Showing posts with label Experience. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Experience. Show all posts

28 December 2018

What is the Point of Dependent Arising?

In the first two parts of this essay I showed that a close reading of the Pāli texts associated with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda contradicts the received tradition. The imasmim sati formula says that the condition must be present for the duration of the effect, which contradicts all modern accounts (though it does fit the defunct Sarvāstivāda). Despite the traditional association, this is not the conditionality of the nidānas; rather, it is that of the upanisās (or Spiral Path), a lesser-known doctrine that is well attested in Pāli and Chinese. 

All of this ought to have been obvious, but Buddhism as a religion generates powerful cognitive biases against seeing things as they are. Instead, we are encouraged to see things the way that religious leaders tell us they ought to be. We are taught that Buddhism offers insights into reality, or even the ultimate nature of reality, but it really does not. To some extent this is the standard cognitive bias generated by expectations, but magnified by the emotive atmosphere of religious observance. Where others are expressing devotion and making sacrifices, we are more likely to be swept along by emotional contagion (cf. Martyrs Maketh the Religion. 05 February 2010). 

The kind of contradiction explored in this essay is so common that we can say that it is the norm. The doctrines of the Pāli texts are frequently so faulty that later Buddhists abandoned them altogether. This is partially hidden because they retained the jargon of Buddhism, simply redefining words to give the illusion of continuity. Technical terms like "nidāna" provide a figleaf of authenticity and legitimacy and allow those seeking leverage to reference the "Pāli Canon" but, in fact, no one teaches what is in the suttas. And why would they teach ideas that don't make sense? What we teach is someone's attempt to make sense of the early teachings. This is not wrong per se, but it is deceptively presented as ancient wisdom, when often it is just modern liberal humanism. 

In the final part of this essay I'll apply my principle hermeneutic—Buddhism is experience—to the idea of dependent arising. I've already shown that it doesn't make sense as metaphysics and now I'll try to show that it makes some sense as a kind of epistemology. 

A Third Way

If paṭicca-samuppāda is a failure as metaphysics, does it have any application? In the year 2000, Sue Hamilton argued that the doctrines in the Pāli suttas are concerned with experience rather than with reality. Since that time other scholars have picked up on this idea and I have made it one of the central tenets of my approach to Buddhism. There is, in fact, a third textual approach to dependent arising that corresponds to this experiential approach. This third way is found, for example, in two adjacent suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta, i.e., SN 12.43 and SN 12.44 (they are also repeated verbatim at SN 35.106 and 35.107). There is a pericope here that crops up regularly and forms the core of the idea. I'll call it the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati formula.
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. (SN ii.72) 
Dependent on the eye and form eye-cognition arises. The conjunction of the three is contact. From the condition of contact feeling exists, from the condition of feeling, craving exists. 
The texts say that the same is true for all the sense modalities (indriya): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Each of the sense modalities has its object (S. ālambana; P. ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactiles, dhammas. The meeting of sense object and sense faculty gives rise to its own kind of cognition or viññāṇa (S. vijñāṇa). Note that ālambhana means "seized, grasped"; Pāli uses the Sanskrit spelling of indriya (we expect indiya); and viññāṇa does not mean "consciousness" (and never does). 

The sense faculties are also sometimes referred to as the saḷāyatana "six spheres", but this term later comes to refer to the six sense faculties along with their objects. Another important later category is the eighteen dhātus, which is the twelve āyatanas plus their respective viññāṇa
6 indriya + 6 ārammaṇa = 12 āyatana 
12 āyatana + 6 viññāṇa = 18 dhātu 
These categories become important in the development of dharma theory and form the basis of many Abhidharma lists. However, in the texts in question, the later categories have yet to be imposed.

Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati is Pāli for "conjunction of the three", where saṅgati comes from saṃ√gam meaning "going together, meeting, conjunction".  Rather than one condition giving rise to one effect, we have a combination of three conditions giving rise to vedanā. We can summarise the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati by substituting the general terms:
indriyañ ca paṭicca ārammaṇañ ca uppajjati indriya-viññāṇaṃ. 
On the basis of sense faculty and sense object, sense cognition arises. 
It is only when all three are present that contact (phassa) occurs and on this basis vedanā and then taṇha arise. According to SN 12:43 this is the origin of dukkha and according to SN 12:44 exactly the same process is the origin of loka. From this and other texts we know that the Pāli authors considered the two terms to be synonymous. However, this equation appears to be have been lost sight of and  disappeared from Buddhist teaching until it was rediscovered by Sue Hamilton in 2000.


Then the text asks about the cessation of dukkha/loka. The cessation passage repeats the pericope on how dukkha and loka come into being, but it then continues with the standard nidāna sequence:
Tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodhā upādānanirodho; upādānanirodhā bhava-nirodho; bhavanirodhā jātinirodho; jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkha-domanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti. (SN ii.72)
From the remainderless absence of passion and cessation (of that craving; there is cessation of the fuel [of becoming]). From the cessation of the fuel, there is the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming, there is the cessation of birth; from the cessation of birth, aging and death, of remorse, sorrow, misery, depression, and despair cease. Just this is the cessation of the whole [blazing] mass of experience. 
I've translated this in line with Richard Gombrich's (2009) idea that it ties in with the general use of metaphors of fire for the mind. Compare especially the Āditti Sutta (SN 35.28) and an early essay of mine, Everything Is On Fire. There are two problems to point out with this:

The first problem is that in this view we think of craving (taṇha) as the fuel (upādana) for becoming (bhava). However, the fuel for becoming is here abstracted out as a separate item from craving. Here craving is the condition of the fuel, and the fuel is the condition for becoming. It suggests that we look to the applied meaning of upādāna, i.e., "clinging". Thus, craving gives rise to clinging, and it is the clinging rather than craving per se that fuels becoming. Indeed, we sometimes read that vedanā is simply a vipāka. Depending how we view karma there are a range of views on vipāka. 1. There is nothing we can do about it (Dhp 127). 2. All we can do is mitigate the impact of the vipāka (cf Loṇapala Sutta AN 3.99). 3. We can ameliorate the vipāka through religious practices so that it does not ripen. 4. We can eliminate all evil karma at the root through religious practices. Either way vedanā arises as a result of past actions and is not under our direct control (even in those views which allow us to eliminate evil karma)

The second problem is that becoming (bhava) is abstracted out of birth (jāti). The traditional explanations of the nidānas overlay bhava with a more complex doctrine involving "the rebirth producing kamma-process" (kammabhava) and the actual "rebirth process" (upapattibhava). It doesn't make sense to consider rebirth in the abstract as the underlying condition for the physical act of birth.

In tracing our way along the nidānas we lurch from abstractions like ignorance, to the subjective experience of cognition, to the concreteness of the body and sense organs, to the senses operating to produce subjective experience, into the realm of abstract ideas, and then back into the concrete world of birth and death. This is not a coherent series.

One can see how the three lifetimes interpretation emerged. Having birth be the effect of experience (saḷāyatana → phassa  vedanā → upādāna → bhava →) makes no sense because one has to already have been born in order to have experiences. In other words, experience presupposes a body and therefore birth. It is difficult to see how this series would work otherwise, although the three lifetimes model is still problematic for reasons given in Part II.

Note also that a literal reading of the nidānas combined with ideas from elsewhere, especially misreading the opening verses of the Dhammapada, leads many Buddhists to conclude that "mind creates matter". In the twelve nidānas, viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa, literally name and appearance. Even in the three lifetimes model, this pairing is part of the present rebirth process (upapatti-bhava). In order for there to be human "consciousness", there has to be a human body. One can, of course, in traditional views, become a disembodied spirit. But as far as human beings are concerned, one cannot have consciousness without a body and vice versa. This is also the conclusion of the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) which presents viññāṇa and nāmarūpa conditioning each other (nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ DN II.56). As Frank Sinatra said, "you can't have one without the other." Note also that the Mahānidāna Sutta labours the point about eliminating all forms of birth (anywhere in any way by anyone) in order to eliminate death. The goal of Buddhism is to entirely eliminate sentient life on earth in order to prevent suffering.

