A Sequel on the Misinterpretation of Buddhist "Dependent Arising" and/or/as/vs. "Interdependence"
a conference on this subject transpired at Opole, Poland; despite the huge distances involved, I briefly got into correspondence with the organizers of that conference, as I was sincerely considering (somehow) getting to Poland and back in order to contribute some of my thoughts on the origin of so many of the debates surrounding "causality" in Buddhism.
At that time I had written two essays dealing with this subject (i.e., prior to the one now before your eyes), one of which is still in peer-review, the other posted online by New Mandala.
I then had the educational experience of trying to explain this material to an audience of Chinese University students studying Buddhism at Taiwan's 玄奘大學. In reviewing the array of European misinterpretations of the "12 links" formula (a.k.a, the 12 nidānas, 十二因緣, "dependent arising", and many other names), one of the suggestions from the Chinese students was simply that I should stop reading European scholarship entirely, and switch to Chinese translations. In saying this, they were responding (sincerely enough) to the very serious problems that I was pointing out in the European tradition of interpretation. Alas, we do not have a superior alternative provided to us by Chinese scholars --nor from anywhere else-- and my conclusion now remains (as before) that the alternative to bad secondary sources is to directly interrogate the primary sources.
§2. Fully ninety years ago, A.B. Keith published a textbook (with the imprimatur of Oxford University emblazoned upon the cover) with an influential chapter devoted to the subject of causality and the 12 links formula. (Keith, 1922) In surveying the competing (European) interpretations of the 12 links, the author listed ten different views, each wildly diverging from the others. In my own opinion (explained below, and in my prior article) all of these interpretations liberally diverged from the primary source texts, and Keith could have solved the problem by returning to the primary source text, instead of attempting to offer the proverbial "averaging of wrong answers".
For my Chinese audience (when I summarized this in Taiwan), perhaps, it did not seem credible that Europeans had spun out so many contrasting theories almost a hundred years ago. Even more fantastic interpretations have been devised since that time.
After these ten different interpretations are set out as a series of synopses, Keith adds his own conclusion; however, I would not call this an eleventh interpretation because (remarkably enough) Keith's preferred interpretation is a reiteration of his own paraphrase from (and conclusions on) Paul Oltramare's (1909) La formule bouddhique des douze causes….
|Paul Oltramare. Photo Credit: Société Asiatique|
[English rendering:] Buddhism is a theosophy that made itself into a religion. This means that in Buddhism, theosophy adapted itself to a whole other set of conditions, and that its force of action increased exponentially.
[Original French:] Le bouddhisme est une théosophie qui s'est faite religion. Cela veut dire que, dans le bouddhisme, la théosophie s'est adaptée à de tout [sic] autres conditions, et que sa puissance d'action s'est accrue énormément. (Oltramare, 1923 p. x)
[English rendering:] Intellectualist, rational, exempt from mysticism; Buddhism owes these characteristics to its theosophical roots.
[Original French:] Intellectualiste, rationnel, exempt de mysticisme, c'est à ses origines théosophiques que le bouddhisme doit ces caractères. (Idem, p. 481)
As I say, this would neither be accepted nor refuted today: it is on a par with of the extremely sloppy use of Buddhist sources by the "American transcendentalists" of the 19th century that are today only examined for what they tell us about American culture in that century (i.e., they do not reveal anything about the ancient origins of Buddhism). Likewise, I would suggest that sources like Oltramare reveal many things about the culture of France in his own era, but nothing about Buddhism. Lest I be accused of favoritism here, I should say that the same complaint can be directed against Schopenhauer, who relied entirely on secondary sources (if not tertiary sources) in spinning out his own theories and opinions about Buddhism without much of a basis in fact. All three of these examples were much more influential than they deserved to be in shaping the European imagination as it was applied to Buddhism in the century that followed.
§4. Apart from the question of whether or not Oltramare's interpretation of the 12 links could possibly be accepted as authoritative (in the 21st century), I would note that Keith himself seems to have had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone in quoting Oltramare's reinvention of the primary source texts. I infer that Keith was aware of the (stark) difference between dry philology and popularizing literature, and that he was not so foolish as to regard the sources he was surveying as all being equally valid.
Nevertheless, Keith made the intentional choice to favor a popularizing theory (that was only loosely inspired by the source texts) for the explicitly stated reason that he considered the extant primary sources to be incoherent. It seems reasonable to impute the further reason that he wanted his own book to seem decisive and entertaining to students and non-specialists: by favoring Oltramare as he did, his chapter comes to a neat conclusion after reviewing ten (mutually-incompatible) theories on the matter.
The process of reading Keith's survey of such divergent European interpretations is enough to convince an average reader that the original texts (in Pali) must be somehow muddled or incoherent, because each of the voices quoted in turn seems to have nothing in common with the other nine.
Keith complains, repeatedly, that the primary source has somehow ceased to make sense, insinuating (but not demonstrating) that there must have been scribal errors in transmission or some such thing. I do not have any reason to believe that Keith was really consulting the primary sources himself, and this seems to just be an argument of convenience for the sake of muddling through his textbook.
