Monday, 29 October 2012

Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 02

 • Vocabulari de la llengua catalana + xinesa + anglesa + francesa, part 02
• 第02詞彙—加泰羅尼亞語+中文+法語+英語
• 第02词汇—加泰罗尼亚语+中文+法语+英语
• Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 02
• Vocabulaire Langue Catalane + Chinoise + Français + Anglais Partie 02

Friday, 26 October 2012

Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 01

The sequence of the vocabulary presented here corresponds to the same word-list followed in the series with Lao and Pali; so, with a glance between the two lists, you can correlate the Chinese with the Lao, Pali, or any other combination of languages.  Of course, I could also compile further lists with other combinations (if, for example, some Lao people wrote in to me telling me that they're learning Catalan, or if Chinese readers told me they were learning Pali).

• Vocabulari de la llengua catalana + xinesa + anglesa + francesa, part 01
• 第01詞彙—加泰羅尼亞語+中文+法語+英語
• 第01词汇—加泰罗尼亚语+中文+法语+英语
• Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 01
• Vocabulaire Langue Catalane + Chinoise + Français + Anglais Partie 01

Monday, 22 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 04, The Trouble With Transcendence, Critique of Bhikkhu Bodhi 02

The format of debate shifts speakers away from their most-familiar definitions, to make the contrast between themselves and their opponents clear.  Some percentage of the Buddhist canon is stated in the form of debate, and the attention of modern scholars tends to be directed to those debates more than to material of other kinds, for the simple reason that the contrast makes both sides easier to "see".  I'm now turning to an article that Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote criticizing Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne for the same simple reason: the contest draws Bhikkhu Bodhi into making many statements of his own convictions to delineate what his own philosophy is (in contrast to something it is not).

In some ways, B.B.'s thematic direction (writing in 1996) shows a striking continuity with his article of fully 20 years prior (written in 1976, discussed in a prior article).  However, he is now stating his case much more clearly, and he links his argument to his preferred primary sources more directly.

Tilakaratne has argued that nirvana is not transcendental (lit. "non-transcendental").  In Theravāda Buddhism, this claim could be very controversial, or not controversial at all, depending on how the word transcendental is defined.  We should be clear that the English word "transcend" is no more magical than "ascend" or "descend".  Our prefix "trans-" does not lend anything supernatural to the meaning of "transact", nor "transfix"; nevertheless, this one word "transcendent" seems to conjure up connotations that cannot be explained by the combination of the word's parts.

B.B. and Tilakaratne agree inasmuch as they both reject the possibility that Buddhism supports the type(s) of transcendence found in (i) [mono-]theism, (ii) Hindu mysticism, non-dualism, monism, and so on.  They also reject (iii) attempts to impose some of these ("non-dualistic") notions onto Buddhism, in books that seemed important at the time (e.g., T.R.V. Murti's theories --and, yes, I'm just barely old enough to have read Murti's work while I was in university).  However, B.B. disagrees with Tilakaratne on transcendence in certain other senses of the term.

The cloud hanging over this issue derives from Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), John Locke (d. 1704) and Baruch Spinoza (d. 1677) first and foremost --sources that are neither ancient nor Asian (nor especially relevant to Buddhism).

The idea that the transcendent is "the opposite of" the immanent is very European (and very Judeo-Christian) in its origin and function.  The profound dread surrounding the opposition of the transcendent to the immanent derives entirely from the English words involved (and the German, Latin, etc.) --which is to say, they do not result from any difficulties in translating the Pali, and don't have obvious correlates in Pali vocabulary.

I don't mean to state any of this in an overly harsh or castigating manner, however, if I did not frankly state this problem's European "heritage", there would be a misleading impression that this (modern) debate about transcendence-vs.-immanence is continuous with a debate found in the canon.  Without the European template, would this debate be important in Buddhist philosophy at all?  Well, B.B. does find a foothold for the transcendental debate in a short passage found in the post-canonical Visuddhimagga --and I think that B.B.'s article tries to understate the influence that this source (p. 507-509, PTS ed.) has on his thinking on the subject.  Very reasonably, B.B. acknowledges that it is post-canonical, reflecting a later period of Buddhist philosophy, and (thus) is not really authoritative (nor definitive) in the same way as (canonical) primary sources.  As you'd expect, the actual debate in the Visuddhimagga's (medieval Sinhalese) context has almost nothing in common with the "transcendental" categories of Europe in general (nor Spinoza in specific); there's a generalized mismatch of cultural assumptions.

If you're reading the Pali canon directly, the answer to the problem of what nirvana "is" primarily has to be understood in relation to (and as the result of) a form of monastic training --and, on this subject, we have a huge quantity of repetitive instructions and exhortations in the ancient texts.  Working from these sources, the simplest definition of nirvana would be "the result of this monastic training, if correctly performed/achieved" --and, in a practical sense, it would rarely be necessary to say more than that.  However, more nuanced definitions do arise in specific contexts, for specific purposes; for example, the Buddhist notion of nirvana is sometimes contrasted to another religion's notion in the context of debate.  Whereas the instructional materials are almost consistent to a fault (and are hardly lacking in repetition) there is more diversity in those context-specific definitions that seem to focus on one aspect or another, to prove one point or another.  Those materials are produced by debate, and they certainly give us the material for yet more debate in the centuries to come.

For the moment, my point is merely that this whole question of transcendence devolves from Europe's centuries of wrestling with the question of the immanence of god, and it been applied to Buddhism with an unseemly substitution of nirvana for god and an expectation of profound results.

Have the results been profound?  Well, we have this interesting "discourse" between B.B. and Tilakaratne, at least.  I don't think that any of the followers of Spinoza today consider Theravāda Buddhism a challenge to their philosophy, nor, vice-versa, do any Theravāda Buddhists respond to Spinozism as a challenge.  The interaction between these things is fairly artificial and academic, whereas other (ongoing) clashes between Buddhism and its detractors (Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Communist, etc.) are very palpable --and demonstrated through the burning of books or, sometimes, people.

[A razed temple in Bangladesh, 2012. Photo credit and rights: A.M. Ahad.]

B.B. sets out to defend the notion "of Nibbāna as a state utterly beyond the conditioned world" (p. 165) against Tilakaratne's pragmatism.  He sets out the claim that Tilakaratne has made an "acutely narrow selection" of primary source texts, and suggests that the Pali canon contains texts ignored by Tilakaratne that would instead favor B.B.'s position.

Tilakaratne's assertion is that merely-empirical reality is the domain of both saṃsāra and nirvana; in other words, nirvana is part of our experience of reality and is not something completely different from it.  What would be meant by "completely different" here?  It would be something transcendent to the mundane reality, and impossible to perceive (or comprehend) through empirical means for that same reason.

In the European tradition, this sort of transcendental thing is often said to be god, despite the total lack of resemblance to what you'll find in the Old Testament, and the lack of any connection to revelation in the Biblical sense.  Western transcendentalism leans more toward deism than anthropomorphic theism (although many Christian philosophers have struggled to make the two parts fit together --along with Sufi poets and Jewish philosophers, I suppose).  Among the causes for papal censorship here is this: we have no reason to imagine the supreme abstraction on the other side of the transcendental divide must be a kindly benefactor (with a beard) rather than a mere metaphysical substance.  Or, even if the philosophers decide to call this abstraction a god, it could be an indifferent god, or even a malicious one.  For European intellectuals of the last 300 years, this was not a minor source of consternation, nor a minor source of inspiration: thousands of pages have been filled with speculations expanding on Spinoza's theme.  Notably, in Schopenhauer's case, what awaits our discovery on the other side of the veil is the cruelty of nature in its myriad expressions of "The Will" (and this is, in large part, a hunger to survive and procreate, although, reciprocally, Schopenhauer ends up valorizing kindness, compassion, and asceticism as a sort of antithesis to the almighty and indifferent "Will").  The short-lived religion of Robespierre in France is another significant example, whereby deism was disconnected from the Biblical tradition (although, apparently, it didn't run far after being let off of the leash).

