Showing posts with label Truth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Truth. Show all posts

01 November 2013

The 'Act of Truth' in Relation to the Heart Sutra

I've now mentioned the saccakiriyā (Skt. *satyakriyā) or 'act of truth' several times in relation to the Heart Sutra and its protective function. The text itself claims that the efficacy of prajñāpāramitā comes from samyaktva and amithyātva; i.e., from truth and non-falseness or from rightness and non-wrongness. It has long been my intention to write something on the saccakiriyā for this blog, because I think it sheds important light on the ancient Buddhist worldview that is hidden from modern Buddhists of all stripes. In this essay I'll provide an outline of the saccakiriyā and try to show how it might inform the Heart Sutra, in particular, and Buddhist sūtras, in general.

There have been a number of articles on saccakiriyā over the years, though mostly they are quite old now. They cover the subject in some breadth and depth, but I have never been entirely satisfied with their account of the saccakiriyā because, on the one hand, the key authors describe the saccakiriyā as 'Hindu' when they mostly use Buddhist sources; and, on the other hand, they try hard to link it with Vedic attitudes to truth without finally acknowledging that the saccakiriyā is primarily a Buddhist phenomenon that has no Vedic counterpart.

The Power of Truth

In his 声字実相義 Shō ji jissō gi [= The Meanings of Sound, Word, and Reality], Kūkai quotes  a passage from the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā that, for him, shows that the speech of the Buddha, i.e., mantra, has five characteristics: "it is true, real, tells things as they are, does not deceive, and is consistent"(Hakeda 241). The Chinese version, produced by Kumārajīva (T 8.235) in 403 CE, reads:
Rúlái shì zhēn yǔ zhě, shí yǔ zhě, rú yǔ zhě, bù kuáng yǔ zhě, bù yì yǔ zhě.
The Tathāgata is a speaker of reality, a speaker of truth, a speaker of things as they are, an honest speaker, and not a deceitful speaker.
The passage in Vaidya's Sanskrit is more or less identical (Vaidya 1961: 81. Section 14f):
bhūtavādī subhūte tathāgataḥ, satyavādī tathāvādī ananyathāvādī tathāgataḥ, na vitathavādī tathāgataḥ ||
Subhūti, the Tathāgata is a speaker of reality, a speaker of truth, a speaker of things as they are, an honest speaker, and not a misleading speaker.
Here 語 means 'speech' (Skt vāda) and 語者 means 'a speaker' and corresponds to Sanskrit vādin. A vādin (masculine nominative singular: vādī) is someone who speaks a particular way, a professor, or someone who holds a particular view or ideology. We find the same term at the end of sectarian names like Theravādin (the ideology of the elders) or Sarvāstivādin (the ideology of ultimate existence).

Combined with this we firstly have 真 zhēn and 實 shí which were discussed in a previous essay in relation to samyaktvāmithyātvāt and yathabhūta-jñānadarśana. They mean 'real' and 'true', respectively and here correspond to bhūta and satya, respectively. Next comes 如 , where 如  corresponds to tathā, 'thus', which is related to tathātā, 'thusness'. The word tathā is a compound of tad (the stem form of the neuter third-person pronoun 'it, that') with the modal suffix -thā and as a particle means 'so, thus, accordingly'. Note the same Chinese character appears in the epithet 如來 rúlái, i.e., tathāgata. Then 不誑 bù kuáng. The basic meaning of 誑 kuáng is deceit, and 不 is, like Sanskrit a-, a negative particle, so 不誑 means 'not deceitful' or 'honest', corresponding to ananyathā (i.e. an-anya-thā 'non-other-wise' from anya 'other'). Lastly 不異 bù yì where 異  means 'different, weird, other' [as in other than true] and 不異 corresponds to na vitatha which derives from vi + tathā (and thus means 'not-not-thus' i.e. na vitathā = tathā).

The five qualities are: bhūta (real), satya (true), tathā (thus), ananyathā (un-false), na vitatha (not incorrect). It's debatable whether there is any real distinction here as these terms are all synonyms. Buddhist texts initially seem to list synonyms for emphasis, only to have later exegetes tease out distinct meanings for each synonym.

We again see here the distinction between truth and non-falsehood: both qualities are important to Buddhists. Of course, what is true is, ipso facto, not false, but Buddhists value both sides of the equation.  This distinction was made in an earlier essay contrasting satya and mṛṣā discussed alongside samyaktva and mithāyatva. Here what is false is not-true (vi-tathā) or other than true (anya-thā), and what is true (bhūta, satya, tathā ) is also not-false (na anyathā) and not-not-true (na vitathā).

This is how Kūkai understood the efficacy of mantra. Mantra is potent because it is the direct speech of the Dharmakāya, which is truth itself. Indeed, the Chinese/Japanese translation of mantra is 真言 (Jap. shin gon; Chin. zhēn yán) 'true words' which in Sanskrit would be bhūtavācana. However, there is a general principle here as well. Buddhavācana is powerful because it contains the speech (vācana) of the Buddha which is always true (bhūtasatyatathā, etc). Words in Buddhist texts are considered by Buddhists to be true in the sense that they align with the nature of reality (though here I would substitute "experience" for "reality"), and this is what the term samyañc (Pāli sammā) is getting at. Thus we say samyag-dṛṣti means 'right-view'. A view that is samyañc conforms to the way things are (or how experience is), and seeing clearly how things are causes us to alter our behaviour to 'go with' (samyañc) instead of 'going against' (mithyā) this vision. In the first instance, it may well involve getting your facts 'right', but right-view reorients the viewer; it changes our gestalt, and our relationship to sensory experience and to the experience of selfhood. The difference might be likened to a sailor in a storm who is being buffeted by huge waves and turns their boat to head into waves. Side-on, the waves constantly threat to roll the boat over, from the rear they threaten to 'poop' the boat (i.e., over-flow the rear of the boat and cause it to founder) but, heading into the waves a small, but well-designed, boat can survive even the huge waves of a storm on the open ocean.

Thus, reciting a Buddhist scripture is always a multi-layered experience for a believer. At one level they simply rehearse the teachings in order to learn and remember them. At another level, the words begin to guide their gaze towards the nature of experience and, perhaps, help to gain glimpses of that nature. On yet another level, they participate in the true nature of experience, because they enunciate the truth of the nature of all experiences (which importantly includes the experience of selfhood). Such words are Holy, a word which comes from Old English and means 'healthy, whole, inviolable'. It was adopted as a translation of Biblical Latin sanctus, hence the connection also to 'sacred'. The saccakiriyā is a special case of this Holiness.

The Truth Act or Saccakiriyā

In brief, the textual examples saccakiriyā (an extensive list of examples is found in Burlingham, 1917) involve stating aloud something which is is true about oneself (usually a virtue that one possesses or exemplifies) and making a request on the basis of this truth that something in the world changes. The change that is accomplished is almost always secular, or in Buddhist terms is not aimed at the goal of awakening. The saccakiriyā typically aims at using truth to gain mastery over nature and/or one's fate.