Overall, the textbook does not give the reader the sense that Keith and Oltramare have come to a resounding solution to "the mystery" of the 12 links, but, more dangerously, it does set forth the text as a great mystery, open to nearly boundless reinterpretation. In reading Keith's account, it seems reasonable to suppose that the 12 links text is written in riddles or complex poetic allusions (hint: it isn't).
§5. Unfortunately, this loose interpretation (of Keith's) took another step toward unquestioned fact when it was quoted by David J. Kalupahana in his (1975) tome, Causality: the Central Philosophy of Buddhism. This book, directly adapted from the author's PhD thesis, cites just two sources to back up its interpretation of the 12 links and the gandhabba: one is A.B. Keith (1922) and the other is the selfsame Paul Oltramare (1909) cited within Keith's argument. (Kalupahana, 1975, p. 115–119)
I have said before that Keith had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone in resolving the conundrum he had set out for his reader (in surveying so many theories) but this tone completely disappears in Kalupahana: from this point forward, Oltramare's invention appears as if it were an unquestioned matter of fact.
One crucial point here is Kalupahana's assumption that the meaning of the Pali word gandhabba is "…the psychic factor that survives physical death and which, in association with the fetus… helps in the development of the new personality." (Kalupahana, 1975, p. 116) He directly cites Oltramare as the authority on this point.
Keith's textbook (as cited by Kalupahana) merely summarizes and re-states Oltramare's theory; thus, where Kalupahana cites these two authors, it is not a case of two corroborating sources but of only one and the same source, cited both directly and indirectly. Unfortunately, Kalupahana gives the reader the false impression that this is a broad consensus of scholars that he subscribes to, and many later authors have (apparently) been convinced by this seeming consensus.
§6. These old errors are ever new, and the ramifications are ongoing, because the current generation of scholars gleefully repeats them, as the unquestioned assumptions guiding "new" discoveries. David Webster published an account in 2005 that reiterates all of these misconceptions (dating back 90 years and more) as if their authority remained unquestioned and unquestionable. On page 148 of Webster's tome The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon he makes the following declaration, directly citing Kalupahana as his authority for so doing:
"So, paṭicca-samuppāda [i.e., the 12 links formula] is to be understood as a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'. [This is attributed directly to Kalupahana, 1976, p. 26] However, […] this notion is applied with the greatest intensity on [sic?] the process of how we come to be reborn […]."
On the very next page (149) Webster then recycles the misinterpretation of the Gandhabba, which is again cited to directly Kalupahana (he certainly isn't guilty of plagiarism!) without Webster showing any interest in what the primary source actually says (nor in what Oltramare says, and the latter, as aforementioned, is actually Kalupahana's dubious secondary source on this matter).
I have already addressed this erroneous interpretation of the gandhabba elsewhere in print (Mazard, 2011, §2) and I will not re-state that material here. It is, however, a "pure error", that can be corrected by simply reading what the original texts actually say (and do not say), and by comparing the same tract of text where it appears (verbatim) in more contexts than one.
What I would point out here is that this extremely speculative theory (on the dubious basis of Oltramare's creative license) took on the mantle of respectable scholarly discourse simply through repetition (with greater concision) in Keith's textbook, and then through its reiteration in Kalupahana's thesis. The assumption was equally false in Kalupahana, in Keith, and in Oltramare; and all of the speculative tenets that presuppose this assumption collapse simply by reading the primary source text on these issues (and, to be clear, "primary source" does not mean "later commentary", and it does not mean "modern European translation" either).
§7. The quotation I've selected from Webster is tortuous and yet brief: the first principle of the thing, directly cited to Kalupahana, has no support in the primary source texts whatsoever (and, as much of this article shows, it is directly contradicted by what the primary source texts do say).
Even if the reader is a complete naïf in the evils of academic non-fiction, he or she should still wonder, "Why do we have no quotation from the Buddha saying anything like this if he (supposedly) had meant to say it?" The Pali language does not lack the words to express things that are "universal and uniform", but any such words are lacking from the passages in question (concerning paṭiccasamuppāda, or whatever we're going to call the 12 links formula in plain English).
If this is supposed to be such a crucial (and "central") principle of the Buddha's philosophy why is it that the entire (voluminous) corpus of the first four Nikāyas of the Pali sutta-piṭaka are utterly lacking in a single quotation of the Buddha preaching anything remotely resembling this tenet? In looking at such vague generalizations from academics, the reader must demand to know why is it that we are not looking at a quotation from the Buddha himself saying that the 12 links are, thus, "a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'".
Conversely, if it is necessary for contemporary authors like Webster to turn to Kalupahana as a witness (to give flesh to this apparition) we must now be willing to discard his testimony, because we know that it is founded on nothing but Oltramare's imagination, as reiterated in Keith's survey of secondary sources some 90 years ago.
It is relatively easy for me to prove that popular misconceptions are misconceptions; but it is very difficult to deal with the roots of why they are so popular.
|(Convincing? This inscription is also a 19th century fraud.)|
Let us be very clear: either we are debating the interpretation of something that is actually found written in the Nikāyas of the Pali canon, or else we are debating something that modern interpreters invented. In this case, there is no third possibility.
