts ca 400 CE. This idea cuts across the trend of all Mahāyāna texts to expand over time. We now know that the Vajracchedikā is likely very much earlier and in fact follows the usual trend of expanding as it goes. The Heart Sutra, by contrast, was composed in China as a 抄經 chāo jīng or digest text, ca. 645-661 CE.  The earliest Prajñāpāramitā text was probably the one that evolved into the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, although the Vajracchedikā is likely to have been another Prakrit text of a similar vintage from a different area (one with less easy access to the Silk Road). Unfortunately, Conze's chronology of Prajñāpāramitā is still in use.

No scholar has since approached Mahāyāna Buddhism with quite the enthusiasm and industry of Conze. However, industry and enthusiasm in the absence of proper discipline or guiding principles simply run amok. The great shame is that so much of what he did needs to be done over but, at the same time, there seems to be little interest in Prajñāpāramitā in academia. Mysticism is not as sexy as it once was and the mainstream is focussed on the more rational aspects of Buddhism. A handful of scholars struggle away, year after year, to bring Prajñāpāramitā into the light, but the heavy burden of Conze makes that difficult. 

Heart Sutra

Conze first published a translation of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra in the journal of the Buddhist Society, The Middle Way in 1946 (see 1948: 51). His Sanskrit edition appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1948. This was subsequently revised in 1967. The edition makes reference to Chinese texts and includes some quoted Chinese characters. Since Conze makes it clear in the Memoires that he did not speak or read Chinese, he ought to have credited the person who helped him with the Chinese. Between 1955 and 1957 Conze published a series of articles in The Middle Way. These were collated and published as Buddhist Wisdom Books (1958), which contained a translation of and commentary on the Vajracchedikā and a version of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra along with a translation and commentary. A second edition appeared in 1975.

The Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra that Conze published contained a number of simple grammatical errors (Attwood 2015, 2018b). I'm sympathetic to Conze's inability to proofread as I suffer a similar affliction. However, I find readers will often pick up on mistakes I miss, and editors are usually very sharp-eyed when it comes to mistakes of mine (I'm very grateful to them for it). Where were Conze's readers and editors? And where were his critics for 70 years? Many scholars, some of the best in our field, looked at Conze's edition of the Heart Sutra and did not notice the obvious mistakes. I feel obliged to ask why not, but hesitant to supply answers because I fear there is no excuse. 

Conze presented the Heart Sutra as a Mahāyāna version of the four noble truths (or “holy Truths” as he calls them), going to elaborate lengths to try to make make the case for this (1958: 90, 100-1). The idea is based on the commentary in the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Apart from the fact that Conze’s arguments are not convincing, when we look at his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā organised with subject headings taken from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra (Conze 1975), it shows that the Heart Sutra does quote from the section labelled as expounding the noble truths (āryasatyāṃ). However, the passage begins with the last few lines of the paragraph that supposedly outlines the second truth (samudaya) and ends halfway through the section on the third truth (nirodha). The Heart Sutra includes nothing from the paragraphs on the first (duḥkha) or fourth (marga) truths. So, at best, the reference is partial. In reality, the author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra strains our credulity, because even reading the full passage the connection with the noble truths is not apparent. 

The text is shoehorned into the traditional categories, obscuring what it is actually talking about. Which tells us that that author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra was not that interested in the text, but had their own agenda that the text was made to serve. And Conze does much the same thing. Interestingly, this is the most prominent feature of all the commentaries on the Heart Sutra since they first were recorded in the late 7th Century. Take this observation with the one about the unnoticed errors ,and we find a systematic picture of commentators telling us what the text means with almost no reference whatever to the text. 

To top it all, the Heart Sutra also appears to say that there are no four noble truths. Conze gets around the apparent contradiction by denying that "no" means "no". It cannot be an "ordinary negation", he says, “because it is used in a proposition of which one term, i.e., ‘emptiness’, is itself a self-contradictory unity of Yes and No.” (1958: 90) Unsurprisingly, Conze goes on to admit that this kind of rhetoric confused everyone who he had read his book before publication. Without any trace of irony, he refers to the effects of his self-contradictions as leaving his readers “dazed by so much splendour” (1958: 90). This might be an attempt at humour or it might be Conze's delusions, it's hard to tell at this remove. 

Another curious feature of Conze's commentary is the elaborate attempt to relate the wording to Abhidharma texts. The Prajñāpāramitā texts are, if anything, resistant to Abhidharma ideas, for example, retaining the simpler early Buddhist schema of five skandhas, rather than indulging in the proliferations that accompanied the development of dharma theory. In fact, there is no reference in the Heart Sutra to words that positively connote the Abhidharma. It is simply a coincidence that they both employ common categories that predate the Abhidharma. There is good reason to think that the Prajñāpāramitā movement was quite conservative and preserving meditative and doctrinal traditions that were old by that time.