Most authorities follow Burlingame (1917) in placing the locus classicus in the Milindapañha (See Horner 1963: Vol.1, p.166ff). This post-canonical text has the most extensive explanation of the way a saccakiriyā functions and what can be achieved by it (the list includes rain-making, extinguishing fires, and detoxifying poison). In the Milindapañha, Nāgasena uses a variety of traditional stories to illustrate the workings for the King. For example, the Jātaka story of King Sivi, who gives his eyes to a beggar but is presented with divine eyes (dibbacakkhu) by Indra as a reward for his selflessness. Nāgasena says:
Yathā, mahārāja, ye keci sattā saccamanugāyanti 'mahāmegho pavassatū'ti, tesaṃ saha saccamanugītena mahāmegho pavassati, api nu kho, mahārāja, atthi ākāse vassahetu sannicito 'yena hetunā mahāmegho pavassatī'ti? 'Na hi, bhante, saccaṃ yeva tattha hetu bhavati mahato meghassa pavassanāyā'ti. 'Evameva kho, mahārāja, natthi tassa pakatihetu, saccaṃ yevettha vatthu bhavati dibbacakkhussa uppādāyāti.' 
Just as, your Majesty, some adept* recites a truth [then says] 'let the clouds shed their rain' and by that recital the clouds shed their rain. So, Majesty, is there a cause for rain already existent in the sky that causes the rain? No, Bhante, the truth itself is the cause for the cloud shedding its rain. Just so, Majesty, there is no ordinary cause (pakatihetu) for that, the truth itself (saccam yeva) is the ground (vatthu)... 
*CST has sattā but the PTS edition has siddha which fits the context better. Cf Horner (1963: 168 n.3).
There are saccakiriyā's in the Nikāyas and, of all of them, I think Aṅgulimāla deserves close attention. Aṅgulimāla is a wonderfully ambivalent figure. The mass-murderer who becomes an arahant. The arahant who is confronted by his own unripened evil karma. And, in this aspect of his narrative, the speaker of truth who has to carefully consider just what is true in order to help someone in distress.

Returning one day from his alms round, Aṅgulimāla sees a women having a difficult childbirth (itthiṃ mūḷhagabbhaṃ vighātagabbhaṃ. MN ii.102). On reporting this to the Buddha, he is instructed to  go back to her and say:
'yatohaṃ, bhagini, jātiyā jāto nābhijānāmi sañcicca pāṇaṃ jīvitā voropetā, tena saccena sotthi te hotu, sotthi gabbhassā'ti 
"Noble woman, since my birth I am not aware of ever having intentionally deprived a living being of life; by this truth may you and your baby be well."
Apparently, the Buddha has forgotten that he is speaking to a mass murderer and Aṅgulimāla has to point out that he has indeed harmed many beings. The Buddha amends the statement to:
'yatohaṃ, bhagini, ariyāya jātiyā jāto, nābhijānāmi sañcicca pāṇaṃ jīvitā voropetā, tena saccena sotthi te hotu, sotthi gabbhassā'ti.
"Noble woman, since my aryan birth I am not aware of ever having intentionally deprived a living being of life, by this truth may you and your baby be well."
Authorities are divided on whether 'from my noble birth' (ariyāya jātiyā) represents Aṅgulimāla's ordination or becoming an arahant, though I think the latter must be intended. In any case, he goes to the woman and says this, and all was well with the woman and her birth/fetus was well. (Atha khvāssā itthiyā sotthi ahosi, sotthi gabbhassa). The word 'well' is Pāli sotthi, equivalent to Sanskrit svasti (compare the svastika symbol) which comes from the phrase su asti 'it is good'. Svasti refers to good luck, fortune or auspices. It is fundamentally a superstitious concept. It is concerned with maṅgala or luck, and the people who relied on such means were sometimes referred to by the Buddha as maṅgalikā 'superstitious' (e.g., Cullavagga, Vin V.129, 140). Of course, it is said that bhikkhus ought not to be maṅgalikā, but the story of Aṅgulimāla shows the Buddha encouraging Aṅgulimāla to use magic to create good fortune. On the other hand, we can see Buddhists attempting to redefine the concept of maṅgala in terms of the values and abstract ideals of Buddhism in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta of the Suttanipāta (Sn 258-269). So, at best, the early Buddhist texts are ambivalent about magic, sometimes seeming to want to suppress or downplay it, sometimes trying to redefine it, and other times openly embracing it. It is significant that in the Buddhist parts of Sri Lanka, the Aṅgulimāla will be chanted for mothers in childbirth for their protection. The protective function of suttas is an important aspect of the history of Buddhist ideas.

As we know, many Mahāyāna Sūtras spend considerable time saying that reciting or copying the sūtra brings practically infinite benefits to the pious. Indeed, in some cases, there is so much of this extolling of reciting and copying that it seems as though this is the whole message of the text - just copy the words saying "copy me" and you will be protected from misfortune (like a bizarre chain letter). Some also contain more explicit references to saccakiriya, though in slightly different terms (see below). 

The key words that make a saccakiriyā are 'by this truth' (tena saccena) or 'by this truth-speaking' (etena saccavajjena). This is accompanied by a verb in the imperative, a command essentially. The saccakiriyā is used for a variety of recorded purposes including: healing, rescuing, overcoming obstacles, and protection. It is a also apparently used for showing off, as when Binudmatī, a prostitute, demonstrates to Asoka that she can use a saccakiriyā to make the river Ganges flow backwards in the Milindapañha. Her saccakiriyā depends on her even-handedness with those who pay for her services. She acknowledges no differences in those who can afford her price. There is a subtext here which seems to have been lost on previous commentators. Failing to make social distinctions based on class is an implicit criticism of the hierarchical social order of the Vedics. Like the Buddha himself, Bindumatī does not acknowledge the hierarchy imposed on India by Brahmins. And it is precisely in rejecting caste that Bindumatī, portrayed as a rather lowly and despised figure, aligns herself with reality and gains the power to make the Ganges flow backwards. The miracle is dependent on the Buddhist rejection of caste, and the fact of Bindumatī's being a prostitute is probably a rhetoric slap in the face to Brahmins.

The Perfection of Wisdom tradition also contains truth acts. For example, in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (Skt. Vaidya 1960: 189-190; trans Conze 1973: 228-9) and the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras (Skt. Kimura 5:3; trans. Conze 1975: 433), the bodhisattva is able to use the saccakiriya to test a prediction (vyākṛta) to Buddhahood delivered to him in a dream. If he takes a stand on the truth (satyādhiṣṭhāna) and is able to, for example, extinguish a fire in a town by speaking the truth truthfully (tena satyena satyavacanena), then he can be sure of eventual Buddhahood. If, however, the fire continues to consume the town then he must have some residual karma (karmopacitaṃ) blocking his progress. The bodhisattva is also able to exorcise ghosts in the same way (this episode follows on from the previous one in both Aṣṭa and Pañcavimśati). This is one of many continuities with pre-sectarian Buddhist thought that is found in Prajñāpāramitā texts. (For other Mahāyāna references and relationship to mantra see Chisho).

