Showing posts with label Study. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Study. Show all posts

19 August 2011

Amateur Scholars: Pros and Cons.

I'M AN AMATEUR SCHOLAR. I don't get paid to write about Buddhism. Although I've been a Buddhist for 18 years, like many Buddhist bloggers, I have almost no training in linguistics or Indic languages; no training is philosophy, history, anthropology or any of the relevant disciplines.[1] I'm not a lineage holder, or a Buddhist 'teacher' or anything fancy like that. And yet every week I make pronouncements on language, on philosophy, on history, and especially on Buddhism.

I admire amateurism. I grew up in the twilight era of amateurism in sport and politics: a time when a professional could not compete in the Olympics; when our national rugby team all had day jobs; and our government was run by people who once had real jobs. Many of the fundamental breakthroughs in the modern study of Buddhism were made by enthusiastic amateurs.

However professionalism brings advantages in scholarship. Access to resources, to conferences, to mentors, to critical dialogue with peers. The lack of mentoring and critical feedback are probably the biggest hindrances to the amateur, especially in this day of freely available internet resources. Pali is not a difficult language to learn. There are several self-teaching guides, as well as dictionaries and grammars available online. Anyone can teach themselves Pāli and dive into reading and translating texts. I wish more people would. But scholarship requires more that this. We amateurs face some difficulties that professionals do not. I want to look at some of these problems with cases studies drawn from reading Buddhist blogs.

Access to resources.

Although there is a huge amount of material online, most of the secondary literature is not. Amateurs seldom have access to journals for instance. We might get the occasional article, but really as scholars we should at least scan every issue of the main journals in our field. So much of Buddhology, and especially Pali philology, remains buried in journal articles. The internet has facilitated identifying articles, but unless one is a member of a university, it hasn't helped with access because publishing companies charge as much as £30 per article for one-off access, and subscriptions are often expensive as well. An exception to this is Buddhist Studies Review which is quite cheap to subscribe to (and probably needs your money!).

But then there are the monographs. If we are interested in history and want to read Johannes Bronkhorst's two most recent tomes then we're looking at around £300 for both. They are the sort of books that only libraries buy, and only in universities with a large Indology or Buddhist studies department. I imagine there are not more than a dozen copies in the UK. But if the history of Buddhism is your subject, then you can't not read these books. In fact if have any interest in the context within which early Buddhist texts exist then you must read these books to be well informed. So most amateurs are not well informed, or not well enough.

The lack of access to, or even interest in, resources often mean that Buddhist bloggers are out of touch with academic Buddhist Studies. Amateurs are often simply uninformed; or they are informed, but about the state of Buddhist Studies 20 years ago, when in fact the last 20 years have seen some remarkable publications.

Critical Thinking

One of the major problems that amateur scholars have is working with their own preconceptions, especially the extent to which our modern Western worldview intrudes. All too often the amateur has an idea, comes to a conclusion, and then goes looking for material to support their thesis. And usually of course they find it. Professionals will do this as well, but less often. A good scholar does have a working hypothesis, but they look at all of the evidence and try to decide what it is telling them. They also have peers and mentors to bounce ideas off.

The following case study is a composite drawing on real blogs that I read. The point is not to make personal comments but to highlight the kinds of problems that all amateur scholars confront (which are not necessarily the problems that all bloggers face). Blogger A is a modern Western Buddhist. They read a little Pali, and they have access to a version of the Canon on the Internet. They think of themselves as a Buddhist, but they are concerned about certain aspects of Buddhism that contradict their worldview. As moderns we are inheritors of the European Enlightenment and its fallout. We have been told (since the late Victorian period) that Buddhism is a "rational religion", consistent with Western scientific paradigms (even quantum mechanics) and does not require blind faith. Not only this, but we have been taught that the Buddha himself was supremely rational. The doctrine of rebirth is a contradiction of all of these: it is not rationally based, conflicts with science, and requires blind faith. There is no doubt that rebirth is a problem for Western Buddhists, even if they don't think it is!

Blogger A, like many other Western Buddhists, sees the Kālāma Sutta as one of the most important suttas in the Canon since it appears to confirms their doubts. They have read it in several translations, but never got around to translating it themselves or studying what it says in detail, so they tend to go along with the urban legends about this text. In particular they take the consolations of being an ariyasāvaka discussed at the end of the text as saying that one need not believe in rebirth. Which is a relief to them.

Blogger A decides that rebirth cannot be true, since it fails the test of rationality, and the Kālāma Sutta says we need not believe it. But it is clearly a major part of all the Buddhist traditions. So how to make sense of these facts? Blogger A comes to the conclusion that the Buddha himself did not believe in rebirth, but that this 'foreign belief' was smuggled into Buddhism by his corrupt (possibly Brahmin) followers in the years after his death. Either the Buddha did not actually teach rebirth at all, or if he did, then he took it as a metaphor and did not believe or teach literal rebirth.

This "later corruption" narrative does not spring from nowhere. It goes back to the early Victorian translators, particularly Mrs Rhys Davids. They had the very same project: squaring the obviously irrational and superstitious elements which abound in Buddhism as it is practised today, and as we find it in Buddhist texts, with the idea that the Buddha was effectively an Enlightenment figure who, had he met, say, Newton or Leibniz would have got along fine with them. What most amateurs don't see is that the 'rational Buddha' is a product of the Western imagination in the first place, the Buddha of tradition is not quite irrational, but there is plenty of non-rational mysticism attached to him—he very often converses with gods for example (more like William Blake than Isaac Newton).

The 'later corruption' narrative is a polemic developed amongst Protestant intellectuals to account for the decline of the Roman Catholic Church due to moral corruption, which appeared to mirror the decline and fall of the Roman Empire due to its moral corruption. It was first employed in relation to Buddhism by Victorian scholars who were culturally, if not religiously, Protestant. In fact there is no a priori reason to treat a development or an evolution as a corruption: the emergence of Tantric Buddhism, for instance, corresponds to a major re-invigoration of Buddhist culture in India following the chaos of the Post-Gupta Empire period. Blogger A doesn't see that their ideas are conditioned by their own culture, or that their ideas themselves have a history.

