13 February 2015

Harvey's Early Buddhist 'Life Principle' or 'spirit'.

National Geographic
In his book The Selfless Mind, Peter Harvey (1995: §6.5-6.12) makes a persuasive case for an early Buddhist 'life principle' (jīva) in the Pāli texts which is not permanent, but provides the necessary continuity between lives to allow karma to operate. As I read the later Buddhist traditions this jīva was universally repudiated and dropped from eschatological discourses, which has made me reluctant to admit the role implied for jīva in the early texts. This essay will explore this case, offer some criticism based on the texts, and re-examine it from a contemporary point of view. Ultimately I don't find Harvey's case compelling.

Jīva is from the verbal root √jīv 'live' which is cognate with Greek bio, Latin vivere (whence vital), and Old English cwic 'alive' (hence "the quick and the dead"). Jīva is a verbal noun, literally meaning 'living, alive' and it's used across many Indian traditions to mean 'that which causes a being to be alive', i.e. as spirit in the Vitalist sense. Most obviously it is the difference between a living being and a dead one, and this is important in the passages cited in The Selfless Mind.

Harvey is able to cite a number of passages in which the jīva is unchallenged and concludes that this amounts to an endorsement. I think this method is dubious. At the outset we must be cautious about who is consenting to what in these texts. For example if, say, Kumāra-Kassapa apparently accepts the reality of a jīva, does this amount to a Buddhist view? The Buddha is often portrayed taking the Socratic approach of stipulating his opponents beliefs and then introducing other themes, often through questions, which take the discussion in a different direction causing the belief to be either overturned or made irrelevant. Quite often the Buddha contrasts metaphysical theories by drawing attention to aspects of experience. But this absence of argument against an opposing metaphysics does not amount to an endorsement of the view. We should not mistake method for doctrine; or absence of disagreement for an endorsement. 

Harvey focusses on just such an issue: the identity of body (sarīra) and jīva. His first point (§6.5) is that the Mahāli Sutta contains a series of passages which say that a person who can attain any of the jhānas would not even ask the question. Harvey then segues into a discussion of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta passages about the mind-made body (DN i.76-77) from which he concludes
This suggests that one who is proficient at meditation is aware of a kind of life principle in the form of [viññāṇa]* (perhaps with some accompaniments), this being dependent on the mortal physical body.
* Harvey idiosyncratically, and I would say confusingly, translates viññāṇa as "discernment" throughout his book. Emphasis is in the original 
The catch here is that the manomayakāya is never, to my knowledge, equated with jīva across the entire extended literature of Buddhism. Thus it seems that Harvey is here introducing a new idea that does not occur in the Canon, but he is attributing it to the Canon. He reinforces this conclusion by pointing out that some beings with mind-made bodies do not eat solid food, but feed on joy. He leaves out that these 'beings' are in fact a particular species of deva. So the view is Harvey's rather than the suttakāras and it depends on devas being both real and representative. This conflation of manomayakāya and jīva is not justified on textual grounds.

The next piece of evidence Harvey puts forward is the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṇga version of the so-called "snake skin" simile, though he cites only the muñja/reed aspect of it (§6.6). (Compare my citation of the same passage in Manomaya Kāya: Pali Texts) The language surrounding these comments is carefully hedged, but the way Harvey continues, he is clearly convinced that what he says is true. His conviction is partly what makes the section so convincing on first read. The problem here is that we know that historically the Jains did believe in a jīva so we ought not be surprised to find a Jain sūtra discussing jīva. The surprise is that Harvey believes that this may throw light on the Buddhist view of jīva. The lack of a jīva in Buddhism has typically been seen as one of the features that distinguishes the two śrāmaṇa systems. So citing a Jain sūtra here can only confuse the issue. The Jain jīva does nothing at all to establish a Buddhist jīva.

We next move to the Pāyāsi Sutta (DN 23) which portrays a debate between a Prince of Kosala called Pāyāsi (§6.7). The text describes Pāyāsi as having developed an evil ideology (pāpakaṃ diṭṭhigataṃ) of this type:
natthi paro loko, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi sukaṭakkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko 
There is no other world, no reborn beings, and no fruit or result from actions well done or badly done. 
Harvey describes this view as "materialist" though this seems to be a misnomer. Before considering broader issues, we need to comment on the word opapātika. This is an adjectival form from upa√pad with the suffix -ka. The noun form is upapatti meaning 'reborn'. The word is taken to mean 'reborn with no visible cause' presumably on the grounds of usage or commentarial exegesis, and this is the usual translation. But the literal meaning of opapātika would be something like 'rebirth-able'. So sattā opapātikā on face value ought to mean that 'beings who are subject to rebirth', and in Buddhism that rebirth is dependent on ones actions. Thus Pāyāsi is not a materialist per se, his argument is not ontological but eschatological. If we must label the view then it is annihilationist. He doubts the afterlife, rebirth and karma - just as many modern Buddhists do. 