Studies of the Saccakiriyā

Burlingame had already identified that many of the saccakiriyās in his catalogue relied on virtue for their efficacy. The saccakiriyā often relies on truthfully stating that one possesses a virtue, as in the case of Aṅgulimāla. However, he struggles to fit all of his examples into this framework. Bindumatī, for example, is deliberately portrayed as lacking in virtues (she is a thief, a cheat, etc.), though from a Buddhist point of view rejecting caste distinctions is a virtue! Burlingame also notes one or two non-Buddhist sources: one in the Mahābhārata and one in the Rāmayāna where stories cross over Jātaka stories. Had Burlingame distinguished Buddhism from Hinduism, he might have pondered how a story could appear in both traditions and explored the provenance. However, he did not. Given that the great majority of saccakiriyā are Buddhist, the most likely scenario is that they are a Buddhist form that was carried over into the Epics along with a few other fragments of Buddhist narrative. 

Unfortunately, the next scholar to take a major interest in saccakiriyā, W. Norman Brown (1940), also crudely conflates Buddhism and Hinduism. His main idea is that saccakiriyā can be understood as an extension of the Vedic focus on ṛta (cosmic order) and satya (truth) which are at times almost synonymous. This argument is hampered by his failure to find a single credible example of a saccakiriyā of the Buddhist type in the Ṛgveda. The Sanskrit equivalent of Pāli word saccakiriyā, i.e., satyakṛiyā, is not found in any Sanskrit text. If the idea is Vedic then, as he says, it must be "well concealed" (42). However, note that even in Buddhist Sanskrit texts the key word becomes satyādhiṣṭhāna. Brown's main contribution is to highlight common features which had escaped Burlingame, thus giving a common basis for all saccakiriyā. To do this, he invokes the idea of socio-religious duty (dharma) which is so central to Hinduism. Here, we have cause for dissatisfaction, since dharma as "duty" is never particularly important in Buddhism. Virtue (sīla), purity (suddha) and merit (puññā) are all far the more important concepts with respect to obligations imposed by the religious life. Brown's citation of a passage of the Bhagavadgīta which states that "it's better to do one's own duty badly than to do the duty of another well" is completely at odds with the spirit and the letter of Buddhism. Technically, Buddhist monks walk away from class (varṇa) and caste (jāti) and all the associated notions of duty when they are ordained (cf comments on Bindumatī above). Brown takes two more bites at the saccakiriyā apple in 1968 and 1972, but he never manages to distinguish Buddhism from Hinduism and thus does not explain saccakiriyā in Buddhist terms, even though the vast majority of his texts are Buddhist. 

However, Brown's error contains some truth and points us in the right direction. According to any social code of conduct, Aṅgulimāla's mass murder is reprehensible. And when he joined the saṅgha he repudiated his dharma in the sense of social duty in the Vedic or Brahmanical use of the term. He cannot be said to meet Brown's criteria of fulfilling his duty in any sense. But in becoming an arahant he has aligned (samyañc) himself with dharma in the Buddhist sense. Thus, Aṅgulimāla's ability to use a saccakiriyā only makes sense within a Buddhist framework and specifically does not make sense in a Hindu or Brahmanical framework. 

George Thompson (1998) takes up the theme of saccakiriyā in light of Pragmatics (an application of Philosophical Pragmatism to language). Thompson goes as far as to say that the saccakiriyā is "a central Vedic institution" (125) despite still failing to find a single straightforward example of a saccakiriyā in a Vedic text. Thompson's approach to Brown's analysis is hampered because he only cites the last of Brown's three articles on this subject; the importance of the first article cited above is thus lost. Thompson's analysis of saccakiriyā is in the Pragmatic terms of J. L. Austin and his interpreter John Searle. There are certainly arguments for this approach. As a performative or "illocutionary" speech act, the saccakiriyā is at least taken seriously by Thompson. However, his approach remains reductive and never really comes to grip with the magical aspect of saccakiriyā. Though the Pragmatic approach is more interesting than, say, the Semantic approach of the late Frits Staal, in the end it does not give us insights into the Indian Buddhist mind. We may come to understand saccakiriyā in Pragmatic terms, but the people who composed the texts did not think in these terms, so it does not shed light on the emic understanding of saccakiriyā, i.e., on the worldview of ancient Buddhists who used magic (On emic/etic see this explanation).

Of course, my own application of Glucklich's work to understanding Buddhist magic, and mantra in particular, suffers, to some extent, from the etic/emic problem. Glucklich's framework is etic. However, as I hope I have shown, the crucial concept of interdependence is also part of the Buddhist worldview and, thus, Glucklich's approach enables us to build bridges that make for understanding in emic terms without a commitment to the emic worldview. 

Thompson, like many recent scholars of Buddhist mantra (e.g., Lopez 1990), makes reference to the series of essays presented in a volume called Mantra, edited by Harvey Alper (1989). There is no doubt that the essays in this book are fascinating, and they open up new ways of thinking about the Vedic approach to mantra, especially by employing Pragmatic paradigms (though Staal is highly critical of the Pragmatic approach in his contribution to the volume). If they mention Buddhist mantra, they do so only in passing, and Buddhist mantra seems to be a different topic, which employs an entirely different paradigm. So we not only have the problem of an approach which is determinedly etic, but also one which ignores Buddhism as a distinct tradition. The same applies to Jan Gonda's oft cited 1963 classic The Indian Mantra. It is a highly useful and insightful study of mantra in the Vedic/Hindu context that almost entirely leaves Buddhist mantra aside. So little effort has gone into the study of Buddhist mantra on Buddhist terms that there is precious little research to refer to. In my opinion, the best guide to Buddhist mantra is the works of Kūkai, translated by Yoshito Hakeda in Kūkai: Major Works. Referring to this book, we can see that the understanding of mantra in the Buddhist milieu went in entirely different directions from the Vedic/Hindu milieu. A thorough study of Buddhist mantra in Buddhist terms is an urgent desideratum for Buddhist studies. My own book Visible Mantra only scratches the surface.

This is an all too brief overview of this often overlooked magical tradition within Buddhism. I think this framework of truth-magic is integral to understanding the value and power of the Heart Sutra and, especially, the dhāraṇī within the sūtra. As almost every work which discusses the Heart Sutra will remind the reader, this text is chanted daily in monasteries, temples and shrine-rooms across the Mahāyāna Buddhist world. But none of these sources really gets to grips with why this is so. That magic might play a part is obscured by modern bias: we don't want to see the magical side of Buddhism.

The text is also studied and commentaries continue to be produced from a variety of worldviews and viewpoints. One of the things that fascinates me is that the Sanskrit text has been established for so long and yet has received so little critical attention. Nattier makes some comments, almost apostrophes, regarding the Sanskrit, but the most popular Mahāyāna Buddhist text has not been studied in anything like enough depth. Recent important contributions From Lopez, Nattier and Silk have made little impact in the world of Buddhist practice.