Even in this third approach to dependent arising the nidāna sequence is not coherent. It is a mix of different kinds of entities and events. 

The World of Experience

I've already mentioned that in SN 12:43 and SN 12:44 loka and dukkha are synonymous. A close look at the word loka reveals that in this context it means "the world of experience" (Jayarava 2010). Sue Hamilton (2000) explains that dukkha is not descriptive:
"...dukkha is not descriptive of the world in which we have our experience: it is not descriptive of everything that we perceive out there and then react to. Rather, it is our experience. (2000: 82; emphasis in the original)
Our experiential world is created by the operation of khandhas. As Hamilton puts it, dukkha, khandha, and loka all refer to experience:
"... all three terms refer in effect to the way one's experience (dukkha), the apparatus of which is one's khandhas, is one's world (loka). (2000: 205).
This tells us that we can think of dependent arising in terms of giving rise to one's experiential world. That is, not to "the world" in a metaphysical sense, but to "one's world" in an epistemic or phenomenological sense. The American Theravādin monk and translator, Bodhi, made a similar point about the world at around the same time as Sue Hamilton:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182)
Some years ago I would have called this world "psychological", but I have come around to the idea that one's world is a social phenomenon as much as it is a psychological one. The social side of cognition is completely absent from traditional Buddhism and largely absent from modern Buddhism. The important point is that it seems likely that the authors of the Pāli actually had this epistemic approach in mind. The metaphysical application was an after-thought.

The Bodhi quote also introduces the idea that the Pāli authors might have entertained a duality between a subjective and an objective world, with a clear focus on the subjective. This was precisely the idea that I was expanding on in my previous essay on Perennial Philosophy. This is how the early Buddhists thought, though their views were quite undeveloped and poorly expressed.

We can unequivocally say that, from the point of view of a self-aware individual, the world of experience appears to come in two varieties: objective experiences which relate to a mind-independent world (reality) and subjective experiences which relate to the workings of the mind itself (experience). The two varieties are not the result of any ontological dualism, but merely because the apparatus of experience presents these two kinds of experience to our awareness: one which is directly based on physical senses and one which is only indirectly based on the senses, if at all, but is more reflective of our reactions to experience (both affective and cognitive). The fundamental mistake we all make is to assume that, because there are two main kinds of experience, the world must be divided into two types of existence. One does not follow from the other. This becomes clearer if we compare the information from the different physical senses. Light and sound, for example, are two very different phenomena, but we now know that they are manifestations of one reality at two very different scales. 

It becomes apparent, to every neuro-typical four-year-old, that we are not the only self-aware being, but that other beings (human and animal) have minds that are unique but also like our own mind. We are not alone and we can compare notes. Thomas Nagel's argument that there is "something that it is like to be a bat" (viewing the world via sonar) is true, but it downplays the fact that we evolved to understand what it is like to be another person. We have a highly developed innate ability to feel what other sentient beings feel and to understand the world from their point of view. All social mammals have some capacity for doing this. When we understand other animals in this way, it is not simply projection or anthropomorphising, but recognition. Our pet's mind may be smaller and limited in scope, but it is a mind and comprehensible. And it can go the other way, domestic animals can understand and respond appropriately humans to some extent.

Our experience of the world is shaped by our social environment, our sensory apparatus, our cognitive equipment, and a number of other factors. Discovering how any of this relates to reality is a matter of painstakingly separating subjective from objective by taking and comparing notes. The path to such knowledge has not been straight but we have built up a highly accurate and precise picture of how our everyday reality works. And it has nothing to do with Buddhist theories of dependent arising. 

The Epistemic Reading is More Authentic

The history of Buddhism Studies is littered with the detritus of naive attempts to reconstruct the "original Buddhism". It is almost always a mistake to assume that we can get back to Buddhism before it is presented in early Buddhists texts, even though it is apparent that the early texts represent a rather advanced stage of development. We can only get so far in reconstructing history from texts when there is no corroborating evidence from elsewhere. We can see a progression in the Canon: some texts have a more epistemic approach and some a more metaphysical approach. And we know that there is a general trend toward exploring metaphysics amongst Buddhists that does not fully manifest until really quite late in the development of Buddhism, i.e., well into the Common Era. Thus we expect an epistemic approach to be more prominent in early texts.

The texts were composed over several centuries and we have no way, at present, of stratifying most of them. It is a matter of relative rather than absolute chronology. Also, we do not, and cannot, say anything about what the Buddha taught or thought. We just do not know how these texts relate to the legendary figure of the Buddha. 

The idea of paṭicca-samuppāda makes a certain amount of sense in the context of epistemology, but it comes unstuck when pressed into service as metaphysics. In other words, when applied to the context that history suggests is the earlier, we are able to use the doctrine to make a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, when Buddhists tried to use the doctrine as metaphysics we can see that they had to make many adjustments, some of which effectively repudiated the original idea and replaced it with something novel. The more metaphysics became a concern, the less like the doctrines in the early texts Buddhism became. Many later forms, such as the medieval Japanese and Tibetan schools (Zen, Shin, Gelug) bear almost no relationship to the doctrines of the early texts. 

Thus, we may argue that the epistemic reading is more authentic, provided that we do not overlay it with a modern epistemology. The idea that Buddhism makes a contribution to the understanding of reality, or the nature of reality, i.e., to ontology or metaphysics, is not authentic, in the sense that such claims are inconsistent with the earliest forms of Buddhism that we have access to. And this becomes increasingly obvious. Buddhism addresses the subjective, epistemic, phenomenological, experiential world; that part of the world which is an internally-generated virtual model; what Thomas Metzinger has called the Virtual Self Model. In this domain Buddhism retains some sense and usefulness. Still, this is not an easy adjustment for anyone used to thinking that they are on the trail of ultimate reality via Buddhism. I tried to show that, in terms of ideas and methods, that Buddhism is strongly connected with subjectivity. I know that many Buddhists will remain unconvinced by this, but it is true nonetheless. If our age tells us anything it is that "truth" and "belief" are often unrelated.



Bodhi 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jayarava (2010). "Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?".

30 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part II: A Spectrum of Experience

In Part I of this essay I concluded that the Perennial Philosophy "ignores historical processes, fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism." It is the second of these points that I wish to pursue in Part II. In particular, I will pick apart the claim of a metaphysical truth. Before I can do this, I need to introduce a way of thinking about experience that clearly distinguishes subjectivity and objectivity.

In the following diagram, I depict a model world with just four people. The field of experience of a person is represented by a coloured circle. 

The fields of experience may overlap with all others, with some others, or not all. It is assumed that people are able to communicate about their experience to about the same extent as their fields of experience overlap, because communication is a kind of shared experiential. I will present this as a general model of experience but also use it as a way of highlighting certain qualities of particular experiences.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified model created for rhetorical purposes. It does not perfectly represent a real person's field of experience. I will use the model to make analogies, but there are limitations. 

A general point is that most experiences are intentional. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the quality of "aboutness". So we think about our day, or see an object, or feel happy to see our friend. Experience is structured by this epistemic subject/object distinction (later I will posit that this must also be true of the awakened). The structure is reflected in universal features of language. All human languages enable us to identify objects and processes using nouns and verbs, and specifically to identify agents and patients (who is doing what to whom). 