§8. The second half of my tortuous quotation from Webster is much closer to the what can be found written in the canon, and yet it also demonstrates how much discomfort these texts cause for contemporary Westerners. We are told that the generalization conjured up from Kalupahana "is applied with the greatest intensity on the process of how we come to be reborn".
This insinuates that there are canonical texts of "lesser intensity" where we would find this concept applied to other subjects (such as those "universal phenomena" that I hear so much about these days). The point is neither argued nor proven.
Simply, Webster invites the reader to imagine that this one example exists on a spectrum of various levels of "intensity", but the truth that is waiting to be discovered in the primary sources is that incarnation itself (inclusive of conception, gestation and birth) really is the sole subject and theme being discussed in the presentation of the 12 links. As I've said in my earlier essay, in these texts the subject of "birth" (jāti) is extended as far as snakes hatching from eggs, and as far as the supernatural nativity of the gods, but there is absolutely no suggestion that this "birth" is an ontological doctrine of "the interdependence of all phenomena", nor anything else so abstruse.
§9. The present article could end at this point, simply as a "short notice" pointing out (once again) that European sources of this kind need to be read with a very high level of skepticism, and evaluated in direct contrast to the primary sources in the canon. Instead, I would go a bit further to offer some discussion of a few of the (many) salient sources in the canon, simply to share some of my optimism as to what the next generation may yet make out of the "raw materials" that these texts still present for scholars to set to work upon. I admit that I do not have so much optimism to share, but I will share what little I have.
The prevalent (but false) notion that all of the scholarship on Theravāda Buddhism has already been done is not only false because of the poverty of that past research (as in the case of Kalupahana and Keith) but also because of the richness of the primary sources themselves, providing us with many questions for philosophers to ask themselves (and each other!) for many generations to come.
§10. For those who read the canon for themselves, I would cite the passage that I am about to discuss at length (so that it can be found regardless of whether the reader is using the Burmese edition, the Cambodian edition, or any other version). It is in the second division of the Saŋyutta Nikāya (the Nidānavagga), in the first saŋyutta thereof (the Abhisamayasaŋyutta), in a subsection opening with the Assutavantu-sutta, under the (overly-common) rubric of Mahāvagga. This spans pages 148–198 of the Sinhalese [B.J.T.] edition, in vol. 14 of the series (published in B.E. 2505 = C.E. 1962), with the first page thereof equating to p. 94 of the corresponding volume of the PTS edition.
§11. This "subsection" of text (for lack of a better word) is interesting for many reasons, and only a few of them will be discussed within the remit of this article. In glancing at the first and the last suttantas of the subsection (namely, the Assutavantu- and the Susīma-) we find some philosophically interesting reassurances that the subject-matter dealt with is not reserved for the most advanced monks, but, on the contrary, that it is entirely comprehensible for people who have not attained nibbāna, and even for the common run of humanity.
Last things first: the final sutta here (Susīma-) describes at length the status of those who understand the Buddha's doctrine (and who accordingly define themselves as liberated) but who lack the supernatural powers and transcendent visions of someone who has attained nibbāna.
It is stipulated here (in the Buddha's dialogue with Susīma) that the full understanding of "no-soul/no-self" results in both (i) the individual overcoming birth, and also (ii) knowing as a certain fact that he or she has done this revelatory thing (i.e., they don't merely know it, but they also know that they know it). This state of liberation is, nevertheless, a thing quite different from possessing other supernatural abilities, visions, etc., associated with nibbāna, and the Buddha demonstrates this to his interlocutor in an interesting way: immediately after the clarification about the nature of this revelation (that one has put an end to birth), the Buddha questions Susīma to verify that the latter monk fully understands the doctrine of the 12 links. With this affirmed, the Buddha then indicates that (ipso facto) the interlocutor is himself an example of the phenomenon he was just questioning: Susīma himself is liberated in the way described, and lacks supernatural powers, he has not experienced supernatural visions, and so on.
In the checklist of doctrines that the Buddha affirms his interlocutor (Susīma) correctly understands, the 12 links formula appears last (i.e., immediately before the supernatural powers); it is recited both forward and backward (from birth to ignorance, and then from the cessation of birth back again). Evidently, the Buddha's student knows the formula forward and backward, and the Buddha affirms in this dialogue that Susīma understands it all correctly --and yet he lacks the further (supernatural) achievements.
§12. In case the reader is afraid that we are nevertheless discussing something that only concerns a small margin of humanity, who have very nearly attained nibbāna (although not quite), the opening suttanta of the sub-section makes it very clear that such liberation is (to some extent) attained by the "average punter", or even by an unlettered ignoramus (thus the title, Assutavantu-suttanta). The reader will be getting the correct impression that the organization of the texts here is not random: we do seem to have a similar set of themes introducing and closing the subsection.
I can't comment on everything that's interesting about the passage in this article, but I would draw attention to the very down-to-earth context that this affords to the 12 links doctrine: the hypothetical ignoramus is indeed said to be liberated from the body, and from the illusion of the body as the self. This liberation is expressed with various forms of the verb nibbindati (i.e., a verb with quite a bit of doctrinal resonance in Buddhism!).