Conze’s contempt for ordinary people is evident throughout his commentary on the Heart Sutra. He says, for example, that:
“This Sutra is not meant for the stupid, the emotional, or the uninformed. Other means will assure their salvation. Everything that is at all worth knowing is contained in the [Heart Sutra]. But it can be found there only if spiritual insight is married to intellectual ability, and coupled with a delighting in the use of the intellect.” (1958: 99).
We already know that Conze sees himself as amongst the elect and has a touch of messianic delusion. The influence of Theosophy can be seen in many statements such as 
“‘Emptiness’ is our word for the beyond, for transcendental reality… this is the mystical identity of opposites” (1958: 83). “[The bodhisatva] is able to bear the absolute aloneness of his solitary Spirit” (1958: 94)
“The series of negations… does not add up to nothingness, but points the way to a unique ultimate reality” (1958: 95)
“When viewed from the subject-side, the transcendental reality is known as ‘thought only’, because, one and simple, free from duality and multiplicity, it is without a separate object. This Thought, or Spirit, forms the very centre of our being” (1958: 96)
None of this has anything to do with Buddhism or Prajñāpāramitā, and most of these terms do not even have Sanskrit equivalents. When we read the Prajñāpāramitā sutras in Sanskrit or Chinese we find there are no spirits, no absolute being, no mystical identity, and no ultimate reality. Instead, we find a narrative based on the experience of cessation and the epistemological and/or soteriological consequences of the fact that experience may stop in meditation without the loss of consciousness. Conze looked for his perennial philosophy in Prajñāpāramitā and because he “read what ought to be there” he found it, even though it was not there.

This is not the work of a great scholar. He was certainly a busy scholar and worked in a field largely neglected by others, but Conze has thoroughly misunderstood the Heart Sutra in particular and the Prajñāpāramitā in general. 


That Conze deserves a place in the history of the Heart Sutra is undisputed. However, he has been dead long enough that we can see his life and his contributions in perspective. Summing up his contribution, Eric Zsebenyi (2004) says, “Conze’s pioneering accomplishment is still hailed as a model of meticulous scholarship, and he ranks among the greatest and most prolific modern translators of the Buddhist tradition.”  This may have been true at the time Conze died, but by the time I started regularly interacting with academics, it was not. No one I met while studying Sanskrit and attending conferences spoke highly of him as a translator or editor, though some do still acknowledge him as a “pioneer”. He was certainly prolific, but his work, like the man himself, was deeply flawed and full of contradictions. No one looks to him as a model scholar any longer. For myself, I have certainly had to spend a good deal of time and effort to understand and correct Conze’s many errors of translation and interpretation.

In perspective, Conze cuts a lonely figure. He believed himself to have been sent to soften the Hearts of barbarians, but this messiah could not love the people he was ostensibly sent to save. He characterises, Avalokiteśvara as "the Lord who looks down" (mistranslating the verb ava√lok) but, in fact, it is he who looks down on the world. And with disgust rather than compassion. Indeed, he could never wholly get along with another person. As he says, “Throughout my life I have been a stranger on this earth and never felt at home anywhere. Nor have I ever found anyone who was completely congenial or whom I could trust altogether” (54).

A more tragic epitaph for a Buddhist Messiah can hardly be imagined. Conze was a classic outsider as described by Colin Wilson, his former neighbour in Notting Hill Gate, in his book, The Outsider. The man that supposedly sees the world too clearly and cannot make their peace with what they see. On the other hand, Conze also seems to have worked well with certain colleagues who shared his privileged social background. He adored Suzuki and names many other men his friends. The fact is that the Memoires is addressed directly to Jan de Jong.

Above all, Edward Conze was a bourgeois Romantic. He had the bourgeois sense of heroic and even messianic destiny and entitlement (which, in fact, he shared with the Nazis). He hated modernity and fantasised about an idealised pre-industrial past when the elite were truly elite and the peasants were illiterate and happy. He had the Romantic distrust of his senses and of intellect, logic, and rationality; preferring intuition, astrology, and mysticism. He was obsessed with perfection and transcendence and, at the same time, loudly contemptuous of imperfection and inferiority. And he saw “blacks” as inherently inferior (another attitude he shared with the Nazis). Put another way, while preaching non-duality, Conze had all the characteristic prejudices of someone who accepts a profound matter-spirit duality as described in my essay  Metaphors and Materialism).

Whether Conze was contrary by nature or became that way through upbringing is a matter for speculation. We can imagine what changes his circumstances in life might have wrought on him, but we don't know and we mostly only have his word for it. The fact is, that he was a man marked by contradictions, in every aspect of his life. And yet, his reputation for greatness persists in Buddhist circles. Just as no one ever seems to really read the Heart Sutra, no one ever seems to really read what Conze wrote about himself. We might want to think about why the establishment have been so willing to overlook his faults, both confessed and apparent. Having read his Memoires in detail again, and having cleaned up the mess he made of the Heart Sutra, I find myself unwilling to participate in the beatification of Edward Conze. 



Conze, Edward.
—— 1946. ‘The Heart Sutra.’ The Middle Way, xx. 5, 105.
—— 1958. Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. Second edition 1976.
—— 1967. 'In Memoriam Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki 1870-1966.' The Eastern Buddhist. II/1.
—— 1975. Further Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Oxford, Bruno Cassirer
—— 1979. Memoires of a Modern Gnostic. Parts I and II. Privately Published.

Forsyth, Mark. 2011. The Etymologicon. Icon Books.

Harrison, Paul. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra', in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.

Harrison, P. & Watanabe, S. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā.' in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p. 89-132.