Saccakiriyā as Magic

One last task remains, which is to tie the saccakiriyā in with Glucklich's views on magic. In Indic languages the root sat means both true and real. Thus, to say that an utterance is satya (Pāli sacca) 'truth', is also to state that it is reality and not merely as a reference, but reality itself. Similarly, for words like bhūta and tathā. In ancient India one knew that the eyes were not always trustworthy, so the ears were the gateway to reality: hence, Buddhists are śravakāḥ 'hearers' and the learned are  described as 'śrutavat' 'possessing what was heard'. Hence, also, the sūtras begin evaṁ maya śrutam... "I heard it this way". In the Buddhist worldview I'm describing (spanning the Pāli nikāyas, Milindapaña and the main Sanskrit Prajñapāramitā texts), words that conform (samyañc) to reality have the power to invoke real-world changes. The underlying metaphysic here is that what is real on one level is real on every level and there are connections (bandhu) between levels (despite my earlier comments, this worldview comes from the Vedic milieu). In Glucklich's terms, if we have lost the sense of interconnectedness that is vital to our well being, then we can restore it by partaking in some aspect of the real on another level. Because of universal interconnectedness, we can access macro or cosmic interconnectedness via micro or local interconnectedness, with the right attitude. In this view reciting a sūtra, dhāraṇī or mantra does precisely that.

In the saccakiriyā one states a truth or reality or, in fact, one states that one is, oneself, in harmony (samyañc) with truth (satya), in order to restore order external to oneself. And this has often been the main use of the Heart Sutra. Legend tells us that Xuanzang, for example, recited the text to ward off evil spirits while crossing the Gobi desert. Certainly, a feature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in East Asia has been the belief that chanting sutras is a valid response to misfortune, whether personal or national. Japan was (and still is) highly vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, floods, and fires (in towns built from wood). One early Japanese Emperor effectively bankrupted the Japanese economy in a frenzy of temple building and the sponsoring of monks to chant texts in his response to repeated calamity.

Chanting texts for protection seems to date from very early in Buddhist history. The paritta ceremony is mentioned in the Milindapañha and continues down to the present, and most Mahāyāna texts promise protection to anyone who propagates them. And, interestingly, this has a direct parallel in the medieval monasteries of Christian Europe. The cycles of daily prayers were central to the existence of the monks, and these were kept up to try to ensure the wellbeing of king and country.

The saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience.
I think Brown and Thompson are right in detecting a relationship with Vedic metaphysics here, but the form of expressing that ability to exploit samyañc when a protagonist says etena saccavajjena... hotu 'by [the power of] this truth-speaking... may [something]  be!' to change reality is simply not found in Vedic contexts. The saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience. This is what Aṅgulimālā does, for example. In many Jātaka stories featuring a saccakiriyā, the restoration of samyañc often allows a protagonist to complete their task in the face of some obstacle. Thus, the saccakiriyā throws light on the importance of the distinction between samyañc and mithyā, which is at the heart of the Eightfold path. And note that, though the eightfold path as a substantial existing entity is denied in the Heart Sutra, the quality of samyaktva/amithyātva is affirmed. As far as I can tell, no one uses a saccakiriyā in order to break out of saṃsāra. The magic is primarily a secular cultural phenomenon which has been incorporated into the Buddhist mix because it is part of the milieu in which Buddhist writers lived. The parallel is modern Buddhist writers incorporating the attitudes and jargon of psychotherapy into their descriptions and expositions. However, in the Prajñāpārmitā literature the bodhisattva can use the saccakiriyā to test their progress towards bodhi.

We might also see this principle at work in other contexts. When we practice transferring our merit (pariṇāmanā), for example. The more we are samyañc, the more merit (puṇya) we have. And, being samyañc, we are able to have a positive influence. Giving our merit away only makes us more samyañc. Similarly, to the extent that our kalyāna-mitras are samyañc, they influence us to be less mithyā.


So this is the saccakiriyā or truth act. In some ways this is an obscure branch of Buddhist lore that may seem to have little relevance to modern Buddhism. Though plenty of Buddhists are credulous about magic in a broader context, it is generally excised from modern accounts of Buddhism so that superstition and magic are never seen as central to modern Buddhism. So we should not be surprised to find no mention of it in popular introductions to Buddhism or in the curriculums of modern Buddhist schools. However, it might interest my fellow Triratna practitioners to know that, though we never speak openly of it, we regularly recite a saccakiriyā in our version of the Tiratana Vandana (also widely used in the Theravāda)

N'atthi me saraṇaṃ aññaṁ
Buddho me saraṇaṃ varaṁ
Etena saccavajjena
Hotu me jayamaṅgalaṁ
There is no other refuge for me.
The Buddha is the best refuge for me.
By this truth-speaking,
May I have victory and good fortune! 


Alper, Harvey., Ed. (1989) Mantra. State University of New York Press.
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          Burlingame, Eugene Watson. (1917) 'The Act of Truth (Saccakiriya): A Hindu Spell and its Employment as a Psychic Motif in Hindu Fiction.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28: 429-467.
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              Gonda, J. (1963). The Indian Mantra. Oriens (Leiden). 16, p.244-297.
                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. 
                Lopez, Donald S. (1990) 'Inscribing the Bodhisattva's Speech: On the Heart Sūtra's Mantra.' History of Religions. 29(4): 351-372.
                Takayasu Kimura: Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā V. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 1992.
                    Thompson, George. (1998) 'On Truth-acts in Vedic'. Indo-Iranian Journal. 41: 125-153.
                      Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute, 1960.
                      Vaidya, P.L. (1961) Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṃgrahaḥ, Part 1. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute.

                        05 August 2011

                        Not Two Truths

                        alchemy pictureFOR SOME TIME I have wanted to write a critique of the Doctrine of the Two Truths. The task is potentially a large and difficult one because there is no single version of the idea that is universally accepted, and the history of its development is complex. Some version of the idea of Two Truths is accepted by most schools of Buddhist thought, but they do not agree on the details. An in-depth exposition on the subject would be a long book project.[1] However, I think a single wrong step begins the path that leads to all versions of this theory. Therefore, I may be able to head them all off by identifying that step and suggesting reasons why we should not take it.

                        In broad outline, the idea of Two Truths says that there are two ways of understanding the world. In the conventional (samvṛti) sense the world is just as it appears to the unawakened. So, for instance, we find the world to be a relatively reliable place where the laws of physics and chemistry apply; where we are born and die; where we interact with people. And yet, according to this theory, this conventional world is not real. Taking the world to be real is why we suffer. Buddhist theorists came up with the idea of an ultimate (paramārtha) truth, the perception of which is liberating, and the understanding of which is liberation—those who see things this way see things as they really are, i.e., they see Reality (with a capital R). Many different explanations of this duality are supplied throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that all of these explanations are wrong. So, I'm probably mad, or deluded, but bear with me.

                        Let's begin at the beginning, or as close to it as we'll ever get. We do not find the idea of Two Truths in the Pāli suttas, nor, so far as I am aware, in the early Buddhist texts preserved in other languages. So, we cannot cite any Pāli sutta in defence of this idea. And this is, unsurprisingly, my first point. The idea is a later development. If the early Buddhists did not feel the need for such a theory why did later Buddhists invent it? (This is a question worth asking for many other ideas as well!).

                        I have argued for some time now that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a Theory of Everything.[2] Not only does paṭicca-samuppāda not explain the universe and everything in it, it was never intended to be applied beyond the arising of experiences in the mind, i.e., dukkha (literally: disappointment, dissatisfaction; suffering)—dukkha is our experience. The 'things' that arise in dependence on conditions are none other than dhammas, and these are the objects of the mind sense. The early texts have little or nothing to say about the ontological status of these dhammas. Indeed, the early Buddhist texts explicitly argue that ontological terms like 'existence' and 'non-existence' do not even apply (especially the Kaccānagotta Sutta. S ii.16). This is not to say that non-mental phenomena are not conditioned, or that cause and effect are not observed. They are. But this was not, so far as we can tell, the Buddha's insight, nor his teaching. So much should be familiar to readers of this blog. [and if this is not familiar then please read the essay referred to in footnote 2.]