Returning to our Sri Lankan discourse: what B.B. does not tell us is the qualitative difference between the types of text (within the canon) that the two sides use to support their respective views of nirvana.  Tilakaratne can appeal to a range of pragmatic texts (including direct instructions to monks, from the Buddha, as to how nirvana is to be attained, and direct descriptions of how the Buddha himself attained it, etc.) whereas B.B.'s preferred sources are more poetic.  In this, also, B.B. is following the direction of the aforementioned commentarial debate (Vsm 507-509); it relies on (and concludes with) poetic hyperbole quoted from the Itivuttaka and the Udāna.

This weakens B.B.'s position, because it entails that Tilakaratne's explanation does not contradict the sources B.B. cites, but can instead accept them as mere poetry.  Conversely, B.B.'s treatment of the poetic sources as definitive (or, at least, definitively inspirational) raises the question of why these sources he prefers differ so sharply from the large bulk of pragmatic texts (at least entailing the need for some further explanation).

Tilakaratne's case is favored by the working assumption that (1) precise sets of instructions make sense because they're written precisely, whereas (2) devotional poetry is imprecise (and expressive, emotive, etc.) because it is not even attempting to provide the same degree of precision.  The reverse assumption is difficult to argue for: why would the canon's short, vague, poetic statements be more definitive than long, repetitive, detailed lectures and dialogues?  If the pragmatic argument doesn't create a conflict between the two, this is itself an advantage over a transcendentalist argument that does bring the two genres into contradiction.

I infer that B.B. is aware of this issue, as he comments that the Buddha's descriptions of nirvana, "…fit into either of two distinct moulds.  One stresses Nibbāna as the most desirable goal of all: blissful, peaceful, sublime, liberative, secure, the cessation of all suffering.  The other highlights the practical inner work that must be undertaken to attain release from suffering; Nibbāna then becomes [described as] the destruction of craving, the eradication of defilements, [and] the relinquishment of all attachment." (p. 171)  What B.B. has here called two moulds corresponds to the distinction I've drawn between (i) poetic declarations (exalting nirvana as "blissful, peaceful, sublime", etc.) and (ii) the more pragmatic prose (offering instructions, definitions and the details of the "inner work" to be done).  Of course, B.B. uses terms that reflect the greater importance that he places on the first of the two "moulds", and I use terms that reflect my own biases.

The first text cited by B.B. in support of his version of transcendence is stated as MN (PTS) vol. I, p. 435–7.  This is the Mahā-Māluṅkya-suttanta.  The second text is AN PTS vol V, p. 7–10.  This is the Samādhi-suttanta situated within the Ānisaŋsa-vagga.

Bodhi cites both of these on p. 166, and says of them collectively, "These suttas suggest that Nibbāna is indeed a distinct object of knowledge on the basis of which the defilements are destroyed and to which the arahant has special access in an extraordinary sphere of contemplation that the ordinary person can hardly think of without bafflement."

I must ask, (1) do these two cited texts support B.B.'s argument, and (2) even if so, does the argument really challenge Tilakaratne's position?  We would need to put a great deal of emphasis on the "extraordinary sphere of contemplation" for this line of inquiry to be incompatible with Tilakaratne's position.  The reader may also want to know if (3) these sources fit into my own (prejudicial) set of categories, suggesting something of an opposition between the poetic and prosaic sources.

Last things first: this pair of sources that B.B. has cited are prosaic and explanatory texts (unlike B.B.'s preferred descriptions of nirvana in short poems, found in the KN's Sutta Nipata, the aforementioned Udāna, and so on).  So, in this case, my warning does not apply, and I do not evaluate these citations in terms of poetic hyperbole.

I have grave doubts, however, as to the other two questions.

The particular Samādhi-suttanta cited by B.B. seems to offer a conclusion that is not at all transcendental (neither in the sense defined by B.B. in this same essay, nor in the broader European tradition alluded to above).  For the monk who has acquired the correct mental praxis (we are told) there is neither the consciousness of this world in this world, nor is there consciousness of another world in another world, and yet there is nevertheless consciousness (na idhaloke idhalokasaññī assa, na paraloke paralokasaññī assa, saññī ca pana assāti).  That's an interesting philosophy, but it does not support the specific claim that B.B. attributes to the passage in any way whatsoever (i.e., there is no clear connection to B.B.'s assertion, "These suttas suggest that Nibbāna is…", quoted in full above).

The logic of the thing follows a standard (Theravāda) "neither/nor" pattern: the text in full starts with the four material elements, and proceeds through space, thought, etc., telling us the same thing about each (i.e., that there is no consciousness in it) --however, the text does not counterpose anything else/beyond.  The only thing counterposed is consciousness itself.

The text cited offers no contrast to anything transcending the material-and-mental reality (nor is there anything presented as "more real" than this empirical/tangible reality).  A simple transcendental model would instead valorize "the other world" over this world, or at least offer some "true" substance in contrast to the world of appearances.  The Samādhi-suttanta offers no such argument, and no such opposition.  It states that there is no consciousness in earth, air, fire, water, etc. --rather, there is merely consciousness (not existing "in" any of these things, not even in thought, and not in a supernatural "other world").  Although interesting in various ways, there is no obvious support for B.B.'s assertion of nirvana as a transcendental "distinct object of knowledge" to be found in this particular text; it could easily be seen as consistent with Tilakaratne's argument instead.

The other source that B.B. has cited here does not deserve any lengthy consideration in this context: the Mahā-Māluṅkya-suttanta is a morality lecture, about overcoming the orambhāgiya (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink).  We have a huge stack of morality lectures in the canon, but this one seems to have zero salience to B.B.'s argument on transcendentalism.  The suttanta is a somewhat broad-ranging lecture on the orthodox theme of overcoming desire (and the sensual/sensuous category of the "five lower fetters"), but there is no obvious connection to B.B.'s argument here.  This seems so irrelevant that I wonder if an error was made in the citation, and perhaps B.B. had meant to cite the Cūḷa-māluṅkya-suttanta instead (i.e., confusing two similar names?).  The Cūḷa-māluṅkya deals with the recurrent issue of death after nirvana (in contrast to other religions' assumptions about "life after death") but it would take a great deal of imagination to link this to B.B.'s specific argument.

Given that B.B. opened this contest with a bold reproach that Tilakaratne has employed an "acutely narrow selection" of texts to support his argument, the reader is now in a position to complain that B.B. has appealed to some acutely miscellaneous texts.  The salience of the sources he invokes is dubious: if there is some important way in which any of these texts support B.B.'s argument, the burden is on the interpreter to demonstrate it to the audience (and not to leave it up to our imaginations).

However, B.B.'s own interpretation of nirvana as "transcendental" is not quite the same thing as his refutation of Tilakaratne's non-transcendental one.

B.B. proposes a division between "mystical" transcendence and "non-mystical" transcendence.  He agrees with Tilakaratne in asserting that the Buddha's teaching does not contain the usual tropes of the mystics of other religions.  For example, the two authors agree that the Buddha's silence in response to certain questions is not mystical, and should not be construed as a tacit indication of a belief in a transcendental other-reality. (p. 168–9).  B.B. agrees that, "The Buddhism of the Pāli Canon adopts a decidedly non-mystical stance, and in this respect contrasts significantly both with non-dualistic Vedānta and with theism, as Tilakaratne rightly and repeatedly points out." (p. 172)

Very briefly, however, and without even one cited source, B.B. indicates that he interprets asaṅkhatā dhātu as "the unconditioned element", and that he considers this to be "affirming a transcendent reality".

It is conspicuous that B.B. proceeds (after this declaration) to discuss many different sources and subjects in rapid succession, but does not actually discuss (nor cite a single example of) the texts pertaining to the one term that he identifies as "affirming a transcendent reality".  An incomplete list of what B.B. discusses in the pages remaining would be, (i) samādhi, (ii) the status of the arahat after death, (iii) the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express nirvana, (iv) the meaning of the term lokuttara --and yet we somehow never return to this point about the supposed "unconditioned element".

