15 August 2014

Roots of the Heart Sutra

Edward Conze was of the opinion that the oldest layer of the Prajñāpāramitā textual tradition is probably the  first two chapters of the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (Rgs). He sees it as closely related to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (8000 line Perfection of Wisdom Text; Aṣṭa) but conjectures that verse precedes prose. Other scholars have conjectured that the verse is actually a post hoc summary of the prose. At present there is insufficient information to decide one way or the other. In some manuscripts the Rgs is included as a chapter of a larger Prajñāpāramitā text (8k and 100k), inevitably numbered "chapter 84".

While we don't have very old manuscripts of the Rgs, we do have one of the Aṣṭa in Prakrit from the 1st Century (carbon dated to between 47 and 147 CE) and thus probably from the end of the 1st Century CE. We also have a very early (179 CE) Chinese translation by the Scythian translator, Lokakṣema. We now know that the Aṣṭa was composed in Prakrit in Gandhāra which solves some of the existing problems of where to locate the early Prajñāpāramitā tradition. Rgs by contrast was not translated in Chinese until the 10th century by Faxian 法賢 (991CE), 《佛母寶德藏般若波羅蜜經》Fúmǔ-bǎodécáng-bōrěbōluómì(duo)-Jīng (T 229). This means that it played no part in the understanding and development of Perfection of Wisdom thought in China. This Chinese version is, according to Yuyama (1976), probably the most corrupt of all the versions. It is closer to Recension A, but still very different in many places. This may be due to Faxian's "free (or perhaps bad) translation." (xl)

As we now know, the Heart Sutra or Hṛdayaprajñāpāramitā is mostly comprised of some quotes from a Chinese Large Perfection of Wisdom Text equivalent to the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. The most likely candidate is Kumārajīva's translation 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》Móhēbōrěbōluómì Jīng by Kumārajīva (T 223; 404 CE). We also know that the larger texts in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines are simply an expansion of the Aṣṭa. It is possible to trace many of the cited passages from the Hṛdaya back into the Pañcaviṃśati; but we ought to be able to go one step further and trace some of them back into the Aṣṭa and Rgs. This essay will revisit an aspect of the roots of the Hṛdaya in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, particularly for the epithets passage:
Tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā 'samasamavidyā. 

In Jan Nattier's watershed article (1992) she notes a few examples of this genealogical approach with respect to the epithets passage. Nattier, in note 54a, explains that the epithets are epithets of prajñāpāramitā itself and that the word mantra is an erroneous back translation of 明咒 míng zhòu (= vidyā), with confusion arising because 咒 zhòu is used in the same capacity and even appears alongside 明咒. I conjecture that the confusion was exacerbated because the composition of the early Prajñāpāramitā texts occurred well before Tantric Buddhism, while the translation of the Hṛdaya from Chinese into Sanskrit occurred post-tantra and the reading of 咒 was.

An interesting comparison is with the six-syllable mantra: oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ. Alex Studholm's study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra (Kvs) reveals the early history of this mantra. I've written two previous essays on Studholm's conclusions:
Throughout the Kvs the "mantra" is never referred to as a mantra, but only and always as the ṣaḍakṣarī mahāvidyā (61) "the six-syllabled great techne". Vidyā is a difficult word to find a good English translation for in this context. Techne is a Greek word which has almost exactly the same range of meaning, i.e. 'art, craft, skill', and is the source of our word technology. I'm trying it out in this essay, but I wouldn't insist on it. My only stipulation would be that we cannot translate vidyā as "science" because it is anachronistic. The word "science" properly applies to the systematic empirically based descriptions of the world, tested through conjecture and refutation, which began in the late 15th century in Europe. There is an archaic use of the word science which does cross over with vidyā, but it is archaic. And in the present there is too much confusion over the distinctions between science and religion to be slack in how we use the words. Better a neologism than an anachronism if we communicating to a present day audience. Indeed if anything the argument ought to go the other way. We might, as some do, translate vidyā as 'spell' or 'magic'. The main idea here is the specialist knowledge of Buddhist practices which allow us to gain first-hand, experiential knowledge of how the perceptual situation creates duḥkha. This has a magical flavour in many texts, and can result in extra-sensory perceptions, but there is nothing of science here. Vidyā is religious knowledge.

As we know, mahāvidyā is one of the epithets of prajñāpāramitā also. In the Chinese Heart Sutra, it is 大明咒  dà míng zhòu, where 大 means 'great' and 明咒 = vidyā. Due to the ambiguity of the characters and the confusion over the original meaning this is often translated as "great bright mantra". See e.g. Mu Soeng's recent translation and commentary on the Chinese version. Soeng, like Red Pine, simply ignores Nattier's findings. In the Chinese 咒 = vidyā also. Hence the change I have suggested in the Sanskrit: that "mantra" (qua word) is eliminated from the text and replaced everywhere with vidyā. For the argument in more detail see: Heart Sutra Mantra Epithets.

In Nattier's article she notes that the epithets passage has been traced by Nobuyoshi Yamabe in various Chinese translations of Pañcaviṃśati and Aṣṭa. I have been working on a comprehensive list of the counterpart passages in the basic Prajñāpāramitā texts in Sanskrit and Chinese. There are in fact only two passages, but they recur across two languages and multiple translations of multiple texts and so number about two dozen in total. I hope to publish this information before too long. Using electronic searches, I also came across a counterpart in the Rgs. In Chinese the passage is (T 8.229 678.a4-5):
This great techne of perfect wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas,
Able to remove distress in all world spheres,
All the Buddhas of the three times and the ten directions,
Schooled in this techne are the supreme masters.
We can identify it as a counterpart because of its place in the sequence; its use of mahāvidyā in connection to prajñāpāramitā; and because it connects the vidyā with the buddhas of the three times and ten directions. The latter also links it to the second of two possible Pañcaviṃśati passages that are the basis of the Hṛdaya epithets (and the more likely of the two). In this translation mahāvidyā is rendered as 大明 dà míng (line 1), while vidyā in line 4 is simply 明 míng, in line with the practice of the day.