                        Perhaps because their non-Buddhist contemporaries were deeply interested in ontology, such issues also came to occupy the minds of Buddhists. Not content to leave the dhamma as an indeterminate 'mental thing', what I refer to deliberately vaguely as 'an experience', they began to speculate on the nature of dhammas. Were they real? Were they ultimate? How long did they last? The answers to these questions were, from the beginning, irrelevant to the Buddhist program of practice. But, in some cases, they came to occupy centre stage of Buddhist discourse—so much so that many people today talk about the goal of Buddhism as "insight into the nature of Reality". [Google that phrase] The trouble with asking such questions is that people are rarely satisfied with not coming to a conclusion. I suspect that one only asks such questions when one already considers there to be a definite and preferable answer. A lot of time and energy is then wasted over competing opinions about something that is simply not relevant.

                        I understand the early Buddhist response to the question of whether dhammas are real or unreal to be that the question was neither answerable nor relevant, so even attempting to answer it is pointless. By extension I take the appearance of answers to this question to be one of the limits of what we I think of as early Buddhism.

                        It is a relatively straightforward proposition to argue that the external world is not dependent on my seeing it, for it to have form. It is harder to believe that the entire universe blinks out of existence and back into existence each time my eyelids close and open than that the Buddha was talking about was the world of 'subjective' experience. In fact, even the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' are out of place here, since the 'world' the Buddha was talking about arises from the condition of both sense object and sense faculty—that world is neither subjective nor objective. In any case, I have found no reference in any early Buddhist text to the reality or unreality of sense objects, nor any mention of it in secondary literature which discusses the early Buddhist world-view. Sense objects are always part of the process of unenlightened consciousness, but there is no speculation on their nature.

                        However, if I close my eyes then my mode of perception has changed, and my experience of 'the world' has radically changed. This probably leaves the world itself unchanged. I say 'probably', because I do not know and I do not believe I can know the world except through my senses. This leaves me uncertain, and unable to come to any firm conclusion. So neither materialism or idealism in the strict senses are intellectually honest. All I know for certain is that I have experience of something; I find the experiences I have problematic; and early Buddhism tells me that the something is not the source of the problem.

                        This pragmatic position avoids any argument about relative and ultimate. Such a duality is simply unnecessary. But once we begin to take sides, to insist that dhammas must either be real or unreal, or worse, that objects in the world are real or unreal, then we come into a dilemma because neither stance makes sense in light of the nature of perception.

                        If we begin to apply the paṭicca-samuppāda as a theory to everything, if we apply it not only to the arising of experiences in our minds, but to the arising of what we suppose to be objects in the putative world, then we create a problem. I have discussed this problem with respect to the simile of the chariot. In this case we lose sight of the fact that the chariot is a metaphor for how our 'world'—that is the world that we experience, not the world as ontological reality—is conditioned by the meeting of sense faculty (indriya) and sense object (dhamma) in the present of sense awareness (viññāna). The chariot is not the point of this story and neither is the world of sense objects. The main point is made in the seldom quoted statements that follow the simile:
                        "apart from dukkha nothing arises, and apart from dukkha nothing ceases".
                        When we focus on the chariot and its parts we start asking questions like: is the chariot real or not? Is there a chariot apart from the parts? Is there some essence of chariot? And we come to strange and speculative conclusions. In effect we must invent something like the Two Truths to account for the paradoxes that arise. Plainly, the chariot exists and is, in a sense, 'real', since we perceive it; but it can't be really 'real', or solidly existent because we know it to be merely a conglomeration of parts. Clearly, it cannot be both real and unreal, both exist and not-exist at the same time, so... there must be two distinct truths about reality: at one level it is real and at another unreal.[3]

                        If we reframe the question in terms of experience, then we already know that our mental states are neither real nor unreal—these kinds of dichotomies don't apply to experience. If we remove the sense object, the sense faculty or awareness from the equation our experiential world ceases or fails to arise (that being, this becomes, etc.). While the three factors are present, then there is both the experience and the experiencer. The khandhas are just another way of breaking up the experience and making the same point. [See The Apparatus of Experience] When we limit our domain to experience, then dualities like real/unreal or existence/non-existence simply and straightforwardly do not apply, and we do not create paradoxes.

                        All experiences, including the experience of self-hood, are formed this way: from an interaction of our mind, sense faculties and sense objects. And all experiences are characterised as impermanent, disappointing and insubstantial. We may think that a pleasant experience equates with happiness, but we find the experience is fleeting, and it isn't repeatable, which we take to mean that we are unhappy. We grasp after pleasure, but can never be satisfied, and the harder we pursue pleasure the less pleasure we experience. It is not that there is no experience, just that we fail to understand the nature of experience. And experience has only this nature. Awakening, I would say, is awakening to the nature of experience.

                        It's not that conventionally something exists, but ultimately it doesn't—if we are using words like exist, true or real then we're applying the theory in the wrong way and/or in the wrong domain. Because we are, or should be, talking about experience of things rather than the things in themselves, we have no need of two different truths. Only those who attempt to stretch the application of the paṭicca-samuppāda beyond it's intended domain require two truths.

                        The other aspect of the Two Truths that is insisted upon is that the ultimate truth is inaccessible to words: "Reality is ineffable". Words do a fair job of communicating about objects and ideas. But when it comes to experiences... no experience can be communicated in words. We can say that we have had an experience; we can say how we explain and/or interpret that experience; we can say how we feel about having had that experience; we can say how the experience changed us: but with mere words we cannot communicate the experience we've had. This is true of every single experience. So experience, all experience, is ineffable. And in fact probably all of us have had life changing experiences after which we have never been the same. We shouldn't make a big deal out of that in the case of bodhi. The ineffability of experience is a simple truism, not a profound Truth. I think the tendency is to emphasise the mystical aspects of bodhi, and for someone like me it makes it seem impossible.

                        So this is my mad thesis—that all Buddhist philosophers (including the modern Theravāda) are barking up the wrong tree with this business of Two Truths. If we take paṭicca-samuppāda in its natural domain there is no need to go down the route of inventing this dichotomy, because we do not meet the paradoxes that arise from the misapplication of the theory. The early Buddhists had no need of a Two Truths theory because they understood the domain in which paṭicca-samuppāda applies. We have no need of it either; in fact, it is probably a hindrance.


                        1. A good overview of the subject is: Thakchoe, Sonam, 'The Theory of Two Truths in India,' The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online: [though of course the theory developed outside India as well!]. See also Ñāṇavīra. 'Paramattha Sacca.' Notes on Dhamma. p. 27-33. Online:
                        2. For an extended treatment of this topic see my long essay: Is Pāṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? This is based on a close reading of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S ii.16). I've covered some of the same ground in this blog:
                        3. If you are at all tempted to invoke Quantum Mechanics at this point then I suggest that you read my essay: Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. I don't think QM has anything helpful to say to us about this issue because conclusions about the nature of single sub-atomic particles do not apply when several septillion of them conglomerate at room temperature.