You might think that this would be very important for B.B. to explain, but no, instead, B.B. more-or-less runs away from the claim after announcing it.  We are led to imagine that important facts about this term (asaṅkhatā dhātu) "…are there in the texts, and it seems that it is only by a wilful denial of their explicit content that one can get them to say something other than they appear to be saying." (p. 172)

B.B. does not claim that Tilakaratne is misinterpreting or ignoring these unspecified sources, so we are also left to wonder if Tilakaratne is unaware of the particular texts that B.B. has in mind that are so irrefutable, or if this is something they actually disagree about.

To add my own opinion to the matter, there are indeed many things explicitly stated in the canon about nirvana that are avoided through "wilful denial", but I'm not thinking of the same things that B.B. seems to be thinking of.  Throughout the entire canon, for instance, we are assured that nirvana results in superhuman powers, including flight, and radiating flames.  The ability to fly is so much part-and-parcel of nirvana that we find it declared amongst the Buddha's list of super-powers when he is defending his own legitimacy as the founder of the religion.*¹  It also appears, for example, when the monk Ānanda decides to resolve any doubts that he had attained nirvana: he demonstrates the fact by flying (rather than walking) to take his seat at the first council of monks, after the Buddha's death.*²  In one suttanta, we have several of the Buddha's prominent monks demonstrating that they can fly and radiate flames, in a surreal attempt to outdo Brahma; this works, and the story concludes with Brahma being very much impressed at the supernatural powers that the Buddha's students acquire.*³

[Religious conversion through means other than rational debate; 
a mural at Kelaniya.  Photo: Johanan Ottensooser.]

There are many things explicitly stated in these texts that I think people are in "wilful denial" about, but I'm not at all convinced that the significance of asaṅkhatā dhātu is one of them.  If we should reconsider the importance of such terms as asaṅkhatā dhātu, this article from B.B. only provides us with the suggestion that we might do so (and neither evidence nor any conclusions on the matter).

To use radically simpler terms: when we talk about nirvana, are we talking about a transformation of the person, or something that exists separately from the person?

The advantage of Tilakaratne's pragmatism is that is comes down wholly on the side of nirvana being something that people accomplish --and, thus, it is neither a place they go, nor a separate plane of existence, nor an "unconditioned element" (except as poetic hyperbole).  Although I imagine that I would find many things to disagree with in Tilakaratne's work, the danger of B.B.'s approach is that it starts to construct nirvana as a substance, contrasted to the mere appearances of things, in a manner reminiscent of European philosophers such as Locke, Kant, and Schopenhauer.  This possibility is, in fact, objected to in the aforementioned passage of the commentary (Vsm 507-509), where the interlocutor asks if the "permanence" of nirvana is not therefore the same as "the atom" (Ñanamoli's translation).

If we started from the canonical primary sources, I think we would have very different debates about the meaning of nirvana.  The issue of transcendence-vs-immanence imposes a European puzzle onto the Buddhist puzzle-pieces.

Although I myself am bored of typing out the name of Schopenhauer so many times, I'll mention again that he was a massive influence on modern readings of Buddhist philosophy in both the West and the East.  The basic idea that reality is an illusion masking something else (apprehensible through means other than the senses or discursive thought) is very much Schopenhauer's screed.  He started building a metaphysical bridge linking Europe to India by endorsing the abnegation of the will (through asceticism) as one means (although not the only one) of gnosis with this reality-that-lies-beyond-reality.  In many ways, Schopenhauer took the raw materials of European philosophy and used them to re-invent some of the basic principles found in (at least some schools of) Jain and Hindu thought (though he was not an expert in the latter).  The resulting philosophy, however, had much less in common with Buddhism than Schopenhauer himself thought it did (and, I think, many Europeans who "grew up" reading Schopenhauer were eventually disappointed when they graduated to reading Buddhist primary sources).  If you don't want to take my word for it, you can read the meticulous studies by Urs App, who has lately been scraping together the archival evidence of exactly how little Schopenhauer knew about Buddhism.

[Am I the only one surprised that Spinoza doesn't have his own postage stamp?]

Whereas Spinoza and Kant have haunted the minds of many men, it is really from Schopenhauer that we have the expectation that these issues matter to Buddhism, and that Buddhism has something important to teach "us" (Europeans) about the transcendence of the merely-sensory world.  Of course, that expectation is not based on anyone's reading of the Pali canon (neither Schopenhauer's, nor anyone else's).

If we weren't burdened with the influence of European philosophers, we would not even be asking these questions in these terms.  Wouldn't it be more natural for someone to ask how it is that nirvana came to be so strongly linked to the power of supernatural flight rather than dealing with an imaginary and tacit contrast between what is "imanent" and what is "transcendent" in the unstated implications of the text?  A better question might be "natural" vs. "supernatural", or even "human" vs. "superhuman".  Better questions, in general, might be addressed to things explicitly stated in the texts, and not things merely imagined to be indirectly entailed by them.

In the decadent West, people often convert to Buddhism first, and only find out what the religion is later --sometimes many years later.  I continue to meet people who are shocked that "there is a hell" in the Pali canon; some of them converted because they specifically rejected the doctrine of hell that they knew in Christianity.  It is difficult to imagine how these people have been studying Buddhism for so many years without knowing this; there seem to be aspects of both deception and self-deception involved.

[Either a depiction of hell, or else hell itself, at Wat Rong KhunPhoto by Mithun Divakaran.]

There is open "strategizing" amongst Western monks as to which aspects of the religion they should reveal, and which conceal, in drawing outsiders into the religion.  I have encountered (many times) a reasonable but utterly false assumption that Buddhist philosophy could increase its appeal by increasing its resemblance to European philosophies.  Among other flaws in this assumption is the incongruous fact that names like Kant and Schopenhauer actually have less significance in western culture than Buddhism.  Outside of academia, these "big names" in philosophy have neither influence nor renown for new religious movements to siphon.  Considered on the social scale of even the most minor religions, all of Europe's philosophies are failures in the present century: although I've pointed out what extremely small percentages of westerners subscribe to Buddhism (in the U.S. and Canada), there is absolutely no percentage subscribing to (e.g.) the religion established by Auguste Comte, let alone Spinozism.

There is only one reliable result from these "false resemblances" used to entice people into Buddhism: the very same people who respond to such enticements will feel that they have been lied to when they discover how the contents of the canon have been misrepresented to them.  In short, religious authorities discredit themselves, and secular scholars show their lack of reliability, objectivity, or even sanity in the exchange.  Does anyone in the study of ancient Greece try to pretend that the Greeks were perfectly rational and scientific?  Does anyone try to "cover up" the significance of hades, or the supernatural aspects of Heracles?  This is a game that only ends by discrediting all the players.

The article by B.B. was published in 1996, in what was then a moderately-obscure journal called the Buddhist Studies Review.  If you've seen copies of this "old" publication in their original form, you would know that it looks and feels much older than the 1990s: it was produced (in the U.K.) under the patronage of the Franco-Vietnamese Lin-Sơn temple.  It was actually distributed in North America by Charles Prebish himself: on the last page, there's a mailing address to send him the subscription fees at Penn State University.  The journal has the look and feel of a religious pamphlet handed out on street-corners --and the quality of printing and binding is much worse than many of its antecedents circa 1896.

However, the journal was a sort of crossroads where many scholars of the time made defiant statements, perhaps knowing that it was read by their colleagues and contemporaries.  Recently, Prebish has been complaining that he has been too much criticized for an article in the same publication that nobody has actually read (i.e., because the thing is too hard to find a copy of).

The journal's very first issue (1983/4) identifies it as the joint publication of Lin-Sơn and the Pali Buddhist Union, to "further our mutual aims".  The journal eventually became the dominion of a for-profit company ("Equinox Publishing, U.K.") --and it still exists as such today, with no resemblance to its founding format and mandate.  If you look around the internet, you'll find that (aside from citations to this same journal) there is not much of a trace that the Pali Buddhist Union ever existed; I do not know if they're still a registered charity today.

As marginal and poorly-printed as such a publication may have been, it is dismaying to see that we have nothing like it in 2012.  There should now be more debate of the kind that sparked between B.B. and Tilakaratne --not less.  There should be more publications willing to deal with controversy, and to provide editorial oversight and standards for it.