There are two main recensions of the Sanskrit Rgs and I have used recension A from the critical edition published by Akira Yuyama. Vaidya's edition is based on Recension B mss and has only minor differences in this verse which are discussed below. Conze describes the metre as "irregular Vasantatilaka" though my sources suggest that this is a 14 syllable metre, with a caesura after 8, i.e.:
– – ∪ | – ∪ | ∪ ∪ – ॥ ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –
(∪ light; - heavy; ॥ ceasura)

Rgs has 13, 14 and 15 syllable lines, with 15 seeming to be the norm and the verse we're looking at is quite regular. The final pattern of Rgs 3.5 does match the post-caesura portion of Vasanatilaka, i.e. | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –  (If anyone knows Sanskrit metres and can tell us more please comment or email me).

The text is not really in Sanskrit, but rather in a Prakrit that has been Sanskritised to some extent. It's quite near the Prakrit end of the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit spectrum, though this verse looks more or less like Sanskrit. Conze's translation is based on his "corrected" edition of Recension B, published in Russia by E. Obermiller and (not infrequently) on the Tibetan edition (Yuyama 1976: xlvii). I will compare both, but favour Recension A as found in Yuyama (1976). The text of the Rgs (A) verse which corresponds to the Chinese above is:
mahavidya prajña ayu pāramitā jinānāṃ |
dukhadharmaśokaśamanī pṛthusattvadhātoḥ ||
ye ’tīta’nāgatadaśaddiśa lokanāthā |
ima vidya śikṣita anuttaravaidyarājāḥ ||
Rgs 3.5 ||
∪ ∪ – |  * – ∪ | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –  (* see discussion)
∪ ∪ – | ∪ – ∪ | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –
∪  * – | ∪ – ∪ | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –
∪ ∪ – | ∪ – ∪ | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ ∪ – | ∪ – –
This perfection of wisdom of the Jinas is a major techne;
In the realm abounding in beings, whose nature is suffering, grief, and darkness.
The world protectors of past and future, in the ten directions, who;
Trained in this knowledge, are the unexcelled kings of the knowledgeable.
The overall similarity of content shows that these two are the same passage, and the numbering also accords. That said some interesting differences occur as we would expect from the introductory comments based on Yuyama's observations about the state of the Chinese text.

The first line in particular marks this passage out as not being Classical Sanskrit. In Sanskrit it would probably read: mahāvidyā prajñā ayaṃ pāramitā jinānām | Such differences might appear trivial to the non-philologist, but all to often it is these differences in vowel length and final syllables that make the difference between languages. One can see that, here at least, the metre is fairly regular and in fact the Classical Sanskrit spelling would spoil the metre!

In line 1 measure 2 the ya in vidya does not make position. It is followed by pra which ought to make it heavy. The Pāli spelling would be paññā so it may be that the Prakrit speaking author pronounced prajña more like Pāli i.e. /pa/ rather than /pra/ and thus thought of ya as light. Or it may be an adjustment metri causa. Also the caesura occurs after the of pāramitā which is quite poor poetry. The Chinese (line 1) introduces the phrase 諸佛母 'mother of all the Buddhas' as an epithet of prajñāpāramitā. This may relate to the time period of the translation. A translation of Aṣṭa from 985 CE gives the title as《佛母出生三法藏般若波羅蜜多經》Fúmǔ-chūshēng-sānfǎcáng-bōrěbōluómìduō-jīng. 佛母出生三法藏 means something like: "The mother of the Buddhas that gives birth to the casket of the three Dharmas"; while 般若波羅蜜多 is the standard transliteration of prajñāpāramitā. And note that the title of Rgs also contains the phrase 佛母 'mother of the Buddhas'. This is an epithet of prajñāpāramitā even in early texts, but seems to have become more important by 10th century in China. 

Line 2 is interpreted in a more positive sense in the Chinese version. The Sanskrit merely notes the characteristics of saṃsāra (misery and grief) while the Chinese insists that the vidyā is able to relieve the suffering. This change is consistent with parallel changes in how the Buddha was seen in the Mahāyāna that I noted in my recent article in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (21): Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. What we see is the Buddha becoming more like a messiah in his ability to intervene in human affairs to benefit people. In particular in the revised (Mahāyāna) versions of the Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra, King Ajātaśatru, who has killed his father, is excused from a lengthy stay in Hell simply by meeting the Buddha. It seems that the idea that a Buddha, or in this case prajñāpāramitā, was unable to intervene was unacceptable to Mahāyānavādins. As was the idea that a Buddha might not return to this world as a saviour despite having won liberation from it.

Line 3 shows minimal variation between the two versions, except that the epithet lokanāthā 'protectors of the world' is exchanged for 佛 = buddhas. Since Faxian was translating in verse he may well have made a change like this for the sake of preserving the metre (metri causa). Chinese verse is restricted not only in the number of characters, but sometimes in the pattern of tones also, though we don't have reliable information about tones from Middle Chinese as far as I know. The Sanskrit metre means that one of the elided letters in ye 'tīta 'nāgata must have been spoken since the metre has 15 syllables and the line as written only 14. In order to fit the metrical pattern we must read ye atīta 'nāgata. It is here that Vaidya's edition differs: ye 'tīta ye 'pi ca daśaddiśa lokanāthā. However this also only has 14 syllables and here we must read ye atīta ye 'pi ca. The metrical argument here is strong and might merit emending the Sanskrit text. 