Note that subjectivity, as I am using the word, is not the same as ego or self-referential thoughts. Subjectivity is a point of view forced on us by the architecture of our bodymind. No one else can see through my eyes. And even the awakened still only see through their own pair (I don't take stories of ESP literally). One may have an egoless subjectivity, because subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to all kinds of experience. By contrast I take objectivity to apply to any and all facts that are true without reference to our experience of them. In the normal scheme of things, all knowledge has an irreducible component of subjectivity, and it is really only collectively that we can infer objective knowledge, since comparing notes enables us to eliminate qualities that are only apparent to us.
1. Pure Subjectivity 

On the far left of the diagram, we see four fields of experience that do not overlap at all. These are four people in contact with four separate parts of the world, perhaps on different continents, and with no overlap of their sensory fields. In this artificial world, each person has only their own perceptions and while they can compare notes on experience, there is no apparent commonality and thus no possibility of agreement. It is as if they live in different worlds.

If this is a single experience, then all four people disagree on the nature of what happened. No two descriptions share any features.

An important class of experiences falls into this category, i.e., experiences where the object is apparent to us, but not to anyone else. Examples include, my private thoughts, or hallucinations (on which, see also my essay Realities).

2. Mixed Subjectivity

In the second left position, some of the fields of experience overlap. When they compare notes neighbours can find come commonality, but there is still nothing  that they can all agree on. There is no general sense of a shared experience. While red may agree to some extent with blue, and to some extent with yellow, blue and yellow have no common ground. As far as blue and yellow are concerned they are experiencing entirely different worlds.

With respect to a single experience we might say that some of the accounts partially overlap, but the opinions expressed about the experience are still largely unrelated to what others are saying.

As with pure subjectivity, there is no common point of reference. 

3. Middle Ground
In the middle all the experiential fields overlap to some extent. For the first time, there are some experiences that all four people in this world share. Note also that there is considerably more overlap generally. As well as all four sharing experiences, there are some experiences shared by three, but not the fourth. About one third of their experiences are available only to them.

For the first time, the four are able to agree on some details of a single experience. They will all agree that they experienced something similar, though they may still disagree on many details. We see here the beginning of objectivity, because comparing notes allows each observer to identify the aspects of the experience that are subjective and eliminate them from their account. However, a good deal of uncertainty remains for any knowledge inferred about the object.

4. Mixed Objectivity
In this state there is substantial overlap between all the experiential fields. About half of any given person's field of experience overlaps with all the others and less than a quarter is private to any one person.
The four are now largely in agreement on the core features of a shared experience, though they may still have their own opinions about it. In these cases, observers are able to infer knowledge about the object of experience with a high degree of confidence and begin to formulate descriptive and predictive theories about how objects behave to levels of accuracy and precision that are limited by their ability to measure. 

5. Pure Objectivity
At this end of the spectrum, the sensory fields of each of the four completely overlaps with the others. Nothing about the experience is private or hidden from the others. Of course this never occurs in nature because we all have our own views and thoughts that are inaccessible to others. But in discussing the perennial philosophy we need this extreme because it encompasses the category of absolute truth or pure objectivity.
This is the one experience that everyone has in exactly the same way and that cannot be distinguished between them. Every detail is perfectly aligned. Any knowledge about this kind of experience is entirely shared by anyone who has the experience: the observer has perfect knowledge of the object and completely understands everything about it and they know that the others know. In other words, this is what a metaphysical truth would be like.

General Comments
This, then, is the model and how it works on two levels: the general level of the extent to which experience is shared (from not at all to completely) and the level of agreement amongst people about a specific experience. I hope it is obvious that most of our experiences are in the middle ground. We share experiences to some degree with the people around us, but most of the people are not around us, so our sensory fields do not overlap. With respect to any given shared experience we can usually agree on the core features and some of the details, though there is always room for subjective, not to say idiosyncratic, conclusions and opinions.
For example, if I lean over the fence and ask my neighbour how the weather is and they say it's cloudy and raining, when I am experiencing clear skies sunshine, I will intuit that one of us us out of touch with reality, or they are feigning it for some rhetorical purpose, perhaps humour.
If I am sharing a meal with someone who likes searingly hot chili and is very much enjoying it, but I dislike the burning sensation, then we are having the same experience but interpreting it differently. There's overlap, but it's slight.
What can seem to be pure objectivity can still be wrong. For example, for thousands of years, people have watched sunsets. Their body tells them that they are at rest via multiple sensory channels (kinesthetic, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, visceral). If I am at rest and there is perceptible movement of an object, then the only logical conclusion is that the object is moving. However, in the case of the sun, we know this is wrong. The fact is that we are moving relative to the sun, but the acceleration is so small that it does not register on our senses, giving us a false impression. I have called this the sunset illusion. We still talk about the sun "setting" even though we know that it does not because it feels right.  There are many other kinds of sensory illusions, as well. These are oddities of how our senses work and how the brain interprets signals from nerves and presents a picture to awareness. Such illusions are important to keep in mind when thinking about metaphysical truth, because, obviously, such a truth could not fall into this category.

Similarly, what can seem to be pure subjectivity can still have an objective component. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they are not out to get you. Sometimes people will insist that we can't know how they feel, but of course we can. Emotions are universal and we do know how things feel. What we cannot replicate are the thought patterns that accompany emotions. Emotions themselves are relatively simple and can be boiled down to about seven or eight basic moods. And they are highly contagious precisely because we are empathetic: we literally experience the emotions of others. And empathy is universal in social mammals.

In practice, our individual knowledge of the world is always coloured by the physical nature of our senses and the architecture of our brains. Pure objectivity is never attained under normal circumstances. Mystics argue that it can be obtained under extraordinary circumstances and Perennial Philosophy rests on this claim. 

If there is a single overriding metaphysical truth, then in principle at least, it must fit my definition of pure objectivity, and to experience it would be to have 100% overlap with everyone else who experiences it. All descriptions and definitions of it would be identical because experiencing it would not involve any subjectivity. Indeed, the complete agreement on the truth could be seen as the defining feature of the Perennial Philosophy. Proponents assert that religieux completely agree on a core of common beliefs and that all religions point to (if they do not actually teach) this single absolute truth or Truth.

In my view, however, this is an impression created by a biased and highly selective reading of religion and mysticism. The supposed common core of beliefs is more like a collection of vague statements of values expressed in woolly terms. I have already pointed to a better explanation based on the necessary characteristics of social mammals: empathy and reciprocity. The social lifestyle requires these. As the social lifestyle becomes more sophisticated and groups grow larger, these two qualities lead to mores and to morals. Once we can think abstractly about our mores, we discover morality and we can begin to tease out ethical principles. Without the evolutionary argument for commonality, we tend to look to explain it by appealing to some external agent, such as metaphysical truth. Having a better explanation helps, but it does not eliminate the bad explanation. This requires a different strategy. 

The proposition I will defend is that all human experience occurs on this spectrum (or something analogous to it). Some philosophers of mind will counter that all experience is entirely subjective and inaccessible to others. But if this were true we'd never agree on anything. And on some things we find an extraordinary degree of agreement. Ask anyone at all, anywhere on the planet, about gravity and they will describe something similar because the experience of having weight is more or less the same for everyone. Put anyone in microgravity and they will struggle to orient themselves, and their physiology will change. Gravity is an objective fact and the only uncertainty about it is in the tooth-fairy agnosticism category (aka philosophy). We might explain things in different ways, but the phenomenology is so similar as to be beyond coincidence. We all know the experience of weight.

How the spectrum applies and the point of it will become clearer if I outline the examples that made me think of it. I will do this in part III. At the heart of my criticism of the Perennial Philosophy is a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at a purely objective state or the knowledge that pertains to it, via purely subjective methods or experiences. Indeed, this seems to me to be self-evidently false. 