The popular idea that, ignoring what Buddhists themselves believe and practice, one could reconstruct the 'original' Buddhism from the Pali texts is the very essence of the Protestant project transferred into the Buddhist arena. Although it was seen as a viable project into the mid 20th century, it is largely discredited now. And worse, as Greg Schopen has vociferously (and, one might say gleefully) pointed out, is the fact that where we do have epigraphical and archaeological evidence for early Buddhism it tends to conflict with the textual accounts rather than confirm them. Let me quote a professional at this point:
"But, during the present century, and especially during the past several decades, Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about this naive use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history. Thus it is now recognised that the form in which the suttas survive today, like Pāli itself, is the result of grammatical and editorial decisions made in Sri Lanka centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha... More important still, historians and anthropologists have pointed to the rift between Buddhism constructed as 'canonical' on the basis of the teachings in the suttas and the actual practices and ideas of contemporary Theravāda Buddhists. As similar divergences from this 'canonical Buddhism' are evidenced as early in Buddhist history as our evidence itself, namely the time of Aśoka Maurya (third century B.C.), the question emerges whether the reconstructed 'early Buddhism' ever existed at all.

... I think it fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda there has been a marked shift away from attempting to say much of anything at all about 'early Buddhism'"

- Walters, Jonathan. S. (1999) 'Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the Sermon on the Noble Quest (Ariyapariyesana Sutta).' History of Religions 38.3: 247-8. [my italics]
But because amateur scholars are not part of this broad scholarly discussion, because they never read articles like Walters', they have not participated in this marked shift. They continue to work an abandoned gold mine, even though they only find iron pyrite. Though I note that professionals still sometimes stray into this quagmire! [2]

Pursuing this course they proceed to look for texts which supplement the Kālāma Sutta and 'prove' that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. Perhaps they stumble upon SN 15.1. This is an interesting text which describes saṃsāra in terms of ancestors stretching back through beginningless time. A couple of the other texts in this short saṃyutta also use this metaphor. However if we keep reading we see that the metaphor changes at SN 15.10 and describes one person (ekapuggala) wandering through saṃsāra leaving a mountainous pile of bones behind them. This is also somewhat anomalous, but since it contradicts the starting premise that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth it is not even considered by Blogger A. In fact SN 15.10 creates a paradox - because in it the Buddha is talking about one person over several life times, and this contradicts the accepted Buddhist notion that the next life is not the same person, but only the inheritor of previous karma. So we have here three views on rebirth - traditional rebirth, ancestral lineage, and reincarnation. All of them in the Pali Canon, and all in the mouth of the Buddha! I've read through these texts and I don't see any way of deciding which should have priority on the basis of the texts. There are no criteria one could apply.

But Blogger A has an a priori criteria, they have their view that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. So it is obvious to them that the text which describes saṃsāra in terms of an ancestral lineage is the "true text", and the others are corruptions. And so it goes. This is technically called confirmation bias. Amateurs are particularly pray to this it seems.


Teaching oneself a little Pali in order to read texts which are already familiar in translation, or where there are excellent translations already available to act as commentaries, is one thing. Knowing the language and the literature thoroughly so that one can understand the texts from the inside is another. It takes time, and is unlikely to be possible without an experienced mentor. I've more or less given up trying to translate texts from the Suttanipāta for instance because the poetry and the archaic language are so difficult to understand, even though I have access to translations and extensive notes by the great Middle-Indic philologer K. R. Norman. Interestingly Norman himself declined to formally translate the Dhammapada for the Pali Text Society because it would be "too difficult"! Let us pause to consider the implications of that!

As an amateur one can spend hours chasing one's tail. The other day I wasted a lot of time on the word esevanto = es'ev'anto = eso eva anto = "just this is the end". It just took ages for it to dawn on me that there must be two sandhi, partly because I saw -vanto and assumed it must be a present participle. And I had the English translation in front of me! This is what inexperience is like. It gets worse when we want to look at the untranslated commentaries. And it must be said that anyone seriously reading a text must look at the traditional aṭṭhakathā alongside, if not also the ṭīka. But the Pāli of the aṭṭhakathā is much more difficult—being a literary form highly influenced by Sanskrit models—and there is no guide, no standard translation to consult.

I've said that Pāli is not a difficult language, but like all languages it is idiomatic. This means that Pāli learnt from a primer must be supplemented by reading many texts. So Blogger A following up their desire to prove a supposition about rebirth finds this phrase from the Dona Sutta (A ii.37):
‘‘Devo no bhavaṃ bhavissatī’’ti? ‘‘Na kho ahaṃ, brāhmaṇa, devo bhavissāmī’’ti.
Blogger A wants this sentence to say: "Will you, Sir, become a god? No, Brahmin, I will not become a god". In the Dona Sutta various other words are substituted for deva as the Brahmin tries to decide what to make of Gotama: is he a god? A yakkha? A man? The implication deduced by Blogger A, on the basis that the verb is in the future-tense, is that the Buddha is rejecting the idea of his rebirth in various realms. The form bhavissati is undoubtedly the future-tense of √bhū 'to be', but here it is used idiomatically. As Warder points out (Introduction to Pali, p.55) "The future also expresses perplexity, surprise, and wonder." Warder's example is directly relevant: kim ev'idaṃ bhavissati 'what can this be?' So our question means 'Sir, are you a deva?', but with a tone of puzzlement. Dona the Brahmin is expressing his perplexity, and is trying to determine just what class of being the Buddha is. Blogger A over-rides these grammatical facts—ignores the cases, and idioms—and finds only confirmation of their pre-existing view.


I love the way that the Internet has reopened the field to amateurs. But the Internet has produced very few scholars of note, and few commentators consistently worth reading—some exceptions that I enjoy can be found in the "Blogs I Read" section in the sidebar. The best Buddhist blogs are usually the popular comment blogs with no pretension to scholarship, or the scholarly blogs by academics (though again there are exceptions). The tensions that often exist between popular magazine writers, and popular blog writers are a feature of the landscape of popular Buddhism, but they don't usually impinge much on the realm of serious scholarship. Where popular and professional Buddhist writing and Buddhist scholarship do cross over the result is often mutual incomprehension.

We need to be aware of our limitations. Unfortunately amateurs, with no training and often no discipline, no access to the secondary literature, and no participation in critical dialogue, can be unaware of their limitations. But amateurs are also free from the constraints of earning a living from their writing, from the artificial conditions imposed on 'serious' writing, and from the paradigmatic thinking that makes new ideas hard to see in academia. As amateurs we do not have to find approval from our peers, and this can be both weakness and strength.