Line 4 in Prakrit uses a simple play on words that might have been confusing in Chinese. One who trains in the vidyā becomes a supremely knowledgeable (vaidya) king. Here vaidya derives either from vidyā and means 'of or related to vidyā'; or from veda with much the same meaning. In any case someone who "knows" is "knowledgeable". (Note that "Vaidya" is the surname of one of the editors of the Sanskrit text.) In Chinese however two cognate words like vidyā and vaidya would be represented by the same character: 明 míng. Since this might be confusing, Faxian opts for shī, which less ambiguously (and more concisely) conveys the sense of "mastery" and "expertise". Faxian does however retain 無上 wú shàng as a rendering of an-uttara, both meaning 'none higher' or 'unexcelled'. 


If Conze is correct then this mention of prajñāpāramitā qua vidyā in Rgs may be the original passage. However the chronology is complex. Between the composition of Rgs, the copying of the ms. that recension A is based on, and the Chinese translation ten centuries have passed. These texts are known to change over time. For example the Sanskrit parallel in extant Aṣṭa is much more elaborate than the version in extant Pañcaviṃśati suggesting that the manuscript of Aṣṭa is later, though overall we observe the opposite. In general Pañcaviṃśati is a development of Aṣṭa but apparently different parts of the texts evolved at different rates.

So any differences may be due to differences in the text rather than changes introduced by the translator. For all we know Faxian might be absolutely true to the text he had before him. However there are indications of adaptation to both cultural assumptions and to metric necessity.

Most commentaries on the Heart Sutra project late, synthetic views back onto the text. Thus for the recently published Zen commentaries  (e.g. Red Pine or Mu Soeng) the text is almost a tabula rasa onto which the ideas of Zen are inscribed, drawing on the Sūtra's status for authentication. Conze's commentary, influenced no doubt by D T Suzuki, takes a similar approach. Commentators like Pine and Soeng set out to tell a story about Zen based on the Heart Sutra. They seem unaware of any tension between the story they wish to tell and the text itself; and blithely gloss over any inconsistencies. Neither have any time for Jan Nattier's discovery. Pine talks himself out of having to take it seriously on spurious grounds, while Soeng notes the article and then proceeds as if it were never written. The religious story they wish to tell overrides any inconvenient historical or philological facts. And yet both writers are praised for being "scholarly".

For some scholars this genealogical approach to re-used passages is texts is intrinsically interesting. The re-use of passages and texts is a distinct subject for study in Indology (see Elisa Freschi on academia.orgher blog, and Indian Philosophy Blog). In the case of the Hṛdaya however it also opens up an entirely new way of reading the text (an hermeneutic). We can see that the Heart Sutra is thoroughly rooted in the early Prajñāpāramitā texts and that at the very least we need to allow that the author of the text (working between about 400 CE and 650 CE) had that kind reading in mind. It is possible that we see in the Heart Sutra an epitome of early Mahāyāna/Prajñāpāramitā thought rather than a legitimation of later readings which synthesise many elements of Mahāyāna thought and manifest as new forms of Buddhism like Zen or Gelugpa.

In which case we ought to be looking at the characteristic ideas of the early Prajñāpāramitā texts for the foundation concepts that allow us to understand the Heart Sutra. This exploration is a large part of what I will be doing over the next few years. Clearly there are many continuities with a particular stream of early Buddhist ideas and practice. For example, meditation practices such as the skandha reflections provide continuity. And an obvious discontinuity was the rejection of Abhidharma Realism, particularly the Sarvāstivāda ideas that were expressed in pursuit of a solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance (I've yet to discover a specifically Prajñāpāramitā solution to this problem, though Nāgārjuna's solution may give us hints about what to look for). In any case there is a great deal of research on early Mahāyāna that modern commentators pay lip-service to, but fail to incorporate into their narratives. I'd like to revise the story of the Heart Sutra, particularly in the light of Nattier (1992).



Chinese text from the CBETA version of the Taishō Edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka
Falk, Harry and Karashima, Seishi. (2012) A first‐century Prajñāpāramitā manu-script from Gandhāra - parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1). ARIRIAB XV, 19-61. Online: https://www.academia.edu/3561115/prajnaparamita-5
KIMURA Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. Online: http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/psp_1u.htm [Input by Klaus Wille, Göttingen, April 2010].  
Nattier, Jan. (1992). The Heart Sūtra : a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223. 
Studholme, Alexander (2002). The Origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ: A Study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. State University of New York Press. 
Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. Also online: http://www.dsbcproject.org/node/8242 
Yuyama, Akira. (1976) Prajñā-pāramitā-ratna-guṇa-saṃcaya-gāthā (Sanskrit Recension A). Cambridge University Press. 

08 August 2014

Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names."

The Analects. (13.1)

The three words in the title of this essay are often conflated and used pejoratively to criticise anyone who argues that the results of scientific exploration must be taken into account. In fact they delineate three different philosophical narratives, the first two are ontologies concerned with the nature of reality, while the latter is an epistemological position. Since the terms come up so often and are so often used indiscriminately, leading to confusion, it's worth unpacking them and sorting one from the other.