The correct understanding of the doctrine of the 12 links among the cognoscenti (…sutavā ariyasāvako paṭiccasamuppādaŋ…) is then compared to the understanding of this ignoramus, affirming that both parties have (or hypothetically can have) the same understanding of the 12 links, and of the body as non-self; therefore, both may be liberated to some extent. However, the true cognoscenti are not merely liberated from the body and the self, but are also liberated from a further list of factors, such as the appearances of things and our concepts about them (with the same loaded verb employed for the liberation discussed throughout, i.e., nibbindati).
The contrast here is not the same as in the dialogue with Susīma. The ignoramus does not seem to be in a position to declare that he has overcome birth: although liberated from the body, he is contrasted to those who are both liberated both from the body and from the further list of appearances, concepts, etc. (and the latter are said to have overcome birth, whereas the ignoramus is not). The ignoramus is capable of being disillusioned with the body (as the self) but, apparently, he does not go on to the more profound disillusionment with the mind and apperception.
§13. The third suttanta in the sub-section provides us with some very dramatic (and gory) allegories that I pass over without comment for the sake of concision (but they deserve an article of their own), and then the fourth in the sequence (titled Atthirāga-) returns us to the issue that has made some of my readers so uncomfortable with my earlier essay on the 12 links: the explicit connection between this doctrine and the development of the embryo.
This passage is titled the Atthirāga-suttanta, and it opens by stating its subject as the four types of food for beings "or" (vā) those not yet born and awaiting birth. The original text is very clear that it is not describing the nourishment of beings that do not yet have any existence whatsoever (such as a hypothetical person 100 years hence, who is neither conceived nor born yet); rather, it explicitly concerns those who are already existing/established (ṭhitiyā) but who are (as yet) waiting to be born (sambhavesīnaŋ). This leaves nothing up to the imagination.
Following after the description of the four types of food we have an explicit statement about the desire and consciousness of the unborn being described (i.e., what we would call an embryo or fetus in plain English) and this then explains the sequence of stages following as resulting from this unborn being's desire both for literal (palpable) food, and also for "food" that is not meant so literally. The desire for the "contact" of the senses (with things perceived) is the second type of food; apperception is the third (manosañcetana, thinking and/or desire of some kind resulting from perception; the PTSD prefers "volition" [q.v. āhāra]); and consciousness (viññāṇa) is the fourth.
The canonical material on the four foods is yet another subject that deserves an article of its own, and that is indeed very jarring and culturally-alien to European readers (I've neither seen nor heard of a monk offering a lecture on the meaning of "the food of consciousness" to a Western audience).
With this image of the as-yet-unborn being desiring four types of food established, what does the text do with it? The successive stages of "development" (literally, "growing") are attributed directly to this desire as its origin: …āhāre atthi rāgo, atthi nandi, atthi taṇhā patiṭṭhitaŋ tattha viññāṇaŋ virūḷhaŋ. This is to say that there is the "growth" of consciousness where there is first the desire for food established; and the location referred to (i.e., "where" the desire is established) is evidently the womb, given both the paragraph immediately before, also the allegory of the painting that follows immediately after (discussed below).
Whereas this preliminary stage (after desire) is said to "grow" (virūḷha), we have a significantly different verb used for the next stage in the process: nāmarūpa (a term discussed at too much length already in my former article) doesn't grow from consciousness, but instead "enters" (the womb) with the verb avakkanti. This is a verb that is indeed specially linked to conception (see, e.g., the examples of usage of avakkanti gathered in the PTSD entry for Gabbha). Only nāmarūpa is thus said to "enter", whereas consciousness before it "grows", and the next stage thereafter is again said to "grow" (vuddhi, another word for growth/increase, whereas virūḷha was used before). There's a further clue here to the correct interpretation of these passages (that I've already been hinting at in my earlier work on the subject).
I do not think that anyone could dispute that this passage is (i) explicitly about the subject of incarnation (punabbhavābhinibbatti) and (ii) that we have most (though not all) of the familiar vocabulary from the 12-links formula presented in a series of stages leading up to that incarnation (that is concluded with a single stage that covers the whole of the succeeding life, old age and suffering unto death, ending the sequence: jātijarāmaraṇa).
I think that some of the resistance to this interpretation arises from a sense of disappointment that the 12 links are no longer bundled up with the abstractions of "the interdependence of all phenomena"; however, while the teaching is about birth, it is not merely about birth, and while it is about the fetus, it is not merely about the fetus. The grander meaning of the teaching is already very clear (in my opinion) from the texts that open and conclude this subsection: the "soulless" origin of human life is evidently a crucial part of the Buddha's teaching of "no-soul" to adults, and is part and parcel of the liberation from the illusion of the soul/self that is so much talked about throughout the canon. These are not lectures about the fetus for the sake of talking about the fetus; they very much are part of the teaching of nibbāna, and that is entirely obvious for those of us who are reading the content in its original context.
§14. This lecture from the Buddha about the stages leading up to birth is followed immediately by an allegory that is clearly intended to make the whole sermon less mysterious (not moreso). The process of development just described here is compared to an artisan who works with color or dye (rajako vā cittakāro) who is making an image of a man or a woman on a flat wall or canvas.