Now Prince Pāyāsi has come up with some enchantingly macabre ways of testing the idea of a jīva. He describes having a man sealed up in a clay pot, baked until dead, and then unsealed. And as the pot is unsealed the mouth is carefully watched to see if anything exits which might be the jīva and nothing is seen. In earlier essays about the manomayakāya I argued that it is always rūpin (possesses form) and thus must be visible. However Harvey uses this passage to argue that the jīva must be invisible. Thus jīva and manomayakāya cannot be the same thing, contra what Harvey has argued previously. Not seeing the jīva escape, Pāyāsi refuses to believe in it, which seems fair enough. As unsavory as his experiments are, Pāyāsi is an early empiricist. He's rather like Dr Duncan MacDougall, who weighed dying patients to see if there was a difference between the living and the dead.

At this point Kumāra-Kassapa (Harvey mistakenly has Mahā-Kassapa) offers a counter-argument. He argues that the princes attendants do not see his jīva entering and leaving his body while he sleeps, so why would he expect to see it entering and leaving a dead man. This is a very poor counter-argument for a life principle. For a start it equates sleep with being dead! Harvey appears to overlook that the life-principle is supposed to leave the sleeping person. If jīva really were a vitalistic life principle then this would be a contradiction. Thus jīva must mean something different here and the passage in fact contradicts Harvey's argument for a life principle.

It is important to note that the Buddha doesn't appear in this sutta. Usually if a monk says something important, the sutta will have the Buddha reinforce it at the end. Here, unusually, this does not happen. So whose views are being asserted here?

In the next section (§6.8), Harvey notices some similarities between this Pāḷi text and passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, especially BU 4.4 which is one of the earliest descriptions of rebirth in the Vedic Canon.  Harvey's translation of this passage is idiosyncratic and it's worth consulting the Sanskrit or perhaps Olivelle's translation to see this. For example the verb ut√kram does not mean 'ascend' but 'depart'; and anu-ut√kram similarly means 'to depart or follow after'. Harvey's mistake is a too literal rendering of the etymological meaning. 

It might have been interesting for Harvey to consider the previou section of BU (4.3) since it deals with dreaming. BU 4.3.9 says that a person (puruṣa) can be in one of two places: this world (idam lokam) or the other world (paraloka). But the dreamer stands at the place where the two meet (sandye), he is like, amongst other things, a fish that swims between the two banks of a river. In BU it is this puruṣa (aka ātman) that transmigrates from this world to that world, and the dreamer is in a kind of liminal state between worlds. This leads onto BU 4.4 and the description of rebirth. Here we find another simile that is taken up by later Buddhists (non-Theravādins), i.e. the caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass and reaching our to another and pulling itself over. The movement of the ātman to a new body is just the same according to BU. But of course as with the Jain argument, the (well known) Brahmanical belief in a transmigrating ātman is not evidence for a Buddhist jīva. If anything we see the texts being rather scathing about ātman, though we must be cautious here because no view on the ātman is ever put into the mouth of a Brahmin in the Buddhist texts. 

A passage from the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) uses the same verbs: ut√kram 'departure' and ava√kram 'arrival' to describe the arrival or descent of viññāna into the mothers womb (§6.9). Indeed we've seen this passage in the discussion of gandhabba because it is the same one that is used to justify linking viññāna and gandhabba; and it is used by Harvey and others to argue that it is viññāna that transmigrates, not as an entity (for this would contravene other injunctions) but as a process. Here Harvey equates the process of viññāṇa transmigrating with the jīva. But we've already seen that conflating ideas and words that the Buddhist texts themselves do not is a doubtful methodology. Other Buddhist texts specifically deny that viññāṇa can transmigrate. The reason is simply. Viññāṇa arises in dependence on conditions and ceases when the conditions cease. One of those conditions is a set of functioning sense organs. If we are arguing that viññāṇa can arise independently of the body then we will have another major philosophical problem on the scale of making karma work. And we have seen that all of the major sects of Buddhism rejected the early Buddhist model of karma and substituted their own revisions. 