Physicalism is a relatively new word. It was coined in the 1930's by the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, which is also associated with the epistemological stance of Positivism. Indeed the confusion of anti-science campaigners is such that they will often refer to science as "Positivist".  This is very easy to refute since in the schism between Viennese refugee Karl Popper and the Vienna Circle, scientists decisively sided with Popper in rejecting Positivism. Modern science is not Positivist, it is, if anything, Popperian. The heart of the dispute was the Positivist claim that propositions could only be considered true when they could be directly verified. Popper showed, using the example of the black swan, that this was not a useful approach to assessing the truth value of knowledge. For example: "All swans are white" had been used as an example of an demonstrably true proposition in Europe, since all European swans are white. But in Australia swans are black and thus once Europeans got to Australia they realised that it was never true that all swans were white. This is now known as the Black Swan Effect. The Positivist approach is constantly undermined by unknown unknowns. Those who claim there is no certain knowledge cite the Black Swan Effect as a justification for this view. 

The Physicalist position is essentially a linguistic one. They said that all linguistic statements are synonymous with some physical statement. Which boils down to the idea that everything is (ultimately) physical. If this were so it would certainly make truth claims a lot easier to establish or test. Everything we experience is simply a result of how the physical world is arranged. For example an arrangement of atoms.

Although philosophers still discuss the idea of Physicalism, it is not a very convincing position and has very little influence on the world at present. Indeed it is precisely the mind which undermines physicalism. It is very difficult to account for the phenomena of the mind in a Physicalist paradigm. While most current theories of mind are reductive, in the sense of explaining the mind as an activity of the brain, this would still be difficult to account for on the basis of Physicalism, because the phenomena of the mind are not physical. For some philosophers this looks like a case for substance dualism. David Chalmers who coined the term "The Hard Problem" is a substance dualist. 

I think it's safe to say that no scientist is presently trying to explain the mind through the Physicalist paradigm. Granted, the physicists seeks to understand physical phenomena through studying the physical world. But this is a methodological approach rather than an ontological position. Physicists may believe that studying the world (the way they do) will lead to a theoretical understanding of reality, but this is technically not Physicalism, it is Naturalism


Materialism is a somewhat older term with roots in the early Enlightenment. We need to think carefully about the historical context of Materialism. In fact some of the Ancient Greeks were materialists - they believed that the world was made up of one substance and it's transformations. A popular early contender for this single substance was water. Fire was also considered by some. There were apparently some materialists in ancient India as well and they also played around with both water and fire as the ultimate substance. A little note here is that in Buddhism we frequently meet Nihilists who do not believe in rebirth, or Determinists who believe our actions are all pre-determined, but neither of them can legitimately (or rationally) be called Materialists because they do not espouse a substance ontology. However it is de rigueur to irrationally call such characters materialists. Materialism, as an ontology, did not catch on either in Europe or in India. In Europe materialism lost ground to other ideas and then was obliterated by Christianity for over 1000 years. In India the transmigration of souls in a cyclic eschatology required some form of Vitalism that dominates the Indian worldview even today.

At the dawn of the Enlightenment the Roman Catholic Church (previously the Holy Roman Empire) had been the dominant intellectual power for a millennia. They maintained this by having a monopoly on education and by persecuting heretics. Roman theology translated into secular power as well. Thus when the first cracks appeared in Church dogma - discoveries by Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Galileo - they were embraced with great enthusiasm in some quarters where the Church was less popular.

As much as anything the early Materialists hoped to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Church. And they did this by playing up the possibilities of gaining knowledge by studying the material world as distinct from the spiritual world of the Church; and by playing down the superstition and ignorance fostered by the Church as part of its program to control the masses.

We have to see the Materialism of the Enlightenment as distinct from contemporary Materialism because of the historical context and the fact that most of the central planks of contemporary materialism were discovered in the 20th century. The understanding of the 17th and 18th Century materialists was entirely different and commentators such as Arnold Schopenhauer (the darling of many Romantics) who attempt to refute 18th century Materialism.

In the 21st century the Church is a spent force intellectually. For a start it is divided and full of internal strife over issues of equality. The Church plays no major role in public discourse any more. In addition we have a series of discoveries that have established materialism as a very useful way of seeing the world: building on the life and works of Newton, Hume and Kant; 19th century natural philosophers extended our knowledge of the natural world: evolution and the discovery of fossils; the explorations of the early chemists; Maxwell's electromagnetism and so on. This laid the foundations for far more sophisticated theories which have explored the natural world in greater breadth and depth, such as: Relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear forces, deep space telescopes, electron microscopes, and fMRI scanners taking pictures of the brain in action. These are all the activities of what used to be called natural philosophers - those whose study is of the natural world, and who nowadays take an approach that might be called Naturalism.

The success of methodological Naturalism can lead to the ontological view that the material world is all that there is, i.e. to mono-substance materialism. However the Materialism of today is vastly different to the Materialism of the 19th Century. The picture of nature is much more wide ranging and compelling. It will readily be admitted that we do not understand everything, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, not to mention problems associated with the mind, are as yet unsolved. Still, what we do know about the world is astounding. And we know the basic principles upon which the world, as we know it, operates. (See Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood).