07 April 2017

Further Problems with the Heart Sutra: aprāpti

Ven. Dr. Huifeng (釋慧峰)
In this essay I will attempt to summarise and critically assess the article, Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems, by Huifeng (2014). The article is long and complex. It deals with three philological problems in Conze's Sanskrit text of the Prajñāpāramitahṛdaya or Heart Sutra. Conze, himself, highlights these problems and Huifeng tackles them by using the method, suggested by Jan Nattier and Nobuyoshi Yamabe (Nattier 1992), of tracing the passages back to the Prajñāpāramitā source texts in Chinese and Sanskrit. Huifeng discovers that the  person who translated the Heart Sutra from Chinese into Sanskrit misread the text. However, Huifeng leaves open the correct readings, which I will attempt to supply. I will also discuss the problems raised by this discovery (which, in many ways, parallels my own discoveries about this text) and I disagree with Huifeng on how to translate a key term.

Huifeng's article concerns the passage (Sanskrit from Conze 1967; Chinese from T251).
na jñānam, na prāptir na aprāptiḥ. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhanirvāṇa.
I'll separate the three problems into two separate installments: this one will deal with the Conze's phrases na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ and aprāptitvād; the next will deal with the phrases containing the compound a-citta-varaṇa, which occurs twice in different grammatical forms. In the conclusions, we will see that this whole passage needs to be reinterpreted and retranslated.

Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be the only plausible account of the history of the text. Until such time as it is refuted, I take it for granted. This gives us a timeline like this:

-100Putative origin of Prajñāpāramitā
~708000 line manuscript in Gāndhāri
179《道行般若經》T224 (8000) by Lokakṣema
225《大明度經》T225 (8000) by Zhī Qiān
291《放光般若經》T221 (25,000) by Mokṣala
382《摩訶般若鈔經》T226 (8000) by Zhú Fóniàn
404《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra T223 (25,000) by Kumārajīva
406《大智度論》*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, T1509. Composed by Nāgārjuna, trans. Kumārajīva
408《小品般若經》T227 (8000) by Kumārajīva
404-600?Heart Sutra ur-text in Chinese from various sources including T223 or perhaps T1509.
404-600?《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 *Mahāprajñāpārami[tā]-mahāvidyā-sūtra, T250 atrrib. Kumārajīva
663《大般若波羅蜜多經》 T220-ii (25,000) by Xuánzàng
7th C?《般若波羅蜜多心經》 Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, T251 attrib. Xuánzàng.
7th C?Sanskrit translation of Chinese 心經
7th C?First Chinese commentaries on T251
8th C?First Sanskrit long text
741《般若波羅蜜多心經》Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra (long text) T 252 translated by 法月 Fǎyuè (Skt. *Dharmacandra?)
9th CTransmission to Tibet of corrupt Heart Sutra ms.

I understand the later Chinese Heart Sutras (T252-7) to be translations from Sanskrit texts, except T255, which is a translation from Tibetan. I take the two early short-text Heart Sutras (T250 and T251) to derive from the no-longer-extant Chinese ur-text. The Heart Sutra was mainly composed of passages from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (PPS), aka the 25,000 Line Prajñāpāramitā Text. See also my list of Chinese Heart sutra texts, with translators and dates. My focus is almost entirely on the relationship between the Sanskrit and Chinese short texts and when I refer to the "Chinese Heart Sutras" I mean only T250 and T251, unless otherwise specified.

At some point, I hope that Ben Nourse will finish his study of approximately 300 short text manuscripts in Chinese and Tibetan found at Dunhuang, but until then I won't be considering them.

Sanskrit Heart Sutra

The passage that concerns us initially begins "Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness..." (Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ); negates the skandhas. etc/, and then concludes with "no wisdom, no attainment and no non-attainment" (na jñānam, na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ)(Conze 1975: 89). Here, the Sanskrit word prāpti means "attainment". It is an action noun from the verb prāpṇoti (pra√āp) which means "to attain, to reach, arrive at".

I've noted previously that some editors and/or copyists get carried away with the negations and modify the nidāna section of this passage—i.e., nāvidyā nāvidyā-kṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo—so that it reads (interpolations underlined):
navidyā nāvidyā navidyākṣya nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
It would seem that the double negative na-aprāptiḥ in the current passage falls into the same category, though, curiously, the editor has not included na ajñānaṃ. It is contradictory to state, as Conze's Heart Sutra appears to, that there is "no nonattainment" (na-aprāpti) and then in the next sentence say that it is precisely "because of being in a state of non-attainment" (a-prāpti-tvād) that bodhisatvas get enlightened. The Chinese Heart Sutras lack any equivalent of nāprāpti. Since Conze includes the this phrase, he has to resort to convoluted explanations for the apparent contradiction, which are not very convincing. Thus, we can treat na aprāpti as an interpolation and a clumsy one at that. 

The phrase na jñānaṃ na prāpti is found in the section of PPS that is quoted in the Heart Sutra. However, the original passage lists na prāptir nābhisamayo; i.e., "no attainment, no realisation" and then continues on listing types of attainment, from stream-entrant up to Buddhahood. At least one Heart Sutra manuscript also has na prāptir na abhisamaya, e.g., Cb aka T256 (a Sanskrit text transliterated using Chinese characters). I'll return to this when considering the Chinese texts.

Conze's next sentence begins tasmāc Chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya..., which he translates as "Therefore, O Śāriputra, it is because of his non-attainment-ness that a bodhisattva...", which is one of the more egregious examples of his Buddhist Hybrid English. We need to be aware of how Sanskrit uses abstract nouns (indicated by the suffix -tvā). It can be very like English, in which case the suffix -ness can work well. However, the abstract can also represent the idea of being in a particular state. Coulson's discussion of abstract nouns is instructive: "English noun clauses ('that the grass is green') and noun phrases with a verbal component such as an infinitive ('for the grass to be green') tend to be replaced in Sanskrit by a straight abstract noun ('the greenness of the grass')" (2003: 130-1). And thus in translation we sometimes have to produce a noun clause and noun phrase to translate a Sanskrit abstract noun.

Conze is surely correct to interpret aprāptitvād as an ablative of cause ("because"), but the abstract noun can't really be forced into a single word here. The compound must mean something like, "because of being in a state of non-attainment". As PPS explains repeatedly, if a bodhisatva were to think "I am a bodhisatva", or "I have an attainment", then they would not be a bodhisatva. I believe that this kind of talk relates to what in Pāḷi is called suññatāvihāra or "dwelling in emptiness", something the Buddha was said to do frequently. This involves cultivating the formless (arūpa) meditations and sustaining the samādhi in which one experiences nothing at all (śūnyatāsamādhi), i.e., one is alert, but without any sense of being a subject observing an object.

Having described and tidied up the Sanskrit Heart Sutra passages, we now turn to the Chinese texts and begin to unpick the Sanskrit translation and, of course, any English translations based on it.

Chinese Words

There is a problem throughout the Chinese Canon because translators, especially Kumārajīva, have "flattened" the lexicon by using the same character to translate multiple words. This means that there can be considerable ambiguity when looking at a Chinese text as to what Indic word was being translated. So, for example, Huifeng notes that the character 得 has been used to translate √bhū, prāpta/prāpti, √budh, √labh, and other terms (81).

Unfortunately, we also have to add the almost ubiquitous possibility of problematic Chinese translations. As Jan Nattier has said:
"In short, when reading any given line of a Chinese Buddhist sūtra—excepting perhaps those produced by Hsüan-tsang, who is justifiably famous for his accuracy—we have a roughly equal chance of encountering an accurate reflection of the underlying Indian original or a catastrophic misunderstanding." (2003: 71)
T250 and T251 are the same at this point, though both slightly different to the Sanskrit text. Between na jñānaṃ na prāpti , and aprāptitvād bodhisatvasya... the Sanskrit has tasmāc chāriputra "therefore Śāriputra". The Chinese text does not have this, but reads (without the modern punctuation):
...無智亦無得以無所得故... knowledge and no attainment because of there being no attainment...
All modern editions punctuate, and translate, as two sentences (see below). Here, 無智 would appear to correspond to na jñānam, and 無得 to na prāpti. However, because the Gilgit ms. of PPS has na prāptir nābhisdamayo at this point, Huifeng would like to read  as abhisamaya (85). This would also mean that the order of the two negated terms had been switched. With the inherent ambiguity of the Chinese translations, this is plausible. My view is that the Gilgit PPS ought to be treated as authoritative when it comes to the correct Sanskrit of quoted passages. 