Heine, Holgar. 2016. 'Introduction' in The Principle of Contradiction. Lexington Books. First published in German as Der Satz vom Widerspruch. Hamburg, 1932. Langenberger Kulturlexikon: Immaterielles Kulturerbe der UNESCO.

McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, The University Press Group.

McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wiles, Royce. 2018. Correspondence Between JW de Jong and Edward Conze Concerning “Memoirs Of A Modern Gnostic” (1979). Discovering de Jong.

Zsebenyi, Eric. 2004. ‘The Perfection of Wisdom: Iconoclast, astrologist, communist sympathizer, and devoted practitioner, Edward Conze translated Buddhism for the West.’ Tricycle Magazine, Fall. 2004.

19 June 2015

Buddhist Shibboleths

I've already done some work on comparing translation styles between 4th century Chinese translators of the Āgamas and 20th/21st century English translators of the Pali texts (Attwood 2012). Where terms are unique or obscure the strategies available are quite limited. One can try to preserve the Indic word untranslated using your native script to represent the Indic sounds or with an Indic script such as Siddham; or one can substitute a similar word from one's own language, e.g. when the word occurs in a list of similar items (types of bird for example) one can substitute a familiar kind of bird; or, at a pinch one can ignore the difficult term; All of these approaches have their pros and cons, especially when seen in the light of centuries of hindsight. 

But we have some problems with more familiar common words as well. I've been thinking about some of the common epithets of the founder of Buddhist: buddha, tathāgata, sugata, arhat, and bhagavat. These words are devilish to translate into natural sounding English. We end up with a string of phrases in the form "The X One" and/or with meaningless literal translations like "the Thus Gone" or "the Well Gone". None of these work very well as translations. The translations don't convey any more information than the untranslated terms, so add nothing to the comprehension of the text. A phrase like "Thus Gone" still requires translation to be comprehensible. With a translation like "Thus Gone" we might actually be worse off because whereas we might pass over the untranslated tathāgata without much thought, when we see the English words "Thus Gone" we may be tempted to stop and think about them and tie our selves in knots trying to figure what they mean.


The most successful of the standard translations is probably "the Blessed One" for bhagavat. We're still in awkward territory with the phrasing but at least it conveys something of the Indic and evokes an image in the Western mind. To be blessed, in English, is to have the grace of God, often bestowed by a priest, or to have good luck. Neither of which apply here. The word bhaga comes from the root √bhaj 'to divide, to share' and means 'a share'. The suffix vat or vant (Skt or Pali) indicates possession. So bhagavat means 'one who has their share'. In an earlier essay I explored how Buddhaghosa explained what the word means: see Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism (2008).

Apparently, bhagavat is originally a military term meaning one who has a share in the spoils of war; or a feudal term for a lord is entitled to a share of his vassals production (the forerunner of taxation). Hence, perhaps, many older texts translate bhagavat as "Lord" (though this might also be imitation of the King James Bible). In the Buddhist context we sometimes also see it translated as the "Fortunate One", again with the suggestion of good luck - and the Buddha's awakening was nothing to do with luck! But "blessed" is a good one word translation. We have an English name from the Latin benedictus meaning "blessed" which is Benedict.

One of the tricks that English linguists have when they want to mark a word as serious or sacred is to either use a Latin form or to Latinise it. Thus where Freud wrote in the vernacular about the Ich, Es and Über-Ich the English translators adopted the Latin words ego, id, and super-ego. In becoming Latin the word acquires a substance so that we all think of "the ego" as a thing nowadays even though Freud conceived of it as a process. Such a word also acquires the gravitas of medical terminology since doctors still prefer Latin, or Latinate, to Anglo-Saxon or vulgar (i.e. common) terms for body parts and processes.Of course Germans capitalise all nouns, but the capitalisation of Ego, etc. helped to reinforce this perception.

Another trick, widely employed by Buddhist translators is to adopt Sanskrit syntax for English words. Thus we see the creation of a Buddhist Hybrid English that employs Sanskrit word order, but it is done in imitation of the 17th century King James Bible. As in "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so" for mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ or "Enlightenment" (capitalised) for bodhi. Likewise Chinese translators created a Buddhist hybrid Chinese (based on Middle Chinese) which retained Indic word order. 

It is true that vulgar English has moved away from Latin forms, if only because the teaching of Latin, which used to be a universal part of education, has fallen away. Where once every educated person was familiar with the Latin and Greek classics in the original, nowadays such knowledge is rare. And yet here we are trying to introduce Sanskrit and Pali words into the language. One might argue that "Benedictus" conveys both the meaning and spirit of the Bhagavat at least as well as "the Lord" or "the Blessed One". However for some the use of Latin is tied to experience of the Catholic Church rather than Horace or Virgil.

The standard Chinese translation is 世尊 world-honoured, i.e. honoured by the world. I'm much less familiar with the history of these Chinese terms. 