One of the lessons to be drawn from this example is that Bhikkhu Bodhi (like the vast majority of mere mortals) does need an editor.  This article was in dire need of an independent mind checking the citations, and questioning the author as to whether or not he is really stating his case in a way that the reader could understand.  The role of the editor is not the same as the peer-reviewer: professional editors check facts, question the salience of citations, and ask authors to explain themselves more clearly (or propose clearer ways to state the case), in a sort of Socratic dialogue.  That process was missing from the Buddhist Studies Review in the 1990s --and, it deserves to be said, it is missing from this website today.  The absence of the editorial process is more significant than the absence of paper in the new (and increasingly digital) production of knowledge.

¹ [See, e.g., the Pāthika-suttanta (24th in the DN, first page of vol. 3 for both PTS and BJT).  Here, the Buddha is defending his legitimacy against aspersions from an ex-devotee (who had since converted to a rival religion/philosophy) and provides a very long list of his miracles and super-powers in his own defense.  This has resulted in some discomfort amongst modern commentators (and not westerners only) who would prefer to sweep anything supernatural under the rug; note that the summary provided by Malalasekera's Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (under Pātika [sic?], rather than Pāthika) is evasive in the extreme.]

² [I am thinking of the story as told in the Mhv chapter 3.]

³ [This is the Aparādiṭṭhi-suttanta, found in the SN's Kokālikavaggo starting PTS vol. 1, p. 136 (i.e., found several pages after that), BJT vol. 1, p. 260.]

A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
Bhikkhu Bodhi.  1996.  "Nibbāna, Transcendence and Language".  Buddhist Studies Review, Vol. 13, No. 2.  London (?), U.K. ISSN 0265-2897

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 03, Critique of Bhikkhu Bodhi 01

It is extremely rare to see criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi: I am neither aware of a secular scholar nor a monastic one who has been a published critic of the man or his writing.  Bhikkhu Bodhi's work would benefit from criticism, the general public's understanding of his work (and of the ancient texts) would benefit from the same criticism, and the critics might help one-another through criticism.  It's a virtuous cycle, if every step is taken virtuously; it's a pointless cycle, if pursued viciously.

Bhikkhu Bodhi published an essay in 1976 that he would (by now) probably find some fault with himself.  If you've ever met B.B. (or if you have even read an interview with him) you will probably have noticed that he openly remarks on his own changing understanding of the literature as something that has progressed during the years of his (long) career.  He might be surprised to hear that anyone was still influenced by this particular essay: it appeared in a pamphlet that is hard to find outside of England, the long-defunct Pali Buddhist Review (formerly published out of Ilford, Essex, by its editor, Russell Webb).

I was amazed to have encountered a scholar who was strongly influenced by this particular article --and who treated it as a definitive discovery, that all subsequent work should conform to as a new standard of interpretation.  I was confronted with this because the scholar in question was more-or-less reproaching my work for failing to repeat B.B.'s 1976 conclusions verbatim (this is not, perhaps, all that Francis Bacon might have hoped for in the progress of inquiry, "[For] truth is contrary, and that time is like a river which carrieth down things…").

It is a hard thing to say how influential an essay might be within the confines of such a tiny discipline as Pali: indirectly, it may be that this particular 1976 article acquired a greater impetus from the corpus of B.B.'s later translations (I do not know if it is directly cited or referred back to in many of them, or in any of them).

The article contains many enthusiastic turns of phrase that establish nothing more than the author's sense of enthusiasm --and, frankly, there's nothing wrong with that.  However, it doesn't read like a guideline set down for future scholars to conform to.

On the first page of the essay we are told that, "The five aggregates of clinging (pañcupādānakkhandhā) present a complete epitome of dukkha, both extensively by way of range and intensively by way of essence."  Is that the thesis?

I can only imagine that if you asked B.B. about this tenet (now more than 30 years after it was written) he would be confused by the question.  In what sense, possibly, could we say that the five khandhas are an epitome of suffering "intensively by way of essence"?  Or, at least, how is anyone supposed to guess what this means on the first page of the essay?

By the time we reach the conclusion, we can see that the author has come to a kind of fervent crescendo:

"…it is only the ariyan disciple who has seen Nibbāna for himself with the eye of noble wisdom, who can understand through direct penetration this last meaning of dukkha.  For he alone has accessible to his vision a reality transcendent to the aggregates that are dukkha with which he can contrast them and see for himself that 'in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha.'" (p. 102)

Well… that cleared up any confusion about that matter…

No, wait… what were we talking about?  The definition of the word khandha?

In the lonesome study of dead languages, there is an infectuous mania for fine distinctions created between words, and this particular article appeals to that tendency.  B.B. himself remarks that the article may be seen as "…just one more instance of scholastic hair-splitting raising an unnecessary cloud of dust…" (p. 92) but he assures us that he will prove the importance of the case in due course.  I can imagine how the peculiar definitions set out in this article would captivate at least a few scholars (each of whom comprises a significant percentage of all the scholars in the field, because the total number is so small) --and, as always, the profile of the thing has to be seen in the context of the available alternatives (such as the less-than-inspiring definitions for the same terms offered by the PTS dictionary).

What is the definition of khandhā (that B.B. calls "the aggregates") offered by the essay?  First, it is presented as a paraphrase of the same definition that we can read out of the Pali canon for ourselves, on the essay's first page:

"The five clinging aggregates, in their assemblage, constitute sakkāya, the 'existing body' or empirical personality." (p. 91)

Although the wording is opaque, nobody would dispute this definition, and it was not an original suggestion in 1973.  The essay starts to become controversial in the very next sentence, much more convoluted than the last:

"Therefore, on the grounds that things, i.e., personality [NB: he is here using the term "personality" to include the physical body!] and dukkha, equal to the same thing, i.e. the five clinging aggregates, are equal to each other, the structural formula of the four truths is occasionally stated in terms of sakkāya rather than dukkha." (p. 91)

Even if you know all of the Pali terms in italics, this is extremely difficult prose to make sense of.

I don't point out this phrase to unduly criticize the author, but to draw attention to how ill-suited this type of article is to the worshipful attitude that I have seen foisted upon it by others.  B.B.'s writing here is not offering a definitive statement, nor a discovery; instead, it is hyperbolical, impressionistic, and… enthusiastic.  More important than any one problem with the article itself is the assumption that it could (or should) be treated as a definitive statement about anything --rather than merely appreciated as some informal thoughts, set down by a then-young monk, in a then-obscure journal.

The first controversy that the article engages in contrasts compound words formed with upādānakkhandha and those that lack the upādāna.

Although that may sound obscure (because it is), it is a subject I've written about before (in a critique of Gombrich's view of the matter… not yet published) and also one that I delivered a lecture on at S.O.A.S. (memorably, at the end, Prof. Kate Crosby's question from the floor was, "So, how exactly would you define the word upādāna?").  However, I don't think there's anything exciting to say about upādāna as a word: the fact that a foreign word is difficult to translate with a single term in English doesn't entail that there is anything profound about the difficulty.

Language asymmetry as such is meaningless: the fact that English may lack a neat equivalent for something tells us nothing about the author's intent in the original language that we're translating --and it doesn't move the problem into the province of philosophy.

B.B.'s article is dramatized throughout by the insistence that the "personality" and suffering are "equal to the same thing".  This comes out again in the conclusions (already quoted) and is returned to repeatedly throughout.

In the essay's second controversy (that almost forms an essay within an essay) B.B. wrestles with the admitted fact that a monk who has attained nirvana still has this "personality" defined as "the five aggregates"… and yet, by definition, does not have the suffering… whereas B.B. insists that this very suffering is the same thing as the "personality" and its constituents.  This is a bit of an ouroboros, whereby one controversy creates the other, and, perhaps, one consumes the other as well.
["Ouroboros", a word worth only 11 points in Scrabble]

As I've noted in square brackets, B.B. uses "personality" very strangely to mean both the body and the mind (we might say "person" rather than "personality", hm?).  This claim is cited to just one source, "M. 44", apparently meaning the 44th sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (and not page 44 of vol. 1 thereof), i.e., the Cūḷa-vedalla-suttanta (PTS MN vol. 1, p. 299, BJT p. 702; note that the first part of the title, cūla, is also writ culla, and  may be spelled one way or another in any given edition).