The main problem that undermines Materialism as a complete ontology is what David Chalmers has called "the hard problem of consciousness. As he says "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience." It's very difficult to explain first person experience, the fact that we are subjects of experience, from a Materialist perspective. However we must carefully note that, rather disappointingly, Chalmers is a substance dualist: in expounding his views he makes it clear that he believes that the mind is a different substance to matter. It is natural, even axiomatic, for a mind/body substance dualist to argue that studying matter will tell us nothing about the mind. Substance dualism is a theological position rather than a philosophical position: there is no way to test the proposition, it must simply be taken on faith. Just because a substance dualist like Chalmers cannot conceive of a way around the problem, his definition of mind erects insurmountable barriers around it, does not mean that people who reject substance dualism are bound by the same assumptions. I recently cited John Searle and his contention that these discussions often mix up ontology and epistemology:
"The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain". - (Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology)
Over the last few weeks I've been arguing that substance dualism, and in particular Vitalism, is incompatible with basic Buddhism. In fact like Nāgārjuna I'm forced to conclude that any hard and fast ontological position is untenable, because by the Buddhist understanding of the existential situation there is no epistemological support for any ontology. We simply have no way to know one way or the other if the world really exists or really doesn't. All we can know is that experience arises and passes away and it marked by impermanence, disappointment and insubstantiality. However I offer the caveat that together we can infer a lot about the world and that through empiricism and comparing notes we have a lot of useful information and accurate theories. 

The other kind of Materialism, the other side of the mono-substance ontology, argues that there is only one kind of substance in the universe and it is mind. Whereas the Materialism that is regularly attacked by Buddhists is a form of Realism, if we say that there is only mind then we have a form of Idealism (after Plato's conception of 'ideas' the ultimate, true, noumena behind phenomena). Idealism is quite a popular philosophical stance amongst Buddhists.  And it's still a mono-substance ontology and thus a form of Materialism.


Scientism is distinct from Physicalism and Materialism because it's primarily an epistemological stance. Scientism, on the back of the massive success of science, argues that the scientific method (empiricism) is the only valid method of acquiring knowledge. Presumably Scientism would argue that common sense is a less sophisticated form of empiricism. In fact this is mostly a pejorative term used by social "scientists" against real scientists. And the irony here is that the humanities have been vigorously gearing up to be sciences since around the time "Scientism" was coined as a pejorative. So in some sense the argument is not with scientists, but with humanities scholars enthusiastically adopting the paradigms of science. Of course they do this because of the kudos that comes with empirical research: it's much harder to argue with measurement than with surmise or reflection. 

In fact I see this adoption of empiricism outside the natural sciences as a rather baleful influence on everyday life. Ordinary professionals such as teachers and nurses now have to have masters degrees and spend half their time on administrative and bureaucratic tasks designed to measure their performance. Such initiatives stem from the influence of Neolibertatian ideology to society: Neolibertarians enthusiastically adopted Game Theory for example and measurements of productivity adapted from manufacturing. The most egregious example of this was measuring the efficiency of the Vietnam War in terms of the "body count". The inventor of this metric, Allan Enhoven, was subsequently employed in the 1980s by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to reorganise the National Health Service. But the upshot of this is that there is never enough efficiency and constant organisation reviews and reorganisation that do more to sap efficiency than regular bouts of Norovirus. If there's a downside to empiricism this is it. 

The critics of science particularly focus on the reductive nature of scientific theories - things are always explained in terms of simpler components. (Which is just what Buddhism does in models like the skandhas, dhātus and nidānas). In fact though science does largely rely on reductive accounts, with huge success it must be said, this is changing with the rise of cross-discipline work and systems theory. Reductive explanations give you a particular kind of leverage on the problems you are looking at. Buddhists exploit this leverage as much as scientists to, though to different ends. 

In many ways the term Scientism expresses the anxiety that the efficacy of previously privileged forms of knowledge seeking (such as through meditation or abstract philosophy) are denied by scientists. This anxiety being felt as much within the disciplines of sociology and psychology as without. The application of empiricism to fields like psychology looks like reducing the role of gifted pioneers like Sigmund Freud. The impressionistic and visionary approach to psychology doesn't always tally with what scientists find. take homeopathy which is so popular amongst those who lean towards Buddhism. Factually speaking there is nothing in homeopathic remedies and homeopathy is exposed as based on untrue propositions. The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon website sells tee-shirts with the legend: Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. The term "Scientism" is aimed at taunting those killjoy scientists who disprove unicorns and homeopathy, often with no real acknowledgement of the successes of science and the new stuff that we enjoy: like the internet.

Ontology and Epistemology

Buddhism has a reasonably clear epistemology i.e. it is reasonably clear on what constitutes sources of valid knowledge (pramāṇa). Historically this clarity is lost because Buddhists begin to prioritise ontology, but before they go down that dusty road, there is some clarity. Knowledge comes from experience.

The central truth criteria are three axioms: experience is impermanent; experience is unsatisfactory; and experience is insubstantial. Any knowledge which conforms to these three axioms is valid knowledge. But here we must be cognizant of the scope of early Buddhist thought. Time and again the Buddha says: "I teach suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way to cessation." Thus early Buddhist ideas were never intended as a philosophical system as though Gotama were an Indian Plato or Aristotle. Buddhism is programmatic. It's pragmatically focussed on duḥkha and minimalist in being unconcerned with wider philosophical questions which when asked are frequently left aside as unexplained (avyākata).

By cultivating certain kinds of experience, particularly samādhi or integration and by reflecting on experience per se in that state, one can get access to knowledge of the nature of experience (yathābhūta-jñānadarśana) and become liberated from duḥkha. Subsequent to that liberation (vimukti) we obtain knowledge that we are liberated (vimuktijñāna).