Scholars, whether amateur or professional, play an important role in the ecosystem of Buddhism. Scholars are part of the system of checks and balances that characterise a healthy society. Old ideas are conserved, and put into appropriate context and perspective. New ideas, emerging from experience, are assessed in the light of existing intellectual frameworks. Knowledge gradually accumulates. Scholars, whether directly or indirectly, are in dialogue with practitioners (and increasingly span both camps) and help to refine interpretations of experiences, and the language by which our ideas, images and practices are communicated. Without scholars our ecosystem would collapse. We need only look at the toxicity of the the anti-intellectual fundamentalist religious sects to see where a rejection of scholars and scholarship lands us. Of course scholarship should not blind us to the experiential nature of the Buddhist program. Ideas can get in the way of practice—too many of us are trying to prove a dogma instead of paying attention to what is happening—but a good scholar knows this limitation and works with it.


  1. My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and my graduate qualification in library management.
  2. I refer to Alexander Wynne's recent, award winning, article: "The Buddha's 'Skill in Means' and the Genesis of the Five Aggregate Teaching." J. of the Royal Asiatic Soc. 2010, 20(2):191-216. Wynne piles up speculation and conjecture without ever citing solid evidence, because of course there is none, and comes to a conclusion about the "original" teaching of the khandhas. Wynne's concatenation of multiple uncertain conjectures doesn't take into account what every scientist knows: that when you add two uncertain quantities together, the uncertainty accumulates.

25 December 2009

Meditation & Scholarship

Saint Jerome in his studyOver the last couple of years I've sometimes come in for some shtick from colleagues and acquaintances who think that because my writing focuses on doctrine more than meditation I've got nothing useful to say about the Dharma. I've tried pointing out that the subject I write about is what seems best suited to the medium and my own temperament, and that my words are not entirely unrelated to my experience as a practising Buddhist. But the suggestion that my contribution is of less value hangs in the air. For my part I find that my critics who focus on meditation at the expense of study are often self-absorbed, intellectually vague, and inarticulate. So you might imagine that I was quite interested to see that this kind of, shall we say, 'incompatibility' between Buddhists with different proclivities has a long enough history to be recorded in a Pāli sutta. [1] The sutta is one delivered by Mahācunda to a gathering of bhikkhus and the Buddha does not feature in it at all.

The Mahācunda Sutta (AN 6.46) describes two kinds of monks: those 'keen on dhamma' (dhammayogā bhikkhū) and those keen on meditation (jhāyī bhikkhū). Dhammayoga is glossed in the commentary as dhammakathikānaṃ 'a dhamma-preacher' (AA 3.376), but Bhikkhu Bodhi thinks it means someone (like me) who is more focused on study, i.e. a scholar.

In the sutta it says the scholar bhikkhus disparage the meditating bhikkhus:
ime pana jhāyinomhā, jhāyinomhāti - jhāyanti pajjhāyanti nijjhāyanti avajjhāyanti. Kimime jhāyanti, kintime jhāyanti, kathaṃ ime jhāyantī’ti?

"We are meditating, we are meditating" [they say]. They meditate here, they meditate there, they meditate up, they meditate down. Do they meditate? How do they mediate? Why do they meditate?
Similarly the meditating bhikkhus disparage the scholar bhikkhus:
ime pana dhammayogamhā, dhammayogamhāti uddhatā unnaḷā capalā mukharā vikiṇṇavācā muṭṭhassatī asampajānā asamāhitā vibbhantacittā pākatindriyā. Kimime dhammayogā, kintime dhammayogā, kathaṃ ime dhammayogā’ti?

"we are dhamma scholars, we are dhamma scholars" [they say]. They are inflated, showing off, arrogant; they talk too much and loosely, they're unmindful, unfocussed, scattered and their thoughts stray with senses uncontrolled. Do they study? How do they study? Why do they study?
One can almost hear the mocking tone of these taunts. However the text says that there is no profit for anyone in this kind of talk. Thus all bhikkhus should train themselves this way:
dhammayogā samānā jhāyīnaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti... jhāyī samānā dhammayogānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ vaṇṇaṃ bhāsissāmāti

We will say that scholars are of equal value to meditators. We will say that meditators are of equal value to scholars.
The meditator is of value because: amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
...they dwell having touched the deathless state with the body.
The scholar is of value because:
gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passantī
they see, they penetrate with wisdom into the depths of texts.
The text is noted by Reginald Ray in his book Buddhist Saints in India. He takes the term dhammayogā bhikkhu or dhammayogin [2] to be synonymous with what he calls the settled monastic whose role in Buddhist society was remembering the Buddha's words, preserving them in texts, and studying the meaning of them. In addition they were responsible for basic literacy - monks like this probably were the ones who spread writing across India, Central Asia, Tibet and South-East Asia. Their counterparts, the meditators or jhāyins, are called forest renunciants by Ray. They devoted themselves to meditation practice in out of the way places, aiming for realisation of the truth. This, by the way, marks the sutta was probably a late addition to the canon because this kind of division must have taken some time to emerge. Ray also notes that such divisions are evident in later strata of Buddhist texts and even in contemporary Buddhist discourse. I might also note in passing that Jan Nattier's book A Few Good Men makes it seem likely that early in the Mahāyāna 'bodhisatta bhikkhu' was also synonymous with the jhāyī bhikkhu. [3]

The Mahācunda Sutta is a plea for tolerance of different temperaments leading people towards the Dhamma in different ways. We can all make a contribution to the wider Sangha according to our abilities. This is not to say that scholars need not meditate, or that meditators should not study. We must not only play to our strengths. It is of course entirely necessary to test our theories in practice - to give expression to our faith. On the other hand concepts are required to communicate insights and it benefits everybody if the concepts are clear and put across in ways that can be understood. As well as some frustrating experiences, I have also found that it is possible to get some depth of conversation with meditators and to use their experience as confirmation of the way I think, and on the other hand to help meditators to clarify the way they communicate the experience of meditation, and even to refine their approach especially to vipassana meditation. We can learn from each other.

In both study and meditation we confront our views. This is one thing about study and scholarship which often seems to be misunderstood. The scholar is not seeking certainty, not trying to fix things in words. Indeed the scholar is often intensely aware of the limitations of words, and especially in professional scholarship one's thoughts are subject to constant criticism by one's peers. The scholar is trying to expand knowledge, to make clear what is opaque, to observe new things. If there were nothing new to see and hear, then scholarship would have died centuries ago, but there are always fresh insights that need to be communicated, always unnoticed subtleties to explore. My own exploration of the texts, especially the Pāli texts, has lead me to a much stronger faith in the Buddhadharma. As critical as I can be, as unwilling to accept received traditions and dogmas, I find something beautiful and timeless in the Dharma that I have great confidence in.