I genuinely have no idea why B.B. cited this source at this point of his argument.  Aside from the fact that the Pali word sakkāya does appear prominently, I don't see any particular connection to the point he's trying to make, nor do I even know what part of his convoluted sentence is supposed to be supported by any given paragraph of the ancient dialogue cited.  If his claim is, specifically, that "the structural formula of the four truths is occasionally stated in terms of sakkāya", he really has not demonstrated this claim (and "M. 44" doesn't make this argument for him); further, if the text cited is supposed to support the equation that sakkāya is dukkha… well, that isn't demonstrated here, either.  Conversely, I'm unclear as to what the latter claim would really mean if taken seriously.

To say that the physical body "is" suffering can't be called surprising in a Buddhist context, although most people would only accept the claim as a kind of poetic hyperbole.  Conversely, would anyone seriously suggest that the substance of the body is composed of suffering and nothing else?  If so, this is contradicted by even the same text B.B. has cited ("M. 44") along with all of the passages on the four material elements composing the body.  With or without poetic hyperbole, B.B. proceeds to insist that "…the five aggregates of clinging… are, as we see, dukkha, and it is just dukkha and the cessation of dukkha that the Buddha teaches."

It happens that I disagree with this approach, but I think that very few people would be willing to read through the details of the disagreement at any length.

Throughout the canon, it is very clear that the substance of things (earth, water, etc.) is something quite separate from the notions that we have about them; and, thus, the tangible reality of the physical elements is something quite separate from the illusion of the soul, and also from the doctrine that there is no soul.  Earth, air, fire and water are something apart from the subjective experience of suffering, and apart from the doctrines that (hopefully) liberate people from that suffering.  This is covered with tremendous repetition (but not much explanation) in the Mūlapariyāya-suttanta, where, significantly, we find our perception of the earth element treated in exactly the same way (verbatim) that the Buddha treats our perception of the gods and even nirvana. [The Mūlapariyāya is the first suttanta of the MN, and thus starts on page 1, regardless of the edition you may be using.]  When we die, the earth composing the corpse returns to the earth-element, the water returns to the water-element, and so on. ("Cātummahābhūtiko ayaŋ puriso yadā kālaŋ karoti, paṭhavī paṭhavikāyaŋ anupeti anupagacchati…", Sāmaññaphala-suttanta, DN, PTS vol. 1, p. 55–56)  This is fairly common-sense stuff, relative to anything found in any ancient philosophy in any dead language; it is similar, in broad brush-strokes, to various Greek philosophers; this type of basic assumption has only becomes contentious (in retrospect) because of the contrast to later developments in Mahayana Buddhism that have formed some modern expectations of what ancient Buddhism is supposed to be.

To cite just one other source on this matter, in brief: "Na kho kassapa, paṭhavīdhātu saddhammaŋ antaradhāpeti, na āpodhātu…". (Saddhammapatirūpaka-suttanta, SN, BJT vol. 2, p. 340)  The physical elements don't cause the decline of the dhamma with the passage of time; it isn't the physical elements that erode these impalpable doctrines, but rather "idiots" (or "vain fools", moghapurisā) that cause their decline.  Although that's hardly a breathtaking revelation, it does reflect the underlying assumption that (contrary to some modern expectations) the Buddha of the Pali canon discussed his ideas as impalpable things discrete from the physical reality that they offered an analysis of: they're untouched (in the passage of years) by earth, air, wind and fire.  In this context, it seems to me just as misleading to say that the body itself "is" suffering as it is to say that the body "is" the soul or that it "is" oneself; on the contrary, each of these contentions would be a doctrine about the body.  Even if true, inasmuch as suffering is a truth about the body, it is (ipso facto) not the body.

The whole of the Mūlapariyāya invites us to question how we see things, how we know things, and how we see ourselves "in" them (of them, with them), or think of ourselves as having them and being them; however, these perceptions and doctrines are not the things themselves.

In generating what I've called the essay's second controversy, B.B. very usefully points out that even someone who has attained nirvana is "also composed of the five clinging aggregates" (see the pali quoted in the illustration, Sīla Suttanta, SN, BJT vol. 3, p. 294; PTS vol. 3, p. 168; this is quoted by B.B. on p. 94).  Well, if we use the word "clinging" to indicate something that is overcome by nirvana, it doesn't make sense to use "clinging aggregate" to translate something that comprises the "personality" of a fully-enlightened monk, does it?

B.B. wrestles with this issue for several pages.  With a great deal of struggle amidst nearly tautological terms, he eventually comes to the conclusion that, "…there is no contradiction between the designation of the arahat as five clinging aggregates and the recogition of his freedom from clinging…". (p. 98)  There is a contradiction, but, from my perspective, it is an ouroboros that is entirely created by B.B.'s own analysis and choice of English terms.

Is this really the problem we should be solving, or should we instead try to offer a translation of the (so-called) "clinging aggregates" that makes sense in the various contexts that B.B. compares?

I don't ask these questions in a hostile manner: there's a terrible dearth of debate amongst the small number of people who read these texts.  Buddhism is a religion built on a compendium of debates: we cannot regard debate about these texts as something external to Buddhism.  The debate itself is Buddhism (and, in a sense, it always was, i.e., even during the composition of the canon itself).
[Debatable?  A manuscript from the U.S. Library of Congress]

I don't think that Bodhi's essay establishes any definitive new finding about the meaning of the words that he's musing on (upādāna and khandhā) --but I also don't think the paper really attempts to do anything more than muse on these issues.  I do think that this paper has been influential (perhaps via B.B.'s later work) in spreading a generalized sense that there is some kind of profound mystery about the relationship between upādāna and khandhā.

I do not believe this myself: words that are difficult to translate are not (for that reason) indicative of any profound mystery.  In this case, we have a fairly simple concept that has become trickier to translate when it appears as part of a (long) compound word.

The real conclusion that we should draw from this (convoluted and involuted) essay of B.B.'s is that "clinging aggregates" (upādānakkhandhā) is a terrible translation that nobody can make sense out of (or, at least, not without extensive knowledge of the Pali sources being approximated by the English).  As it happens, I also dislike Gombrich's translation of the same term (upādānakkhandhā) as "the five heaps of burning fuel" --but that's a matter for another essay.

The rather pointed incomprehensibility of B.B.'s translation gives the whole controversy about upādāna a veneer of profundity, and adds a sense of urgency to the explanation (ending with the fervent conclusion, already quoted, about the nature of suffering… and existence in general, I suppose).

I have met many people who convince themselves (after many years of reading this type of material) that the broken sentence fragments and strange jargon have some "higher purpose" --and that anyone who doubts this should be reviled as an unbeliever (who fails to understand the presumably-profound reasons as to why the translator used such abstruse terms).  There is no "higher purpose": the purpose of language is to communicate.  The incoherent use of language is a failure, not a philosophical statement.

I understand why it is that so many people uncritically accept the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi as authoritative: as with any kind of trust, the delegation of decision-making is easier than thinking for oneself.  If B.B. says it makes sense, many people will be willing to squint at the text and pretend that it makes sense (and some will not be willing to admit to themselves that they cannot make sense of this stuff, as that would be a humiliating admission of inadequacy).

When I meet people who regard the English translations this way, I can sometimes get them to pause and engage in a bit of Socratic dialogue on these matters.  When my interlocutors play along, it is soon clear that these hallowed turns of phrase don't make sense to them at all --that is, not even to the people who believe in them.

Does anyone believe in "clinging aggregates"?  In my experience, the answer is yes, although nobody can make sense of this stuff.  Neither the original texts nor the translations benefit from a lack of critical thought; however, in this instance, the English is much harder to understand than the Pali.

We're not really talking about ineffable mysteries here, although B.B.'s essay would give you that impression.  These are practical problems of translation that cannot be solved if we don't take the first step of admitting that the English text we're already looking at does not make sense.  You can look up each of the English words in the dictionary in turn (aggregate… clinging… etc.) and you can consider all the rules of English syntax and grammar as they apply to the sentence, and it still won't make sense.  The English leaves a set of blanks that can only be filled in by knowing the Pali.  For any pair of languages, that is the definition of a bad translation.