There is another kind of knowledge traditionally associated with samādhi called abhijñā. This is more or less extra-sensory perception. How we understand these ESPs will depend on temperament and worldview. However the most import of the abhijñās, and the only one described as lokuttara, is āsravakṣaya the destruction of the fluxes; synonymous with vimukti. And although it is certainly possible, in early Buddhist texts, to gain ESP powers, it is not usually seen as desirable, especially in contrast to the āsravakṣaya.

At no point in early Buddhist texts, and as far as I know in the Perfection of Wisdom texts, the Sukhāvativyūha texts or other Mahāyāna Sūtras, does the Buddha say anything at all about the nature of reality or of objects. Such speculations as we have in the Buddhist tradition seem to come out of arguments between the successors of the Ābhidharmikas and non-Buddhist Indian philosophers and to date mainly from ca. the 6th century AD onwards. Buddhists went for over 1000 years without worrying about what the world is made of. Even the so-called "elements" (dhātu) are defined in experiential terms: earth is characterised by the experience of resistance and so on. 

It's important to be clear about all this, about the doctrinal stance that underpins Buddhism: both early Buddhism, sectarian Buddhism and at least the early Mahāyāna. The focus is on gaining knowledge that can release us from suffering. That knowledge is obtained by examining our mind, especially from a state of samādhi or through reflections carried out immediately post-samādhi. While natural processes do offer metaphors for the mind, the natural world is never given any consideration in the process of liberation. It is broadly speaking a source domain of objects of the senses, but nothing more and of little or no interest to Buddhist thinkers.

I've already mentioned that one of the implications of this Buddhist epistemology is that it can support no ontological arguments. And indeed where Buddhists make ontological arguments they have to first modify the Buddhist epistemology in ways that are not related to the program of gaining liberation from suffering. Thus, I would argue, that if one is a Buddhist then one cannot legitimately take an ontological stand. I believe that this is precisely the message of the Kaccānagotta Sutta

We have no basis for arguing that "reality" or "things" or "the universe" is one way or the other. We have no basis for a Realist point of view and no basis for an Idealist point of view. We have no valid source of knowledge about the nature of reality or the nature of objects of the senses. All we have is experience. And even those people with insight are just describing another kind of experience which is entirely personal to them. Knowledge from the senses can be reliable to varying degrees, even the unawakened can function in the world and physics makes incredibly accurate predictions. But any ultimate knowledge we might gain can only be of the workings of the mind, and in particular the way the mind responds to sensory stimulation and how that related to the three axioms of experience.


Whenever we see pejoratives flying around in a intellectual discussion we know that someone's toes have been stepped on. Pejoratives are about trying to score points. Good polemic deals with substantive points, it does not resort to lazy labelling. Of course it can be helpful to point out that a critic has an unstated, and possibly unexamined, assumption or philosophical stance. Buddhists all too often take a stand in Romantic ideology or in Vitalist ontology. Or they may cite some anachronistic philosophy or view (Schopenhauer is a favourite). And it can be helpful to point out and critique the stance or the view when developing an argument. When one's critics are thoughtlessly expounding a philosophical stance, then undermining that stance is a valid way of proceeding. Negatively pejoratives are employed to shut down discussions, to silence opposition, and to try to put an opponent at a disadvantage so as simply to win an argument.

It's useful to see that Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism are three different labels for three different approaches to being and/or knowledge. And to know that if one wants to put a non-polemical label on the worldview of most scientists it would be Naturalism.

If someone wants to pick a fight on the basis of their own confusion about these terms, or based on an anachronistic view of science, or the views of a philosopher who died before science really got going; or to make an argument based on an ontology for which there is no supporting epistemology; then I'm under no more obligation to take up that fight than I would be to argue theology with a Jehovah's Witness on my doorstep.


01 August 2014

Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism

In the texts of early Buddhism we find several kinds or modes of morality. One of which is mainly aimed at being a good community member and one of which is aimed at preparation for meditation. In this essays I will outline the main approaches to Buddhist ethics that I see in the Pāḷi suttas. This line of reasoning first occurred to me in responding to a comment on my essay: Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas. (21 Mar 2014). I also argue that this variety of approaches to ethics argues against a single origin for Buddhism. As with other areas, Buddhist ethics is composite with some aspects not being completely integrated.

Being Good. 

This is the aspect of ethics that most of us are familiar with. The representative set of precepts is known as the pañcasīlāni or just pañcasīla. In this formula we undertake to refrain from certain actions: killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. When I've written essays on these topics (see links), they generated many comments and often sharply polarised responses! 

In the Triratna Order we follow a related set of precepts traditionally known as the dasa-kusala-kamma-patha or 'the path of the ten good actions'. In this set of precepts we undertake to refrain from killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, divisive speech, covetousness, ill will, and confusion. And we also undertake to cultivate the opposites of each of these.

One of my colleagues has just published a book which she titled It's Not About Being Good. But I'm afraid I disagree. These precepts are about being good, where good is defined in Buddhist cultural terms which, I argue, can be traced back to the Śākya tribe. The Śramaṇa religious cultures synthesised Zoroastrian (via the Śākyas), Vedic, autochthonic animistic and shamanistic ideas to produce a new set of moral values and rules that transcended the local community and situation. These rules are largely about getting on with people and creating a harmonious community, i.e. norms of behaviour for a community that have become formalised and normalised.