Invoking other parts of the Pāyāsi/Kassapa debate doesn't help Harvey's argument either (§6.10-11). Kassapa in particular argues that living things are lighter than dead things, just as hot iron is lighter than cold iron. This is simply false - the heat of iron does not affect its weight - even if it might have been accepted in ancient India as a fact. From this section Harvey draws out some key resemblances between the analogies discussed in the Pāyāsi Sutta, and despite the reservations identified harvey concludes (§6.12):
It can thus be seen that the 'life principle' or 'spirit' accepted by the 'early suttas' is 'vitality, heat and [viññāna]', or perhaps [viññāna] and the subtle 'mind-made body'. It consists of conditionally arisen changing processes, which are not identical with the mortal body, nor totally different from it, but partly dependent on it.' (95) 
All the scare quotes are in the original and with good reason. Harvey presumably knows that his conclusion is contra to Theravāda monastic orthodoxy, if not local Theravāda folk beliefs. Rather than arguing that jīva exists with the body as condition (a statement nowhere found in Pāli) most exegetes argue that the question of identity between jīva and sarīra is unanswerable. The inference we usually draw is that this is because the jīva doesn't exist. The Pali texts certainly understand that a dead body and a live body are different. 'Living' in this context is sometimes indicated by the related term jīvata (e.g. SN iv.214; MN iii.107). However where jīvata is used adjectivally, jīva is almost always a substantive noun. Harvey is certainly orthodox to argue that it must be a process, but this is not a point made in Pali, certainly not in the texts that he cites. There is no suggestion, for example that Kumāra-Kassapa understands jīva as anything other than an entity. Certain Pāyāsi believes jīva to be an entity. The texts Harvey cites in support of his idea of a non-substantive jīva all seem to disagree with him, well perhaps not all

One of the examples Harvey gives appears to argue that jīva must be a process, though none of the others do. This is the fire stick simile. An apprentice fire-worshipper is left in charge of the fire with no idea of how a fire is made. Instead of rubbing the fire sticks to rekindle the fire using friction, he tries to get fire out of the sticks by cutting them up with an axe (consistent with the view that things are made up of the four elements). Now, Harvey argues that this means that "the life principle is not a separate part of the person, but is a process which occurs when certain conditions are present." (94) However this simile is not about the jīva at all, but about the paraloka. The conclusion of the section of the sutta is:
Evameva kho tvaṃ, rājañña, bālo abyatto ayoniso paralokaṃ gavesissasi.
Just so, you, Prince, are foolishly, senselessly and unwisely seeking the other world.
Which is to say that this is an argument about trying to understand the other world by analysing this world. Like many dualists Kassapa is saying that a reductionist analysis of this world does not yield information about the other world. Since in most cases early Buddhist texts are reluctant to even discuss dualist views, let alone endorse them, then we have reason to be doubtful about this passage. Whose view is this? Given that it's never attributed to the Buddha, and given that we nowhere else find anything like this view attributed to the Buddha we ought to be cautious in reading this as an orthodox view. In any case Harvey has misinterpreted this passage and it is the only one that evinces support for the position that the jīva is a process rather than an entity. Quite clearly in these texts, as in Jain texts, the jīva is an entity. The Buddhist arguments against such entities are so well known as to need no rehearsing. Such entities are not possible in Buddhist metaphysics. 

I'm persuaded that one can find discussions of a jīva in the suttas. I'm not convinced that there is any argument for a jīva in the early texts. Next Harvey's argument strays into the territory of antarābhava which I have discussed at some length on this blog, so I'll stop here. 


It just goes to show that even argument made at some length and with supporting citations from Pāli cannot be taken on face value. The method used by a scholar making a claim must be scrutinised. Confronted with a counter-intuitive theory we must look for flaws in the logic of the argument, such as unreasonably conflating two ideas that are not explicitly conflated in the texts, such as citing evidence that does not show what it purports to show. I fear that this section of Professor Harvey's otherwise excellent survey of way "self" is used in the texts, suffers from classic confirmation bias. Only evidence supporting the proposition that there is a transmigrating "process" is considered, and no contrary evidence is cited.

The texts clearly and consistently speak of jīva as an entity, rather than a process and it is in this very idea that the roots of the Buddhist rejection of jīva lie. Of course a transmigrating "process" would rescue Buddhist karma & rebirth doctrines from inconsistency and indeed incoherence and thus we can see the attractiveness of such a belief. Sadly for this theory, what we lack is any explicit reference to the jīva as dependently arisen that might show that this is something Buddhists believed, rather than a clever, modern way to avoid the problems inherent in rebirth.

It's true, of course, that most Buddhists are Vitalists, almost by necessity since Buddhist morality depends on it. I've explored this at some length in a series of essays on Vitalism. And there are plenty of texts which, for example, seem to show a personal continuity between lives, even though a strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics elsewhere denies the very possibility. I've explored this fundamental contradiction in my essay Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics. But there is no sign that they explicitly adopted a jīva to try to resolve this problem. Continuity seems to be a pragmatic device for teaching morality rather than a core belief.

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