                        04 June 2010

                        Texts, Values and Truth

                        Following on from my suggestion of a hierarchy of values I have some further thoughts on our attitude to factual truth as a value in relation to Buddhist and religious beliefs.

                        Buddhism is clearly a massively multifaceted phenomena in the present and one can see, despite claims to timelessness, that it has developed chronologically. To some extent we can trace the development back in time - rather like physicists use the evidence of the present to make conjectures about the early universe. Just as for the universe, the actual origins of Buddhism are obscure and will remain so because we do not have enough evidence and never will have. However we can point to certain features - common to all forms of Buddhism, and emphasised in early texts, which appear to be archaic. One of the main features is the emphasis on practice. Yes, we have considerable amounts of biography, history, sociology and philosophy but the overwhelming concern of Buddhist literature and material culture suggests that what Buddhists did (and of course still do) is carry out certain practices, particularly forms of "meditation". [1]

                        I suggest that Buddhist texts are primarily concerned with practice: with the mechanics of practice; with the context for practice; with the fruits of practice. They also contain a technical vocabulary or jargon for understanding and communicating about the process and fruits of practice. Buddhist texts reflect the concerns of Buddhists i.e. a pragmatic program of transformation. The nature of that transformation is the subject of a lot of speculative writing, and one can see changes over time in how it is written about, and we can further speculate about the kinds of socio-political environments the authors lived in and what their religious concerns and ideals were like. But it always comes back to practice.

                        We are probably familiar with claims from religious believers that their special book contains the absolute truth, a truth which comprehends all other truths and supersedes them. We Buddhists are not immune from this. The claim to truth is very easy to disprove in most cases, which makes religious people look stupid. I once had two Christians come to my door and tell me that all of Newton's laws were found in the Bible. Having recently completed my degree in chemistry (with a sprinkling of physics) I knew Newton's Laws reasonably well, so I asked them in and requested they show me what they meant. They pointed to Genesis 1.14-17 which concerns Jehovah's creation of the sun, moon and stars. [2] I asked: "how do you get from that to the inverse square law?" [3] And surprise surprise they didn't in fact know any of Newtons laws. They looked stupid, realised it, and beat a quick retreat. But that was too easy. Newton's laws are irrelevant to their beliefs, and they were foolish to try to explain their faith in those terms. If your faith is not based in science, and you don't understand science, you'd be better off not explaining faith to a scientist in scientific terms.

                        In this case how should we regard Buddhist texts? It has to be admitted that on the whole the Buddhist texts are badly written, they aren't great works of literature and most people get along fine with summaries and commentaries. Buddhist texts are given to waffle, to tedious repetition, to digression, and to impenetrable idiom. One has to wrestle with hyperbole, superlative, hagiography, idealism, excessive piety, and quite a lot of vicious polemic. In many ways the Buddhist texts appear naive to the modern reader. However no one ever built a statue to a critic, [4] and all that said there are nuggets and gems within the ore, many of which I have blogged about, that make it all worth while.

                        I suggest that rather than seeing Buddhist texts as documents of truth, that we should see them as a recipe book or instruction manual. Indeed cooking is one of the metaphors for spiritual practice one finds in the texts. In the texts one finds described a comprehensive pragmatic program which comments not just on how to meditate and what to expect when you do, but how to live a life conducive to meditation, and importantly the value of doing so - both direct and indirect value. It is not simply a philosophy in the contemporary sense, though it is close in spirit to the original sense of philosophy. Nor should we be fooled by the religion that has built up around Buddhism. I don't see the Buddha as a religious man, if anything he was the Richard Dawkins of his day, going around telling religious people not to be so foolish. [5]

                        If Buddhism is a pragmatic program, and Buddhist texts are the ancient recipes for this program, then the question "is it true?" becomes irrelevant. With recipes we don't ask if they are true, we ask "does it work?" or even "does it help? Recall that the Buddha's own definition of the Dhamma was anything that helped. [see: What is Buddhism?] And really the only way to find out if a recipe works is to bake the cake and eat it. Much of academic Buddhology and comparative religion is about criticising recipes without doing any baking. Effectively they take recipes as a genre of literature and develop critical theories about this genre. In case this seems an unlikely conclusion I would point out that there are academic articles about recipes, and interestingly one study that I found came to this conclusion:
                        "The most significant finding of this research is that the evolution of the New Zealand pavlovas occurred largely within domestic kitchens and was the outcome of ongoing and widespread interest in novelty and experimentation." [6]
                        I suspect that if one studied Buddhist 'recipes' one would come to a parallel conclusion - that the recipe books show a gradual evolution over the centuries, with changes driven by practitioners interested in novelty and experimentation (although I would add here that they would also be responding to large scale socio-political events such as the rise and fall of dynasties). The average Buddhist need not pay much attention to literary criticism of recipes qua literature because they are actively putting them into action on a daily basis - proving them in the old sense of that word. One learns more about meditation in a single session of sitting, than in reading the whole canon. Indeed discussions about recipes are only interesting to a certain type of person, even amongst cooks and bakers. The critical approach to the literature does occasionally throw up important or useful results, some of which I have attempted to highlight in this blog. However, I can't help thinking that philosophy is really only a minor consolation, and that perhaps more philosophers ought to take up baking.

                        1. I put meditation in scare quotes because the English word does not precisely match the traditional terms for our practices e.g. bhāvana, yoga, samādhi, dhyana.
                        2. I further note that in Gen 1.14 the "lights of the firmament", as well as being for dividing night and day, seasons and years, were for "signs" - i.e. astrology. Though this passage is often cited as part of an argument that the ancient Hebrews had rejected astrology (associated with the Babylonians) since they give the prosaic name 'lights' to the heavenly bodies, indicating that they did not see the lights as gods or other sorts of celestial 'beings'. Note that the Pāli/Sanskrit word deva literally means 'shining'.
                        3. Newton's law of gravity says that the attractive force between two masses (gravity) is in proportion to product of the masses divided by the square of the distance between them. It is beautifully simple, and accurate enough to land a man on the moon. A summary of Newton's laws of motion can be found here.
                        4. This quote is apparently from the composer Sibelius.
                        5. The Pāli texts record a lot of polemic against religious people, particularly Brahmins and Jains. The Brahmins and Jains for their part were critical of Buddhism as well.
                        6. Leach, Helen. 'What Do Cookery Books Reveal about the Evolution of New Zealand Pavlovas?'
                        image: cover of the most popular New Zealand recipe book. See: History of the Edmonds Cookery Book. The Edmonds recipe for Pavlova is not included on their website, but it can be found on recipezaar.

                          21 May 2010

                          Truth and Philology

                          I recently attended a colloquium with Professor Sheldon 'Shelly' Pollock (left) at Cambridge University which was ostensibly about philology and culture. Actually the first half was about attacks on philology as a discipline and the second half a mix of talks mostly by historians which touched on the subject of the role of Sanskrit in Indian culture. A major theme of the afternoon consisted of rhetorical questions for Prof Pollock in light of his 2001 article "The Death of Sanskrit". [1] This article appeared as part of a series of articles under the rubric of Sanskrit Knowledge-Systems on the Eve of Colonialism.