Tathāgata & Sugata

Tathāgata and sugata may really be untranslatable and the common translations are all quite hopeless in that they communicate nothing. Indeed Buddhists may long have misunderstood the meaning of these words. Richard Gombrich has pointed out that -gata at the end of a compound means 'relating to, existing in'. Some examples include:
  • antar-gata - in the middle
  • kaṇṭha-gata - reaching the throat
  • guru-gata - belonging to a particular teacher
  • nīca-gata - at the lowest point
  • bhūmi-gata - fallen to earth, on the ground
  • mukha-gata - in the mouth, in the face
  • hṛdaya-gata - dwelling in the heart
Of course it can also take the more obvious meaning of a past passive participle, i.e. 'gone', but the special meaning has some advantages. Tathā is a modal adjectival pronoun: 'thus, that way, in that manner, like that'. We can see where the more usual translations of tathāgata might have come from: he is 'one who has gone in that way'. However tathā-gata might also mean something like 'one who resides in that state', i.e. one who is awakened. Paul Harrison's Vajracchedikā translation uses Realised One for this term, which I quite like. Some consider that there an ambiguity with tathāgata because it might also result from tathā-āgata where āgata means 'come'. I think this is pretty unlikely, especially given the unambiguous sugata, but some lineages see it as the primary sense of the word and in this sense it is translated as "Thus Come". Chinese texts translate tathāgata as 如來 "as come". Even if this were the meaning, what does a reader make of "The Thus Come One"? 

Similarly su is a prefix meaning 'complete, well, or good' (cognate with Greek eu- which comes into English as euphony, euphemism, euphonium etc.). Sugata then means 'completed, one who is well, in a good state'. The fashion at present is to leave these two epithets untranslated and perhaps to footnote the most common interpretation of the Indic. The standard translations of "the Thus Gone" and "the Well Gone" really don't communicate anything. There is a Latin word which has more or less the same meaning as sugata which is beatus from which we get words like beatify. Beatus carries the connotation of blessed, but also of happiness. When a person is "beatified" (beatus + facere 'to make') by the Catholic Church, the first step on path to sainthood, the implication is that they are even now experiencing eternal bliss. This is also the implication of sugata. I know one woman called Beata, and I suspect it's a relatively common name in some Slavic/Catholic countries.

Sugata is translated into Chinese as 善逝 'well gone'. Where the character 善 is also used for Sanskrit words like kalyāṇa (beautiful), kuśala (expert, wholesome), and śubha (lovely, beautiful). Apparently they could not make up their minds where the Buddha was coming  or going ! In a weird quirk of history 逝 now means 'dead, passed away' in Mandarin. So in modern Chinese 善逝 means 'well dead'.


The other common epithet is arhat (Skt) or arahant (Pali). This is from the verbal root √arh which means 'to be worthy, to have a claim, to be able, to be allowed'. The present participle arhat (Pali arahant) means 'worthy, capable, entitled, deserving'. According to PED it was used in pre-Buddhist times as an honorific for those in high office, similar to 'His Worship', and in a sense very close in meaning to bhagavat (one who is entitled to a share). We might think of it as referring to someone who has claimed to have done what needed to be done in the holy life (brahmacārya) which is how it is often phrased in the texts. The arhat is effectively a 'saint' from Latin sanctus 'holy, consecrated'.

There is a folk etymology for arhat as well. This derives the word from ari-√han 'to strike an/the enemy' or sometimes 'foe-destroyer'. This etymology was given a boost by Richard Gombrich, who has has argued that the present participle is "jarring" in this context and there is perfectly good adjective from the same root, i.e. araha. Since Jains used two Prakrit forms of the word arahanta and arihanta, the folk etymology may well be the correct etymology, Gombrich argues that this stems from the same metaphor as the Jain title "jina" or conqueror, from which jaina means 'connected with the jina' (2009: 57-8).

The Chinese term is 阿羅訶 which is a transliteration pronounced āluóhē or 阿羅漢 āluóhàn. It is perhaps best known in the abbreviated form 羅漢 luóhàn.

Saṁbuddha and Samyaksaṁbuddha

Perhaps the most difficult to translate when used an an epithet is samyaksaṁbuddha. Samyañc means 'accord, concord, agreement' (literally 'bending together'). My understanding of this term is that it refers to the being in sync with the way things are (and its opposite mithyā means to be out of sync).  Saṁ means 'complete, together' and buddha as we know is the past participle of √budh 'to know, to understand, to wake up to'. So saṁbuddha means something like 'fully cognisant'. And samyaksaṁbuddha means 'fully cognisant of the way things are' though it is usually translated as "fully and perfectly awakened", where samyañc is somewhat reduced in significance to just mean 'perfectly', which plays to Romantic tendencies in Buddhism.

As often happens there are many different Chinese translations of this term: 正徧知 or 正遍知 or 正等覺. We also find partial transliterations such as: 三耶三佛 sānyésānfó and 三耶三佛陀 sānyésānfótuó where 佛 is a translation of Buddha and 三耶三 transliterates saṃyak-saṃ-. 

Epithets and Titles

Clearly these epithets fall somewhere between names and titles. An epithet is something which is "put on" from the Greek epi 'in addition' + tithenai "to put". A name we hang on something. Sometimes we resort to epithets because the name of the person concerned is taboo. The Buddha seems to have forbidden his disciples from using his personal name (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta). An epithet might also be used when a person's name is prosaic and followers wish to highlight some aspect of their character or recall some event or achievement. All of these seem to apply to the Buddha. 