In my article on the possible origins of some aspects of Buddhism in Iran I cited the fact that in the region only Zoroastrians and Buddhists have a morality which applies to acts of body, speech and mind. And in both cases it is acts of body, speech and mind that determine one's afterlife destination. In Zoroastrianism there were only two possibilities, Heaven and Hell; while Buddhism came to see many possible rebirth destinations (gati) of five or six kinds (loka) contrasted with nirvāṇa which meant the end of being reborn altogether (a feature of Buddhism repudiated 500 years later by Mahāyānavādins who couldn't bear the thought of the Buddha leaving them behind). Buddhist morality is probably based on Zoroastrian morality and was transmitted to the Central Ganges Valley by migrating peoples including the Śākya tribe. 

We might therefore see this kind of social-norm morality as simply the morality of the Śākya tribe writ large. This is how the Śākyas treated each other and expected to be treated, and with the influence of Zoroastrianism and the experience of migration it's possible they already saw their values as universal. This should not be seen as an attempt to trivialise Buddhist ethics. Clearly community was very important to the early Buddhists and a whole genre of texts, the Vinaya, was created with the intention of regulating the monastic community to try to create a harmonious and positive community. And the way examples are given it's clear that the community was often far from harmonious.

This code was then used to transform the Theory of Karma. The earliest versions of karma occur in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad where it probably still refers to ritual actions. However there was a right way and a wrong way to perform the rituals necessitating at least two afterlife destinations. With the application of ethics to karma—a process Richard Gombrich calls ethicisation—the Śākyas created a unique combination of morality, eschatology and soteriology, which all revolved around the intentional behaviour of the individual. The key statement of this principle occurs just once in the Pāli texts (AN 6.63) but it is picked up by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (chp 17) a s representative view. The statement is cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi  cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā. "Intention is what I call an action, monks. Having intended one acts with body, speech or mind." (See also Action and Intention)

We say that the precepts are part of the three fold path, i.e. śīla, samādhi, and prajñā or ethics, meditation and wisdom. And it is true that the five precepts are referred to as sīla. However the precepts call themselves sikkhapāda 'training steps'. And note that the dasa-kuasala-kamma-patha don't include the word sīla either.

Preparation for Meditation.

A friend and I were discussing Ayya Khema's approach to meditation recently. My friend mentioned her admonition that if you want to meditate you need to get out of the hindrances and stay out. And this brought to mind something I quoted from Ayya Khema in my article about the Spiral Path texts for the Western Buddhist Review. That for meditation to be possible it was necessary to experience some pāmojja. The two statements amount to much the same thing: pāmojja is the state of no (gross) hindrances. 

One of the discoveries that came out of surveying the Pāli and Chinese texts on the Spiral Path was that as a whole they present the threefold path as a series of progressive stages, illustrated by the image of rain filling smaller streams which fill larger streams, smaller rivers and larger rives until larger rivers fill up the ocean. This fact had been obscured in books about the Spiral Path by both Sangharakshita (1967) and Ayya Khema (1999) because they focussed on the Upanissā Sutta. In that sutta the sīla section of the path is replaced with just two steps dukkha and saddhā as a result of a rather clumsy attempt to link the two forms of dependent arising. As my article showed getting from dukkha to saddhā is not simple - typically commentators introduce three sub-steps to get from one to the other. This isn't clear until one looks at all the other texts which share a similar structure (eg. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, for a complete list see my 2012 article). Generally speaking saddhā arises on the basis of hearing the Dharma, and seems to precede sīla in the texts that include it. 

The Spiral Path texts describe a path. That path has three sections with two junctions. The first section is sīla leading to the liminal experience of pāmojja. Pāmojja ushers us into the second stage, samādhi or meditation (the word literally means 'integration'). Samādhi is one of the steps on the path with various other steps leading up to it. My conjecture is that each of the single words on the Spiral Path represent one of the four rūpajhanas. The junction between meditation and the next stage of wisdom is "knowledge and vision of things as they are" (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). With knowledge and vision we can see sense experience for what it is, we become fed up (nibbidā) with it, turn away (virāga) from it and experience liberation (vimokkha) and the knowledge of liberation.

But the sīla section of the Spiral Path is entirely unlike the precepts. Each text has a different selection from a series of related terms. Some of them, including the Pāli DN2 and many of the Chinese versions in the Madhyāgama, include the whole list. That list is:
sati, sampajanñña, yoniso-manasikāra, hiri, ottapa, saṃvara, and indriyesu gutta-dvāratā.

mindfulness, awareness, wise attention, shame, scruple, restraint, and guarding the gates of the senses.
I mentioned that saddhā is included in this list at times. In fact saddhā might be said to be the junction between non-participation and practising ethics. Typically saddhā arises when someone listens to a Dhamma discourse by the Buddha. On the basis of this faith one begins to practice sīla.

If we look at these terms we can immediately see that they represent something very different from the precepts. This really isn't about being good. This set of terms, with the possible exception of hiri & ottapa, is all about preparation for meditation: for getting out of the hindrances and staying out of them. And there is almost no overlap with sets like the five precepts (pañcasīlāni). One might argue that the "mind precepts" from the dasakuasala-kammapatha do overlap with these. However the kammapatha are general and the Spiral Path ethics are specific. The former are about the commitment to managing one's own mental states, and the latter constitutes a program for achieving that goal.

Hiri and ottapa are about one's own knowledge of what constitutes ethics and being cognizant of the opinions of respected group members. In truth they could be relevant in either of the two contexts I'm outlining here. But the fact is that they are associated with the Spiral Path so that may incline us to see them as natural to this context. One of the things we must constantly do is catch our minds wandering off and returning them to the object of meditation. It is hiri which facilitates this. And if our own sense of appropriateness fails us we can always imagine explaining to our teacher how we spent our meditation.