A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
Bhikkhu Bodhi.  1976.  "Aggregates and Clinging Aggregates".  Pali Buddhist Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 91–102.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 02, The Methadone of Modernity

The recurrent theme of so much of my writing (on Buddhism) is that the ancient and the contemporary cannot be mixed; however, they can be juxtaposed.  The opposite assumption, that we can and should situate the past in the present, is an entrenched aspect of European Christianity; perhaps more broadly, we could say that it is one aspect of European "high culture" in general.  The entire dramatic interest of Bruegel's (above) 1566 treatment of "the massacre of the innocents" is created by the fact that it is situated in 1566.

The massacre alluded to is indeed a Biblical episode, but the painter makes no effort to depict Israel (in the snow!) --nor ancient Israel.  In its own time, this entire scene was just as contemporary as a photograph on the front page of the newspaper: this could be a moment from any massacre that the artist or the audience had witnessed (or participated in) themselves.

This is new, and yet old: compare Giotto, painting the same episode in 1320 (below).  Is he making any attempt to depict ancient Israel, or is he (similarly) depicting his own era, and his own society, with only the most tenuous (titular) connection to the scripture (and to that scripture's culture-of-origin)?

To some extent, this general cultural assumption (of situating the past in the present) includes every tacky attempt to stage the playwrights of ancient Greece in modern bluejeans, and to depict Shakespeare in 20th century New York.  West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, and, believe it or not, Strange Brew is based on Hamlet --and the latter is probably a better film than Almereyda's version of Hamlet set in the year 2000.

You can't stage the tragedy of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter as an ironical commentary on 21st century parenthood.  Situating the philosophy of the past in the banality of the present does a disservice to both.  We must be willing to look at the script from the perspective of the culture that first wrote it, in our various roles as interpreters, actors, and even as members of the audience.

The notion that a man might (as leader of an army) be expected to murder his own daughter in order to improve the weather (so that his boats could sail, etc.) was a deadly serious matter in that ancient (and culturally alien) context.  Trying to stage that scenario in the modern world would render the tragedy absurd: the fundamental tension requires that most of the people involved in the plot sincerely believe that the human sacrifice is necessary --even if the point of the drama (as a whole) is to make us doubt this very same belief.

Conversely, if everyone believed in the sacrifice as simply as they believed in the necessity of pouring water to extinguish a fire, there would be no drama whatsoever: no ethical dilemma would be raised by the events.  If neither the audience nor the authors had any doubts about such sacrifices and divine interventions, there would be no tension surrounding the action, and, indeed, there would be no tragedy (merely necessity).

Can the interpretation of oracles be trusted?  Would you be able to trust the oracle if the stakes were so high (and it was not a deer, but your own daughter, that you were asked to sacrifice to the gods)?  If the question is merely symbolic or psychological, it is meaningless: both the belief and the doubt must be real for the tragedy to mean anything at all to the players.  People both believed these things and doubted them: the drama presumes that both the doctrine and the dissonance are understood by the audience.

The ancient Greeks did not write or perform these stories as psychological allegories, nor to provide technical terms for (Freudian) neurotic disorders in future generations.  We have to read them with the understanding that the fear of the gods was real (and the fear of ghosts was real, etc.) even if we do not fear these gods (and ghosts) ourselves.

I see many, many attempts to mix the ancient and the modern in Buddhism (and, to be blunt, I see very few examples of sincere interest in what is ancient… simply appreciated as ancient).

The example that I would mention here is made sympathetic to me by the clear fact that (1) the people involved have good intentions, and (2) I know how difficult it must be for them to put together any kind of coherent message from the (misled and misleading) sources that are available in English.  However, while the specific example that I'm about to mention is sympathetic, it includes many recurring problems that have been haunting the European engagement with Buddhism since the bad old days (of C.A.F. Rhys-Davids, etc.).

There's a really interesting intersection of (i) the East, (ii) the West, (iii) the ancient, and (iv) the modern at Thailand's Wat Tham Krabok.  I am not writing this as an uncritical endorsement: I'm stating that it is very interesting, and that more research is needed.  I know a great deal about Buddhism, but I know nothing about the treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts: when I see ritualized vomiting being used to "cleanse" drug addicts in a Buddhist temple context, I'm skeptical --but not entirely disapproving-- by default.  I'm open to learning from their experience (and I'm open to hearing what it is that they think is effective about the process) although I can neither see a medical nor doctrinal reason for the practice.  The whole canon takes a dim view of purification rituals, including ablutions.

You can "see" the same thing I've seen, in a short documentary posted on Youtube (here).

[Vomiting at Tham Krabok; Rights for this photo = Getty Images, apparently]

If you've glanced at the Youtube video, you'll notice that one reason why this particular temple became an intersection for East and West was, simply, the clientele that showed up needing help: western addicts started enrolling to overcome their addictions.  The nature of that interaction is unique, and seems to have come about gradually: although Tham Krabok was founded in 1957, the number of foreign patients was about 4% during the 1980s. (Poshyachinda, 1993)

As such, Tham Krabok seems to be a rare example of a form of Buddhism that was developed by locals, for locals, but that was subsequently adopted by foreigners, who integrated themselves into the same system used by the locals (they all drink from the same cups, and vomit into the same non-metaphorical trough).

This is itself an interesting contrast to the "two solitudes" of Asian-vs.-White Buddhists (living in separate camps) that exists almost everywhere else.  The issue remains obvious in the "segregation" of temples within Thailand (examples of "white" temples include Wat Pa Nanachat) and it remains controversial (rightly or wrongly) in the work of Charles Prebish (on Buddhism in America).

[Monk unknown, date unknown; photo credited to Nanachat's website.]

Just as interesting, the Tham Krabok method is now being exported to the West, in English translation, presumably building on the English translations already used for foreign patients within the original temple.  See the website:

I've used the word "interesting" too many times already, but this is partly because I hesitate to use any other adjective: in reading the (English) materials produced by the 5th Precept group, I feel that I'm looking at someone trying to do the impossible.

What's impossible about it?  They're trying to be simultaneously orthodox and innovative, strictly canonical and yet radical --and I'm sure they're attempting it all with the best of intentions, and (apparently) with some palpable results (in terms of the reported rates of people overcoming their addictions).  Of course, all of the usual caveats about alternative medicine apply --and, frankly, all of the usual caveats about religion apply, too.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a great deal about this that would appeal to a Pali scholar (and it is a rare example of Pali texts really being mustered and applied as a living philosophy in the 21st century) --so why is it that I can't join in a chorus of approval?

Sadly, it seems to me that the project is struggling with exactly the same problems that I've pointed out in prior articles: the well-illustrated booklet From Hungry Ghost to Being Human repeats the same error about the 12 links of "dependent origination" that I've already discussed at length (and that is neither ancient nor Asian in its origins).  This is not a minor error: it is pretty much the doctrinal core of their teaching.

The same booklet opens by stating that the references to ghosts and hell in (canonical) Buddhism are merely depictions of "mind-state[s]".  The cosmology is presented as psychology, and the supernatural elements of Buddhism are asserted to be merely allegorical.  That isn't true: it never has been true, and, sadly, I don't think that the European scholars who advanced this interpretation have had such pious motives as the people running these rehabilitation programs.

Although I can't ignore what's wrong with it, I really do sympathize with the struggle of the people producing the "literature" for Tham Krabok and 5th Precept groups: they have an impossible task, burdened by the lousy scholarship of the last 150 years, and with no real alternative to those (misled and misleading) sources.  The people writing this stuff are generally volunteers (many of them recovered drug addicts, as they state themselves), and I doubt that the Thais or the English speakers have any Pali scholars among them.  I really do assume that (1) they repeat the common misconception about the 12 links because they believe it to be true, and also (2) that they support the "psychological" view of ghosts because they believe it to be true.

However, all of this is starkly incompatible with the letter and the spirit of the canon itself.  We need to be able to read the ancient view of incarnation, ghosts, hells, and so on, with the same sense as the authors who believed those things to be true instead --and who were evidently managing real fears of things that we may consider to be unreal.