It is interesting to compare the ecclesiastical titles adopted by Tibetan priests in exile. Amongst the Tibetans we find a variety of His Holinesses and His Eminences. In fact these come from the Roman Catholic Church. A Pope is addressed as His Holiness or Your Holiness, and a Cardinal as His/Your Eminence. If we were also to ape the Catholics then the most common form of address to the Buddha would be, bhagavan (vocative case) = Your Holiness. But these titles are finely tuned to indicate hierarchies and to indicate power and subordination. They now have a medieval ring to them which no longer trips of the tongue (though arguably the Tibetan priesthood get on very well with them). Roman ecclesiastical titles are surely inappropriate to the Buddha, if not to Tibetan priests, and got quite a strong negative reaction when I tried them out on a few friends. The words under discussion are not really titles anyway. In fact they're adjectives rather than nouns and they all describe someone who has had a particular kind of life changing experience.

Other forms of address are routinely taken over from ecclesiastic or temporal hierarchies. For example "Venerable" seems to substitute for āyuṣmat 'possessing life, vital, long lived, elder'. Buddhist monks are routinely referred to as "The Venerable". In the FPMT I've met the Venerable Robina Courtin and the Venerable George Churinoff for example. The word "venerable" comes from the Latin venerari "to worship, revere" and means 'fit to be worshipped or revered'. No doubt some monks are fit to be worshipped, but it's a rather grand title unrelated to the Indic term for an elder. In early times Europeans were more automatically respectful towards their elders, nowadays hardly anyone commands respect. 

Buddha is of course an Anglicised term and hardly needs much explanation, though too many people mistake him for the Chinese god 布袋 Bùdài the so called "Laughing Buddha". For new-comers the epithets are inevitably odd and difficult to understand. And when they ask questions it quickly becomes apparent that no one really knows what they mean. No one does any more. And yet we have to keep repeating these words because they crop up so often in the texts. 

Whether Latin words would aid or hinder us in communicating our history and ideas is moot. No doubt some people recoil at the very thought of using archaic Latin to communicate modern Buddhism, and for others it invokes the Catholic Church, though personally I find I associate Latin mainly with medicine, the Romans, and early Enlightenment writers such as Newton's Principia Mathematica and Hooke's Micrographia. And yet on the whole Pali and Sanskrit are more archaic and foreign to the ear than Latin or Greek. I find that most of my colleagues want to use English (or their mother tongue) most of the time and only use the minimum of Indian jargon. Most cannot tell the difference between Sanskrit and Pali.

On the other hand, English is a language which is more than happy to borrow words from other languages. For example from Hindi we borrowed: shampoo, pyjamas and bangle; or from Persian: caravan, divan, ghoul, jackal and shawl. However the problem here is that most of these are concrete nouns. They have a specific referent and there is no doubt what they refer to.

I don't really see any resolution to the problem of translating the epithets. They all apply specifically to the Buddha (though some are borrowed from other contexts), but the specific meaning is long lost. So we're left with all these different ways of referring to the Buddha, none of which really convey anything meaningful to anyone any more that forced to retain them because they are traditional. They only value they have nowadays is as shibboleths, i.e. the ability to pronounce these terms is a marker of Buddhist identity. 


Attwood, Jayarava. Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol 5, 2012.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox. 

06 January 2012

The Son of the Śākyas

Scythian Horseman
Lessing Photo Archive
IN 2009 WHEN I WAS writing about the name of the Buddha I mentioned in passing that some people thought that marriage customs attributed to the Buddha's family in the Pāli Commentarial tradition pointed to the Buddha being Dravidian rather than Aryan. Someone asked for references and at the time I didn't have them to hand. So three years later I'm interested in this again...

The idea seems to go back at least to 1923 when A. M. Hocart tried to use observations from the traditional genealogies Śākyas and Koliyas to explain the relationship between the Buddha and his cousin Devadatta (Cited in Emeneau 1939: 220). The story of the origins of the Śākyas (Pāli Sakya) is found in several places, but particularly the Ambaṭṭha Sutta (DN 3). "The Śākyans regard King Okkāka as their ancestor" (Walsh 1995: 114). This story itself is explored in more detail by Silk (1973). In the version in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī (the 5th century CE Theravāda commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya) there is some evidence that cross-cousin marriage occurred at the origin of the Śākya and Koliya clans (Emeneau 1939: 222). In addition there are extensive genealogies in the Mahāvaṃsa which show cross-cousin marriages (Trautman 1973: 158-160).

A cross cousin marriage is one in which a boy would marry his mother's brother's daughter, or a girl would marry her father's sister's son. This is one of the preferred matches in South India amongst the Dravidian speaking peoples, and also practised in Sri Lanka. However Good (1996) has been critical of the idea that cross-cousin marriage is the only or most preferred kin relationship, and shows that other marriage matches are made. Be that as it may, cross-cousin marriage is a feature of South Indian kinship, and the Brahmanical law books (the Dharmasūtras) make it clear that cousin marriage is forbidden for Aryas. (Thapar 2010: 306). The perception, then is that if the Buddha's family practised cross-cousin marriage, they cannot have been Aryas and were likely Dravidians.

