16 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 3. Buddhism

In the first two parts of this essay I set up a scenario. I made a case for a mind-independent world, arguing that it is consistent with scientific knowledge and not inconsistent with early Buddhism. This dual approach hints at the overall purpose of the essay. I also tried to stress that I don't think we can project the human desire for perfection onto the mind-independent world, so that referring to it as Transcendental, Absolute, or even fair, is not warranted. The idea of an ordered universe is compelling; but why should it be ordered according to human standards? In fact, it isn't. Humans are only important to humans. An important and ongoing intellectual task is to identify the myths linked to such desires—just-world, perfect world, afterlife, immortality, supernatural, etc.—and reclaim them as human desires rather than as properties of the kosmos per se. The world isn't like that, but we are. On a practical level if we acknowledge our desires, we can figure out which are achievable and organise things as best we can to achieve them. It's not like fairness is a crazy idea, for humans.

Having established that there is a mind-independent world and that it is neutral with respect to our values, I tried to locate humans wholly within that world. Just because the world is independent of my mind, from my perspective, does not require that there is an ontological distinction between mind and world. There is an epistemological distinction due to the channels by which we gain knowledge. We tend to conflate the classic five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) as providing us with information about the world and treat our mind-sense, that part of our mental activity which brings sensations and inferences to our attention, as providing a completely different form of information. Early Buddhists by contrast placed the mind-sense in the same category as the classic set of five senses.

The opening question of Part 1 was whether my experience was real or an illusion. I've been researching the history of the phrases from the Heart Sutra that begin "form is emptiness" (rūpam śūnyatā). These were originally a reference to that familiar Buddhist simile, "form is like an illusion (rūpam māyopamaṃ). There are two ways of looking at the skandhas: they can be seen as categories into which all phenomena—mental and physical—can be slotted, i.e. the skandhas encompass everything and are an ontology or a theory of existence. In some views this totality (sarvam) is real and in others it is unreal, an illusion. The middle way is to say that this totality is neither real nor unreal, but because it is contingent and ephemeral, it is like an illusion.

Alternatively, the skandhas can be seen as the apparatus of experience or the experiencing apparatus and are concerned only with experience (i.e. with mental phenomena). In this case the metaphysical question about real/unreal doesn't arise. Experience per se is like an illusion, because (in Western terms) it's all just representations in our heads. Experience is virtual - not real, not unreal. In this case the skandhas are not an ontology, but an epistemology; a theory of knowledge or of how we produce knowledge.

Sue Hamilton has made a good case for taking early Buddhism as referring to experience. And over many years of reading early Buddhist texts, I have found this by far the most productive approach to them. It also works extremely well when reading the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Where an ontological reading throws up paradoxes and conundrums, many times an epistemological reading is far more straightforward. This impression has been reinforced by discovering certain modern approaches to ontology and epistemology. But all this begs the question...

So What?

What does this account of experience and a neutral mind-independent world gain us? Why insist on the epistemological nature of Buddhist insight, e.g. that the skandhas are experience? The reason is compatibility. And hence the title of the essay. Traditional Buddhism—e.g. the skandhas as ontology—is incompatible with what we currently know about the world. This can hardly be a surprise since Buddhist ideas originate in Iron Age North India and are developed in a number of medieval Asian contexts. Very little knowledge about the world from these periods (ca. 500 BCE to 1800 CE) is considered accurate or reliable any more.

During the last 400 years in Europe and its imperialist enclaves around the world, we have discovered a great deal about the value neutral, mind-independent world. In 2003/4 of Cambridge Buddhists went to India on pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha. Right here in Cambridge many of the giants of the Enlightenment have studied, lived, and worked. Not figures of myth, but genuine historical people such as Newton, Rutherford, Darwin, Krebs, Crick, Maxwell, Eddington, Turing, Goodall... to name a few personal favourites. People whose ideas helped me to make sense of my world. Hundreds of other luminaries across the entire spectrum of human knowledge (and folly) lived and worked just down the hill from here. Why go to India?

A lot of Buddhists, especially Buddhists I know, are powerfully influenced by Romanticism. As such they can be carelessly dismissive of the European Enlightenment, some of them, rather ironically, use the internet to devalue science and technology. They seemingly forget that, though the Enlightenment did go down some culs de sac from time to time, it did a huge amount of good. For example, the Enlightenment effective broke the power of the church over all our lives. It extracted concessions for ordinary people in the form of basic freedoms and rights for the first time. Nor did these freedoms exist in any Buddhist country, where totalitarianism was the norm. Power shift away from ecclesiastical hierarchies, to democratic institutions. As new, more reliable ideas began to emerge, superstitions lost their grip on our lives, particularly the big superstition, God. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but it was the great figures of the Enlightenment who killed him. And a good job that was. The Roman Church and its Protestant spin-offs subjugated the people of Europe and the people conquered by Europe for more than millennium.

But things were no better in Asia or India. Buddhist nation states routinely denied citizens basic rights and freedoms, they substituted the kinds of religious ideologies that made subjects content to be subjects. The idea of karma was used to undermine Buddhists' sense of agency in the present, by insisting that what is happening now is a fate predetermined by how we lived our previous lives. We need to be clear that traditional Buddhism seeks to turn back the clock and take us back to a medieval worldview. The risk with this is that we relinquish the basic freedoms wrested from the church and put an ecclesiastical hierarchy back in charge. The level of sycophantic deference directed towards "venerable" monastics suggests that many Buddhists are all too willing to be subjugated by them. Just as it's important to resist the rise of the far-right in France, the "moral majority" in the USA, and the right-wing nationalists in the UK or India, we have to recognise the regressive and backwards social and political organisation associated with Buddhist nation states and Buddhist monasticism.

What I hope to show is that there is a middle way between embracing the intellectual slavery of religious ideology and the complete, nihilistic rejection of Buddhism. In other words, acknowledging the kind of world we live in, both in a physical and political sense, I want to show that we can easily imagine a Buddhism which is compatible with the modern world, but still worthy of the name "Buddhism".

Buddhism as Epistemology

The account of Buddhism as concerned with epistemology is consistent not only with key features of early Buddhist and Prajñāpāramitā accounts of experience, but also with a number of post-Enlightenment accounts.

On the Buddhist side, I associate the ideas most strongly with Sue Hamilton, but for example Bhikkhu Bodhi has also commented that the world with which the Buddha's teachings are concerned is the world of experience. It is also a view that seems to resonate with those people I personally know who have made most progress with meditation and insight, though not always with the people who have adopted so-called "direct pointing" methods, with whom I am still out of step. The latter still seem to believe that they have discovered "reality" in their experience, and while this is an understandable mistake, it is a mistake and only sets back the project of modernising Buddhism.

My approach does undermine those streams of Buddhism which purport to be about reality or metaphysics. Buddhism has nothing of interest to say on matters of existence, causality, space, or time. Nor does any religion. Buddhists may have a major contribution to make on the nature of experience and on the role of the first-person perspective in organising experience, but only if we can disentangle it from our narratives about "reality".

Buddhism as ontology is not compatible with what we know about the value-neutral, mind-independent world. When some Buddhists assert that the mind creates the world in the sense that "mind precedes matter", they are clearly at odds with most of philosophy and all of science. Those Buddhists are asserting a form of causality for which there is no evidence, and which appears to go in the opposite direction to "reality". Worse, Buddhist narratives about reality are not even supportable on their own terms (as I have been pointing out for some years now in considerable detail on this blog). When they come into contact with modern methods and knowledge, these narratives cannot compete, except where people positively want magical explanations and are thus willing to be fooled (and I know plenty of people like this). However, if we interpret "world" as the early Buddhists texts clearly did, as "world of experience", then yes, the mind does create that world, or at the very least is a central element in creating that world. (Note, it's not that Buddhist texts lack a social world, or a physical world. In fact it uses the word loka for all three. But the world we gain insight into is specifically the world of experience). 

This epistemological account of Buddhism is compatible with basic, macroscopic laws of nature because it says nothing about them and nothing that is at odds with them. There are other accounts of Buddhism which have similar compatibility. This is not a monolithic argument for Jayarava-ism. It's a general argument in favour of compatibility, using my ideas as an example of a compatible account.

When we confuse experience and reality then the result is usually inconsistent with laws of nature, because the contents of our minds, as virtual representations, are not constrained the same way that physical objects are (I illustrated this in Part 2 using the image of pigs with wings). When we correctly distinguish experience and reality, then we gain some wriggle room. Unfortunately for Buddhism, science is very accurate when it comes to the human scale physical world. At the scales of length, mass, and energy that we work with in our daily lives and which our naked senses can take in, science makes predictions far more accurate than our ability to perceive them, and in some cases more accurate than our ability to measure them at all.