There's nothing tricky or elusive about it: the formation of an actual person is compared to the process of painting of a portrait of a person. It's an allegory that would make sense in any cultural context, in explaining what it cleary is meant to explain; conversely, it wouldn't make much sense at all if we were trying to foist a "a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'" onto this passage of text.
Immediately thereafter the sermon reiterates that "in just the same way" the desire for the four foods (that, at the top of the sermon, was clearly indicated as being the desire of those who exist but are not-yet-born) leads to this series of other stages, concluding (as I've said before) with birth, and then old age and suffering unto death.
§15. All of this could be discussed at greater length, and, in a simple sense, it should be: we should have a situation wherein five different Pali scholars really look carefully at primary source texts of this kind and discuss their interpretation productively, with comparative reference to similar passages, and so on.
Instead, the baleful situation we've now inherited is a milieu with a thousand scholars uncritically repeating what can be found in secondary sources like A.B. Keith and Kalupahana, with only a thin veneer of interest in the original texts.
Although I'm not convinced that the relationship between K.R. Norman's criticism and his infamy is one of causation rather than correlation, it seems that Norman made himself infamous for complaining about this type of problem openly (e.g., denouncing other scholars for providing block quotations in Pali that they obviously had not read themselves). Similar dysphoria surrounds the life and times of A.K. Warder, whose shadow was still darkening the halls of the University of Toronto when I was there (over 10 years ago), and about whom gossip has remained unremitting in his retirement. Both men have left us a legacy of published texts; neither has left us a legacy of living scholars to supersede them (and, on the contrary, their former students have tended to make them all the more infamous in retrospect). The legacy of the now-retired generation's enmities is a basic fact of life for anyone working on Theravāda Buddhism in the 21st century. None of us can ignore it; all of us live with it. Even when I was living in Vientiane (as far removed from any PhD program as could be imagined) this would routinely be the first subject that professors would want to advise me on when they first met with me (i.e., they would hasten to impart their view of who hated whom and why).
As a corollary, perhaps, the tiny number of scholars who can (and do) read Pali in 2012 are incapable of corresponding or cooperating with each other. Indeed, the few legitimate scholars may have something to learn from the snake-oil salesmen (who fraternize amongst themselves relatively well, despite the open competition between them). The invidious divisions that have separated this tiny discipline into a series of even smaller camps (each sharpening its knives against the others) provides a bleak portrait of human nature.
I have heard reflections on this subject both from J.M. Masson and from A.K. Warder; I have heard such reflections from Buddhist monks who spend more time in caves than in universities, and I have heard them from careerist PhD candidates, who have no plans of ever meditating in a cave. This problem is much the same amongst scholars who are openly religious and amongst those who are avowedly secular; in my experience, those who call themselves secular often turn out to be "true believers" in a religion of their own devising.
§16. Among the responses to my earlier article on the 12 links was the objection that my reading of the texts concerned "cannot" possibly be correct (as if this were a matter of logical inference) because such an interpretation entails that an as-yet-unborn baby can think and desire. This comment came to me from two Europeans who both consider themselves experts on the subject, both of whom have published articles and books on Buddhism (and who have dealt with the 12 links here and there in their respective works, at varying length). In their shared opinion, my interpretation cannot be correct because they (as modern readers) consider it absurd to attribute consciousness or desire to an embryo or fetus.
This complaint results from the reckless imposition of a modern, western cultural expectation onto an ancient (and culturally alien) source text as a criterion. In effect, the interpreter is demanding that the primary source should reflect his own cultural expectation, or else that it must be disregarded as logically "impossible" for failing to do so.
§17. As a first reply to this objection, I must say that modern Europeans should not pose such questions with the conceit that they are the first generation to ask them, but must (at a minimum) check the record of such questions that have already been asked and answered within the ancient texts themselves. This is one of many examples about which we do have related questions that were asked by skeptical monks or early followers of the Buddha, with the ensuing debates recorded in the canon. (I note that there is more salient material of this kind than I can deal with in the remit of this article.)
In this case, I would refer to a tract that is not famous, but also not entirely obscure, as K.R. Norman took some interest in it when constructing his own interpretation of the 12 links;¹ it is called the Moḷiyaphagguna-suttanta (SN vol. 2, PTS p. 12 et. seq.; BJT p. 22–24). Here the doctrine of the four foods is cross-examined in terms of the "eating" of the "food of consciousness" (by beings "or" those waiting to be born, the wording is identical to the passage discussed before: …bhūtānaŋ vā sattānaŋ ṭhitiyā, sambhavesīnaŋ vā anuggahāya). The question is posed as asking "who" is doing this "eating" at this stage (…ko nu kho bhante viññāṇahāraŋ āhāretī-ti?).
A direct answer to "who?" would entail a person, and this is a possibility that the consistency of the philosophy of no-soul must guard against carefully (i.e., Buddhist orthodoxy cannot admit that a soul as present to perform the eating, nor even allow the presence of any "thing" apart from the physical body that could be taken as a supernal self of any kind); and, indeed, we get some circumlocution in the answer.
The Buddha's reply insists that these stages of development should only be asked about (and explained) as a sequence of stages leading up to future birth (with each stage reliant upon the one before it as a precondition, …viññāṇāhāro āyatiŋ punabbhavābhinibbattiyā paccayo).