Already in 1939 Emeneau saw the main flaw in the argument. The earliest sources we have for these propositions are Theravāda commentarial texts. They were written in about the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka. To a great extent they reflect the society of 5th century Sri Lanka. Indeed there is no corroborating evidence from the suttas or Vinaya that cross-cousin marriage took place at all. The obvious conclusion is that when the authors of the Mahāvaṃsa and the commentaries upon which the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī was based sat down to compose a genealogy for the Buddha they used familiar figures from the old texts, but arranged them in a way which seemed natural. In other words they unselfconsciously modelled the Buddha's family on their own. So I concur with Emeneau that the story is not plausible.

In my essay on the Buddha's name I posed the problem of the Buddha having a Brahmin gotra name. The gotra name was a paternal lineage name which in the case of Gautama stretches back to the Ṛgveda. Gotama, the ancestor of the Gautama clan, complied the 4th book of the Ṛgveda and is mentioned in several sūktas. [1] The Gautama clan continued to be prominent before, during and after the time of the Buddha, for example the name appears in lineages in the (pre-Buddhist) Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and there is a (post-Asoka) Gautama Dharmasūtra.

Some authors have suggested that the name Gautama was adopted by the Śākyas from their purohita (hierophant, or ritual master). (Kosambi 1967: 37; Karve in Patil 1973: 42). This appears to be based on a later tradition whereby a kṣatriya king would adopt the gotra name of his purohita. The implication is that the Buddha's father Suddhodana must have employed a Brahmin purohita. This suggestion has several weaknesses. Firstly there is no mention of any Brahmins in relation to the Buddha's family in the earlier texts - later on we do find a Brahmin in the court, but he is part of a hugely elaborated hagiography in which the Buddha walks and talks immediately after being born. During the time of the Buddha the Brahmins were a presence but not a dominant presence. Secondly although Suddhodana is called a rāja and this is usually interpreted as king in later hagiographies, in the context of the Śākya tribe it was probably more akin to 'chief' or 'head man'. Thirdly the Buddha never has a good word to say about Brahmin ritualists, and often has bad words to say about them - he likens them to dogs in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. The Buddha's attitude, especially with respect to class (varṇa) or caste (jāti) is often taken as evidence that the Śākyas found the is often taken as indicating they these were novel ideas that he found peculiar. Finally the tradition itself is attested in the "post-epic period" (Karve in Patil 1973: 42), and it seems very likely that the compilation of the Epics out of the pre-existing oral traditions was at least partly a response to the success of Buddhism.

Although the Buddha is almost always represented as a kṣatriya I see no sign in the Pāli texts that he felt he lacked prestige such that taking a Brahmin name would improve it. There is also no hint of it happening further back in his line. In fact neither the Buddha's father nor any of his male relatives, is ever called Gautama in the suttas. So on the whole this idea of adopting a Brahmin gotra seems unlikely to me.

Very few other Gautamas are met with in Pāli. However both the Buddha's mother (Māyā, or Māyadevī) and his aunt (Mahāprajāpatī) are called Gotamī. The simplest explanation is that the Buddha was a Gautama on his mother's side, and that like several other male figures in the Pāli Canon—notably Śāriputra, the son (putra) of (his mother) Rūpasārī—the Buddha went by his mother's gotra name. I plan a longer essay pulling all this together with a more in-depth argument, but this is an outline and shows the kinds of sources that the ideas draw on.

One more note on the Śākyas. For many years sensible people have been telling overly enthusiastic amateurs that the Indian name for the Scythians (Śaka) is only similar to the name Śākya by coincidence. Recently I found some rough notes on an Indology forum by Harvard Professor Michael Witzel who's work I hold in very high regard. Witzel says that the similarity is not a coincidence, though we still have the solid historical fact that the Śaka did not enter Indian until 140 CE. However he also suggests that the Śākyas, like the Mallas, Licchavis, Vṛjis and other tribes that are found in Great Magadha were not originally from there but migrated only shortly before the lifetime of the Buddha.
"The Malla are a Rajasthan desert tribe in Jaiminiya Brahmana, and are still known on the Middle Indus as Malloi in Alexander's time."
Witzel suggests Iranian links for the Śākyas including their building of funeral mounds (aka stūpas), the names of some of their kings, marriage patterns (based on the origin story in the Ambaṭṭha Sutta [DN 3] and elsewhere, which is better attested than cross-cousin marriage), and also
"Then there also is the new idea of weighing one’s guilt after death. This was first an Egyptian, then a Zoroastrian and Iranian concept. It is connected with the idea of personal responsibility for one’s action (karma). "
The latter is very intriguing indeed. Some of this material, has made it into Witzel's published oeuvre, but it has yet to receive a detailed treatment. Long time readers may recall that I have noted some Persian Influences in Buddhism (20.6.08), and this seems to make the case quite a lot stronger. I would just add that a lot of crazy stuff can be found on the internet regarding the Scythians, and most of it cannot be taken seriously. We even find the suggestions that the Buddha was a Scythian or an Iranian, which are facile. Whatever their origins the Śākyas had lived in India for probably 500 years before the Buddha, and were thoroughly naturalised Indians with very little memory of their background.


  1. There is a potential confusion here. In Sanskrit the ancestor's name is Gotama (he who has the most cows). When the word becomes an adjective describing those associated with Gotama the root vowel o is stretched (vṛddhi) to become au. So Gautama means 'of or associated with Gotama. However in Pāli the vowel au is condensed back down to o, so Gautama becomes Gotama. We need to distinguish between Gotama the Ṛṣi of the Vedas (in Sanskrit), and Gotama the Buddha (in Pāli).