When we take Buddhism to be concerned with epistemology we gain in two ways:
  1. we gain an internally coherent reading of doctrines that are incoherent under an ontological reading;  and 
  2. we gain an accommodation with science as the leading knowledge system of any time or place by stepping out of its way.
Taken together I submit that these two factors make a compelling case for adapting Buddhism towards an epistemological reading. This is the essence of what I wanted to say with this essay. So the reader could stop at this point. In what follows I try to characterise in more detail the situation we Buddhists face in the modern world.


Some years ago I was obsessed with the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. I emulated his efforts, often using discarded objects to create ephemeral sculptures. I began making freestanding arches out of whatever was at hand. A big feature of my four month ordination retreat was using my spare time to create arches from the abundant local stone (some pics here). I also got into making tall thin spires of stone, but I want to focus here on arches. A stone has certain properties: rigidity, density, external texture, colour etc. The stone I was working with was weathered from surrounding cliffs. Individual stones tended to be fairly flat and had a rough texture. Now a simple pile of stones does not have rigidity as a property, it is less dense than the stones that make it up, and doesn't really cohere into an object. It's more of an aggregate. When you make an arch you create something more than a pile of stones. You create a new kind of entity that has properties that piles of stones don't have. Archs are structures with emergent properties. 

My method was to erect two towers of stones that curved toward each other until there was a final gap that could be plugged by one more stone - the keystone in arch-making jargon. Up to that point neither tower would be capable of supporting itself, but relied on a substructure to hold it up. Inserting the keystone to complete the arc feels a bit like an act of magic (I know). The two unstable structures become one structure that is stable, there is a palpable shift in the distribution of forces as two things that feel inherent unstable, become one that is stable. The best arches are lifted off their support a little by wedging in the keystone, so that the arch is already free-standing at that point.

No investigation of the properties of the stones would throw up the possibility of making arches if one did not already have the idea of an arch as a structure in your head. The building blocks do not enable us to predict the architecture. This is the fundamental limitation on reductionism with respect to structure. On the other hand one can analyse arches to see how the properties of the stones, assembled in a particular way, create the new property that enables the freestanding arches to remain standing. 

King's College Chapel.
The basic principles of arch-making are old. The Romans were already experts at making them. The physics is all quite well understood and can be described in classical terms. Cambridge and the surrounding area are home to some spectacular medieval architecture. The fan-vaulted ceiling of King's College Chapel is an apotheosis of the architectural arch. The Norman cathedral at Ely is a classic of the type and full of spectacular arches and a dome. However, these days we have pre-stressed, reinforced concrete, steel beams, lightweight metal-alloy cladding, and toughened glass. It's nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing, but to some extent it democratised grand spaces.

Architecture tells us a lot about a society. For example, the periods of self-indulgent monumental architecture in Britain, associated with the Normans and later with the British Empire, were signs of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny ruling elite at the expense of both British workers and the indigenous people of the various colonies. During the height of the Empire, for example, typical housing for working people was rows of tiny, small-roomed houses, crammed together; built at minimal cost, with the cheapest materials, and little or no decoration. Walls were thin, the houses were not insulated, and many had little or no garden space. Socialising in such houses was next to impossible, so this was done at the local pub for adults, or out in the street for children (weather permitting). Meanwhile the bourgeoisie were building a network of country mansions, each with vast landscaped gardens, and a staff of peasants. Many of them on what was once common land, previously owned by no one but used by peasants as back-up for when work dried up. The huge dome of St Pauls Cathedral in London represents, as much as anything, the cruel inequality of British society and the avarice of the Church of England at the time. You also learn a lot about British society by noting that the statues lining the walls inside the cathedral are mostly military figures, rather than saints. The role of the military is to protect commerce.

We need to be clear that the meeting of Buddhism and modernism is not like two leaning towers of blocks coming together with only the keystone missing to join them into one harmonious whole. No. While Buddhists are hunting around for just the right keystone to complete the arch from the ancient past to the present, secular modernists have already just dropped a couple of massive steel beams across the gap, bypassing our religion entirely. Mindfulness is already a secular commodity and enlightenment is about to become one (Look up Jeffery A Martin for one version of how this might look, complete with hi-tech gadgets).

Once people realise that they can have the enlightenment experience without the burden of memorising a bunch of words in a dead language, a load of ancient Indian myths, some rather doubtful "history", and incoherent ancient philosophical speculations, then "Buddhism" is going to become an even more niche activity; a theme park attraction or a Asian fetish. Like most people, while I do appreciate the elitist grandeur of the Norman Cathedral, I mostly just want an affordable roof over my head.

As beautiful as arches are, and as fascinating as it is to make them, they no longer serve as structural features in buildings. Where arches are used, they are merely decorative rather than functional. Load -bearing is handled by modern materials in modern configurations. We might mourn the loss of the arch, but no one is arguing that we stop using steel beams or prestressed concrete and go back to using them as functional features of our buildings. Idea on the value of arches in structures is pretty much irrelevant.

Buddhism and Modernism

Some critics of what they call "Buddhist Modernism" complain that the values being promulgated by Western Buddhists are just modern liberal values masquerading as Buddhism. I suppose to some extent this is true, but what is the alternative? Look around at societies in which Buddhism is the dominant religion. Look at their values. Most are nominally democracies, but until very recently most have also been dictatorships, very often military dictatorships. Most have been engaged in civil wars recently; many in wars with other nations. Democracy and human rights are not so much embraced by nominally Buddhist nations, as they are imposed on them by external, secular influences (one of the main ones being the cultural imperialism of the USA). 

Here in the West we now take liberal values—such as democracy and human rights—for granted. A couple of weeks ago, 68% or around two-thirds of eligible voters turned out for an election in the UK and this figure was considered "high". A third of the electorate not voting is outrageous when you consider what people went through to get the right to vote in this country! Ironically, traditional Buddhism, unmolested by modernism, might never have produced the kind of liberal values that we hold dear, if traditional Buddhist countries are anything to go by. Traditional Buddhists are likely be fatalistic about their lot in life, about the unfairness of the system, and about who is in power. As often as Buddhist monks protest oppression, they are the oppressors.  

If Japan had won the Pacific War for example, and subjugated Asia and the USA, leaving the Germans a free hand in Europe and Africa. Would we expect to have the UN declaration of human rights? History makes it fairly clear that the authoritarian, imperialist, militaristic government of nominally Buddhist Japan, with support from Buddhist clergy, was not heading in that direction. Communist China was brutal in Tibet, but it would have been much worse if Buddhist Japan had completed their conquest of Asia (which had begun some years before WWII).

So yes, we Western Buddhists have created a Buddhism that is consistent with our liberal values. But to be fair, we have created it from an idealised version of morality as found in Buddhist scripture, not from the historical values of Buddhist societies. Critics can be grateful for that, because in most Buddhist regimes, critics are not tolerated! We Western Buddhists may be religious, but we're not idiots. To argue that this is a form of modernism rather than a form of Buddhism is to ignore the highly eclectic intellectual history of Buddhism. The critique of Buddhism seems itself to be motivated by Protestant ideas about what a religion ought to be like. Sometimes I think it is ironic that my friend David Chapman touts a modernist version of tantric Buddhism, itself a syncretistic amalgam of various elements of medieval Indian and indigenous Tibetan religion, as a better "alternative" to what he calls consensus Buddhism. On the other hand, he is probably right that embracing the hedonistic tendency of the West is more likely to be successful than the suppression of it required by renunciation-focussed forms of Buddhism. Puritanism still has it's appeal to many Europeans (especially in the colonies they founded to allow Protestants to follow their religious ideology unmolested), but it's never been a realistic alternative to the way of life most people prefer.

The Protestant trend in religious critique, combined with simplistic readings of Foucault and others on the idea of power and society, has made Westerners overly suspicious of community. Indeed it seems to be de rigeur for critics of modern Buddhism to define the social aspects of Buddhism as not Buddhism. Modernists Buddhism is sometimes narrowly defined in terms of a few elite practitioners with on-going non-symbolic experiences. Which excludes 99% of Buddhists from the category of "Buddhist". Pop psychology buzz-words like "group-think" or "echo chamber" seem to be over-worked at the expense of any attempt to understand humans as social animals. Still, I think Buddhists embracing Protestant attitudes is probably neutral. At least in Protestantism, fatalism is undermined by the imperative to actually do something about one's faith, something sorely lacking in traditional Buddhism.

It is essential for any modern critic to acknowledge that human beings are social and hierarchical by nature (which is incidentally by I am a socialist and not an anarchist). The same is true for all social mammals and many social birds as well. Yes, some social situations are open to exploitation by sociopaths, but a human set apart from society, alienated from society, is far more vulnerable than one in a group. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment for a reason. Alienated individuals are prone to addiction and mental illness.