  1. Mahācunda Sutta. Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.46 (PTS: A iii.355). My translations. Also translated by Bhikkhus Nyanaponika and Bodhi. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. p.163-4; and by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Ray discusses the term dhammayogin on p.201-2. Ray seems too quick to accept La Vallee Poussin's characterisation of dhammayogins which smacks of polemic. There is no a priori reason to think that a scholar is only interested in the 'intellectual' or that they are interested in metaphysics at all - though I will admit that it seems to have been the pattern through history. I wonder whether things could have got that far before the composition of the Mahācunda Sutta?
  3. Nattier, Jan. 2003. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisativa Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press. See especially chapter 5.
image: St Jerome in his study

05 September 2008

Reading Buddhist texts

The average Buddhist reader has a naive approach to Buddhist texts. At worst we take them at face value as being what the texts themselves say they are: the actual words of the Buddha. At best we are slightly suspicious about translations, and might compare more than one when studying a text.

We all interpret texts. The study of the methods we employ when we read a text, the presuppositions and assumptions we bring to text, and the ideas that underlie how we understand a text, is known as Hermeneutics. The hermeneutic we employ in reading a text, or what we believe the text to represent even, determines to a large extent what we understand a text to be saying. As an exercise in this post I'm going to write about some of my working assumptions in reading a Buddhist text.

I am strongly influenced by contemporary Buddhology. For instance on the basis of scholarship - linguistic, historical, and text critical - I do not believe that the words preserved in Buddhist texts can have been literally spoken by the historical Buddha. The evidence is overwhelmingly that the Buddha did not speak Pāli or Sanskrit or any of the other languages in which texts are preserved. Therefore the texts have been translated at least once. Equally I do not accept that all of the teachings literally came out of the mouth of one person. The Buddhist doctrine evolved over time and new ideas and practices were added at each step along the way. Clearly some texts were written after the lifetime of the Buddha (I do accept the high likelihood of there having been a historical Buddha).

The Buddhist texts were preserved as an oral tradition for several centuries, and there is little or no evidence for the use of sophisticated mnemonic techniques as used by the Brahmins to preserve the integrity of the text. Also as you read the texts it's clear that some passages have been inserted rather crudely by some later editor. Presumably other more skilled editors were at work. Then there are differences between the Pāli texts and surviving parallels in other languages. Comparing the Pāli and Gāndhārī Dhammapadas for instance one can immediately see that they are far from identical. Some doctrines have been played down by some schools -0 such as the practice of mettā in Theravada. So Buddhist texts can not have the status of divine revelation.

One problem that emerges out of assuming that all the teachings came at once is that there are contradictions. In attempts to resolve these difficulties Buddhists have historically had to make some teachings provisional, and others ultimate. But this is problematic because each text proclaims itself to be the ultimate and final teaching of the Buddha, only to be superseded as something new emerges. The centuries have left us with many unstable towers of texts each one claiming to be the final teaching. Sangharakshita has said that there are no higher teachings, only deeper realisations. Following Sangharakshita I think it is time to dismantle the hierarchies of value and accept that texts emerged over time. If a text is profound, then it is profound. The fact that some later disciple wrote it on the basis of their own experience should not lessen it's value. in other words are we interested in truth or lineage?

Another important aspect of my hermeneutic is that I see texts as idealised. Texts are unreliable guides to history because they are what some people thought the ideal was at some point in time. We need an historical perspective which is not available from the texts themselves in order to fully appreciate that this is so. Greg Schopen for instance, in a long career of iconoclastic debunking of sacred cows, has emphasised the point that epigraphical and archaeological evidence often provides flat contradictions to the texts. Monks not only frequently handled money, for instance, but in at least one case actually printed it! Generally speaking we could say that a text represents the social and spiritual ideal as it was conceived by a particular community at the time it was written. The Pāli commentaries to the Suttas for instance tell us more about Buddhism in 5th century CE Sri Lanka, than they do about 5th century BCE India. They are still useful for understanding the texts they comment on, especially in terms of philology, but must be read cautiously for historical value. In fact some scholars have concluded that Buddhist texts have nothing useful to say about the history of Buddhism. This is going too far I think, but highlights the dilemma.

Many scholars now point to influences in the Buddhadharma. It seems pretty clear that many early Buddhist teachings are in response to Brahminical and Jain religious discourse for instance, and that Tantric Buddhism was in dialogue with Śaivism. I have found one or two examples of this myself, but Prof. Richard Gombrich has lead the scholarly investigation of the sources of the Buddha's ideas. Some concepts can't really be understood without reference to Vedic or Vedantic doctrine. The clearest example of this ātman (Pāli attā) which has it's roots in the general religious discourse of the day, a discourse which is seldom if ever replicated in the modern West. This should not be confused with the early 20th century idea, also popular with Hindu scholars, that Buddhism is a kind of reformed or even unreformed Hinduism. The point is that the Buddha responded to his audience which was frequently deeply versed in Vedic lore. He had to communicate in terms which would be understood by his audience - though he frequently redefines words as he goes. But there are also examples of Buddhist and Hindu texts (for example the Dhammapada and the Mahābharata) which draw on a common pool of religious or moral stories. Aspects of the Pāli canon, the obvious worship of yakṣas for instance do not seem especially Buddhist, but relate to what the people around the Buddhists believed.

We must also remember that Indian religious traditions interacted in a way that it quite foreign to the West. In an earlier post [Religion in India and the West] I compared the Indian religious attitude to the Microsoft business model. Each Indian tradition has adopted and adapted ideas from the others. Where one tradition begins to dominate, the minority religions will borrow their ideas, symbols, and practices. During the time when the Tantra emerged amongst the ruins of the Gupta Empire in the 6th century, many different traditions were synthesised into a grand new pattern incorporating various strands of Buddhism, Vedic ritual, Śaiva ritual and iconography, Vaiṣṇava devotional practices and so on. Westerners have tended to characterise this as a degeneration. Contemporary scholarship has exposed the origins of this attitude in Protestant criticisms on the Catholic church based on the model of the Roman Empire. In fact Tantric Buddhism was a much needed revitalisation of Buddhism, but one which may have had too little influence on mainstream Buddhism to save it from collapse. The decline of Buddhism is often attributed to the invasion of Islamic forces from Persia, but they were only the final nail in the coffin of a moribund institution. The vigour of Tantric Buddhism is obvious in Tibet. In Japan Tantric Buddhism dominated for 400 years, but was eclipsed to some extent by indigenous forms such as Zen and Jodo Shin Shu - although not many people know that Shingon is still the largest Buddhist sect in Japan.