                          I hadn't realised just how poorly philology is viewed by other humanities scholars. It seems that the philological enterprise is closely allied to colonialism in the minds of many scholars. As such it has been seen as a tool of Orientalism (per Edward Said's polemic against European scholars of Islamic literature and culture). If those scholars present were correct then the attempts to curtail academic philology, to divert their funding, and dismantle their departments are coming not from the sciences but from fellow humanities scholars. It was evidently quite a painful topic. Maybe calling myself an amateur philologist is a bad idea? I am a colonial though not, I think, a colonialist, let alone an imperialist. Another thing to come out of the discussions is the poor state of Classical language study in India which is not only not producing world class scholars as it used to, but losing the knowledge of languages and scripts altogether in some cases. See Prof Pollock's article in The Hindu [2]

                          Several people pointed out that all scholars who deal with texts, especially texts not in their mother tongue and even more so ancient texts in languages which are no one's mother tongue, must of necessity employ philological methods - just as economists and sociologist employ mathematical tools. Though I did not agree that everyone should learn philology just like everyone learns mathematics - Prof Pollock likes to make bold statements in order to stimulate discussion.

                          One thing which stood out was Prof Pollock's vehement rejection of the post-modern approach to truth. I'm no post modernist, nor well versed in that idiom, but as I understand it the argument is that the 'meaning' of a text is a negotiation between the reader, the text and the author. As such it meaning is entirely relative to who is reading it. Pollock on the other hand was insistent that though each reader does tend to find there own message in a text, that there is a 'true meaning' to any given text and that we can discover what that is by employing the methods of philology.

                          One of the speakers got a laugh by quoting a Victorian scholar who felt that Sanskrit was not a useful language because it was too rich in synonyms. I didn't catch the name but the theme is an important one in European intellectual history and explored quite entertainingly in Umberto Eco's book The Search for the Perfect Language. The idea is that everything ought to have one unique name in order that the imperfection of ambiguity be removed language. In this view the ideal of communication is the elimination of ambiguity. It has resonances with the idea that before the Tower of Babel incident in the Book of Genesis everyone spoke one language and that synonymy is a product of the sundering of languages. More broadly concern for original truths, the notion that a fundamental truth can be expressed in a text is something specific to the intellectual milieu growing out of religions of the book, especially Christianity, and specifically Protestantism. [3] (The Higher criticism not-withstanding). One powerful symbol deriving from this ideology is the evolution of languages and species described as trees with branches spreading out from an origin. In fact neither species nor languages are related to each other in this way. There is always hybridisation for instance. There are crossed branches (look at English for instance). Regional factors in language - such as retroflex consonants in Sanskrit - cannot be explained by the tree structure since they come from another tree altogether!

                          My sense is that Pollock subscribes to a variety of this idea, that the role of the philologist is to remove ambiguity from reading texts in order to establish an absolute truth - he certainly emphasised his point dramatically when stating it. I foresee some problems with this. It is quite striking that one of Prof Pollock's repeated statements during the day was that his articles, especially his article on the death of Sanskrit had been misunderstood by his contemporaries and that what people were really arguing with was ideas they imputed to him (having presumably misread his text). Setting down an idea on paper (or in a blog) is far from easy - great writing is a rare gift. The thought is seldom entirely captured by the text. What's more we always bring our own preconceived ideas to reading a text - our conditioning, our education, etc. Pollock seemed to argue that it is possible for us to read a text without somehow triggering any of these factors. Is this really possible? If one's living contemporaries don't get it, then what hope for the rest? I can think of examples of scholars who are not Buddhists who have shed important light on Buddhist texts (Jan Nattier, Sue Hamilton, Richard Gombrich, Paul Harrison, etc); but I can think of larger number of scholars who have simply missed the point of the texts - I can't bear reading comparative religion texts for this reason.

                          The problem is magnified by an order of magnitude when we consider that the discussion we were having was on texts written centuries ago in a language which may never have been anyone's mother tongue. We seldom gain the same mastery of a second language, that we do of our mother tongue. So that adds a layer of potential confusion to the text. There is always the possibility that having understood the words, we fail to understand the argument. Much early scholarship of Buddhism is like this.

                          At best a manuscript might be a 5th or 6th generation copy in passable handwriting, and my observation is that handwriting is often appalling in these manuscripts. It will be in a script we have learned only for the purpose. It may or may not accurately record long and short vowels; anusvāra and anunāsika; similar pairs such as b/v, m/s etc. Take into account also the effects of dialects. Although Classical Sanskrit is reasonably well defined there are ambiguities - times when only the context can supply the preferred reading. Other times when the reading remains obscure. Within Classical Sanskrit were still minor dialectical variations, and when it comes to Pāli or other Prakrits and Buddhist Sanskrit then ambiguity radically expands. We translate to the best of our ability, perhaps we consult previous translations and commentaries, but even a complete novice can see the extent of variation that occurs in two expert translations of even a simple text. [4]

                          We also need to understand the time and place of the author. As I pointed out in my simple example The Stream of Life (April 2010) basic metaphors might be lost on us if we have no first hand experience of the geography which gave rise to the metaphor. Professor Richard Gombrich has reconstructed metaphors and even jokes that were lost for centuries - many more remain so opaque to us that we don't even know to look for them. Political and social events also shape the way an author puts their thoughts into words in ways that we need to comprehend in order to fully understand their idiom. When we are talking about Indian some tens of centuries ago how can we hope to do this accurately. It may be that Prof Pollock had in mind his project on (just) pre-colonial India which is reasonably well documented and represented in thousands of texts, but the situation with pre-sectarian Buddhism is completely different. The context is almost entirely supplied by the texts themselves - there is no neutral view point from which to view the text. We have reason to doubt that taking such a neutral position would ever have occurred to an ancient author.

                          So can we ever say that we know the 'truth' encapsulated by a text? With ancient Indian texts? Not hardly! It may be that all we can hope to do is approach the 'truth' of a text asymptotically without ever getting to an absolute, but continuing to go deeper approaching the limit, but never reaching it. Does this leave us with post-modern relativism? Well that would be to collapse into pessimism. As Buddhists we have a particular take on texts because so many of them are actually recipes. We have the option, open to everyone but rejected by the objectifying scholar, of baking the cake. While academics argue about the truth of the recipe for meditation, we can sit down and pay attention in the way the texts describe and see what happens. Anyone who has done this knows that something interesting happens, even if we do not feel very adept at it or able to fully commit to that exploration. This unwillingness to commit to practical action based on what the texts say will always relegate the academic to secondary importance in dealing with Buddhist texts. The history of the time, the intellectual arguments are quite interesting, and I for one eagerly read any new insights into these questions, but they are merely interesting and not vital. In putting the recipe to work we can then evaluate the results and adjust it if necessary - our authority is not the recipe, but the cake itself!