 [A Scene at Tham Krabok, rights to the photo = Morgan Hagar]

The fear of ghosts was very real in ancient India; the fear of vengeful gods was very real in ancient Greece.  Rituals to appease ghosts and gods were taken very, very seriously --and were certainly not part of some kind of psychological allegory in pageant form.  The fear was real; so too was the attempt to address that fear through magical means.  This doesn't mean that everyone in India believed in ghosts: the Pali canon itself contains both skepticism and debates on these issues.  To be blunt, if everyone believed in ghosts nobody would be preaching about them: the reason why these religious debates are recorded in the Pali canon is precisely because of the type of ethical tension I've tried to describe (indirectly) through the example of Agamemnon.

In Theravāda Buddhism, unlike the religion(s) of ancient Greece, this isn't an entirely dead tradition: I was thrilled to discover, recently, a Sri Lankan expatriate temple presenting an English translation of the Petavatthu (a collection of ancient "ghost stories") with no attempt to dissemble the intent of the authors in the introduction.  Many, many Sri Lankan publications open with an apologia, to dismiss  supernatural elements that will be found in the pages that follow, and many Sinhalese Buddhists think that this is (at least) an important part of packaging Buddhism for the Western audience --if not part of "modernizing" the religion for themselves (yes, a prolix academic literature exists on this subject, but let's not digress here).

What was refreshing to me was that the entire presentation of this particular text (including the cover, depicting "hungry ghosts") simply lacked the excuses: ghosts are a part of ancient Buddhist literature, and they don't represent "mental states" of anguish that we endure "from moment to moment".  They really do represent an ancient belief about your own dead relatives, suffering in hell, and so on and so forth.  There has never been any ambiguity in the ancient texts, there has merely been a paucity of people reading those texts, and a rather convoluted game of Europeans interpreting and misinterpreting them.

The Petavatthu contains blunt accounts of all kinds of stuff that makes Europeans uncomfortable about Buddhism: gory images of supernatural retribution, ghosts in misery for their past misdeeds, and so on.  You can find similar images depicted on temple walls around Thailand; it seems to cause some consternation for those who want to offer a sanitized version of Buddhism as some type of "Cognitive behavioral therapy".  Well, guess what: the tragedy of Agamemnon wasn't written as "therapy", either.

[Another non-allegorical image from Nong Khai's "Buddha Park"
presumably depicting Rahu and the eclipse]

Part of the problem is the over-arching aesthetic assumption common to Bruegel and Giotto, above: the notion that we can and should situate the past in the present (whereas I am suggesting that we can't or at least shouldn't --even if Bruegel is pretty good at it).

Unlike Bruegel and Giotto, however, interpreters of Buddhism do not leave the original "bible" intact when they re-interpret it, and apply it to modern conditions: they are, in effect, obfuscating and misrepresenting the original sources (and not merely "illustrating" them, for an audience who can easily access the originals, if they wish to).  I don't think that there is any legitimate role for an interpreter in "re-inventing" Buddhism to suit a Western audience: either we're reading the ancient texts for what they are, or else we're writing new ones.  The legacy of lousy scholarship (of the last 150 years or more) hampers projects that have even the best of intentions --and, of course, it creates the conditions for things still worse to emerge from projects that have bad intentions.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 05

The Pali loan-words are now too numerous to comment on: note that Lao Xonnabot is a direct derivative of Pali Janapada, following the informal rules of transcription for the modern language (cf. my old website on the subject, here).  Pali khoma ("Linen") has ended up in Lao as khoma ("Canvas").  Pali Dhura ("office", and "responsibility", among other meanings) has ended up incorporated into tulakit, the Lao word for "business".  This is not exhaustive list, even for these few words.

• 第05詞彙—老撾語+巴利文+法語+英語
• 第05词汇—老挝语+巴利文+法语+英语
• ຄຳສັບ 05 ພາສາລາວ+ປາລີ/ບາລີ+ຝຣັ່ງ+ອັງກິດ
• Lao + Pali + French + English Vocabulary Part 05
• Vocabulaire Laotien + Pali + Anglais + Français Partie 05

Friday, 5 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 01, The Happy Criminal

In the year 2000, Bhikkhu Pāsādika published two re-interpretations of a passage of the Theravāda Buddhist canon: his own and (as a footnote) a dissenting opinion sent to him by Richard Gombrich.

The article is dense, brief, and yet somewhat scattered: even if English is your first language, it might be daunting to read through if you don't already have many years of experience dealing with the mix of abbreviated references, untranslated Pali terms, and quotations taken out of context, that (regrettably) dominates the genre.

Although I'm familiar with the style, and even with the personalities being quoted, I have no idea what Pāsādika means to insinuate when he quotes Mrs. Rhys-Davids (p. 150) as having, "…asked emphatically: 'Where in these pages is Gotama?'"  I wonder why it has remained fashionable to provide this kind of quotation with no clear connection to the author's thesis.  Perhaps the point is to give us the impression that this is some tremendously difficult task, that others have failed to grasp.  Pāsādika repeatedly informs us that the problem he is about to solve has never been addressed by any other scholar or translator before (p. 147 & 154).

What is the problem?

Well… that is debatable.

Pāsādika tells us that the following passage is problematic, although he doesn't tell us precisely why.  Although the clarifications in square brackets are my own additions, I am here quoting the same translation that Pāsādika provides, which is by (the unreliable) F.L. Woodward of Tasmania:

"[Secondly, we have the hypothetical case of a man who,] given to sensual pleasures, seeks wealth by unlawful means, with violence, is blameworthy in two respects, praiseworthy in one respect.  In what two respects is he blameworthy?  Seeking wealth by unlawful means and violence, he is first to blame for that.  Secondly, in so seeking wealth he shares it not [i.e., does not share it with others] nor does meritorious deeds, that is the second respect.  And what is the one respect in which he is praiseworthy?  In getting ease and pleasure for himself.  In this respect he is praiseworthy."
(p. 149)

Pāsādika does not discuss why he thinks this passage is "problematic" at any great length: apparently, we are all supposed to share the assumption that it would be deeply troubling if the Buddha had actually said that a criminal "getting ease and pleasure for himself" is "praiseworthy".

Would that really be a problem?

Regardless of whether or not it is, Pāsādika endeavors to find a solution: he finds a Chinese text from the Ā Hán [阿含] literature (generally called "the Āgamas" in English) that corresponds to the same narrative, but that does not contain the same supposed "difficulty".  He then decides that the Chinese version (or perhaps "recension") of the story is preferable to the Pali.

This leads to the faltering conclusion that: "A comparison between the two versions suggests that with this particular example — a generalization, all the same is absolutely unwarrantable — the original Āgama text might have represented an older version than that of the Pāli canon." (p. 152)

Occam's razor is getting dull here: we are expected to turn the chronology of the world upside down, but only for this particular example, with no broader generalization being "warrantable".

The Chinese version of the text is later than any of the Indian versions.  For suttanta [經] texts in general, the Chinese will be based on a source later than the Pali (that ended up being canonized in Sri Lanka, and preserved there to this day) with a significant role for translators and redactors reinventing the source before it even reached China.  Then, once they arrived in China, the texts were transformed again (from some form of Pali, Prakrit or Sanskrit) into pictographs, a task that entailed considerable imagination, creative license and human fallibility.  Pāsādika knows all of this, he understands this, and he realizes that he is asking us to imagine that gravity reverses course for a moment, as we watch water flowing uphill, in this exceptional instance.

Why would this particular example justify so much special pleading from an author who agrees with the general principle of the Pali canon preserving a more ancient text than the Chinese translations (that we now call "the Āgamas")?

His claim is that "The Pāli text much more clearly betrays the hands of later redactors than the Chinese Āgama version…" (p. 152).

Conversely, there is a footnote (p. 149, no. 5) offering a much simpler explanation that, perhaps, Occam's razor would favor (even if it were untrue).  Richard Gombrich wrote in to suggest to Pāsādika that the content of the Pali text does not require any correction if we are simply willing to read the "problematic" passage with a sense of irony.  Thus, a complex, anachronistic, philological puzzle is here trumped and discarded with the simple suggestion that the original text could be correct --but have a bit of literary verve to it.