Much of the text here is familiar (more or less verbatim) from passages already discussed in this essay. The locus of the debate is established with exactly the same statement about the four foods being consumed by the one who is already "established" (ṭhitiyā) but yet awaiting birth that I summarized in §13, above.
The question of who eats is followed by "who is it that has this contact [of the senses]?" and "who is it that desires?" In other words: the question of how it is that a fetus desires was asked within the canon itself.
There are other things that are interesting about this passage, but all that I am here drawing attention to is that a passage of this kind is sufficient to remove any doubt that this "food" and also the desire for the food really does concern a stage leading up to birth itself (and really does pertain to a being awaiting birth).
I can't say that I find this so incongruous as some of my critics pretend it to be: relative to any other ancient theory of gestation that is still extant, it is hardly amazing that the people of India had the notion that the fetus consumes nutrients, and also desires to do so, before birth.
§18. The idea that an unborn fetus thinks, eats, and desires is not really very surprising in any cultural context. If the same ideas were found in an ancient Greek text from the same era, I don't know if anyone would now find it controversial.
Anyone who has placed their hand on the belly of a pregnant woman can (or could) infer that the movement of the unborn infant indicates consciousness. All around the world the spectacle of birth and still-birth has inspired tremendous speculation (and a great diversity of religious doctrines) concerning the stage at which the spirit enters the infant, or at which the infant begins thinking for itself, and so on, entailing discrepancies about the stage at which a child should be assigned a name by its parents, and receive various rites of passage. This is the stuff of Anthropology 101.
For peoples of all cultures and languages, the gore and mortal danger of child-birth has inspired religious doctrines. As a subject of myth, it is perhaps second only to death and war, and what the Pali canon has to say about it really isn't so shocking (indeed, post-canonical Buddhist literature has some much stranger ideas on the subject that are outside of the remit of this article).
The idea that an unborn infant eats and desires food while it is in the womb is even less surprising when we consider the same things are supposed about ghosts in the literature of ancient India (including the Pali canon), without any ontological conundrum. If a given culture believes that hunger and desire continue after death, why would they hesitate to imagine that these things are going on prior to birth?
To my knowledge, none of the world's traditional (religious) views of gestation coincides with the discoveries of modern science overmuch; it may be that modern readers rebel against the notion that the Pali canon contains these passages because they would prefer to imagine that the Buddha had (supernatural) foreknowledge of things that science was later to discover. This kind of anachronistic scientism is a perennial pattern of popular religion. It arises in almost every creed, with or without any doctrinal basis; it appeals to the imagination because it seems to confirm the supernatural origins of the religion by pointing to knowledge of natural science in ancient texts, and acclaiming this knowledge as "impossible". The idea that the Buddhist canon contained all the "modern wisdom" of theoretical physics and ecology was in fashion when I was an undergraduate (and seemed laughable to me at the time); it seems to have gone out of vogue, whereas similar notions about Buddhism and psychotherapy still seem to be in business.
Neither in Laos nor in Canada have I encountered people with rational attitudes toward pregnancy. Instead, everywhere I've lived, I encountered people who were adept at presenting their own superstitions as if they were rational, and at rationalizing their preferred superstitions.
I remember hearing a "scientific" defense of the traditional Lao practice of mothers starving themselves during the last trimester of pregnancy (from a Lao government official). He explained this to me in response to my asking about a report from an international health agency that had identified this traditional practice as a major cause of lifelong health problems in Laos. He explained to me that this tradition was "scientific" because the mothers ensured that the baby was relatively small and easy to give birth to in this way. In reply, I explained that the foreign experts were concerned that the lack of nutrition could be impairing the brain development of the fetus; he was not hostile to the suggestion. In the most common form of the practice, reportedly, the would-be mothers subsist on nothing but a traditional soup of some kind (i.e., it is not absolute fasting, but an obstetrician's nightmare nevertheless). Others in Laos remarked to me that the practice was just motivated the vanity of the mothers, who wanted to remain as thin as possible despite pregnancy.
I am sure that similar dialogues have transpired all over the world, as one culture tries to impose its notions of science onto another. Within the decadent west, any excuse seems to be good enough when it comes to cigarettes, alcohol, meat-eating and other vices, despite whatever science may say (or whatever may be said on its behalf).
Modern science is not so influential over peoples' attitudes as schoolmasters suggest it should be, when they lecture children on the subject, in the hope that the next generation will be more rational than the one before it.
§19. In reflecting on the ancient past, nothing could be more spurious than a modern judgement as to whether or not the received text "makes sense" by some scientific (or scientistic) notion that could not possibly have been known to the authors of these texts in ancient India. If we think it is impossible for a man flying through the air to touch the sun or the moon with his fingertips, that does not entail that it is impossible for this to be the correct interpretation of the text itself.
All of this is neither more nor less absurd than the medieval Chinese complaining that the Buddha could not have possibly encouraged people to shave their heads because such an act would be an offense to their ancestors: it is simply one cultural set of expectations held up as a criterion for the judgement upon another.
