Showing posts with label Magic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Magic. Show all posts

23 December 2011

Of Miracles.

DAVID HUME is perhaps the greatest thinker to write in the English language, or so everyone says. I've been looking at his 1748 essay Of Miracles [1] which is very readable and couched in English not too different from my own. I think it is still relevant to the kinds of discussions that religious people still have about unusual experiences. The crux of the argument is this:
" testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish..." (p.32)
Hume begins by establishing how we make decisions about reported facts. He argues that when we hear a report about something we weight it against experience. So if I tell you that I met an elephant on the road, you might immediately be doubtful because their are very few elephants wandering the streets of Cambridge. If I add that I was India at the time, my report becomes more credible because India is the kind of place on might expect to meet an elephant on the road. (It was in Kushinagar)

One of Hume's great insights is that we do not see causation per se. If we roll two billiards balls toward each other, they collide and continue on in different direction. The inferences we draw about the nature of their interaction is not based on observing causation, but "...are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction." In other words the collision of two balls has a predictable sequence. Hume is not, of course, the last word on this observation - probably Kant had the last word (to date), but Hume's is a very important observation. We do not see causation, we see a sequence of events, and it is the regularity of our observations which gives rise to the idea of causality.

However none of us will only believe things that seem likely. Unlikely things do happen. People win billions-to-one lotteries, are struck by lightening, etc. But, Hume argues, we do require stronger evidence in order to establish the veracity of and extraordinary claim. It is reasonable to entertain doubts about unlikely events. Hume sums up the reasons why we might doubt a report:
"We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations." (p.28)
So we must weigh up evidence when deciding whether what some says is true, or whether they have been deceived, or are trying to deceive us. With regard to miracles, these are all extraordinary because they defy what Hume calls the "laws of nature". Hume is not using this phrase in the scientific sense; nor, notice does he absolutise the idea by capitalising the words. He means such things as are observed with universal regularity:
"that... all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water". (p. 31)
This might these days be seen as a quaint definition, but in fact it still carries a lot of authority. We might quibble with the notion that the sun rises everyday - by saying that actually the earth turns; or that the sun will die in 5 million years; or by saying that it does not rise in the high Arctic during winter - but in everyday life the sun is observed to return each day by everyone on the earth, and the exceptions are do not deny the regularity of the observations of billions over thousands of years. The sun always rises. A miracle, according to Hume, is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent". The example he uses is the raising of a man from the dead. It would be extraordinary for a healthy person to drop down dead. But it would not be a miracle because we know that such things have been observed in the past, and that it breaks no law of mature. But the opposite, the raising of a person from the dead into life, does break the laws of nature. Hume probably chose this example to directly irritate Christians whose religion centres on the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected, and that they themselves will have everlasting life after death.

But note that Hume is not denying that miracles can happen. What he is doing is trying to establish the basis on which a reported miracle might be credible. And in Hume's mind a miracle would only be credible if other explanations were less believable, less consistent with experience, than the miracle itself. In the case of a dead Jesus being reanimated the report is scarcely credible at all, and is most likely false. At least there is no evidence presented which outweighs the breaking of the laws of nature. In which case Christians have most likely been deceived in the first place, and are deceiving us when they insist it happened.

Hume sets the bar for credibility rather high. And this will be a difficult bar for Buddhists, let alone Christians to reach. One of the ways we escape it comes from the psychoanalytic movement. We can see miracle stories as allegories for how our mind functions. Dreams, and fantasies need not obey the laws of nature. In stories we can do whatever we like. But traditionally religieux have taken miracle stories as literally true, and this modern view, while rescuing us from literalism is not necessarily one that was available before Freud and company. In any case Hume hoped:
" [this argument will] an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures; for so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane." (p.25)
I would say that after 263 years the argument has stood up well to the test of time.


  1. Hume, David (1985) Of Miracles. Illinois: Open Court. [first published 1748]

For a slightly chaotic, but none the less fascinating introduction to Hume try listening to the BBC's In Our Time podcast. A more thorough online introduction can be found in the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

28 December 2007

The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ

In my last essay on this all important mantra I summarised the findings of Alexander Studholme on the origins of the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra, and some interesting facets of the identity of Avalokiteśvara in the Karandavyuha Sutra.

One of the main questions that Westerners ask when they come across something like a mantra is "what does it mean?" Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangrila, outlines the progress of the Western understanding of the meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūm over the centuries. One feature of the Western commentaries on the mantra is that the Westerners are convinced that the Tibetans do not know the meaning of the mantra. This is an example of what Edward Said called "Orientalism" - an attitude of disdain towards Asians who did not conform to European norms, and assessments of Asian culture from those norms. Eurocentrism certainly comes across as arrogant and over-bearing in relation to oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ.