So there are these two very different approaches to ethics in early Buddhist texts: one for community life, and one for meditation. I don't recall seeing this distinction made before and I'm certainly aware of presentations that confuse the two modes. But there is at least one more aspect to Buddhist ethics, the quest for a good rebirth.

A Good Destination.

It's difficult to know exactly where to place this approach to ethics. It might not even be ethics, but it is an aspect of karma so it is at least related. This approach to ethics is as condition for a better rebirth and ensuring the livelihood of renunciants. It involves cultivating puṇya through good ritual acts such as generosity to renunciants. It seems to relate to the idea of rebirth in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

Puṇya (Pāḷi puñña) is a term drawn from Vedic ritualism but the practice of supporting renunciants seems to have been a widespread practice in Indian in the Iron Age. Puṇya is contrasted with pāpa and pāpa seems to straightforwardly mean "evil". So puṇya is the opposite of evil, or "good", though we often translate it as "merit". I suppose it is merit in the sense that if you collect enough of it, then you merit a good rebirth. A bit like Buddhist loyalty points. A surplus of puṇya leads to a good rebirth destination (suggati). 

With the ethicisation of karma getting to a good rebirth destination becomes an ethical issue. At best supporting renunciants might be seen as cultivating generosity which is one of the qualities one cultivates to be a good community members. As Reggie Ray has shown in Buddhist Saints the various lifestyles of Iron Age Ganges culture (householder, settled monastic and forest renunciant) all relied on each other in a variety of ways.

Buddhists took the Vedic notion of puṇya and married it to sīla so that puṇya comes to be seen as having soteriological value (though this change may well have happened in pre-Buddhist Vedic milieu as well). However they were care to limit the possibilities of merit to sotāpanna or stream entry. As Thanissaro says in his Study Guide on Merit:
"For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit." 
And that said almost the quotes on puṇya evinced by Thanissaro promise a good rebirth destination as the primary result of cultivating merit.


Thus we have these various modes of ethical practice evident in early Buddhist texts and persisting (though without an explicit distinction) into the present: being a good community member, preparation for meditation, obtaining a good rebirth. It may be that Buddhaghosa anticipated this distinction. Buddhaghosa cites a traditional classification of sīla in the Visuddhimagga which makes almost the same distinction I am making here. "What is virtue?" he asks and quotes the Paṭisambhidā (a commentarial text included in the Khuddaka Nikāya) as responding:
cetanā sīlaṃ, cetasikaṃ sīlaṃ, saṃvaro sīlaṃ, avītikkamo sīla 
virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant, virtue as restraint, and virtue as non-transgression. 
I'm following Ñāṇamoḷi's translation of sīla as 'virtue' in his translation of the Visuddhimagga (p.7). My first category might be seen to take in virtue as non-transgression; while my second category takes in virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant and virtue as restraint. Being a good community member is a matter of conforming to the norms of the community; while preparation for meditation means actively working on hindrances in an effort to eliminate them from one's mind, even if only temporarily. However, my reading of Buddhaghosa is that he doesn't see these different types of virtue as aimed at different goals. He doesn't quite acknowledge that being a good community member is a good in itself. However, the observation that there are different modes of ethics is not original. 

I haven't said much about the Vinaya in this essay. This is deliberate. I'm mostly interested in the suttas (I've been called a Sautrāntika for this reason). The Vinaya is certainly an expression of the moral principles found in the precepts, but primarily concerned with the minutiae of how to encode values as rules and then enforce them in a large and disparate community which has to live within a wider community that is not bound by the same values or rules. I've written about the law making process in an essay called: The Mad Monk and the Process of Making the Vinaya. The Vinaya is important in the history of Buddhist ideas, and I would say significant in the world's development of legal codes since it records the processes by which laws were made and enforced. But it was only ever intended to apply to the monastic community.

This is another case of distinctions being hidden by imposed unity. The desire to see Buddhism as a unitary phenomenon, at the very least springing from a single individual overwhelms our ability to see the evidence clearly. We're taught that Buddhist ethics has a single mode that covers all the bases;  that for example, the precepts for being a good community member are sufficient also for meditation. I think this simplification is probably an error, and that for meditation we need another, solitary, mode of ethical practice that is much more intensive. We're also taught that Buddhist ethics all grew out of the Buddha's awakening, though historically this simply cannot be true. The Buddha, if he lived at all, grew up in a community, the Śākyas, and must have absorbed the values of that community and expressed this in his teaching. And then at a later time Brahmanical values were super-imposed over Śākyan values. And then Mahāyāna overlaid yet another set of values.

So that this idea that as modern Buddhists bringing our values to Buddhism we are somehow doing something novel is simply ignorant and anachronistic. No adult convert can ever arrive in the Buddhist fold without a set of values and other baggage. 


Jayarava. (2008) 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 15.
Jayarava. (2012) 'The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.' Western Buddhist Review, 6. 
Jayarava. (2013) Possible Iranian Origins. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. 
Khema, [Ayya]. (1999) When The Iron Eagle Flies
Ñāṇamoḷi. (1956) The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1997. 
Ray, R. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India. Oxford University Press. 
Sangharakshita. (1967). The Three Jewels. Windhorse.

8 Aug 2014: Dayāmati (Prof R. P. Hayes) has penned an interesting response to this essay on his blog: How were Buddhists ethical? He compares various attempts to characterise Buddhist ethics in Western terms (including my suggestion that Buddhist ethics might be particularist). So far, he concludes, "no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others." And perhaps Buddhist ethics cannot be characterised in Western terms. 
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