Finally I would say that over recent times I have become increasingly suspicious of translations. Translations often hide a multitude of sins. There are huge problems with representing the intellectual content of Buddhism in English. English language and culture is vastly different from Indian. Often the connotations of an English word used as a translation of a Buddhist technical term are entirely unhelpful. For instance it is quite misleading to translated Dharma as "Law", but this frequently happens. The translator must make a large number of discriminations and decisions in translating a text. Just as in English a word in Pāli or Sanskrit may have a range of meanings (polysemic). Some words are highly polysemic and deciding which of sometimes a dozen or more potential senses are indicate depends on how well the translator knows the language (and English), how deeply they understand the Dharma, and

We need also to be aware that what is available in English translation is not the entire corpus of Buddhist texts. While the Pāli canon has been translated more or less entirely, the older translations are unreliable. In the case of Māhayāna Sūtras we have only a small proportion in English. It is most likely that this has skewed our understanding of the development and emphases of the Mahāyāna. [see also Which Mahāyāna Texts?] Many scholars think for instance that the influence of the White Lotus Sūtra in India was negligible, and that it is a rather idiosyncratic text.

I hope that all of this skepticism does not add up to cynicism. But it's clear that I express a lot more doubt about the provenance of texts and the uses that they are put to, than most of my peers and colleagues. I find that I continue to be fascinated by Buddhist texts and textual studies. I have also found that my studies inform and enrich my practice of Buddhism. I suppose I want to call for an intelligent and informed approach to texts. I am far more intellectual than most of my peers and don't expect them to adopt my rather intellectual approach, but I do hope that if you've read this then you might spend a bit of time examining your beliefs about the texts. Where do your beliefs come from, and on what are they based? Are their elements of blind faith in there for instance? It's good to be aware of biases, of likes and dislikes, and to see how they operate to shape your experience of the world.

Often we are looking for certainty and there is a lingering desire for the texts to be the Absolute Truth (paramartha satya). This is both generally true of humans, but especially true in the post-christian west where ideas of absolutes, and concrete answers remain in our psyches. Since Absolute Truth cannot be summed up or put into words we should be at least a bit suspcious of texts. What words are good for is giving us the recipe. They cannot give us the experience of eating the cake.

image: Sinhalese Buddhist text. Jayarava on Flickr.

18 April 2008

Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell

I want to start this post by giving my free rendition of a Pāli Sutta, and then follow with a little commentary.

The Conch Blower
Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.8 (iv.317)

One time when the Blessed One was staying at Nāḷandā in a mango grove he was approached by Asibandhakaputta, the head man of his village and a disciple of the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta. After exchanging greetings, the Blessed One asked, “how does your teacher explain the cosmic order?”

“Well sir”, replied Asibandhakaputta “he teaches that anyone at all who takes life, takes what is not given, indulges in sexual misconduct, or tell lies, is bound for a state of misery, bound for hell. Whatever state one is habitually in will determine one’s rebirth”.

“Well in that case, Asibandhakaputta, no one will ever be born in a state of misery or go to hell. Think about it: which is more frequent, how much of the time is one, for instance, taking life? A much greater time spent not taking life, isn’t it?”

“I see what you mean, sir”.

“In which case because they spend more time not taking life, they will not have a bad rebirth.”

“Imagine Asibandhakaputta that someone who had confidence in his teacher held this view. Haven’t we all at some time acted unskilfully and broken a precept? A person with that belief who breaks a precept will believe that they are bound for misery and hell, and holding to that view will be hellish.”

“Now imagine that a fully Awakened Buddha comes along to teach. He criticises and censures the taking of life and so on. He says: don’t do it! If someone has faith in the Blessed One they reflect on their conduct, and acknowledge that at times they have acted unskilfully. They know that this was not good or proper, and although they regret it, they know that evil deeds in the past cannot be undone. This reflection will help them to restrain themselves in the future and keep the precepts. He will abandon, and abstain from: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, covetousness, illwill, and, wrong views.”

“Then, purified in this manner, the disciple of the Noble One will practice the Brahmavihara meditations. Pervading the entire world in all directions with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, vast, exalted, and measureless, without hostility or illwill. Just as a strong conch blower can make his note heard in the four quarters when the liberation of the heart by the Brahmaviharas is developed and cultivated any action in the sensuous sphere does not remain or persist.”

“Excellent, Sir”, exclaimed Asibandhakaputta. “Please accept me as a lay follower from now on.”

The sutta feels a bit like a Socratic dialogue. The Buddha begins by asking what Asibandhakaputta's teacher says about the dhamma (which I am reading here as 'cosmic order' on the basis of the context, and on historical grounds), then points out the fallacy, and substitutes his own view. I'm pretty sure that what Asibandhakaputta describes is not a fair representation of the Jain Dharma, although it does resemble it.

My two main points are suggested by my title. The Buddhist position, as represented by this text, is that it does matter what we believe in. If we believe like Asibandhakaputta does originally that the slightest unskilfulness means we are going to hell, then most likely we will end up living in hell. I follow Chögyam Trungpa in taking this kind of statement as a psychological metaphor: believing that one is inevitably destined for hell is hellish.

I have already mentioned in a previous post that the literal meaning of Brahmavihara is dwelling with God. The Buddha took the goal of Brahminical religious life at the time and used it as a metaphor. By dwelling with unbounded, vast and measureless loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, one is effectively in heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this. In fact this is also the liberation of the heart (cetto-vimutti), or the goal of the Buddhist religious life as well.

Believe yourself destined for hell, and you will be; believe yourself destined for heaven and you will be.

The Buddha calls for a rational approach to ethical precepts. We cannot be absolutely pure of conduct until Awakening. Reflecting on our conduct can give us the motivation to make ethical progress. It is the remorse born of reflecting that makes us want to do better in the future. Although it is tacit in this particular sutta what we reflect on is: cause in the form of our motivations; and effect in the form of the consequences of our actions. Although the focus here is on unskilfulness there is no reason not to reflect on positive results coming from positive intentions, indeed I would say it is a necessary test of the theory.

The implication in this sutta is that we practice ethics, which I will gloss here as 'acting as though we had no greed, hatred and delusion', in order to more fully express loving kindness and the rest. We practice loving kindness and the rest in order to actually liberate our consciousness from what afflicts it: that is greed, hatred, and delusion.

17 September 2007

The Heart Sūtra - Indian or Chinese?

Pic of Jan NattierIn this post I want to call attention to an important article, now over 15 years old, but with hardly any recognition outside academic circles. The article is:

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

The editors of JIABS are in the process of digitising their back issues which will be available for free download. In the meantime they have graciously given me permission to offer the pdf to anyone who would like a copy. Click here.