The phrase 以無所得故 presents us with some difficulties. The verb is again 得. Huifeng points out that the character combination 以 ... 故 usually stands for a Sanskrit instrumental (2014: 80). However, note that Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) say of this same structure: "故 often works together with 以, meaning “for this reason”, “because”" (39), i.e., it can be consistent with an ablative of cause, which also fits this context. Huifeng also notes that 故 "...when alone after a verbal form is usually grammatically equivalent to a Sanskrit ablative form" (81). For Huifeng 所 before a verb indicates a past participle. Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) explain that "when placed before a verb or verb phrase, 所 turns it into a noun."

When he compares the use of this Chinese phrase he finds: "examination of other examples reveals that the majority of the appearances of the Chinese phrase “以無所得故” (yĭ wú sŭodé gù) directly corresponds to the Sanskrit an-upa√lambha-yogena" (88). The phrase frequent appears appended to sentences describing practices, and means "by being engaged in non-apprehension".

Despite meaning prāpti in the immediately preceding phrase, here 得 appears to equate to a Sanskrit verb upalabh "obtain; perceive, behold". Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary lists anupalambha as meaning "inconceivability, inconceivable", particularly in relevant phrases such as śūnyatānupalambheṣu dharmeṣu "in regard to states of being which because of voidness are inconceivable". However, s.v. upalambha; Edgerton defines upalambhayogena as "by the (erroneous) method of upalambha"; and the latter means "mental perception or apperception, realization by the intellect (c.f. Tibetan dmigs-pa). This supports reading anupalambhanayogena as "by the method of non-perception".

Thus Huifeng argues that, in the phrase 以無所得故 the verb 得 has to be read differently from its use in the previous 無得. He points out that, in any case, denying attainment is inconsistent with the passage in which the bodhisatva attains nirvāṇa (niṣṭhanirvāṇaprāptaḥ). Though note that I have already showed that niṣṭhanirvāṇa is probably another mistake and that what was intended by the Chinese phrase 究竟涅槃 was more likely to be nirvāṇa-paryavasānam ("whose culmination is extinction").

Having said that 所 indicates a past participle, which would be upalabdha or upalabdhita, Huifeng does not note any such forms but, instead, finds forms such as upalambha (action noun) or upalabhamāna (present participle). So here 所得 probably stands for the noun derived from the verb upalambha, and 無所得 for anupalambha; and thus we expect 以–無所得–故 to translate anupalambhena (instrumental) or anupalambhāt (ablative). Apparently, the yoga was simply left out. But this is not uncommon in Chinese translations.


Various modern versions punctuate the Chinese text differently, but the oldest versions of the text have no punctuation. Huifeng thinks that other modern editors have broken the sentence in the wrong place. He argues that the version punctuated as:
... no wisdom and no attainment. Because of non-attainment...
Ought to be
... no wisdom and no attainment, due to engagement in non-apprehension.

This creates a structure in which the whole passage opens with the words, "Therefore in emptiness" (是故,空中) proceeds to say there is no form (無色) etc, but concludes, in Huifeng's new English translation, "...due to engagement in non-apprehension" (以無所得故)(2014: 103). This also means we would read the Sanskrit differently. As Huifeng says, this introduces a major shift in orientation:
"It is our view that this shifts emphasis from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e., 'there is no X', to an epistemological stance. That is, when the bodhisattva is 'in emptiness', i.e., in the contemplative meditation of the emptiness of phenomena, he is 'engaged in the non-apprehension' of these phenomena" (2014: 103).
This view is consistent with my own reading of the Prajñāpāramitā literature as continuing an epistemological stance found in the Pāḷi suttas and described in detail by Sue Hamilton (2000). The main focus of early Buddhism is experience. Similarly, the Prajñāpāramitā literature is focussed on the experience of states which are characterised as "empty"; i.e., states in which there is no sense of being a subject observing an object, and no arising and passing away of experience. In this altered state there is just alertness and no content. It is cultivating this state that is the summum bonum of Buddhist practice. I suspect that, in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, the character of Subhuti represents this point of view, while Śakra and Śāriputra represent other points of view; most likely dhyānic meditation and abhidharma-style analysis.

The problem here, however, is that Huifeng appears to overlooked another kind of boundary in the text. In fact, 無智亦無得 is the end of the quotation from PPS and 以無所得故 is part of the text composed in China. There is no reason to think that the non-quoted parts of the Heart Sutra were composed by Kumārajīva and thus no a priori reason to think that they will conform to Kumārajīva's idiom. Importantly, because of this transition from quotation to composition there is no necessity to read 得 as being from two different verbs, which, after all, is a rather startling ambiguity. Just as the translator has read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād, so might we.

This issue becomes more interesting if we repeat Huifeng's search for this phrase to see who used it. Using the online CBETA Lexicon tool, I searched for the phrase and found that it occurs 238 times in the Taishō edition of the Tripiṭaka. Before Kumārajīva it is used just once:
  • T318 文殊師利佛土嚴淨經,  a translation of the Ratnakuta Sutra on the Prediction of Mañjuśrī to Buddhahood (cf 310.15) translated by Dharmarakṣa 竺法護 in the Western Jin [西晉] (A.D. 240 ~ 290)
Notably it is not used in Dharmarakṣa's Prajñāpāramitā translations. In Kumārajīva's translations we find the phrase multiple times: T223 26; T250 1; T307 1; T586 1; T1509 35. All the rest of the occurrences are in versions of the Heart Sutra or commentaries on it, and thus can be thought of as copying the Chinese Heart Sutra; or they are from later translators. Thus, the phrase, though first used by Dharmarakṣa, is quite distinctive of Kumārajīva's PPS and his translation of the Upadeśa or commentary on the PPS attributed to Nāgārjuna. This suggests that the composer of the Heart Sutra was familiar with Kumārajīva's idiom! 

And just to make matters more complex, we know from ample attestation, that Kumārajīva—a native of Kucha who was taken to Changan as a captive late in life—was probably never fluent in Chinese and his "translations" were probably all the result of collaboration with Chinese monks who produced the actual translations based on his lectures about the texts (Daňková 2006). In other words, "Kumārajīva" is a cipher for a process in which he provided the intellectual understanding, but not the actual Chinese expressions that bear his name.

The upshot of this is that we cannot be sure whether to read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād or as anupalambhayogena. It also makes me wonder what else can be discovered by comparing other phrases with Kumārajīva's translations. For the purposes of this essay I will follow Huifeng's lead in my conclusions, but more work is required to establish the relation of the composed parts of the text to the quoted parts. 

I would further quibble with Huifeng's translation of anupalambha as "non-apprehension" and replace it with "non-perception". The meaning of the term is the same, but I think it more clearly conveys the epistemological stance of the text. Apprehension is a metaphor quite at home in this context; however, it implies that something is there to be apprehended which is not apprehended, whereas, in the state of emptiness there is nothing to apprehend. I think non-perception conveys this better.