Foucault's notions of power embrace the role of the subject in hierarchical relationships. As social animals we instinctively subject ourselves to the group norms in a trade off for the protection and other benefits that community membership (ideally) provides. Some of the happiest people in the USA live in strictly religious communities. Amongst the Amish, rigid social norms constrain the behaviour of individuals in ways that look oppressive to outsiders. However, an Amish knows that they can rely on their community to a much greater extent than any outsider can on theirs. And in most cultures, this tradeoff of conformity for a very high degree of support is the norm. It is ironic that in secular society, with all it's freedoms, inequality is orders of magnitude greater and so many people appear to have no support at all. The destruction of the union movement, for example, has decoupled employment rates from wages. Employment is at record highs in the UK, while wages have been falling in real terms for 10 years and continue to fall. Divided, we fall.

The embracing of Romanticism and the rejection of science however, seem positively detrimental to me. Of course, alpha-critic, David McMahan, highlights ways in which he thinks Buddhists have embraced science, but my observation is that the influence is tiny in practice. Those Buddhists who do embrace science are few, and have started to form breakaway movements, though it remains to be seen how well they can integrate the two. They often failed to make the corrective move away from ontological readings of Buddhism, leaving them attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Or else they throw out far too much in an attempt at reconciliation. 

More interesting are those who have some ongoing non-symbolic experience and have either modified or largely abandoned the tradition to focus on just the elements that appear to directly contribute to non-symbolic experiences. This exacerbates the old tension (I almost said, the old injury) already mentioned, in which the social and cultural aspects of Buddhism are devalued in favour of isolated people doing specific meditative techniques. One of my friends characterises this as the distinction between Buddhism and the Dharma. Some movements are teaching people how to be Buddhists; others are solely focussed on creating non-symbolic experiences. I think we need both.

If a Buddhist group is only teaching people how to act like a Buddhist (which of course may include a regular meditation practice) then they would seem to be guilty of the complaint often laid at the door of secular mindfulness teachers: i.e. that their program is incomplete. On the other hand a group that only offers intensive meditation instruction and no pastoral care or community support also seems to be incomplete. On one side is the danger of fatalism, complacency, and formalism; while on the other the danger is solipsism, alienation, and delusions of grandeur. Is there a keystone waiting to be inserted? I'm not convinced there is on. I suspect this will be another case of steel beams making keystones irrelevant.

Buddhism and STEM

The rejection of science is particularly problematic for Buddhism. It is true that the scientific project is incomplete. There is a great deal that is not understood. And it is problematic that so much of science is dominated by reductionist ideology, which ignores structure and emergent properties. This seems to be changing. It's mainly physicists and neuroscientists who are obsessed with reductionism. A lot of other branches of science, such as biology, AI, or cosmology, understand that antireductionism is required where structures and systems are concerned. Chemistry is somewhere in the middle. We chemists know that everything is made of atoms, but that the really interesting objects are molecules and macromolecules, because they have properties and variety that are not found in atoms. No one designing a semiconductor or superconductor can afford an ideological commitment to reductionism, because the very properties that they investigate are systemic and emergent. Imagine if an architect only ever studied bricks and thought houses (let alone mortar) were not relevant because, being composite, they are not real. That's where a lot of science is right now. On the other hand, it's also where Buddhist doctrine has been stuck for 2000 years or more.

In the clash of Buddhism and modernity, Buddhism stands to lose unless Western civilisation collapses and we go back to medieval or earlier forms of knowledge. I suspect that in fact the tipping point has been reached and traditional Buddhism has peaked. Buddhism as a religion is going to be gradually eclipsed by recycled secular presentations of our best ideas (few) and practices (many). However, if we cede the domain of reality to science we gain in two ways. We are still the experts in understanding the world of experience (for now) and we are seen not to insist on the kinds of obviously false claims about reality that religieux typically make.

In his first book on Buddhism, authored from notes for a series of talks delivered in 1954 in India, my first Buddhist teacher, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, wrote that he prefered Buddhist doctrine to rational inquiry in all things (A Survey of Buddhism, Chp 1). Even then the romantic influence on this thinking is apparent. For example, describing Wong Mow Lam's translation of the Platform Sutra he says
"Despite bad grammar, faulty syntax and wrong use of words (to say nothing of printer's errors, coarse paper and unattractive binding of the original edition) there shines through its pages a light which is not of this world... (Survey 42; emphasis added)
Sangharakshita studiously ignored science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) throughout his long teaching career despite the advances that occurred during his career, including the discovery of DNA, the integrated circuit, space flight, personal computers, organ transplants, brain surgery, and so on. None of this ever seems to attract his attention. Even when he spoke about evolution (a 19th Century theory) in the 1960s, rather than citing Darwin, Sangharakshita innovated a teleological and vitalist approach to evolution that was completely out of touch, not to say at odds, with the science of his own day (let alone the science of our day). Sangharakshita's layered approach to "reality" under the rubric of niyāma (an unfortunate misnomer that considerable effort from scholars of Pāḷi in the Order has been unable to shift), recently reiterated and elaborated on by Subhuti, incorporates elements of the 19th Century Western thought of Comte and Mill, via the Edwardian figure of Caroline Rhys Davids. However, again Sangharakshita incorporates no insights from the STEM fields, but simply reiterates his vitalist teleology.

I know I find this frustrating and I'm sure many of my STEM educated friends and colleague do also. I seldom make the challenge direct and personal, but I think this time I have to. The idea of a value-neutral, mind-independent world eviscerates Romanticism. My whole approach is anti-Romantic. And it is a considered stance that I believe is necessary, however confrontational it appears (my motivation is not to provoke confrontation, it is to rescue Buddhism from obscurity). While any influence is unconscious, it is potentially pernicious. This seems to me to be consistent with the early Buddhist criticism of dṛṣṭi or "views".

On the other hand, I have never articulated a theory of aesthetics. Art and music do affect our states of mind. And if we are in pursuit of altered states of mind, then for this reasons, aesthetics are important. The lack of an articulated approach to aesthetics is something I ought to address at some point (art and music have been important to me most of my life). In an environment in which aesthetics has become synonymous with Romanticism, what would an anti-Romantic aesthetic even look like? But if I have failed to engage with aesthetics, then I'm in good company, because nor has any other critic of traditional Buddhism. 

Buddhism and the Supernatural

A major remaining problem for modern Buddhism is the supernatural. I no longer find anything about the supernatural plausible - it is not required in a value-neutral, mind-independent world. But virtually all religious and even some non-religious people do. Many intelligent people are willing to remain, or insist on remaining, agnostic on this matter. I know that many of my Buddhist colleagues and acquaintances are fully committed to supernatural interpretations of experience and structure their self-views around supernatural narratives. The supernatural is a fact to many people and likely to remain plausible to them for reasons I have previously explored on this blog. I find the evolutionary accounts produced by scholars such as Justin Barrett, Thomas Metzinger, Robin Dunbar, and Stewart Guthrie compelling. However, if their accounts are accurate, then factual arguments will most likely never convince believers that they are wrong. The supernatural will remain plausible and will be impossible to eradicate from religion. It will continue to form the core of religion, but it also informs people's views about the world far beyond the religious sphere. Unfortunately, the supernatural involves built-in falsehood, and it can only hinder any attempt to free ourselves from harmful views. 

Meanwhile our methods and insights are being repackaged even now and represented in secular terms that appeal to a growing number of people who are not otherwise interested in religion, let alone an exotic minority religion like Buddhism.

I suspect that at some point Western Buddhism will split into two broad factions over the issue of the supernatural. If this happens then a lot that is good about the tradition in terms of stories, myths, art, and so on will be lost. I say this because I think that Buddhism, as presented to Westerners, is not sufficiently in tune with Western Values to ever be anything but exotic, with appeal to a tiny minority. As much as critics complain about the presentation of Western liberal values as Buddhist morality, in fact many Buddhists are scornful and dismissive towards Western values. Politics (and with it concepts like freedom and liberty) and STEM are seen as outside the scope of valid knowledge. And the view seems to be that once one in enlightened one's values will be radically altered to be consistent with the sentiments of the English Romantic Poets (a bunch of degenerate freeloaders who spent a lot of time getting out of their skulls on opium).

Since science and technology more or less define our modern values, any religion which eschews them or demonises them, as Buddhists tend to, will not grow beyond the 1% that we have attracted to date. And we will watch in frustration as other supernatural narratives, particularly God's love, divine forgiveness, and everlasting life, continue to outperform ours. It's a lot of hard work for quite meagre returns, and not really sustainable. Of course a diaspora who have nothing left but their deeply religious culture will probably keep the traditions alive for centuries. Judaism shows just how powerful cultural identity can be under extreme adverse conditions. 