Given that modern Europeans do not believe that the ghosts of their ancestors can eat (nor that they require feeding), what would be the result if we applied this same criterion to all the canonical passages about feeding deceased ancestors? Am I making an interpretive error, when I read that ancient Buddhists believed that monks could fly through the air and touch the surface of the sun and the moon with their fingertips? If this is all supposed to be "logically impossible", is it therefore the role of the interpreter to lie and misrepresent the texts, so that modern Europeans can imagine that they had much more in common with ancient Indians than they do?
Should we (mis-)interpret all of these passages to force them to "make sense" relative to a totally alien set of cultural expectations? The answer must be a resounding "no"; meanwhile, anyone who opts for "yes" instead will end up in the same category as Oltramare.
We must allow the ancient texts to tell us what Buddhism is supposed to be, and not (the other way around) impose a modern notion of what Buddhism is supposed to be onto these ancient texts (to then ignore all of the evidence to the contrary). As soon as the reader has taken the step of imagining what the text "cannot" say, he or she has taken an insupportable step beyond simply letting the text speak for itself.
§20. When, in my former article, I pointed to the word mātukucchismiŋ that appears in the middle of the 12 links formula (and means, "in the mother's womb", locative) I was neither making any claim about what the text "must" say, nor about what it "ought to" say. We can debate the significance of what the text says; however, we cannot debate what the text hypothetically ought to say, to then disregard all evidence to the contrary as found in the text.
I did ask both of my correspondents (who rejected my basic premise) how they would instead translate words so blatant as mātukucchismiŋ that appear in the middle of these texts (given that the presence of this word alone utterly contradicts their interpretations). They have offered no answer; both responded as if this were some new word that I had invented for them to consider, and not something I was directly quoting from a passage of text that they had allegedly read for themselves many times over, become experts in, and already published their opinions on.
This type of direct question and answer (although not quite Socratic) is sorely missing from the peer-review process. The printed page can divert the reader's attention away from evidence that contradicts the interpreter but the simplicity of asking such a question brings a great train of bafflegab to a halt.
Progress cannot consist of one generation after another offering ever more soaring generalizations (about "causality", "interdependence", etc.) with ever less salience to the source text.
§21. I previously pointed out that the Upanisa-suttanta (PTS SN vol. 2, p. 29 et seq.) provides the reader with an obverse set of 12 stages leading from suffering (dukkha) to salvation (nibbāna) following after birth. (Mazard, 2011, §3) In my former essay, I only discussed this text to show the incompatibility of the (canonical) 12 links with the (post-canonical) "three-incarnations" interpretation (found in the commentaries). The Upanisa-suttanta thus presents the 12 links with a "pleasing symmetry" that is missing when the 12 links appear in isolation. I would here draw attention to another text that attempts to add a very different ending onto the 12 links formula (i.e., instead of just concluding with birth, and then suffering unto old age and death).
The text is the Upayanti-suttanta (Sinhalese SN [B.J.T.] vol. 2, p. 186, PTS SN vol. 2, p. 118–119). I think it is fair to say that this sutta is not famous (although none of the suttas on the 12 links formula are really famous in the sense of popular Buddhist literature). To my knowledge, this Upayanti-suttanta has not been influential in Western theories about canonical causality.
It received a peculiar synopsis in Malalasekera's Dictionary of Pali Proper Names:
When the ocean rises with the tide, the rivers, their tributaries, the mountain lakes and tarns, all rise as a result. Likewise rising ignorance makes, in turn, becoming, birth and decay and death to rise and increase. (Malalasekera, 1937-8, s.v. Upayanti)
From this summary translation, a reader could not guess that this image (of the rising waters) illustrates the 12 links formula, nor that it is salient to the Buddhist philosophy of "causality" (as broached by the conference in Opole, and in so many dozens of theories that have proliferated since A.B. Keith made his list of just ten).
The image of the waters rising, becoming full, and then flowing from one stage to the next, is applied to all 12 links in the primary source text:
[1☛2] Avijjā upayantī saɲkhāre upayāpeti.
[2☛3] Saɲkhārā upayantā viññāṇaŋ upayāpenti.
[3☛4] Viññāṇaŋ upayantaŋ nāmarūpaŋ upayāpeti.
[4☛5] Nāmarūpaŋ upayantaŋ saḷāyatanaŋ upayāpeti.
[5☛6] Saḷāyatanaŋ upayantaŋ phassaŋ upayāpeti.
[6☛7] Phasso upayanto vedanaŋ upayāpeti.
[7☛8] Vedanā upayantī taṇhaŋ upayāpeti.
[8☛9] Taṇhā upayantī upādānaŋ upayāpeti.
[9☛10] Upādānaŋ upayantaŋ bhavaŋ upayāpeti.
[10☛11] Bhavo upayanto jātiŋ upayāpeti.
[11☛12] Jāti upayanti jarāmaraṇaŋ upayāpeti.
The parallelism here is a refreshing contrast to the vagueness of so much that has been said on the subject in more recent centuries.
The sequence moves from largest to smallest, i.e., the allegory pairs ignorance (avijjā) with the ocean (mahāsamuddo), and the subsequent stages of the sequence (of 12 links) correspond to smaller and smaller bodies of water, concluding with a what we might call a mud-hole, or at least the smallest order of pond (the word is kussobbha/kussubbhe, which the PTSD renders as "a small collection of water" in its entry for sobbha, and instead as "a small pond" under Kussubbha).