Another effect of this is to cast doubt on the use of Tasmāc Chāriputra in this passage. The earlier use is probably also an interpolation, but here it definitely gets in the way and contradicts the sentence structure. So, again, it looks like an interpolation that ought to be excised. However, note that in PPS this quoted passage begins "So, therefore, Śāriputra..." (tathā hi śariputra) (Kimura 1-1: 64)

Reconstructive Heart Surgery

Huifeng thus reads the passage of the Chinese Heart Sutra as:
"Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form ...etc... no gnosis, no realization, due to engagement in non-apprehension." (102-3)
是故,空中無色,無受 ... etc ... 無智,亦無得,以無所得故
He does not give a reconstructed Sanskrit translation, but this would be:
tasmāc [chāriputra] śūnyatāyām na rūpa ... etc ... na prāptir na abhibhasamayo anupalambhayogena.
I would give an interpretative translation of this:
Therefore, Śāriputra, in [the state of] emptiness, due to being engaged in [the practice of] non-perception [of objects], there is no form... etc... no attainment, and no realisation.
Note that in some of his the first Sanskrit edition (1948) Conze follows aprāptitvād with bodhisattvasya,  i.e., bodhisatva in the genitive singular case. This was a mistake that was corrected in the 1967 edition, to bodhisattvo, i.e., the nominative singular. Unfortunately, the second edition of Buddhist Wisdom Books (1975), originally published in 1958 using the 1948 text, doesn't include the correction. This change was not picked up by Kazuaki Tanahashi in his recent Heart Sutra Book (2014: 181).

In the next instalment I will look at Huifeng's treatment of the compounds acittavaraṇaḥ cittavaraṇa-nāstitvād /心無罣礙 無罣礙故.



All Chinese texts from CBETA.
All Sanskrit texts from Gretil. Except Heart Sutra from Conze (1967).

Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. Modified version of Conze (1948).

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. First Ed. 1957.

Coulson, M. (2003) Teach Yourself Sanskrit. teach Yourself Books.

Daňková, Zuzana. (2006) Kumarajiva the Translator His Place in the History of Translating Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese. Diplomová práce. Ústav Dálného Východu Filozofická fakulta Univerzita Karlova v Praze.

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online:

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The INquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Kieschnick, J. & Wiles, S. (2016) A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings. Stanford University.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambhala

17 February 2017

Experience and Reality

"Our relation to the world is not that of a thinker to an object of thought"
—Maurice Merleau Ponty. The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences.


In this essay and some to follow, I want to look an an error that many philosophers and most meditators seem to make: the confusion of epistemology and ontology; i.e., the mixing up of experience and reality. This essay will outline and give examples of a specific version of this confusion in the form of the mind projection fallacy.

I agree with those intellectuals who think that we do not ever experience reality directly. This is where I part ways with John Searle who, for reasons I cannot fathom, advocates naïve realism, the view that reality is exactly as we experience it. On the other hand, I also disagree with Bryan Magee that reality is utterly different from what we experience and we can never get accurate and precise knowledge about it. He takes this view to be a consequence of transcendental idealism, but I think it's a form of naïve idealism.

The knowledge we get via inference is not complete, but we can, and do, infer accurate and precise information about objects. This makes a mind-independent reality seem entirely plausible and far more probable than any of the alternatives. So, we are in a situation somewhere between naïve realism and naïve idealism. 

This distinction between a mind-independent reality and the mind is not ontological, but epistemological. The set of reality includes all minds. However, the universe would exist, even if there were no beings to witness is. The universe is not dependent on having conscious observers. So by "reality" I just mean the universe generally; i.e., the universe made up from real matter-energy fields arranged into real structures that have emergent properties, one of which is conscious states. And by "mind" I specifically mean the series of conscious states that inform human beings about the universe. 

What I don't mean is reality in the abstract. I'm deeply suspicious of abstractions at present. For the same reason, I avoid talking about conscious states in the abstract as "consciousness". Things can be real without there necessarily being an abstract reality. Reality is the set of all those things to which the adjective "real" applies. Things are real if they exist and have causal potential. Members of this set may have no other attributes in common. Unfortunately, an abstract conception of reality encourages us to speculate about the "nature of reality", as though reality were something more than  a collection of real things, more than an abstraction. Being real is not magical or mystical.

I'm not making an ontological distinction between mental and physical phenomena. I think an epistemological distinction can be made because, clearly, our experience of our own minds has a different perspective to our experience of objects external to our body, but in the universe there are just phenomena. This is a distinct position from materialism, which privileges the material over the mental. What I'm saying is that what we perceive as "material" and "mental" are not different at the level of being.  

When we play the game of metaphysics and make statements about reality, they arise from inferences about experience. There are three main approaches to this process:
  • we begin with givens and use deduction to infer valid conclusions.
  • we begin with known examples and use induction to infer valid generalisations.
  • we begin with observations and use abductions to infer valid explanations.
We can and do make valid inferences about the universe from experience. The problem has always been that we make many invalid inferences as well. And we cannot always reliably tell valid from invalid.

For example, we know that if you submerge a person in water they will drown. That tells us something about reality. However, for a quite a long time, Europeans believed that certain women were in league with the devil. They believed that witches could not be drowned. So they drowned a lot of women to prove they were not witches; and burned the ones who didn't drown. The central problem here being that witches, as understood by the witch-hunters, did not exist. The actions of some women were interpreted through an hysterical combination of fear of evil and fear of women, and from this witches were inferred to be real. It was a repulsive and horrifying period of our history in which reasoning went awry. But it was reasoning. And it was hardly an isolated incident. Reasoning very often goes wrong. Still. And that ought to make us very much more cautious about reasoning than most of us are.

One of the attractions of the European Enlightenment is that it promised that reason would free us from the oppression of superstition. This has happened to some extent, but superstition is still widespread. Confusions about how reason actually works are only now being unravelled. And this meant that the early claims of the Enlightenment were vastly overblown. If our views about the universe are formed by reasoning, then we have to assume that we're wrong most of the time, unless we have thoroughly reviewed both our view and our methods, and compared notes with others in an atmosphere of critical thinking, which combines competition and cooperation. The latter is science at its best, though admittedly scientists are not always at their best. 

Into this mix comes Buddhism with its largely medieval worldview, modified by strands of modernism. Buddhists often claim to understand the "true nature of reality"; aka The Absolute, The Transcendental, The Dhamma-niyāma, śūnyatā, tathatā,  pāramārthasatya, prajñāpāramitā, nirvāṇa, vimokṣa, and so on. Reality always seems to boil down to a one word answer. And this insight into "reality" is realised by sitting still with one's eyes closed and withdrawing attention from the sensorium in order to experience nothing. Or by imagining that one is a supernatural being in the form of an Indian princess, or a tame demon, or an idealised Buddhist monk, etc. Or any number of other approaches that have in common that seem to take the approach of trying to develop a kind of meta-awareness of our experience.To experience ourselves experiencing.

It's very common to interpret experience incorrectly. As we know the lists of identified cognitive biases and logical fallacies, which each have over one hundred items. From these many problems I want to highlight one. When we make inferences about reality we are biased towards seeing our conclusions, generalisations, and explanations as valid, and to believing that our interpretation is the only valid interpretation. This is the mind projection fallacy.

The Sunset Illusion

An excellent illustrative example of the mind projection fallacy is the sunset. If I stand on a hill and watch the sunset, it seems to me that the the hill and I are fixed in place and the sun is moving relative to me and the hill. Hence, we say "the sun is setting". In fact, we're known for centuries that the sun is not moving relative to the earth, but instead the hill and I are pivoting away on an axis that goes through the centre of the earth. So why do we persist in talking about sunsets?

The problem is that I have internal sensors that tell me when I'm experiencing acceleration: proprioception (sensing muscle/tendon tension) kinaesthesia (sensing joint motion and acceleration) and the inner-ear's vestibular system (orientation to gravity and acceleration). I can also use my visual sense to detect whether I am in motion relative to nearby objects. A secondary way of detecting acceleration is the sloshing around of our viscera creating pressure against the inside of our body.

My brain integrates all this information to give me accurate and precise knowledge about whether my body is in motion. And standing on a hill, watching a sunset, my body is informing me, quite unequivocally, that I am at rest.