In this longish essay I've outlined a view of the world that I think provides maximum compatibility between contemporary knowledge of the world and Buddhism. It requires a considerable compromise on our part. In this last part I've tried to make it clear, using the imagery of arch building, that the task is not simply finding the right "keystone" that will allow science and Buddhism to map onto each other. In fact I think it far more likely that science will simply bypass traditional Buddhism and leave it behind as a curiosity or fetish for Asiaphiles. Instead, commodified, secular versions of our key approaches to experience will eclipse traditional Buddhism, making much of it irrelevant. All it lacks at present is a sense of communal values, though of course the very act of commodifying something strips it of much of its value; and the therapeutic model steers away from creating communities.

I want to finish with a different metaphor. In his book on the canon of Western literature, curmudgeonly literary critic, Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), turns the tables on Freud. Freud had infamously diagnosed many of Shakespeare's characters with psychopathologies. Bloom was of the opinion that Shakespeare had the greater insight into the human psyche, and argued that Freud probably agreed with this, at least subconsciously. Freud was reputed to be obsessed with Shakespeare. Where Freud had diagnosed Hamlet as having an Oedipus Complex—a rather simplistic and gross reading of the character—Bloom turns it around and diagnoses Freud as having a Hamlet Complex as a result of his feeling that Shakespeare had the deeper insight. However plausible we find this characterisation, the idea of a Hamlet complex is one I find useful in considering many things in life, but particularly the potential fate of Buddhism.

Hamlet discovers from his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius, at his mother's bidding, has murdered his father and usurped the throne of Denmark. The testimony of a ghost would not stand up in court, but the knowledge compels him to act. He knows his mother, Gertrude, is complicit, so to confront his uncle is also to condemn his mother which he recoils from. For a while he feigns madness, or perhaps is a little mad, and during this period rebuffs his childhood friend and sweetheart, Ophelia. Things go from bad to worse when he inadvertently kills Ophelia's father, Polonius. Ophelia is so distraught from Hamlet's rejection and Polonius's death that she kills herself. There seems to be no course of action or inaction Hamlet can take to relieve the unbearable tension of his knowledge. Hamlet's attempt to expose Claudius using the play-within-a-play only alerts Claudius to Hamlet's awareness of his crime. Claudius plots to kill Hamlet, resulting instead in the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the end, events overrun Hamlet as Ophelia's brother Laertes returns and, prompted by Claudius, accuses Hamlet of responsibility for her death. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel. At the duel Claudius offers poisoned wine to Hamlet, but Gertrude drinks it instead and dies. But not before Laertes cuts Hamlet with a poisoned blade supplied by Claudius, sealing his doom. Hamlet's dying act is to stab Claudius with his sword, a final act of justice. 

We can define the Hamlet Complex as when one understands the situation, knows that action is required, but is prevented from acting not simply by indecision or cowardice, but also by the terrible unintended consequences provokes by attempts at action, and by the machinations of opposing agents. Eventually, events overrun the protagonist; leading to the worse possible outcome. (I'm not sure that this applies to Freud, but I'll pass over that)

To me Buddhism has a Hamlet Complex. I think deep down we all know that the world has changed and indeed is changing rapidly around us. I suppose we might go down the route of the Amish. We might reject the modern world, get off the internet, stop using electricity, motor-vehicles, and modern medicine; we might give up personal freedoms and adopt rigid social norms; and that might be a satisfying life. I've certainly dabbled in it, during for example my four month ordination retreat. But we'll never sell this as an ideal which modern Westerners can aspire to.

So here we are. We know the God is dead and religion is dying. We know that fewer and fewer people are religious. And yet we who are still religious stand by as some promote an identical program but call it something else, and some pick out parts of our program and commodify it. We have good PR to an extent that we don't deserve, but we can't seem to capitalise on it, because we are promoting the one thing that no one wants any more. And yet with some adjustments we could make it interesting to everyone.

On Twitter this week, David Chapman asked what Buddhists offer the world. We offer a vision of human potential; a practical path for realising that potential; and a community of people who want more from life than mindless consumerism and blind obedience to the dictates of commerce. These are our gifts (ratna) to the world. If we were more aware of the limitations of these gifts (particularly the powerful constraints on who can achieve their potential) and of what we don't offer (an ontology; politics), then I think we would be in a stronger position. Perhaps we can boil it down to the idea that, at our best, Buddhists offer a way for people to experience a powerful sense of interconnectedness; something they crave, but which modern life does not provide. Let's not allow ideology to get in the way of giving our gifts with an open hand. 


09 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 2. In And Of The World

In part one, I argued for a mind-independent world, though I critiqued calling this world "reality" or projecting onto it human longings or idealisations. The mind-independent world is not "transcendental" or "absolute", it is neutral. And we do have some idea of what it is like, so it is not ineffable. I want to continue by considering humanity's place in this mind-independent world and exploring the nature of experience. 

In And Of The World

For the longest time we considered ourselves to be apart from the world. There was the universe and there was us. And we were special. So special that the universe was made just for us; and/or we were made to decorate the universe. And typically this specialness was fractal - at whatever level you look, people believed something along the lines that they were "God's chosen people". This has led to untold conflict and suffering as "the chosen ones" sought to convince others of their specialness by killing, raping, pillaging, and/or enslaving them. I'm this writing in the aftermath of a series of religiously inspired mass murders in London (mind you, I'm also against our government committing similar murders in the Middle-East).

Our discoveries about the world have dissolved us into the world. What we have learned has reduced any distinctions between us and the world; between us and other animals; and between different tribes amongst us. We are very much in and of the world. We're pretty much all alike, tell the same kind of stories about the world and ourselves, have the same kinds of longings. Most people's needs are actually pretty simple: shelter, food, sex, and community. The more we look, the less special human beings are. We just happen to be better at a particular combination of functions that are widely found in the living part of the world; and to have co-opted some key functionality to other tasks (such as shape recognition being adapted to reading).

I make the distinction between experience and a mind-independent world (sometimes I say "experience and reality") because it's a useful way of talking. The distinction is methodological, to some extent epistemological, but not ontological. From my point of view, your mind is independent of my mind, but it is not independent of the world, indeed it counts as part of the world. You have a similar frame of reference with respect to other people. And with all due respect to the psychonauts exploring the far reaches of mind—who say, for example, that they "have no self"—their sensory field is still created by their senses not mine, and they still only have access to their thoughts and only have motor control over their body. Even if they don't feel a sense of ownership, they still have to acknowledge the physical limitations of being embodied and the applicability of natural laws. I think they know this, but struggle with conditioning which prompts them to see their experience as reality. Our minds are not little motes of non-world, are not separate from the world, but are merely a subset of the world.

John Searle makes the distinction between objective and subjective modes of being. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology, but it can be useful in emphasising this point about mental activity. What happens in our minds is only directly accessible to us, which is why we might say that it has a subjective mode of being. The neural activity that generates the mental activity is itself objective. It's only the emergent results that are subjective (i.e. accessible only to our own minds). The analogy I use is that the nutrients from the food we eat are only accessible to our bodies, because when we ingest them the chemical processes of digestion take place inside our bodies. Similarly the processes that produce minds take place inside a body and the results are only directly accessible within that body. So mind is subjective in the same way that digestion is subjective.

Just as we have an objective science of digestion, there is no reason we cannot have an objective science of mental activity. Although I predict it won't be through reductive methods and theories. Reductionism is fine for exploring substance, but it destroys structure and mind is all about structure and emergent properties of structures. We've scarcely begun to explore antireductive methods of understanding reality, because most of us (including Buddhists) are still obsessed with the successes of reductionism. To the best of my understanding, enlightenment doesn't change any of this.

What A Mind Does.

Minds (all minds) do work in a distinctive way. Our ideas and images need not be real or conform to the laws of nature. I can imagine a pig with wings. I may mentally give it many details so that it becomes incredibly vivid in my mind's eye. However, at no point in this process does a pig with wings exist. I can even infect your mind with my image, by describing the pig with wings to you. Now you have a pig with wings in your mind too. But there is still no pig with wings in the world. Imaginary objects are not bound by the same rules as real ones. One couldn't just stick wings on a pig an expect it to fly. For example birds have many specific adaptations that enable them to fly, including hollow bones, feathers to create an aerofoil, musculature to produce the required power, and so on. Our mental images and creations don't have to deal with these physical limitations. We can be fairly sure that any animal that plays or dreams has the same interesting capacity to some extent.