Although it might seem that everything that could be said on this subject has already been said, it seems like a strikingly original thought to conceive of this sequence of 12 stages as one wherein the subsequent stages are smaller than (and subsidiary to) the earlier stages.
This is part of the aforementioned optimism that I wanted to share with the reader: there are still "new" things worth reading in these ancient texts, and there are new debates of interpretation worth having, although I sincerely hope that we can dispose of some of the older ones. Frankly, there might be some original thought yet needed to sort out what this image of the rising water entails for the assumptions that the original authors had as to what any of this means.
The sense in which this text (the Upayanti-suttanta) is mutually-illuminating with the one I mentioned in my earlier essay (the Upanisa-suttanta) is that both describe the 12 links in two directions. In this case, the tide doesn't just flow in (from ignorance through to birth), but it also drains out again.
In what sense does it "drain out"? It is important to note that it does not begin with birth draining out, for the others to flow back in a symmetrical sequence; instead, the first thing to drain out is ignorance, i.e., first the tide of the ocean goes down and then each of the smaller bodies of water drains out in the same sequence as before, dependent upon the prior, larger one draining first (regardless of what we might know about the modern science of hydrodynamics).
This is decidedly not an image of the smallest pond drying up before the tide recedes; instead, the tide recedes first at the largest scale, and subsequently in the smaller (and subsidiary) bodies of water. Ignorance drains out first, and birth drains out last (with all the other stages named in-between, of course).
This allegory (of the tide) is incompatible with the various abstract theories of modern Europeans about the source text: in addition to the explicitly stated location of this whole sequence "inside the mother's womb" (already quoted and cited from various contexts above) we here have the relationship between the stages of development illustrated with the filling up and overflowing of successive bodies of water. We cannot possibly be reading about the epistemology that transpires in so many mind-moments within an adult brain, nor some implicit argument about ontology that provides a "universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'" (are the phenomena located one within the other, on smaller and smaller scale?). I also do not see how this could be reconciled with the "three lifetimes" interpretation of the 12 links (discussed in my earlier essay, and not repeated here) without some sort of hermeneutic trapeze. Clearly, it is one incarnation as the water flows in, and it is within one lifetime that the water flows out.
§22. The lesson that I hope my readers will take from this is that the primary source texts really do have new things to teach us. My point is not solely to draw attention to how unreliable western sources can be; I would also indicate in a positive sense that the primary sources can speak for themselves, if only we will put aside our preconceptions and be willing to listen.
We can only proceed to further understand this ancient doctrine of "causality" with the frank admission that the Pali text stating "inside the mother's womb" (mātukucchismiŋ, locative) really does mean what it so blatantly says. Further, we must accept (despite many creative interpretations to the contrary) that the word "birth" (jāti) really does mean the physical birth of an infant at the end of this process of development. However, with these basic assumptions established, the relationship between the 12 links and other aspects of the Buddha's philosophy (such as the liberation arising from the understanding that there is no soul, discussed above) start to become obvious.
If we could set aside the seeming-consensus that Kalupahana has burdened us with, we could start to deal with the genuine (and genuinely interesting) problems of interpretation that the ancient texts still present for a new generation of scholars.
¹ I believe this argument concludes around p. 260 of Norman, 1993, with the suggestion that ignorance itself (as the first link of the 12) is the bridge between rebirths. I do not recall ever seeing this aspect of K.R. Norman's interpretation of the 12 links cited (or paraphrased) by anyone other than K.R. Norman, whereas I see Kalupahana's view cited (and paraphrased) frequently.
• I-Tien Hsing. 2005. "Heracles in the East." Asia Major. Vol. 18, part 2 (third series).
• D.J. Kalupahana. 1975. Causality: the Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Reprinted by Routledge in 2003.
• D.J. Kalupahana. 1976. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. University of Hawaii Press.
• Keith, A.B. 1922. Buddhist Philosophy in India and Ceylon. Oxford University Press.
• G.P. Malalasekera. 1937-8 (2 volumes). Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names. Pali Text Society: Oxford, U.K. (This is now widely available as a digitized resource on the internet.)
• Eisel Mazard. 2011. "Discarding Dependent Origination, Returning to the Primary Source of the 12 links (十二因緣) in Theravada Buddhism." New Mandala (website, edited by Prof. Andrew Walker & Nicholas Farrelly of A.N.U.). http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2011/01/27/unpopular-facts-about-one-of-buddhist-philosophys-most-popular-doctrines/
• K.R. Norman. 1993. Collected Papers vol. IV. Pali Text Society: London.
• Paul Oltramare. 1909. La formule bouddhique des douze causes: Son sens originel et son interprétation théologique. Georg et cie: Geneva.
• Paul Oltramare. 1923. L'Histoire des Idées théosophiques dans l'Inde: La théosophie Bouddhique, Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Genthner, Annales du Musée Guimet, Bibliothèque d'Études, tome 31.
• David Webster. 2005. The philosophy of desire in the Buddhist Pali canon. RoutledgeCurzon Critical Studies in Buddhism. Routledge and/or Psychology Press.