Although this is an appealing explanation, it is one that Gombrich did use too many times over the years: he has repeatedly dismissed texts as merely humorous or ironic when it suited him (and not merely isolated phrases, as in Pāsādika's case, but also lengthy expositions of Buddhist cosmology found in the core of the canon).  Both modes of explanation cannot be generalized into principles: can we selectively dismiss a text as ironic whenever we choose to do so?  Can we selectively choose to treat a Chinese text as more ancient (and "authentic") than a Pali text whenever it suits our preferred theory?

Nevertheless, we have water flowing downhill (rather than uphill) from Gombrich's perspective: "According to him, there is good reason to regard the supposedly 'dubious' passage as an authentic piece of the Buddha's irony. […] If one accepts this interpretation… [it] follows the general principle of text editing lectio difficilior prior [sic, potior?], 'it is the more difficult reading which is likely to be correct,' [and so] one might be prompted to look on the Chinese translations of the text in question as attempts to iron out what was felt to be an issue by means of new versions of the original text."

Although stated in a confusing way, the latter point is simple: the fact that the Chinese version of the text is "simpler" does not mean that it is more ancient, nor more authentic, nor more coherent, than the Pali.  It could just be a simplification.

Leaving the Latin terminology aside (lectio difficilior) we have to sympathize with the fact that the Chinese translations were merely the work of human hands, and, in fact, these texts had often passed through earlier rounds of human hands (rendering the same story from one Northern Indian language into another, before the texts reached China).

Simplicity is not a valid criterion of authenticity.  To be blunt: it doesn't matter if the French translation of (a particular passage of) Shakespeare makes more sense than the English.  The French is still merely a translation: possibly the translator took something unclear and clarified it in his own language, but, even so, nothing further can be inferred from that fact.  We cannot infer anything antecedent to the Pali (as it is now extant) from the Chinese --not even if we think (from our modern perspective) that the Chinese makes more sense.  We cannot infer anything about the original intention of Shakespeare as an author from the French translation --not even if the French makes more sense.

In this case, however, I reject the basic premise that the original Pali fails to make sense.

The Pali text is neither an ananchronistic corruption of the Chinese version, nor is it ironical.  It makes sense if it is read in its own context, and if we don't impose our own notions of what Buddhism is supposed to be onto it (but instead let the text tell us something, however minor, about what we should suppose Buddhism to be).

In the quotation from Woodward's translation, I clarified (in square brackets) that we were talking about the second of a series of hypothetical examples.  What was the first example?  It was a man who commits the same crimes and offences, but who does not enjoy his wealth.

At this stage of the sermon, we are directly comparing (1) a criminal who does not even enjoy his ill-gotten gains to (2) a man who does, at least, enjoy them --and this is merely the first pair of many contrasting examples.  Why would it be so surprising, in this context, to say that the happy criminal is better off than the unhappy one?  Why does Pāsādika imagine that it is impossible that the Buddha said such a thing?  Why does Pāsādika assert as a self-evident fact that, "The Pāli text much more clearly betrays the hands of later redactors"?

How can we even imagine the motivation of such "redactors", if Pāsādika's theory were valid?  Why would someone start with the Pali precursor to (what now exists as) the Chinese translation, and then decide to add this comment, specifically suggesting that a happy criminal is better off than a miserable one?  The comment makes sense as an incidental illustration (appearing in passing) but hardly seems like a separate thesis, inserted into the text by an author with intentions contrary to the (imaginary) original version.

In Pāsādika's view, this isn't an accidental corruption, so… if it is an intentional addition… what was the motivation for the fraud?

Pāsādika's assertion is that this "betrays the hands of" Materialists (p. 150, 152 & 154) --and these Materialists apparently were able to insert their views into the Pali version of the text more successfully than the Chinese version, for reasons unknown.  This theory doesn't just discard Occam's razor, but insinuates a conspiracy of a bizarre kind.  For the interpreter sitting at his desk, it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: wherever Pāsādika finds "Materialism" (however he defines it) he presumes that it is something that was later added to the Pali suttas, and that is contradictory to the original teaching of the Buddha.  He is then willing to confute the text, even in reliance on anachronistic methods that he admits are "absolutely unwarrantable" in general.

"So the conclusion can be drawn that the smack of Materialist thought in [the passage being discussed] is certainly due to later editorial interpolation." (p. 152)

Is this Pāsādika's conclusion, based on the evidence, or is it really the sole source of evidence for the controversy?  If the passage is not imagined to be an insertion from a (rival) philosophical school of Materialism, what possible controversy could arise about it, and of what possible significance would the contrast to the Chinese version be?

Although I have no reason to think that Pāsādika has any animus or agenda other than the ones he states in his own paper, it is a regrettable fact that his essay fits into the broad pattern of exaggerating the precedence of the Chinese Ā Hán [阿含] literature.  In my lifetime, what I have seen, again and again, is the reluctance of wealthy, fair-skinned Asians to accept the notion that really important texts were preserved by poverty-stricken Asians with brown skin: the strongest bigotry imaginable prevents a Japanese scholar from looking upon Sri Lanka without "looking down" at them.  Within Asia, there is a reciprocal relationship between racism and economic inequality: wealth is the rationale for racism, but the advantages of the wealthy are also explained as a result of racial superiority.

[WW2 Propaganda, source:]

For the Taiwanese, nationalism has more to do with the cult of the written character (and the ancientness of their extant literature) than it does with racism in the simplest sense.  However, racism in that simple sense remains an important aspect of how the Taiwanese regard Sri Lanka, Myanmar/Burma, or any other Theravāda nation, along with the distant memory of Japan's short-lived empire in Southeast Asia.
[WW2 Propaganda, source:]

I have no reason to think that Pāsādika supports any of these tendencies, but the sad fact is that these little articles become footholds for the delusion that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans don't need the Pali canon, and that the Pali canon has nothing to teach them.  It is profoundly reassuring to the East Asian ego to imagine that they have preserved the Ā Hán [阿含] literature in their own tradition, and that this renders the whole corpus of Pali texts moot, or a matter of minor footnotes in history.

Chinese scholars will proudly (and sometimes angrily) insist that these Ā Hán [阿含] texts are more ancient than any particular manuscript preserved in India, and will invoke the short studies by Bhikkhu Anālayo as (supposedly) proving that the Chinese canon is more ancient, more coherent, more intact, and more important than anything that can be found in this third-world language that nobody has ever heard of (i.e., Pali).  I understand why this is comforting to a world-view predicated on the cultural preeminence of Chinese written characters (i.e., a view not limited to China) --however, this is not merely bigoted, but also utterly false.

China, Japan and Korea have a great deal to learn from the Pali canon (and from the cultures and languages of people who happen to have brown skin, and to live in countries generally devastated by war, and struggling with higher levels of poverty, etc.).

I write about this aspect partly because I'm aware that nobody else is willing to do so, but also partly because it is a normal part of my life, and has been a recurring issue for me (for more than 10 years).  I received comments along these lines even from the Taiwanese academics who wrote the peer-reviews for my essays, and I've had people shout this stuff to my face.  This would be something like Christians desperately trying to prove that Hebrew and Aramaic are of no special significance to the study of the Bible; while that kind of anachronistic premise may be impossible to take seriously, it seems to me that many Chinese scholars take this game very, very seriously.

I don't know what Anālayo's opinion is (given his own position in the midst of this), but he must be aware of what the cultural (and even racial) significance of his work is by now.  Extremely minor textual controversies are celebrated if they suggest that the Ā Hán [阿含] texts will allow "us" (i.e., this generation) to disregard the Pali canon.  Even if authors like Anālayo do not mean to say that one source trumps the other, his work is being read (or perhaps even "exploited") in this way.

[A Bibliography of just one entry:]
Bhikkhu Pāsādika (a.k.a. Eckhard Bangert).  2000.  "A Hermeneutical Problem in SN 42,12…", J.I.A.B.S. issue 23/1, 2000 (available online).