I think most scientists and philosophers now believe that, despite the freedom of mental content, the mechanisms that generate that content do follow the laws of nature. Even though we're not quite sure how its done, we've ruled out other possibilities. For example, there is no need, no room, for a supernatural explanation of mental activity. We can be confident that mental activity is an emergent property of a living brain. Not absolutely certain, but as certain as we can about anything. We leave open the possibility that miraculous testimony might one day be backed up by miraculous evidence, but until then we focus on what seems overwhelmingly likely.

Any living body that has a functioning brain will display far more complex behaviour than one without, and the motions of that body will deviate from the norms dictated by simple physics. If you stand me and a bowling ball at the bottom of the stairs in my house, the bowling ball will never spontaneously go upstairs; whereas I do this all the time (as does my landlady and her cats). Some aspects of having a mind are obvious from the outside. If I go upstairs empty handed and return with a coffee mug, it's no great stretch of the imagine to speculate that I went up stairs for the purpose of getting that mug and that I am now going to do some mug-related activity like making coffee or washing up. You can infer how my mind works based on your previous knowledge of me, on your general knowledge about people, and on how your own mind works. This procedure is not unerringly accurate, but good enough at the level for which we evolved the capacity (i.e. to enable a small-to-medium, mutually-dependent social group to thrive). We can model how each other feels through noting and imitating facial expression, tone of voice, posture, etc., though experience suggest we're less good at attributing motives. These forms of mind-reading apply for social mammals and even work both ways to some extent between us and domesticated animals. 

In John Searle's terms some parts of the world have a subjective mode of being (i.e. mental activity), and some have an objective mode of being. However, I think Searle goes wrong at this point. He argues that our experience of things that have an objective mode of being is "direct" (a favourite word amongst Buddhists). In other words he consciously adopts a naive realism. There is so much evidence against naive realism that one boggles that such a clever guy, who has made such major contributions to how we understand ourselves, would go off the rails at this point and argue for something as daft as naive realism.

Not only is our mental activity a small part of the world, but the mental activity we are aware of is a small part of the overall activity. Our brain is constantly processing and producing information, but just occasionally it shunts something into the part of the brain that deal with self-awareness. The conscious part of our mental activity is just the tip of the iceberg, though again we tend to privilege this part because we identify with it as special. The "direct" quality of perception is an illusion. And the best evidence for this is the large number of perceptual illusions we are prone to. Experience is never direct. However, many Buddhists claim that they can, through mental exercises, perceive "direct experience". In this case they mean "direct" in an entirely different sense that is more to do with stripping away any conceptual overlays. Voluntarily shutting down one's higher brain functions produces a certain way of perceiving experience that aficionados recommend, but there is nothing direct about it.

So this is the situation that we find ourselves in. We live in a particular kind of world, but we are also wholly in and of that world. A tiny part of the world is dependent on, and only accessible to, my mind; but for the most part the world—the incomprehensibly vast universe covering dozens of orders of magnitude—is independent of any mind.*
* If the reader is still thinking, "But what about the need to observe the cat in the box?", I direct them to my essay, Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29 October 2010). 

Experience as Simulation

My view is also a form of realism, we might call it a qualified realism. I take seriously what scientists tell me about how I perceive the world. Early Buddhists seem to have got this at least partially right: experience is not simply the subjective domain of the world, it is what happens when the objective and subjective domains overlap. I follow the representationalists (especially Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger) who argue that our brains form virtual models of self and world, and that these are what we experience, or that these are experience (in which case they correspond to the five skandhas of the Buddhist tradition). My seeing a form is mediated by a large number of brain areas that process vision, but also with areas that recognise what things are, that name attributes, that create emotional responses, and that inform me of how I might interact with what I'm seeing. To perceive something is to infer knowledge about it, but also to infer possible interactions, and so on.

One of the key methods in neuroscience to-date is to tally all the ways in which perception, cognition, and our sense-of-self, can go wrong and then try to infer what the mind must be like to be able to go wrong in that way. When one takes all the evidence into account there is no other plausible explanation: perception and particularly our perception of a sense-of-self, are virtual rather than real. "Virtual" here means, having all the properties and functions of a real thing, but not being physically instantiated. The brain is a reality emulator. The sense of having a first-person perspective on experience can break, or we can shut it down through meditative techniques. Unfortunately if this happens to us, it tends to lead to unwarranted metaphysical speculation. In particular, for Buddhists, the shift in perspective is interpreted as an insight into the nature of reality. Religieux indoctrinated with different views take this experience as meaning something else, such as being one with God or merging with the absolute.

Experience is an emergent property of living, embodied brains. Experience only exists, to the extent that it exists at all, as a product of our interactions with a mind-independent world. In this, experience is unlike the world, i.e. experience is dependent on our mind. It is presumably more efficient to employ a model of the world because the sheer volume of incoming information would otherwise quickly overwhelm us and render us incapable of action or reaction. After all this is why human employ models when dealing with complex situations.

We can make a methodological distinction between experience and reality, with some caveats. Firstly, "reality" is used in the value neutral sense that I have described; and, secondly, we have to acknowledge that ultimately experience is an aspect of reality, i.e. that part of reality, with a "subjective mode of being", that only we have access to. However, roughly speaking, experience is our personal world; while reality is the public world that we all share. For each of us there is an epistemological distinction between self and world (our thoughts are clear to us, others' thoughts are opaque). And it can be useful to talk as though these were separate as long as no one is confused about the context.

Buddhism, Experience, and Reality

While the ancient Greeks were busy speculating about "reality", in ancient India they had figured out that if you completely ignore sense experience, there is a class of experiences that one can have that are unlike any other. By focussing internally, one can withdraw into a state of peaceful bliss. This is not only very evocative of mind-body dualism, sky-beings and all that, but it also gives the meditator a totally new perspective on experience. Reflecting on experience, especially in the light of being aware while experience stops and then restarts, can result in permanent changes to how we experience the world. The first-person perspective can drop away, leaving us operating in a field of experiences without a subjective reference point. Those who do experience the world in this way describe it in glowing terms.

For many Buddhist traditions this luminous experience is reality. Part of my project is pointing out that it isn't. Selflessness is still experiential, or at least involves a perspective on, inferences from, and interpretations of experience. Granted, the luminosity or selflessness or whatever are unlike anything humans normally experience, but they are still experiences being had by a person. The interpretations of the significance of these experiences are so very obviously culturally determined, that calling it "liberation" in any ultimate sense is clearly going beyond the data. One may well be free of certain types of conditioning as a result, but intellectually many well-worn ruts still exist and channel the thoughts of the "enlightened". Typically the liberated person judges their experience to confirm the doctrine that they have been indoctrinated with. Thus the liberated still appear to suffer from confirmation bias. I've recently come across work by Jeffery A. Martin, which I have yet to fully evaluate, but at the very least he appears to have a useful vocabulary for this kind of experience, which he calls "non-symbolic". Enlightenment in his terms would be persistent or on-going non-symbolic experience. I think this may turn out to be a very useful of talking about enlightenment to disentangle it from the legacy terminology of Asian tradition (not to mention unhelpful English translations of such terminology).

Unfortunately the non-symbolic experience is so engrossing and all encompassing, that those who have it are often supremely confident in their interpretations of their experiences. They are often unwilling to contemplate any other interpretation. I accept that at least some of the people who claim to have no self, really do have a different experience of the world, but I'm unwilling to accept their metaphysical/ontological claims on face value.

Experiences of the non-symbolic type led to Buddhists to develop an influential discourse that begins with a simile: "form is like an illusion" (rūpam māyopama). Here "form" represents all of the five branches of experience, i.e. form, sensations, perception, volition, and cognition. These are how early Buddhist conceptualised the processes required to have experiences. So we could read this as, "experience is like an illusion". The skandhas are still not a bad list, even if the definitions of the items have become overly vague. Many people find the skandhas provide a useful methodological focus for reflecting on experience. "Illusion", here, translates the Sanskrit and Pāḷi word māyā, which comes from a root (√) meaning "to create", and is related to the creative power of gods. In Buddhist myth, for example, the Buddha's mother is called Māyā, which probably means something like "Creatrix" (it's a Brahmanical name with Brahmanical religious connotations). However, in Buddhist texts māyā usually refers to something conjured up, usually by magic, which deceives the mind into thinking it is real, when it is not. 

How can we understand the idea that experience like an illusion? In the context I have been outlining, we can say that experience, is like an illusion to the extent that it is unlike the mind-independent world. In other words the question about experience and illusion only makes sense when the contrast between solid objects and ephemeral experience is clear.