                          In the long-run many of the questions which engage secular objectifying academics are not very important to me. I value their work but only to the point where it helps me to practice more effectively. And I need to be clear that my faith owes a great debt to some scholars and to their intellectual endeavour. Claims to discover truth in texts are always going to be suspect, and if Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, has shot himself in the foot by proclaiming the death of Sanskrit, then he shoots higher up in claiming to be able to determine absolutely what a text means. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

                          1. Pollock, Sheldon. 'The death of Sanskrit.' Comparative Studies in History and Society, 43.2, 2001, 392-426.
                          2. Pollock, Sheldon. "The Real Classical Languages Debate" (The Hindu, 27 November 2008)
                          3. I have an untested theory that only the Roman Catholic European philosophers who, historically, do not rely so heavily on the authority of the Bible could come up with the post-modern reading of texts which dispenses entirely with the authority of the text; whereas the Protestant Anglo-Americans who, partly in reaction to Catholicism, take the Bible as their main authority are much less tolerant of the idea that no absolute truth resides in texts. It's something that would require a lot more thought before trying to articulate it more fully.
                          4. Paul Harrison is about to bring out a new translation of the Diamond Sūtra which should put all previous translations in the shade. Watch this excellent YouTube video of Prof. Harrison talking about his work. Personally I'm excited by this.
                          The colloquium was organised by The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Image from their website.

                          06 July 2007

                          The Four Noble Truths

                          "The ancient world, if the choice had been placed before it, would no doubt have preferred bad philology with good doctrine to bad doctrine (sometimes no doctrine at all) and good philology. The modern world plumps for good philology regardless of consequences."

                          It was with Sangharakshita's words in mind that I approached K. R. Norman's series of lectures published as A Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2] I have to confess that in large part Norman's thesis is either beyond me, or outside my areas of interest. However I was struck by what he had to say on what philology can tells us about the Four Noble Truths. Norman is concerned not merely with what words mean, but why they mean it. With regard to the Four Noble Truths he makes two points. Firstly the Pali compound which we translate as Noble Truth is ariya-sacca. "Noble Truth" he tells us is a "perfectly acceptable" translation. However it is not the only possible translation, and of all the possible translations, it seems to be the least likely one! Norman tells us that the commentarial traditions were sensitive to this, and suggests:
                          "It can mean "truth of the noble one", "truth of the noble ones", "truth for a noble one", i.e. truth that will make one noble, as well as the translation "noble truth" so familiar to us. This last possibility [the commentators] put at the bottom of the list, if they mention it at all." [3] (my italics)
                          While acknowledging that multiple meanings were often intended in Indian texts, Norman concludes that first option, "the truth of the noble one (the Buddha)", is most likely to be the correct meaning. This seems to be a case of bad philology and good doctrine, in that the specific reading is incorrect but the general import is correct, but it occurs to me that the bad philology does seem to obscure something in the doctrine.

                          The Four Noble Truths are often treated as doctrine in a literal sense so that Buddhists will sometimes claim that "everything is suffering", and make it clear that they take this literally.[4] Non-Buddhists sometimes accuse Buddhists of pessimism because of this. I wonder if the designation of the truths as Noble, as opposed to being the truths of the noble one, has been unhelpful. Sangharakshita, for instance, has drawn out the methodological nature of the Four Noble Truths. He says:
                          "It cannot be too strongly emphasized that while the general formula of conditionality [i.e. praticca-samuppada] which constitutes the framework of the commonly accepted version of the Four Aryan Truths pertains to Doctrine their specific content pertains only to Method." [5]
                          In the Sammaditthi Sutta Sariputta gives a teaching on perfect view (sammaditthi). He uses the general formula which is familiar to us - phenomena, cause, cessation, path to cessation - but he applies it to a number of different phenomena. The first example is:
                          "When, friends, a noble disciple understands nutriment, the origin of nutriment, the cessation of nutriment, and the way leading to the cessation of nutriment, in that way he is of right view." [6]
                          As well as nutriment Sariputta applies the formula to suffering, aging and death, birth, being, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six sense bases, name and form, consciousness, formations, ignorance, and the taints. Notice that within this list are the 12 nidanas - the chain of causation. Recall that the first Dhamma that Sariputta ever heard was:
                          "Of those things that arise from a cause,
                          The Tathagata has told the cause." [7]
                          On hearing these two lines he became a stream-enterer. Sariputta is pointing out that all experiences arise (and cease) in dependence on causes. Sariputta is saying Right-view is not the perception of suffering per se, but the perception of dependent arising [i.e. praticca-samuppada]. This means, as Sangharakshita says, that the so-called Four Noble Truths are simply an application of the general principle of dependent arising to the phenomenon of suffering. Dependent arising is the most important truth of the Noble One. By using "Noble Truths", with capital letters, as a translation for ariya-sacca, we tend to obscure this. It leads to a overly literal interpretation. Sangharakshita is at pains to emphasize that the Buddha's position is not that every experience is painful, since it is obviously not the case. Suffering is a useful starting point for reflecting on the nature of reality because it is an experience rather than a concept, and it is one that everybody does have experience of.

                          Which brings me to Norman's second observation which is that translations of the formulaic versions of the Noble Truths are frequently "in complete disregard of the grammar and syntax" of the original. The philologists job, he says, is to analyse the relationship of the words, compare versions found in other languages, and to establish the syntax of each phrase. His considered opinion is that the Truths of the Noble one are:
                          "The noble truth that 'this is suffering', the noble truth that 'this is the cause of suffering' etc." [8]
                          Interestingly Norman seems to have reverted to a translation which he suggests is unlikely. Following his argument outlined above we would have expected: "The truth of the noble one that 'this is suffering', the truth of the noble one that 'this is the cause of suffering'" etc. In Norman's translation "this" can be any of Sariputta's list of things that are suffering, and presumably any other experience to which dependent-arising applies, which in Buddhist doctrine is every experience. It frees us from a literal view of the truths, and allows us to focus on the principle of dependent arising.

                          I think this is a case where some good philology has helped to explicate a doctrine clouded by a certain amount of confusion - not actually bad doctrine perhaps, but doctrine couched in terms that tend to obscure the fundamental insight it is trying to convey. Perhaps Sangharakshita was pessimistic about philologists because he was writing in the late 1950's and there were few Buddhist philologists at the time - Dr Conze is the only exception I can think of. These days more scholars are also practicing Buddhists, although K. R. Norman is not. However he does operate in an environment where the principles of Buddhism are more clear and established in our academies, and the scholar who "plumps for good philology regardless of consequences" is more likely to be rebuffed.

                          1. Sangharakshita. 1987. A Survey of Buddhism. [rev ed.] Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. p.35
                          2. Norman, K. R. 2006. Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2nd ed.] Pali Text Society.
                          3. Norman ibid. p.21. This argument summarizes Norman's 1990 article "Why are the Four Noble Truths Called 'Noble'? in Ananda : Essays in Honour of Ananda W. P. Guruge, Columbo, pp.1-13.
                          4. Googling "everything is suffering" reveals the extent of this error, although many of the 92,100 results debunk this interpretation of the first Noble Truth.
                          5. Sangharakshita ibid. p.147.
                          6. Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 9, in Bhikkhus Ñanamoli and Bodhi. 2001 The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. [2nd ed.] Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.133-4 (=PTS MN i.46 ff). See also Sammaditthi Sutta on Access to Insight.
                          7. Quoted in Ñyanaponika and Hecker, H. 1997. Great Disciples of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.7. The original is in the Vinaya, Mahavagga I.23.5
                          8. Norman ibid. p.17.
                          image: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Ed. 1995.