I'm actually spinning around the earth's axis of rotation at ca. 1600 km/h or about 460 m/s. That's about Mach 1.5! And because velocity is a vector (it has both magnitude and direction) moving in a circle at a uniform speed is acceleration, because one is constantly changing direction. So why does it not register on our senses? After all, being on a roundabout rapidly makes me dizzy and ill; a high speed turn in a vehicle throws me against the door. It turns out that the acceleration due to going moderately fast in very large circle, is tiny. So small that it doesn't register on any of our onboard motion sensors. The spinning motion does register in the atmosphere and oceans where it creates the Coriolis effect.

Everyone watching a sunset experiences themselves at rest and the sun moving. It is true, but counterintuitive, to suggest that the sun is not moving. Let's call this the sunset illusion.

I'm not sure where it comes from, but in the Triratna Order we often cite four authorities for believing some testimony: it makes sense (reason), it feels right (emotion), it accords with experience (memory), and it accords with the testimony of the wise. Before about 1650, seeing ourselves as stationary and the sun and moving, made sense, it felt right, it accorded with experience, and it accorded with the testimony of the wise. The first hint that the sunset illusion is an illusion came when Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in January 1610.

Even knowing, as I do, that the sunset illusion is an illusion, doesn't change how it seems to me because my motion senses are unanimously telling me I'm at rest. This is important because it tells us that this is not a trivial or superficial mistake. It's not because I am too stupid to understand the situation. I know the truth and have known for decades. But I also trust my senses because I have no choice but to trust them.

The sunset illusion is sometimes presented as a 50:50 proposition, like one of those famous optical illusions where whether we see a rabbit or a duck depends on where we focus. The assertion is that we might just as easily see the sun as still and us moving. This is erroneous. Proprioception, kinesthesia, the vestibular organ, and sight make it a virtual certainty that we experience ourselves at rest and conclude that the sun moving. It takes a combination of careful observation of the visible planets and an excellent understanding of geometry to upset the earth-centric universe. If some ancient cultures got this right, it was a fluke.

The sunset illusion exposes an important truth about how all of us understand the world based on experience. Experience and reality can be at odds.

And note that we are not being irrational when we continue to refer to the sun "setting". Given our sensorium, it is rational to think of ourselves at rest and the sun moving. It's only in a much bigger, non-experiential framework that the concept becomes irrational. For most of us, the facts of cosmology are abstract; i.e., they exist as concepts divorced from experience. Evolution has predisposed us to trust experience above abstract facts.

Mind Projection Fallacy

The name of this fallacy was coined by physicist and philosopher E.T. Jaynes (1989). He defined it like this:
One asserts that the creations of [their] own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus, in effect, projects [their] own thoughts out onto Nature. (1989: 2)
I think it's probably more accurately described as a cognitive bias, but "fallacy" is the standard term. Also, instead of imagination, I would argue that we should say "interpretation". The problem is not so much that we imagine things and pretend they are real, though this does happen, but that we have experiences and interpret them as relating directly to reality (naïve realism).

The sunset illusion tells us that reality is not always as we experience it. 

We all make mistakes, particularly these kinds of cognitive mistakes. We actually evolved in such a way as to make these kinds of mistakes inevitable. However, reading up on cognitive bias, I was struck by how some of the authors slanted their presentation of the material to belittle people. I don't think this is helpful. Our minds are honed by evolution for survival a particular kind of environment, but almost none of us live in that environment any more. So if we are error-prone, it is because our skill-set is not optimised for the lifestyles we've chosen to live. 

This fallacy can occur in a positive and a negative sense, so that it can be stated in two different ways:
  1. My interpretation of experience → real property of nature
  2. My own ignorance → nature is indeterminate
David Chapman has pointed out that there has been considerable criticism of Jaynes' approach in the article I'm citing and has summarised why. He suggests, ironically, that Jaynes suffered from the second kind of mind projection fallacy when it came to logic and probability. But the details of that argument about logic and probability are not relevant to the issue I'm addressing in this essay. It's the fallacy or bias that concerns us here. 

Interpreting Experience
    A problem like the sunset illusion emerges when we make inferences about reality based on interpreting our experience. For example, when we make deductions from experience to reality, they invariably reflect the content of our presuppositions about reality. For example, a given for most of us is "I always know when I am moving". In the sunset illusion, I know I am at rest because motions sensors and vision confirm that it is so. The experience is conclusive: it must be the sun must be moving. My understanding of how the universe works and my understanding of my own situation as regards movement are givens in this case. We don't consciously reference them, but they predetermine the outcome of deductive reasoning. This means the deduction is of very limited use to the individual thinking about reality.

    If I watch a dozen sunsets and they all have this same character, then I can generalise from this (inductive reasoning) that the sun regularly rises, travels in an (apparent) arc across the sky and sets. All the while, I am not moving relative to earth. What's more, I've experienced dozens of earthquakes in my lifetime, so I also know what it is like when the earth does move! From my experiential perspective, the earth does not move, but the sun does move. Given our experience of the situation, this is the most likely explanation (abductive reasoning).

    So here we see that a perfectly logical set of conclusions, generalisations, and explanations follow from interpreting experience, which are, nonetheless, completely wrong. I am not at rest, but moving at Mach 1.5. The earth is not at rest. The sun is at the centre of our orbit around it, but it also is moving very rapidly around the centre of the galaxy. Our galaxy is accelerating away from all other galaxies. The error occurs because our senses evolved to help us navigate through woodlands, in and out of trees, and swimming in water. And we're pretty good at this. When it comes to inferring knowledge about the cosmos, human senses are the wrong tool to start with!

    A common experience for Buddhists is to have a vision of a Buddha during meditation. And it is common enough for that vision to be taken as proof that Buddhas exist. But think about it. A person is sitting alone in a suburban room, their eyes are closed, their attention withdrawn from the world of the senses, they've attenuated their sense experience to focus on just one sensation and have focussed their attention on it. They undergo a self-imposed sensory deprivation. They've also spent a few years intensively reading books on Buddhism, looking at Buddhist art, thinking about Buddhas, and discussing Buddhas with other Buddhists. We know that sensory deprivation causes hallucinations. And someone saturated in the imagery of Buddha is more likely to hallucinate a Buddha. This is no surprise. But does it really tell us that Buddhas exist independently of our minds, or does it just tell us that in situations of sensory deprivation Buddhists hallucinate Buddhas? 

    The Buddhist who has the hallucination feels that this is a sign; it feels important, meaningful, and perhaps even numinous (in the sense that they felt they were in the presence of some otherworldly puissance). They are immersed in Buddhist rhetoric and imagery, as are all of their friends. As I have observed before, hallucinations are stigmatised, whereas visions are valorised. So if you see something that no one else sees, then your social milieu and your social intelligence will dictate how you interpret and present the experience. If you mention to your comrades in religion that you saw a Buddha in your meditation, you are likely to get a pat on the back and congratulations. It will be judged an auspicious sign. And all those people who haven't had "visions" will be quietly envious. If you mention it to your physician, they may well become concerned that you have suffered a psychotic episode. On the other hand, in practice, psychotic episodes are rather terrifying and chaotic, and not all hallucinations are the result of psychosis. 

    Not only do we have the problem of our own reasoning leading us to erroneous inferences, we have social mechanisms to reinforce particular interpretations of experience, especially in the case of our religiously inspired inferences. Our individual experience is geared towards a social reality. One of the faults of humans thinking about reality is to think that reality somehow reflects our social world. A common example is the nature of heaven. Many cultures see heaven as an idealised form of their own social customs, usually with the slant towards male experiences and narratives. Medieval Chinese intellectuals saw heaven as an idealised Confucian bureaucracy, for example. If we take Christian art as any indication, then Heaven is an all male club. The just-world fallacy probably comes about because we expect the world to conform to our social norms in which each member is responsive to the others in a hierarchy where normative behaviour is rewarded and transgressive behaviour is punished.