I had an insight into this on a long retreat some years ago. I was standing with a friend, both of us looking at a 100m vertical rock face. And I said, "but it doesn't change". My friend's response was "close your eyes". In that instant of closing my eyes, the rock did not change one iota; but my experience of the rock changed completely. My experience changed from a primarily visual one to a primarily mnemonic one (I had a fresh memory of seeing the rock). When I opened my eyes again and switched back to a visual experience, the rock was again apparently unchanged, but my experience changed completely. It's not that everything changes, although, of course, it does. It's that experience is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial. In fact experience can completely cease, leaving us alive and aware, but not aware of anything. This is not reality, but is better described as the experience of the cessation of experience (nirodha or nibbāna).

The idea of a mind-independent world is not explicitly endorsed by any Buddhist text. However, the early Buddhist model of perception requires that there be what we would call an "object", but which they called a "foundation" (ālambhana) that is not encompassed by their idea of mind. The foundation is contrasted with the sense faculty (indriya) and sense cognition (vijñāna). In other words the foundation for perception is independent of the mind. However, nothing is ever said about the nature of the foundations of perception. It is merely a background to the act of perception and the focus in entirely on the cognitive aspects of the act. However, it does mean that a mind-independent world is entirely consistent with the early Buddhist model of perception.

The philosophical position that the world is an illusion is common in other Indian traditions (especially in Sāṃkya-darśana and the traditions it influenced such as Vedanta and Patañjali's Yoga ). However, this position is not practical and long ago ceased to be interesting. In fact, we know that the world is not an illusion. The world is real, in the value neutral way I have described. Experience can certainly deceive us about the world, but this is a commentary on experience, not on reality.

The world is not an illusion or even like an illusion. Quite the opposite. The world is the (relatively) stable reality against which the concept of "illusion" has meaning. We contrast experience with the world and discover that unlike the world, experience is like an illusion - virtual, fleeting, unsatisfactory, insubstantial. This is an epistemological distinction. The ontological argument that mind and body, or mind and world, are substantially different or made of different stuff is untenable. Everything is a manifestation of one kind of stuff and reductionism is the right method for dealing with questions of stuff or substances. However, structures made from stuff are also "real", i.e. existent and causal. Reductionism fails at this point precisely because the associated methods destroy the very structures we wish to study. 

Summary So Far

In Part 1, I argued for a mind-independent world. Or at least I summarised arguments that I have previously made at greater length, based on ideas I have drawn from various sources, especially Sean Carroll, Richard H Jones, and John Searle. I argued that this mind-independent world is value neutral, that it doesn't fit the narratives developed over centuries in which the world mirrors projections of human desires. The world is not absolute, transcendent, ultimate, divine or any of that. It just is what it is.

In this part I have tried to show that our relation to this world is not separate or unique, but integrated and of the same type. However, I also noted that our experience is not like the mind-independent world. Indeed, it is the contrast between experience and the world that helps up to makes sense of the Buddhist claim that experience is "like an illusion". This is a distinction I think few Buddhists will easily accept, because most of us are deeply indoctrinated to believe the exact opposite: either some form of idealism in which the mind literally creates the world; or that experience is the world. I see the standard Buddhist narratives as problematic and in the next part I will explain why. In the briefest possible terms, Buddhism as it stands is not compatible with the laws of nature. There could hardly be a worse situation for Buddhists.


02 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 1. A Mind-Independent World

Is the world real or an illusion? This question reverberates throughout philosophy and religion. In part one of this essay I reiterate arguments in favour of the existence of a mind-independent world. A mind-independent world exists (is real) and is neutral with respect to us. I discuss and problematise the terms objective and reality as misleading. In particular "reality" is a poorly defined and culturally loaded term. In part two, I locate human beings inside this mind-independent world and discuss the Buddhist simile that makes experience "like an illusion". This sets the scene for exploring some implications of a modern worldview for traditional Buddhism. Buddhists have staked a claim on "reality" that is not valid or plausible. Buddhist methods give us access to knowledge about the mind and perception; but they do not give us insights into a mind-independent world. Buddhists define "reality" for the same reasons that everyone does: subjectification of people and creation of (priestly) hegemonies. But as science progresses with describing a neutral mind-independent world, this creates a credibility gap for Buddhism with respect to reality. Our fall-back is to truthfully claim to have useful insights into experience. If we do not fall back, we risk being proving us wrong (and we are wrong). 

A Mind-Independent World

It's seven-thirty in the morning, I'm sitting at my desk about to set out on another literary journey. Behind me the sun is rising into a partly cloudy sky and I can feel warm sunlight on my right shoulder. A gentle breeze is wafting through the neighbourhood and out of the window I can see shrubs nodding in time. I'm getting a waft of frankincense smoke and there's classic Salmonella Dub in my headphones. There's a slightly bitter note on my tongue from my morning coffee, half of which still sits by my keyboard going cold.

Is this scene that I've just sketched real? Or is it all an illusion? Or is it something else? What do I even mean by "real"? These are philosophy questions and for some people the answer doesn't seem to matter. We can get on with our lives without ever answering these questions. I used to not care that much, but I gradually got drawn into thinking about such questions, partly because so many Buddhists seemed to have such obviously wrong answers to these questions that they were peddling as the ultimate truth. Was I completely missing the point or were they?

For me the scene is real and ongoing. Some things, such as the wall or my desk, are not perceptibly changing as I write and providing a static backdrop against which change stands out. While I write the scene is gradually shifting, the sun is moving, and the music playing out, and I'm hungry so will go down to the kitchen soon to get breakfast. I don't expect it to last and I don't expect it to be static, not even the wall over the long term. Buddhists often seem to assert that I do expect it will last, that I do expect to the world to be static. But I don't. And I doubt anyone does or ever did. "Everything changes" is just a banal truism.

The idea that there is a world that is independent of my mind seems obvious, but so is the fact that it changes (and I haven't even started on science yet). Early Buddhists seem to have thought so too, but that they were almost completely uninterested in that world, probably because they spent a lot of time doing religious exercises that mostly involved consciously withdrawing any and all attention from the sensory world until ordinary experience completely ceased (called variously yoga, bhāvana, etc). It is also true that they understood this state to have far reaching consequences - it liberated the practitioner from rebirth (punarbhava) and redeath (punarmṛtyu).

If there were not a world independent of my mind it would be very difficult to explain certain things. Without it there is no common reference point for us to refer to. So, for example, my description of my early morning experience would not resonate, because the reader would not be able to relate to my wholly individual experience. What makes such a description evocative (as I hope it is) is the way that we can relate the words to our own experience of morning, the sun, warmth, etc. The words may well be merely conventional, but the experiences the words refer to are shared.

Take a tennis match at Wimbledon - two players, a referee, various other match officials, and a few thousand spectators. If there were no ball, independent of the players and the crowd, how would a tennis match make sense? How would players track and hit the ball back and forth? How would the referee adjudicate? How would spectators know where to look? If there were no mind-independent world, some far more convoluted explanation would be required to account for the kinds of coherence or simultaneity that make tennis comprehensible to everyone involved; and, mutatis mutandis, that make our everyday experiences comprehensible (to the extent that they are).

Whether we go by intuition, Occam's razor, or Bayesian inference, or some other method, the existence of a world independent of our minds is the best way to make sense of our experience. All the other options force us to adopt absurd positions. This doesn't mean they are false, only that extraordinary evidence would be required to make them plausible and until that turns up we have a clear outright winner in the explanation stakes. The mind-independent world wins by a country mile.

What should we call this mind-independent world?


We tend to think of the world in terms of objects and actions. And because we can all agree on the general characteristics of objects we sometimes call this the objective world in contrast to our mind which is our private subjective world. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology. After all if I am experiencing something that is real, then my experience is not entirely subjective, since it rests on an object and everyone who sees the object sees the same object. Similarly, all animals with brains make inferences about perception that mean that experience is never wholly objective either. 

Benjamin Lee Whorf, in a still popular but controversial theory, proposed in the mid-20th Century that this way of dividing the world up was based in our language, i.e. it derived from the linguistic structures of nouns and verbs. He proposed that grammatical relations precede and define how we perceive the world. His evidence for this came from indigenous North American languages, particularly Hopi. Whorf claimed that at least one language community only conversed in verbs, suggesting that the noun/verb distinction was arbitrary. The details of Whorf's ideas would take us too far afield, but I highly recommend his essays on language - they are stimulating, and like many very bright people, even when he is wrong, he is wrong in interesting ways (to paraphrase Feynman). I think the consensus is that Whorf was wrong, though in a very interesting way. Language does have an impact on how we understand our world, but not to the extent he suggested. Grammar does not precede the world, but emerges from it, especially from the way that we physically interact with it. Objects are still objects and actions are still actions; they exist and happen without our being aware of them.

So the world is objective, in the sense that it's made up from structured objects, but it's not objective in the usual sense of the world. And calling the mind-independent world, "the objective world" doesn't seem right to me. In any case objective is defined relative to our minds, and the world we are talking about is independent of our minds. 