The first European interpretation of the mantra dates from 13th century when William of Rubruck reported that the Tibetans chanted "om mani baccam" which is "God, thou knowest". Over the years such basic mis-hearings, and mis-interpretations were the rule. Interpretations such as "Lord forgive my sins", "O god Manipe, save us" followed. In the 18th century the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri who actually learned Tibetan published his interpretation of the mantra as "O thou who holdest a jewel in Thy right hand, and art seated on the flower Pêmà", which may just capture one of the senses of manipadme . However with the coming of scientific philology, in part inspired by the discovery of the Sanskrit Grammarians, a new interpretation emerged. In 1831 Heinrich Julius von Klaproth explained that padmè was padma in the locative case (i.e. in the lotus) and that the mantra means: Oh! The jewel is in the lotus, Amen. From this time on some variation on "The Jewel in the Lotus" became the standard meaning of the mantra. [1] Of course o and hūṃ are always difficult since they are not words in the way that maṇi and padma are, and so they are treated differently, but maṇi and padma become standardised in English language works as two words with padme in the locative case.

The apotheosis of this, orientalist, interpretation is perhaps represented by Lama Govinda's book "The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism", in which the mantra is explicated over the course of 300 pages. Lopez notes that despite its title it is "based on no Tibetan text", but draws on "the Upanishads, Swami Vivekananda, Arthur Avalon, Alexandra David-Neel, and especially the tetralogy of Evans Wentz". "Lama Anagarika Govinda" always brings to mind Harold Bloom's quip about Freudian Literacy Criticism being like the Holy Roman Empire - not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Perhaps it would equally apply to "Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism". Even Robert Thurman a scholar/practitioner in the Gelug tradition adopts "The Jewel in the Lotus" as the explanation of the mantra in his book Essential Tibetan Buddhism. As Lopez notes, no Tibetan text is ever cited to justify this reading.

As early as the 1950's David Snellgrove pointed out that maṇipadme is not two words but a single compound. Maṇi is uninflected, and maṇipadme is not the locative, but a vocative of the feminine form maṇipadmā. The compound is according to Sten Konow (quoted by Lopez) a bahuvrīhi compound which means "O Jewel-lotus" Alexander Studholm critiques this gloss, and by referring to a number of similar expression in Mahāyāna literature concludes:
"The expression should be parsed as a tatpurusa, or "determinative," compound in the (masculine or neuter) locative case, meaning "in the jewel-lotus," referring to the manner in which buddhas and bodhisattvas are said to be seated in these marvellous blooms and, in particular, to the manner in which more mundane beings are believed to appear in the pure land of the buddhas". [2]
This I think sorts out the grammatical issues, although without reference to traditional Tibetan exegesis. Ironically, given the effort that has gone into answering it, Western scholars and Buddhists may have been asking the wrong question. Faced with a mantra the tradition doesn't ask "what does it mean?" it asks "what does it do?". The mantra in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra is said to result in rebirth in one of the hair pores on Avalokiteśvara's body. This alternate destination to the usual pure land, is probably influenced by Puranic traditions, but has the same advantages as a pure land. The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra likens chanting the mantra to a pre-existing tradition of calling to mind of the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva (nāmanusmṛti). That is to say that the mantra is an invocation of the deity, and offers similar protection to that offered in the Saddharmapuṇḍarika, to the one who calls out the name of Avalokiteśvara.

A much more important approach to "meaning" in esoteric traditions is to take the individual syllables one at a time and establish connections with other sets of six such as the six realms. Avalokiteśvara appears in each of the realms to save the beings there from the particular kinds of suffering that afflict beings in them. When they do address the semantic meaning of maṇipadme, it seems that Tibetan texts read it as jewel-lotus. This fact may have been of very little importance in Tibet however, as the mantra is a invocation of Avalokiteśvara, and what else does one need to know?

However this is not to say that the "jewel in the lotus" interpretation is wrong. It is a powerful image, completely consonant with Buddhist principles, and has inspired many people over the years. It may be a case for Sangharakshita's expressed preference for bad philology with good doctrine being preferable to good philology and bad doctrine. It is bad philology, but since the function of the mantra is more important than it's "meaning" the semantics are actually of only minor interest.

Another way of understanding what the mantra does, and which may help us to understand how the chanting of sounds, the semantic content of which may be completely obscure for the person chanting them comes from Ariel Glucklick's phenomenological study of Tantric magic. Magic, he says:
"is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception… [magical actions, such as mantra chanting] constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness where that experience has been broken" [3]
The idea here is not that the mantra affects anything in the outside world - the distinction of inside/outside has no ultimate meaning in Buddhist epistemology in any case - it addresses the sense of relatedness. In the case of illness this awareness is itself healing. In the case of the incessantly chanted mantra is maintains the empathetic link with all beings, and no doubt produces a sense of wholeness and well-being. There is nothing overtly mystical in this explanation as Glucklich adds. "It is a natural phenomenon, the product of our evolution as a human species and an acquired ability for adapting to various ecological and social environments".[4] This is no to deny benefits which go beyond the understanding of science and scholarship. But here at least is an explanation which allows the materialistic Western the leeway they might need to unselfconsciously engage in mantra chanting without worrying about metaphysics. Mantra works on any number of levels, some of which are undoubtedly comprehensible to the modern Western intellect.

  1. Lopez, D. S. (jr.) 1988. Prisoners of Shangri-la : Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago University Press. p.114ff.
  2. Studholme, Alexander. 2002. The origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūm : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany : State university of New York Press. p.116
  3. Glucklich, Ariel. 1997. The End of Magic. New York : Oxford University Press. p.12
  4. Ibid., p.12.

For the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra in a variety of scripts see the Avalokiteśvara Mantra on

image from: He's the Wiz!