  • Emeneau, M. B. 1939. 'Was There Cross-Cousin Marriage among the Śākyas?' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 59( 2): 220-226.
  • Good, Anthony. 1990. 'On the Non-Existence of "Dravidian Kinship".' Edinburgh Papers In South Asian Studies. 6. Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh.
  • Kosambi, D. D. 1967. 'The Vedic "Five Tribes".' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 87 (1): 33-39.
  • Patil, Sharad. 1973. 'Some Aspects of Matriarchy in Ancient India: Clan Mother to Tribal Mother.' Social Scientist. 2 (4): 42-58.
  • Silk, Jonathan A. 2008. 'Incestuous Ancestries: The Family Origins of Gautama Siddhārtha, Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20:12, and The Status of Scripture in Buddhism.' History of Religions. 47 (4): 253-281.
  • Thapar, Romila. 2010. Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. 2nd Rev. ed. Orient Blackswan.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R. 1973 'Consanguineous Marriage in Pali Literature.' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 93(2): 158-180.
  • Walsh, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Wisdom Publications.

01 July 2011

The Buddha's Biography

I'VE ALREADY WRITTEN quite a lot on the confusion surrounding the name of the Buddha, and concluded that we don't really know what his name was. More recently I was pondering the Buddha's biography and considering the two different accounts of his going forth: the familiar elaborate version in which a princely man aged 29 who leaves behind wealth, status, wife, child, and family; and the shorter, less detailed, and probably less familiar story found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta [MN 26], but corroborated in other places. Scholars seem to agree that the biography found in the Ariyapariyesanā represents a more primitive version of the story which is likely to predate the more elaborate version. It's a given that the life stories of famous people tend to become more elaborate with time, not less, especially post-mortem. I'm sure many Buddhists will be surprised to discover that there are two different stories, as the more elaborate version is usually presented as a more or less factual, historical account.

Whether or not the Ariyapariyesanā version is the original story we will probably never know. But it provides a valuable insight into how the legend of the Buddha grew after his death. The process is no different from other saintly figures in other cultures and times. It's a case of the medium is the message: the common outlines of hagiographies tell us more about human nature than the content of such stories tell us about the historical Buddha. I want to look at just one paragraph from this earlier, less elaborate biography and draw out the implications it has for our stories about the Buddha.
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena daharova samāno susukāḷakeso, bhadrena yobbanena samannāgato paṭhamena vayasā akāmakānaṃ mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ kesamassuṃ ohāretvā kāsāyāni vatthāni acchādetvā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajiṃ. [M i.163]

At a later time, though still only a boy, with much black hair, in the first stage of life, and endowed with youth and good fortune; with my mother and father unwilling, tearful and wailing, I cut off my hair and beard, donned brown robes, and went forth from home, into homelessness.
I don't think it's overstating things to say that this is one of the most important biographical passages in the whole canon, because here much of what we think we know about the Buddha is contradicted.

Let's begin with his age. The text reinforces his young age with several terms: dahara, yobbana and paṭhama vaya. The word dahara means 'little, a young boy, a youth'. Buddhaghosa glosses it with taruṇa 'a tender young age, esp. a young calf'. The second word, yobbana, also means 'a youth'. The phrase paṭhama vaya means in 'the first stage of life', as opposed to middle age and old age. However the text also says he shaves off hair and beard (kesa-massuṃ ohāretvā) and this is common to all of the various narratives of the Buddha's going forth. Unless this is simply a stock phrase the youth must have passed puberty, and had a year or two to grow a beard. But not much more: if we were to describe a grown man as 'a boy' or 'a youth' it would seem awkward at best. I think we could say that this is describing a youth of 15 or 16. The tradition later made him 29, which is into middle-age by the standards of the day. Why 29? I don't think anyone knows, but it is interesting that the Jain leader, Mahāvīra, an elder contemporary of the Buddha, is described as a prince of Magadha who left home aged 30.

Something which is noticeable for being absent here is any mention of wife and child. The youth here is apparently not married. His parents weep and wail as he leaves, but not his wife. In my opinion the whole story of a wife and child is a later fiction, as is everything associated with them, including stories about Rāhula (who calls their child 'fetter'?). Many people are disturbed by the idea that the young bodhisatta left behind a wife and child. Of course had they existed they would not have been trapped in a neurotic nuclear family like most of us, but would have been part of a large extended family, and if we believe the stories they were wealthy and privileged. They were certainly not alone, nor destitute, and Gotama's role in the raising of his infant, and in the day to day life of his wife would most likely have been minimal in any case. I've never had a problem with young aspirant leaving wealth and family to pursue the deathless, because in the story he returns liberated and frees his family from suffering forever. One must take the story as a whole. But this whole story is a probably a fiction anyway.

Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father -- mātāpita -- are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn't sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha's mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists. For example in the eighth century Śāntideva wrote:
If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? [Bodhicaryāvatā ch8 8 v.59; translation by Skilton & Crosby]
This reflects Brahmanical notions of the polluting nature of bodily fluids, which with the Brahmanisation of the subcontinent, became pan-Indian concerns. The Buddha himself is shown to mock the Brahmins for this attitude in the Agañña Sutta (DN 27.4). He says their creation myth (Ṛgveda 10.90) which tells that the Brahmins were born from the mouth of Brahmā is a lie, since they were born in the usual way -- with all the implications of ritual pollution that entailed in the Brahmins own belief system. So in the later stories the Buddha is not born from his mother's (polluted and polluting) vagina covered in amniotic fluid and other nasty substances, but miraculously and pollution free from her side. And then she, rather too conveniently, dies and is transported to heaven where she can not cast any doubt on the sanctity of the Buddha himself. One is reminded of those 1950's and 60's American sitcoms that featured a family without a mother, ostensibly to play down the subject of where children come from. If indeed this represents a Brahmanical spin, then we can observe that the Brahmanisation of India was not completed until after the reign of Aśoka, ca. 2nd century BCE, about 150 years after the most likely date Buddha's death, which may give us a limit for dating these stories.

Finally observe that when he leaves the bodhisatta dons robes (vatthāni) which are brown (kāyāsa). It's well known that the wanderers of the day would stain the cloth of their simple robes with dirt to make them unattractive to bandits. The samaṇas who didn't go naked did not originally wear elaborate robes, or use expensive fabrics (unlike many Buddhist monks these days) but the cheapest cloth, or even rags, stained with dirt. The word kāyāsa means 'brown', but is often interpreted as 'yellow'. I think the latter is because of the brightly coloured robes that many modern Theravādins wear. PED links kāyāsa to Sanskrit śyāma 'dark' which can mean anything from black to dark blue or green; or śyāva 'dark brown, brown'. Neither of which suggest yellow, orange or red! There is a direct cognate kāṣāya but PED says this is a Sanskritisation of a Pāli word, and in any case it also means 'brown, or reddish-brown'. So the word means 'brown, dark', except in the context of bhikkhu's robes. Which suggests that changes in the colour of the robes lead to the change in meaning of the word in this specific context.

Though it is not related to this particular text, there is another little oddity about the way we see the Buddha. All of the early literature describes the Buddha as having a shaved head, and cutting of his hair and beard, as I have already mentioned is a central part of all of the Buddhist biographies of the Buddha. And yet more or less all images of the Buddha show him with tightly curled hair. Eisel Mazard goes into this puzzling discontinuity in some depth in an essay entitled The Buddha was Bald. I think Mazard makes a mountain from a mole hill (he seems to see depicting the Buddha with hair as a sinister conspiracy to defraud us), but it does confirm that the popular conception of the Buddha has changed over time, and that earlier versions of his life story get over-written.

So this 'man', who's name we are unsure of, was probably a 16 year old, unmarried youth when he left his (still living) mother and father, against their wishes. And this is not so far fetched really. Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), with whom there are other biographical parallels, was this age when he left his home to go forth. Sangharakshita was about this age when he had his first mystical experiences also, and had be been living in India at the time might have wandered off at that point (as it was he had to wait 6 years to go forth aged 22.).

It's probably meaningless to talk about the "historical Buddha". I forget now where I first came across the distinction, but I like to see the information we do have as pertaining to the traditional or legendary Buddha. The historical Buddha is lost in the mists of time, though it seems very likely that the traditional Buddha is based on an historical person. Another important character, the mythic Buddha, is a product of our imaginations - which is not a criticism, or a pejorative. I think myth -- a word I use in the same spirit as Joseph Campbell -- is very important and significant aspect of our traditions. Myths are vital for a living spiritual tradition. I've written about how a much later figure went from being an historical figure, to a legendary one, and finally attained to the mythic dimension as a kind of Avalokiteśvara-like figure who intercedes to ensure one gets into the pureland. (see: Kūkai: Buddhist Hero of Japan.)

Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India documents the way that the Buddha's life story became the archetype for stories of later Buddhist saints, with the biographical details being recapitulated throughout history. And indeed the same thing has happened in other world religions. There is no reason to think this process began with the Buddha, or that the biographies that have come down to us are not influenced by his predecessors even if they are even less clearly visible than he himself is.

Across cultures saints often share common features. It would be interesting for instance to compare the Buddha with St. Francis of Assisi. This is not to devalue the methods of Buddhism, or of religion generally. Though I am not in favour of superstition, I think there are remarkable people who rise above the ordinary concerns of the rest of us: saints, for want of a better word. And these people leave us with a legacy of alternatives to: "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes. Leviathan. Chap. 13, para. 9).

In writing on this subject, critically and even polemically, I ask readers to opt for an honest confrontation with history, rather than a dishonest collusion with either tradition or secular humanism. The former blinds us and leaves us mired in eternalistic superstition, and the latter urges us to lives of nihilistic mediocrity. One of the main ideas communicated by the biography of the Buddha is that we do not have to accept either common superstitions or the general consensus; nor do we have to accept ourselves as we are, as limited and earth bound. We can be free. However the confrontation with history can be painful as it challenges our beliefs and calls into question aspects of our religious faith. I think in the end this makes us stronger, and forces us to focus less on belief and ideology, and more on practical matters, i.e. on doing the practices. Everything changes, and it seems very likely indeed that the stories we tell of the Buddha have changed too.