Jan Nattier (left) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University, and a scholar of great merit and interest. The article is a fine example of contemporary scholarship, meticulously reasoned, well structured, and typically for Nattier, well written. This last is a strong feature of Nattier's published work - she can write very well. However the article also offers a startling conclusion with wide implications for Buddhists.

The main argument of the article is that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China, incorporating some verses from the Chinese version of the Large Prajñāpāramita text, and back translated into Sanskrit sometime in the 7th century. Nattier also offers an explanation for the two different versions, one longer and one shorter, of the Heart Sūtra. Page references are to Nattier's article.

Nattier focuses initially on the shorter version of the Heart Sūtra. This has several problematic features which distinguish it from sūtras generally and the other Prajñāpāramita sūtras in particular. Firstly it does not begin with 'thus have I heard'; second there is is no audience reaction at the end of the sūtra; third the Buddha makes no appearance; fourth Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion makes an unexpected appearance, while the usual characters of Prajñāpāramita sūtras (such as Subhuti) do not; and lastly the sūtra contains a mantra, which few other Prajñāpāramita sūtras do, and then only the later tantric sūtras. Any explanation of the origin of the Heart Sūtra should provide some insights into these oddities, and Nattier's article does just this.

It has been known for centuries that the lines beginning with "form is not other than emptiness" and ending with "no knowledge and no attainment" are quoted from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, or Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the Large Sūtra). The first reference to this borrowing is in a Chinese commentary from the 7th century. Nattier spends quite some space looking at the various versions of these verses. They occur in four places:
  • Sanskrit Large Sūtra (using the oldest extant manuscript from Gilgit)
  • Chinese Large Sūtra (trans. by Kumarajiva)
  • Sanskrit Heart Sūtra (Conze's critical edition)
  • Chinese Heart Sūtra (trans. Hsuan-tsung)
Nattier makes several comparisons. Firstly the Chinese Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Large Sūtra. These are laid out side by side and even without being able to understand the Chinese characters, it is obvious that they are virtually identical. Next the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Heart Sūtra are compared and we find a "virtual word for word correspondence" (p.160). However comparing the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra we find many differences of vocabulary and word order, although the meaning is synonymous. An example is:

Sanskrit Large Sūtra : (na)anyad rūpam anyā śunyata / nānya śunyatānyad rūpa
Sanskrit Heart Sūtra : rūpān na pṛthak śunyatā / śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam

In the list of the nature of dharmas the Sanskrit Large Sūtra uses singular verbal forms, is more repetitious and slightly longer; while the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra uses plural adjectival forms, and is shorter and more succinct. Almost every word, barring some very well known technical terms such as śunyata, are different. Conze explains the differences in repetition as a process of summarising, however Nattier contends that this runs counter to the general Indian tendency to elaboration. In any case the changes in vocabulary are unprecedented and "there is no straight forward way to derive the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra, or vice versa." (p.167)

The best way to understand the progression is that the verses moved from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra to the Chinese Large Sūtra, and thence into the the Chinese Heart Sūtra, and finally into the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra. Which is to say that it is far more plausible on philological grounds that the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra is a translation of the Chinese rather than the other way around.

Nattier proceeds to marshal supporting evidence for this conclusion beginning by considering known examples of back-translation - these are plentiful in Mongolian scriptures apparently. An important sign of back-translation is the choice of "unmatched but synonymous terms" (p.170). Also there may be occurrences of incorrect word order, grammatical errors point to the under lying language. In this case the evidence points to the Chinese Heart Sūtra as being a likely intermediary between the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra: where the former has nirodha (extinction), the latter has kṣayo (destruction) while the Chinese Heart Sūtra has chin which can be a translation of either. This turns out to be true for each synonym in the Sanskrit texts.

Historical evidence also supports the argument. Indian commentaries cannot be dated to before the 8th century, while there is no independent evidence such as quotes in other texts which might place it earlier. By contrast Chinese commentaries are definitely dated in the 7th century, and "..the existence of the Heart Sūtra is attested in China at least a century before its earliest known appearance in India" (p.174)

However there are still some problems. In particular the Chinese were usually very particular when composing apocryphal texts, taking a lot of effort to make them look like Indian sūtras, and yet the Heart Sūtra clearly lacks many important features. Nattier cites a Japanese study (by FUKUI Fumimasa) which she says make a strong case for reconsidering the Chinese title of the Heart Sūtra : hsin ching. Fukui says this should be understood not as saying that the text is the heart, or essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition, but rather represents a "dhāraṇī scripture", ie simply a text to be chanted. It is clear that this has indeed been the function of the text since its earliest mentions. The missing attributes (such as the 'thus have I heard') are less of a problem if we accept that the text is not even attempting to be a sūtra.

Most of the remaining problems occur in the portion of the text which surrounds the quoted verses - what Nattier calls "the frame". She seeks to show that it is plausible for the frame to have been composed in China. For instance the presence of Avalokiteśvara: this is quite consistent with devotional Buddhism in South West, 7th century China, and his presence is less surprising if the text is a devotional text for chanting rather than the essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition. The presence of the mantra also marks out the Heart Sūtra as different. Nattier points out that the mantra is present in at least three other Chinese texts, and the epithets of the mantra also exist independently. (p.177). The point being that the presence of a mantra need not rule out a Chinese origin.

I think this is the only place where Nattier misses a trick. Donald Lopez, for instance, has commented on the lack of coherence between the mantra and the text.
"The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra". - Lopez. The heart sutra explained. p.120.
The mantra is not of a piece with the sūtra, but appears to have been tacked on. Further Alex Wayman has noted that commentaries on the text lack coherence:
"The [commentators] seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition" - Secret of the Heart Sutra p.136
This observations only strengthen the impression of a text appearing suddenly without a history of exegesis to be referred to. But, back to Nattier's article...

Another feature which supports the idea that the frame was written in China relates to phrases such as "satyam amithyavāt" which Conze translates as: "[It is] true. For what could go wrong". This is clearly an awkward phrase both in Sanskrit and in English translation. The Chinese - chen shih pu hsü or "genuine, not vain" - however is "entirely natural in Chinese". As Nattier says:
"The Heart Sūtra thus diverges from anticipated Sanskrit usage, offering instead a precise replication of the word order of the Chinese" (p.178)
The final mystery is the existence of the two versions of the sūtra. The evidence is good that the short version was the one which was most prominent version in China. All of the extant Chinese commentaries are based on the Hsüan-tsang's (or Xuanzang) 'translation' of the short version. If we accept the idea that the sūtra was back-translated into Sanskrit after being composed in China, then the long version makes sense in the face of Indian criteria for authenticity - which include the appropriate opening, the presence of the Buddha, and the audience reaction to the discourse. The long version supplies all these features that are missing from the short version. From the Indian point of view the short version is not a sūtra at all - which fits with the idea that it was not intended to be one.