    So, given the way our senses work, given the pitfalls of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, given the pressure to conform to social norms, the mind projection fallacy can operate freely. As we know, challenging the established order can be difficult to the point of being fatal. And understanding the power of something like the sunset illusion is important. Facts don't necessarily break the spell. Yes, we know the earth orbits the sun. But standing on a hill watching the sunset, that is just not how we experience it (our proprioception and vision tell us a different story that we find more intuitive and credible, even though it is wrong). And this applies to a very wide range of situations where we are reasoning from experience to reality.

    If I Don't Understand It...

    The second form of this fallacy was rampant in 19th century scholarship. In the first form, one erroneously concludes that one understands something and projects private experience as public reality. Mistaking the sunset as resulting from the movement of the sun, because our bodies tell us that we are at rest. This leads to false claims about reality.

    In the second case there is also a false claim about reality, but in this case it emerges from a failure to understand and the assumption that this is because the experience or feature of reality cannot be understood. This is a problem which is particularly acute for intellectuals. Intellectuals are often over‑confident about their ability to understand everything. These days it is less plausible, but 150 years ago it was plausible for one intellectual to be well informed about more or less every field of human knowledge. So, if such an intellectual comes across something they don't understand, then they deduce that it cannot be understood by anyone. 

    A common assertion, for example, is that we will never understand consciousness from a third person perspective (leaving aside the problematic abstraction for a moment). Very often such theories are rooted in an ontological mind/body dualism, which may or may not be acknowledged. Many Buddhists who are interested in the philosophy of mind, for example, cannot imagine that we will ever understand conscious states through scientific methods. They argue that no amount of research will ever help us understand. So they don't follow research into the mind and don't see any progress in this area. On the other hand, they hold that through mediation we do come to understand conscious states and the nature of them. Many go far beyond this and claim that we will gain knowledge of reality, in the sense of a transcendent ideal reality that underlies the apparent reality that our senses inform us about. In other words, meditation takes us beyond phenomena to noumena

    Another common argument is that scientists don't understand 95% of the world because they don't understand dark matter and dark energy. People take this to mean that scientists don't understand 95% of what goes on here on earth. But this is simply not true. Scale is important, and being ignorant at one scale (the scale that effects galaxies and larger structures) does not mean that we don't understand plate tectonics, the water cycle, or cell metabolism, at least in principle. The popular view of science often seem to point towards a caricature that owes more to the 19th century than the 21st. Criticism of science often goes along with an anti-science orientation and very little education in the sciences. 

    The basic confusion in both cases is mistaking what seem obvious to us, for what must be the case for everyone else, either positively or negatively. 

    The Confusion
    "It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality"
    The basic problem here is a confusion between what we know about the world (epistemology) with what the world is (ontology). In short, we mistake experience for reality. And this problem is very widespread amongst intellectuals in many fields.

    The problem can be very subtle. Another illuminating example is the idea that sugar is sweet. We might feel that a statement like "sugar is sweet" is straightforward. Usually, no one is going to argue with this, because the association between sugar and sweetness is so self-evident. But the statement it is false. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is a stimulus for the receptors on our tongues that register as "sweet". We experience the sensation sweet whenever we encounter molecules that bind with these receptors. But sweet is an experience. It does not exist out in the world, but only in our own conscious states. Sugar is not sweet. Sugar is one of many substances that cause us to experience sweet when they come into contact with the appropriate receptors on our tongue. Equally, there is no abstract quality of sweet-ness, despite the effortless ease with which we can create abstract nouns in English. Sucrose, for example has nothing much in common with aspartame at a chemical level. And yet both stimulate the experience of sweet. Indeed, aspartame is experienced as approximately 200 times as sweet as sucrose, but this does not mean that it contains 200 times more sweetness. There is no sweet-ness. The experience of sweet evolved to alert us to the high calorific value of certain types of foods and the enjoyable qualities of sweet evolved to motivate us to seek out such foods. 

    For Buddhists, the application of this fallacy comes from experiencing altered states of mind in and out of meditation. Meditators may experience altered states of mind that they judge to be more real than other kinds of states, causing them to divide phenomena into more real and less real. And they manage to convince people that this experience of theirs reflects a reality that ordinary mortals cannot see -- a transcendent reality that is obscured from ordinary people. 

    The problem is that an experience is a mental state; and a mental state is just a mental state. No matter how vivid or transformative the experience was, we must be careful when reasoning from private experiences (epistemology) to public reality (ontology) because we usually get this wrong. I've covered this in many essays, including Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and
     Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? (15 Aug 2015), etc.

    Most of us are really quite bad at reasoning on our own. This is because humans suffer from an inordinate number of cognitive biases and easily fall into logical fallacies. There are dozens of each and, without special training and a helpful context, we naturally and almost inevitably fall into irrational patterns of thought. The trouble is that we too often face situations where there is too much information and we cannot decide what is salient; or there is too little information and we want to fill the gaps. 

    Our minds are optimised for survival in low-tech hunter-gatherer situations, not for sophisticated reasoning. The mind helps us make the right hunting and gathering decisions, but in most cases it's just not that good at abstract logic or reasoning. Of course, some individuals and groups are good at it. Those who are good at it have convinced us that it is the most important thing in the world. But, again, this is probably just a cognitive bias on their part. 


    The whole concept of reason and the processes of reasoning are going through a reassessment right now. This is because it has become clear that very few people do well at abstract reasoning. Most of the time, we do not reason, but rely on shortcuts known as cognitive biases. A lot of the time our reasoning is flawed by logical fallacies. Additionally, we are discovering that most mammals and birds are capable of reasoning to some extent. 

    In this essay, I have highlighted a particular problem in which one mistakes experience for reality. Using examples (sunset, visions, sweetness) I showed how such mistakes come about. Unlike others who highlight these errors, I have tried to avoid the implication that humans are thereby stupid. For example, I see the sunset illusion because my senses are telling me that I am definitely at rest, because they tune out sensations that are too small to affect my body. Social conditioning is a powerful shaping force in our lives, and visions are valuable social currency in a religious milieu.

    In terms of our daily lives the sunset illusion or the sweetness illusion hardly matter. It's not like the mistakes cost us anything. Such problems don't figure in natural selection because our lives don't depend on them. We know what we need to know to survive. Although our senses and minds are tuned to survival in pre-civilisation environments, we are often able to co-opt abilities evolved for one purpose to another one. 

    But truth does matter. For example, when one group claims authority and hegemony based on their interpretation of experience, then one way to undermine them is to point out falsehoods and mistakes. When the Roman Church in Europe was shown to be demonstrably wrong about the universe, the greater portion of their power seeped away into the hands of the Lords Temporal, and then into the hands of captains of industry. For ordinary people, this led to more autonomy and better standards of living (on average). Democracy is flawed, but it is better than feudalism backed by authoritarian religion.

    But as Noam Chomsky has said:
    “The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
    In subjecting Buddhism to rational inquiry, I do often elicit incomprehension or outrage. And sometimes it's not masked at all. There are certainly Buddhists on the internet who see me as an enemy of the Dharma, as trying to do harm to Buddhism. As I understand my own motivations, my main concern is to recast buddhism for the future. I think the urge of the early British Buddhists to modernise Buddhism and, particularly, to bring it into line with rationality was a sensible one. However, as our understanding of rationality changes so Buddhism will have to adapt to continue being thought of as rational. But also we have to move beyond taking Buddhism on its own terms and to consider the wider world of knowledge. The laws of nature apply in all cases.

    Whilst Buddhism is largely influenced by people who mistake experience for reality, Buddhism will be hindered in its spread and development. This particular error is one that we have to make conscious and question closely. Just because it makes sense, feels right, and accords with experience doesn't mean that it is true. The sunset illusion makes sense, but is wrong. It feels right to say that sugar is sweet, but it isn't. It accords with experience that meditative mental states are more real than normal waking states. But they are not. The testimony of the wise is demonstrably a product of culture, and varies across time and space.