On purely philological grounds it seems that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China around the verses quoted from the Chinese version of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra. Internal textual evidence supports this conclusion, as do historical considerations. In short everything points in the direction of the 'Heart Sūtra' being a Chinese liturgical text which only became a sūtra on being back translated into Sanskrit, probably in India in the late 7th century. What is more, the most problematic features of the sūtra become comprehensible if we accept this view.

Nattier spends several pages exploring the role of Hsüan-tsang in the popularisation of the text: it was certainly a favourite of the pilgrim/translator, and he did know it before he left on his trip to India. It seems likely, though it is not proven, that it was Hsüan-tsung himself who introduced the text to India and translated it into Sanskrit when he discovered that the Indians lacked it. We know that exactly this happened in the case of another Chinese apocryphal text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, which he translated into Sanskrit during his stay at Nālandā.

To those amused, or perhaps alarmed, by this apparent forgery, Nattier points out that "it is now becoming clear that the Chinese were avid producers as well as consumers of Buddhist sūtras... and indeed evidence is accumulating for an important backwash of Chinese Buddhist influence into Central Asia" (p.181). Though the Heart Sūtra may be an apocryphal text:
"...this in no way undermines the value that the text has held for Buddhist practitioners. "Whatever is conducive to liberation" - so the Buddha is said to have told his followers - "that is my teaching"." (p.199)
Nattier's article is a fantastic example of the kind of careful and exacting scholarship which marks her out. The conclusions are monumental, and yet eminently accessible. I highly recommend reading the article. Her work deserves a wider audience, and her conclusions should be informing our understanding of Buddhist history, both social and textual. One thing is clear from this, and her other publications, we Buddhists cannot afford to be fundamentalists when it comes to texts!

23 July 2007

Arapacana Alphabet Bibliography

Arapacana in Siddham Script
I've been continuing to explore the so-called Mystical Alphabet over the last few weeks. Rather than writing things up here, I've been adding to my Visible Mantra website. Now see also my book Visible Mantra, which has a lot more information on the Arapacana including comparisons of the various Chinese translations of the Arapacana in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras. I'd like to draw attention to various bits of that site here, and to post a selection from my bibliography covering the alphabet.

As you may know the Arapacana Alphabet is used as a mnemonic in Buddhism: each letter expands into a word, which itself expands into a phrase which encapsulates some insight into the nature of experience. So:

the letter a expands into
the word anutpanna and this in turn expands to
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt

The translation of which is:

"The letter A is a door to all dharmas because they are originally unarisen".

The background theory of this statement is covered on Visible Mantra on the page called Dharma Doors. I have also created a calligraphy project based on this phrase. Additional aspects are discussed on pages devoted to a alphabet calligraphy project, and on the Mañjuśrī mantra page. There is much more that could be said about this phrase as it moves from it's source as an insight meditation subject in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, to the Mahāvairocana Sūtra where it takes on a tantric character, and then into the final phase in the yogini tantras, such as the Hevajra Tantra, where it becomes a mantra in it's own right.

oṃ akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt āḥ hūṃ phaṭ svāhā

Various pages in Visible Mantra covering seed syllables take the theory of mantra in a slightly different direction, initially established by Upanishadic sages. Blog posts on hrīḥ, dhīḥ are now supplemented by the Visible mantra page on hūṃ, which gives a very short account of Kūkai's text Ungi gi - The Meanings of the Seed Syllable Hūṃ. The oṃ page now features the greatest range of variations of writing styles - and there are more to come.

Bibliography of sources directly related to the Arapacana Alphabet.

Bays, G. (1983). The Lalitavistara Sūtra. 2 vol. The Voice of the Buddha: the beauty of compassion. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

Brough, John. (1977). The arapacana syllabry in the old Laita-vistara. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 40 (1), p.85-95.

Clear, Thomas. (trans.) 1989. Entry into the realm of reality : the text : a translation of the Gandavyuha, the final book of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston : Shambala.

Conze, E. 1975. (trans.) The large sutra on perfect wisdom : with the divisions of the Abhisamayālankāra. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Conze, E. 1978. The prajñāpāramita literature. (2nd rev. ed.) Tokyo : The Reiyukai.

Davidson, R. M. 1995. The Litany of names of Mañjuśrī in Lopez, Donald S. [ed.] Religions of India in Practice. University of Princeton Press.

Farrow, G.W. and Menon, I. 1992. The concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra : with the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 2001 printing.

Gethin, Rupert. 1992. The mātikās : memorizations, mindfulness, and the list in In the mirror of memory : reflections on mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. State University of New York Press, p.149-172

Gyatso, Janet. 1992. Letter magic : a Peircean perspective on the semiotics of Rdo Grub-chen’s dharani memory in In the mirror of memory : reflections on mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. State University of New York Press, 1992, p.173-213

Hakeda, Y.S. 1972. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York : Columbia University Press

Lamotte, Étienne. 1958. History of Indian Buddhism : from origins to the Śaka era. [trans. 1988 Sara Webb-Boin] Louvain-la-neuve : Université Catholique de Louvain

Mukherjee, B. N. 1999. Arapacana : a mystic Buddhist script in Bhattacharya, N. N. (ed) Tantric Buddhism New Delhi : Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p.303-317.

Salomon, Richard.
1990. New evidence for a Gāndhārī origin of the arapacana syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Apr-Jun, vol.110 (2), p.255-273.

1993. An additional note on arapacana. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol.113 (2), p.275-6.

1998. Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages. New York, Oxford University Press.

2004. An Arapacana Abecedary from Kara Tepe (Termez, Uzbekistan). Bulletin of the Asia Institute. Vol. 18, p. 43-51.

2006. Kharoṣṭhī syllables used as location markers in Gāndhāran stūpa architecture. Pierfrancesco Callieri, ed., Architetti, Capomastri, Artigiani: L’organizzazione dei cantieri e della produzione artistica nell’asia ellenistica. Studi offerti a Domenico Faccenna nel suo ottantesimo compleanno. (Serie Orientale Rome 100; Rome: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 2006), pp. 181-224.

2016. Siddham Across Asia: How The Buddha Learned His ABC. 23nd J. Gonda Lecture 2015. Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science.

Scharfe, Harmut. 2002. Kharoṣṭhī and Brāhmī. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 122 (2), p.391-3.

Skilling, Peter. 1996. An arapacana syllabry in the Bhadrakalpika-sūtra. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 1996, Vol.116 (3), p.522-3

Strauch, Ingo. 2007. The Bajaur collection: A new collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts. A preliminary catalogue and survey (in progress). Available online [pdf]. See especially p.37-40.

Wayman, A. 1985. Chanting the names of Mañjuśrī : the Mañjuśrī -nāma-samgīti : Sanskrit and Tibetan texts. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, [1999].

Yerushalmi, Dan. (2007). Devotional, Covenantal and Yogic — Three Episodes in the Religious Use of Alphabet and Letter from a Millennium of Great Vehicle Buddhism in: Sergio La Porta and David Shulman, eds., The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign, Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture series no. 6. Brill, 201-229.


31 August. A further note on this subject. I've just discovered the Bajaur Collection website which describes a collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts discovered in Pakistan in the site of a old Monastery. Amongst the texts is fragment 5 which is:
"the only hitherto known Gāndhārī text arranged according to the sequence of the Arapacana syllabary. In addition, it is the only Gāndhārī text preserving an almost complete specimen of this alphabet which later on became widely popular in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna circles."
This is a very important find! It confirms much of what Prof. Richard Salomon has been proposing in his papers (see above), and may give us further insight into the use of alphabet based mnemonics. What the text says I still don't know... watch this space.

24 Nov. Sound files from my evening at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 1 Nov 2007.
15/3/08. I've just added a page to which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.

27 May 2006

Studying the Dharma

The Scholar by Domenico Feti (b. ca. 1589, Roma, d. 1623, Venezia)Today I want to look at some aspects of the study of the Dharma. This is one of my main practices, and one of my favourite acitivities. Study as a practice has both great benefits and great pitfalls. Studying texts tends to be seen as a poor substitute for 'real practice', but I want to try to show that this is poorly informed.

Buddhism is very much a heterodox tradition, full of contradictions and different approaches. Without an historical perspective on the development of Buddhism it is difficult to make sense of these contradictions. So for instance I can't take seriously the statements of successive Buddhist sects which suggest that all other sects teachings are merely provisional and that this new teaching is the "True Teaching of the Buddha". I think of this as not taking the tradition on its own terms. In terms of outlook I am in the Mahayana camp, informed by the Vajrayana, but in terms of how I actually practice I am what has been called, rather rudely, a Hinayanist. If I bought into the various Mahayana or Vajrayana critiques of early Buddhist practices then I would probably feel a bit insecure. But I do not accept those critiques because having looked at the Mahayana critique, for instance, I can see that it is aimed at a caricature, and that later Buddhist writers had no idea about how the early Buddhists actually practiced. Similarly with the Vajrayana's claim that their teachings were delivered by the Buddha himself, but only to disciples of superior ability, it seems clear that this cannot have been the case. Later Buddhism was the product of interaction with other religious traditions both within and without India. In India this was the norm - traditions heavily influenced each other, cults were assimilated (as they were by the Greek and Romans), and especially after about 800 BCE exploration was encouraged.

So here we are in the present with all these stories, practices, and cultural presentations of the Buddha's Dharma. One approach in the West has been to adopt a sectarian appraoch - to take on Zen, or Tibetan, or Theravadin, Buddhism holisbolis. On the other hand some people try to look critically at the traditions and to take what seems useful, and to adapt it to the present time and place. This seems to me to be the best approach. Otherwise we loose sight of the way the presentation of the Dharma has, sometimes radically, changed over the centuries and mistake one particular form of it as being superior to the others when it may simply be different. My inclination is not to accept any practice as being superior to any other practice. So when a Tibetan Lama tells me that the instructions for painting thangkas were given by Shakyamuni Buddha and cannot be deviated from, I have to weigh that against archeological evidence that images of the Buddha were not made for several centuries post-parinibbana, and evidence from the books that I have that Tibetan images of the Buddha vary dramatically across time, place and tradition.

When it comes to texts in translation we are in even more difficult territory. I got interested in this area when comparing Stephen Bachelors's translation of the Bodhicaryavatara from the Tibetan version, with Marion Matics' translation from the Sanskrit. Although the general drift of the two was similar, the details vary considerably. We tend to see a text as a static document - both Judeo-christian culture and the various Buddhist traditions encourage this view of texts. But Buddhist texts were usually living, growing documents. The Pali texts were not written down for several centuries and show signs of having been edited even before that time. Pali was not the language of the Buddha, and so they have gone through at least one translation, and manuscripts with significant differences, not to mention copyists errors exist. The Mahayana texts frequently exist in several different versions and there seems to have been a tendency to incorporate more and more material into them, and to restruct the verses and chapters according to schemes unknown.

This situation led me to learn a little Pali and to start to delve into the Pali texts. I realised for instance that there exists no completely satisfactory of the Karaniya Metta Sutta - there is no one translation which manages to convey all the subtleties which lurk in the Pali words, and even the two dozen or so that I have collectively fail to convey certain aspects. Umberto Eco has referred to translation as "a negotiation". It is a compromise between many competing goals. Lately I have been working with translations of Kukai texts. Kukai wrote in an elaborate form of ancient Chinese, but is frequently translated into English from Japanese translations of the original Chinese. In a small number of cases I have two or more translations which I can compare. One translator has gone out of his way to convey the meaning of the texts, and another seems to have stuck to the literal meaning of the words, but is idiosyncratic in his choice of English equivalents. Another seems to find an easy middle way between these two approaches; and yet I am sure that in at least one case his choice of English words is motivated by trying to prove a particular aspect of the thesis which underlies his book, and this skews the meaning towards one that I feel sure was not intended by Kukai. I recommend Yoshito Hakeda's translations if anyone is interested.

So in studying Buddhism we are faced with some major challenges. Buddhists traditions are sectarian and literalist. We face great uncertainty: for instance the margin of error for dates are frequently given in centuries - the birth of the Buddha being a case in point. Texts were once living documents that changed over time and place, were edited by sectarians, and are often only known to us via multiple translations, all of which leaves the 'meaning' very fuzzy. But this is just like life isn't it? What we assume to be essential and permanent turns out not to be so. Through studying with this kind of critical eye we are confronted with the nature of reality, and by immersing ourselves in study we can begin to see things as they really are.