Another thing that we sometimes call this mind-independent world is "reality". Reality must be something like the sum total of all the real things and actions. But it's not a neutral term. Anyone who is "out of touch with reality" is either mad, ignorant, or in some other way defective. How we treat them varies from bad to worse. However, "real" turns out to be quite a difficult concept to define.

We have a number of synonyms: real, true, exist; or abstractly reality, truth, and existence. They are all equally difficult to define. So a definition on one in terms of the others is no help. If the only access the individual has to knowledge is their senses then reality is more or less impossible to define. Scholars are often guilty of solipsism in that they do try to define reality this way. In my way of thinking, something may be considered real if two or more people can perceive it and generally agree on its characteristics. But of course numerous examples show that even multiple people can be deceived - like the sunset illusion. Determining what is real requires sustained and persistent inquiry involving collecting empirical data, identifying and testing assumptions, and cross-referencing with other data. We undercut the sunset illusion by observing the motions of the other planets and concluding that they cannot be in orbit around the earth, and so on.

In reductive approaches to ontology, to be real something has to be independently existent, not simply independent of our minds, but independent of anything else as well. Following Patricia Churchland's discussion of freewill, we can call this "contra-causal independence". In this reductive approach,only the fundamental, unstructured (atomic) layer, at the bottom of the layers of structure is ultimately real. However, degrees may be admitted, because it is also implicit that parts are more real than wholes. When you analyse (i.e. break apart) everything down to the smallest units and cannot go any further, anything that is left is considered real. Atoms were so-named because they were thought to be indivisible (Greek: a-tomos). It's possible, if Fay Dowker and her colleagues exploring causal set theory are right, that spacetime is made up from Planck scale "atoms" as well. Time will tell whether this granular view of spacetime replaces the smooth image we get from relativity, but they did accurately predict the universe expanding at an accelerating rate.

This reductive view is flawed. Parts are not a priori more real than wholes. Reductionism is an ideology, not a philosophy. For example, structures are routinely as stable as (or in some cases more stable than) their parts, have unique properties not possessed by their parts, and, importantly, have causal potential. By most definitions this makes structures real also. As I have argued at length, following Richard H. Jones (see A Layered Approach to Reality), the only viable ontology is reductionist with respect to substance and antireductionist (or emergentist) with respect to structure. And this means that "real" extends over the whole of the layer stack - from the Planck scale to the universe as a whole. It's all real. 

Reality is a loaded term, not just because it helps us define who is mad or sane, but because whoever defines reality has a superior position and tends to exploit it to create a hegemony. When one says, rhetorically, "Look, the reality is.... ", one is asserting superiority over the interlocutor. If someone hits you with this, they are saying that whatever it is that you are on about, you are completely wrong - you are out of touch with reality. The reality is the final word on anything. Fortunately no one can agree on what reality is, at least for long. But how a society defines reality determines how some of its outliers are treated. The cultural baggage that comes with "reality" is so hefty that it makes the term unhelpful a lot of the time.

So, I tend to think in terms of a mind-independent world rather in terms of reality. A jargon term is only useful when there is an agreed definition. And reality is, ironically, not a unifying concept, but is contested with a view to owning the intellectual and moral high-ground. On the whole the word is best avoided if one doesn't want to be drawn into interminable arguments with people whose only commitment is to winning arguments. But however we define reality, it does not alter the fact that there is a world that is independent of our minds.

The Nature of the mind-independent world.

One of the big problems we have in discussing the mind-independent world is that it seems to attract all of our psychological projections. I've already explored this with respect to the term reality. One of the problems is that human beings want to live in a particular kind of universe, i.e. one that is fair and just. A fair and just universe allows us to anticipate what we need to do next and do it. It allows us to find the optimal path to navigate through life avoiding pain and suffering. And if the world is just, then it must be perfect. And since the world we see is not perfect, in the sense that it is not just, then the perfect world must be either elsewhere (usually in the sky for reasons I have explained elsewhere) or hidden. Thus, depending on who you ask, reality may be:
  • occult (Latin for "hidden")
  • esoteric (Greek for "inner-circle")
  • mystical (from Greek myein "closed off")
  • supernatural (from Latin "above nature"; i.e. in the sky)
  • transcendental (from Latin "climb beyond"... i.e. into the sky)
  • absolute (from Greek "detached from"... free of imperfection)
  • perfect (from Latin "finished, made complete")
  • numinous ("divine will" from a Latin word meaning "nod", as in "nod of approval from God")
There is pie in the sky. Though ironically, the word sky itself comes from a Germanic word meaning "cloud, covering". However, there is nothing empirical to indicate that the mind-independent world is any of these things. There is no a priori reason why a mind-independent world should fulfil any of our human longings for perfection, justice, completion, longevity, or satisfaction. Nor is reality up in the sky. In fact, everything suggests that the mind-independent world is entirely indifferent to us and our longings. There is no perfection, no cosmic justice, no completion, we all die, and satisfaction is all down to how live. The mind-independent world is neutral. 

Through careful observation and meticulous comparing of notes, scientists have begun to map out the characteristics of this neutral mind-independent world. Before the invention of the telescope and the microscope, we thought the world spanned about 7 or 8 orders of magnitude (i.e. roughly from millimeters to a few 10s of 1000s of kilometers). Now we know that the structures of the world can cover between 60 and 100 orders, depending on what we are measuring. For example length goes from the Planck scale (~10-35 m) to the universe as a whole (~1027 m) and thus covers roughly 62 orders of magnitude. My readers may well point out that the Indian imagination was more fecund and on a much grander scale than the Europeans of the same time. It is true that Indians imagined a much larger universe, but the mind-independent world we actually live in is nothing like the fantasies of Iron Age India.

We know that the neutral mind-independent world is made of certain kinds of stuff, but that the stuff combines in all sort of ways to create many layers of structure. As complex structures pile up, we find that emergent properties begin to dominate and that we have to adopt different descriptive paradigms. The stack of layers is not linear. So we can still usefully employ broad categories such as physics, chemistry, and biology (and the many sub-divisions of these), where each science has distinctive methods and theories that dominate their discourse. 

What the 'scopes told us was that there are domains of the world beyond what our senses can register. Quantum physics hints that there are domains that our minds cannot register also. Our minds are tuned to navigate and survive in the macroscopic world. So most of us struggle with the extremes: time-frames in femto-seconds or millions of years; or lengths nanometers or parsecs. As well as an observable universe, we might also need the idea of a comprehensible universe. What lies beyond is the domain of specialists. But this we do know, in order for some entity or force to interact with our world, it too has to be observable. Either something interacts with matter and energy, in which case we can see and measure it; or it does not, in which case we can ignore it. And in the case of the mass, length, energy scales relevant to ordinary human lives (that narrow range of 7-8 orders of magnitude that we easily comprehend) we don't need anything extra to explain it. Physics is complete within these parameters (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry, especially links to Sean Carroll's arguments for this on his blog). There are new discoveries to be made at the extremes, but not in the middle where we live. The supernatural is an answer for which there is no longer any question.

One of the key functions of our mind is to recognise agentive behaviour in our environment. Julian Barrett has pointed out we are evolved to find agency in the world because it has survival value. It is better to avoid 100 imagined tigers, than to fail to avoid one real tiger. But this error in favour of seeing agency makes us animists, we see agency where it is not. Many animals are also animists in this sense (Guthrie) And some experiences—classically the so-called "out-of-body experience"—convince us that our own minds are not tied to bodies. This leads to mind-body dualism, which despite the alterations of science is still by far the most popular view in the general population. Body is physical, heavy, matter, bound, opaque, etc. Mind is the opposite immaterial, light, luminous, free, transparent etc. Freed of body at death, mind naturally rises up to the sky which it is like. The idea that our minds are just motes of sky/heaven/absolute, embodied for a time, and will return to the sky at death, is probably the most powerful idea humans have ever had. This is also why reality is so strongly associated with the sky also. It is both compelling and also completely wrong.

To some extent I'm repeating myself here from previous essays. The repetition is for emphasis, but also because I am refining this argument as I go along. And it leads on to the second half of this essay which considers our place in the mind-independent world and the implications of this for Buddhism.


Part Two will follow on 9 June.

Background Reading

Substance and Structure

Substance & Structure. (5 Jun 2016)
Buddhism and Existence (17 Jun 2016)
A Layered Approach to Reality.
Experience and Reality. (17 Feb 2017)

Searle on Consciousness and Social Reality

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism. (2 Sep 2016)
Components of Social Reality: Social Reality (I) (30 Sep 2016)
Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II) (7 Oct 2016)
Deontology: Social Reality (III) (14 Oct 2016)
Power: Social Reality (IV) (21 Oct 2016)
Norms without Conscious Rule Following. Social reality (V) (28 Oct 2016)

Evolution of Morality

The Evolution of Morality. Introduction and Deontology. (18 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Reciprocity. (25 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Empathy. (2 Dec 2016)


Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. [Essay] http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.


Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

20 April 2017

Heart Sutra Anomaly


It was apparent, even to the late 7th Century commentators Woncheuk and Kuījī that the Heart Sutra contained quotations from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (PPS) (Nattier 1992: 206-7, no. 33). In this essay I will compare and contrast the various source texts for part of one of the quotations. We will see that a substantial change was introduced in translation of the PPS produced by Kumārajīva's translation team in 404 CE, though we don't know if this was evident in their source text or was an innovation at that time. Jan Nattier (1992: 205, n.26) already noted this in her watershed article on the Chinese origins of the Heart Sutra, but it has received scant attention since. And it raises interesting issues regarding authenticity and the role of modern philologers.

Nattier compared various versions of the quoted passage from PPS with the versions found in the various Heart Sutras. The Chinese Heart Sutra extra is nearly identical to the Chinese PPS created by Kumārajīva's translation team ca. 404 CE (i.e. Taishō Sūtra No. 223). The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is however different in many ways from the extant Sanskrit PPS manuscripts (one cache from Gilgit ca, 6th Century and another from Nepal ca. 19th Century). The versions differ in syntax at some points and it differ in lexicon at others, but they mostly do not differ in semantics. Where sentence structures and word choices are different, the Heart Sutra still conveys the same message. Except in one case, which I will call "Section 3" in this essay (I've broken the quoted passage into a sequence of sections for my own purposes).

The obvious conclusion is that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a paraphrase of the Sanskrit PPS, while the Chinese Heart Sutra is a direct quote from T223. The paraphrasing occurred because the extract went from Buddhist Sanskrit (composed ca. 1st Century CE) through the filter of Middle Chinese (sometime between 404 and 664 CE) and back to something like Classical Sanskrit (before the death of Xuanzang in 664). The meaning was preserved but many particulars of how that was communicated were changed.

We can see how this might work using Google translator to go between English to Mandarin and back.
  1. Original: Form is only emptiness. Form is not different from emptiness.
  2. Eng→Man: 形式只是空虛。 形式與空虛沒有區別。
  3. Man→Eng: The form is just empty. There is no difference between form and emptiness.
The words mean the same, but they are paraphrased. The effect on a highly inflected language like Sanskrit could be rather more dramatic, because a good deal of grammatical information is lost in converting to Middle Chinese. And if the translator from Chinese into Sanskrit was not familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā idiom in Sanskrit, then this would also amplify the effect.

We have five versions of the quoted passage from different times and places:
  • 《放光般若經》 by Mokṣala (291 CE). T221 8.6a06-6a13.
  • 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》 by Kumārajīva (404 CE). T223 8.223a13-a24
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. Gilgit Ms. ca 6th C. Facsimile by Karashima et al (2016). 21v-22r.
  • 《大般若波羅蜜多經》 by Xuánzàng. (659-663 CE). T220-ii; Fasc. 401-478 7.13a12ff.
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra Nepal Ms. ca 19th C. Edition by Kimura (2012) 1-1: 64
In this essay I will examine two extracts: section 1 and section 3. Section 1 is useful to review since it is the centre piece of Jan Nattier's argument that the Heart Sutra was composed in China and in the Chinese Language. It demonstrates her notion of "back-translation", but given the alternative reading, also demonstrates the complexities involved.

Section 1
Mok.色與空等無異 所以者何?色則是空 空則是色
Kj.舍利弗 色不異空 空不異色* 色即是空 空即是色
Xz.舍利子 色不異空 空不異色 色即是空 空即是色
Gil.na hi śāradvatīputrānyad rūpam anyā śunyatā nānyā śunyatānyad rūpam rūpam eva śunyatā śunyataiva rūpam evaṃ nānyā vedanānyā śunyatā |
Nep.tathā hi śāriputra nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam
*The notes in the Taishō Tripiṭaka say that some editions have 非色異空 非空異色 here. This is important because the two main versions of the Heart Sutra have different versions of this. T251 has the form above, while T250 has this alternate form.
The syntax here is one of the key differences that Nattier noted in 1992 as evidence for her Chinese origins hypothesis. PPS has na anya X anya Y, whereas Heart Sutra has X na pṛthak Y. Note that anya "other" is a pronoun which takes the gender, case, and number of the noun it qualifies. These both mean the same thing, i.e. that X and Y are not different, or in plain English "X is the same as Y".

There are also two different syntaxes in Chinese: X 不異 Y and 非 X 異 Y (which in some ways mirrors the Sanskrit paraphrasing). The Chinese texts all follow very similar conventions:
ChineseEnglishSaṃsṛktam notes
form rūpa
emptiness śūnyatā
not naGeneric pre-verbal negative
without, un-, -lessa-
is not na (asti)Generic negative for sentences, esp. identities
different anya/pṛthak
則/即only eva

Comparing the versions, we can see here that Xuanzang largely followed Kumārajīva. All that he changed was the spelling of the name Śāriputra. Kumārajīva uses a phonetic transcription which in Middle Chinese would have been something like sharibut. The final /t/ was pronounced strongly in Old Chinese and may have sounded very like the Central Asian pronunciation of the name in Prakrit (cf. Gāndhārī: Śariputra; Pāli: Sāriputta). Note that final -a is also dropped in modern Hindi with similar effect (compare also Nattier 1992: 216, n.91). Xuanzang kept the shari, but replaced the last syllable with the Chinese character for son 子 to translate Sanskrit putra.

An oddity is that Gil. has Śāradvatīputra for Śāriputra. This is actually common, but not reflected in the Chinese translations, which all have the latter.

Mokṣala phrases his first sentence differently: 色與空等無異 means "form and emptiness, etc 等, are not different"; while 所以者何?is "And why?". What follows is the same except that Sanskrit eva is conveyed with 則 where Kumārajīva and Xuanzang both use 即.

Section 1 was the entree, now we move onto the main course.

Section 3.
Mok.亦不見生 亦不見滅 亦不見著 亦不見斷 亦不見增 亦不見減 亦不過去當來今現在
Kum.舍利弗 是諸法空相 不生不滅 不垢不淨 不增不減 是空法非過去 非未來 非現在
Xz舍利子 是諸法空相 不生不滅 不染不淨 不增不減 非過去非未來非現在
Gil.yā śāradvatīputra śunyatā na sā utpadyate na nirudhyate | na saṃkliśyate na vyavadāyate | na hīyate na vardhate | nātītā nānāgatā na pratyutpannā
Nepśūnyatā śāriputra notpadyate na nirudhyate na saṃkliśyate na vyavadāyate na hīyate na vardhate nātītā nānāgatā na pratyutpannā yā ca īdṛśī
These are all saying something similar. Here, something does not arise (不見生, 不生, na sā utpadyate, notpadyate) it does not cease; it's not defiled and not pure; it is not deficient* and does not grow; it is not part, future, or present. The big difference involves what that something is.
* hīyate (passive form of √) is the verb from which the adjective hīna derives. It means "deficient, wanting; excluded; abandoned; etc."

In both the Gilgit and Nepalese PPS texts, it is śūnyatā that is the subject of these sentences, i.e. it is śūnyatā itself which does not arise or cease etc. However, in the Chinese text of Kumārajīva a whole new phrase is inserted which says: "all dharmas are marked with emptiness" (是諸法空相). Xuanzang also has this phrase by may simply have followed Kumārajīva. As Nattier points out, "In this context, without an explicit subject in the Chinese text, the reader would most naturally conclude that the subject is 'all dharmas'." (1992: 205, n.26). And this is indeed how the translator of the Heart Sutra seems to have read the text, translating sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā...

This discrepancy is not one of paraphrasing or selecting different synonyms as it is in other cases. The new phrase completely changes the meaning of this sentence, though the (intransitive) actions are the same, the subject "undertaking" the actions is different.

Another major difference here, of which Nattier says "most striking of all", becomes apparent when we look at the Sanskrit Heart Sutra passage:
iha śāriputra sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā anutpannā aniruddhā amalā avimalā anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ
Nattier notes (172 and notes) that where the Sanskrit PPS has singular verbal forms, consistent with śūnyatā being the grammatical subject, the Heart Sutra has nominal forms in the plural. She reminds us that while plurals may be marked in Chinese, they frequently are not; and that any given character may function as noun, adjective, or verb depending on context.
Gil.Kj.Heart Sutra
na sā utpadyate 不生 anutpannā
na nirudhyate 不滅 aniruddhā
na saṃkliśyate 不垢 amalā
na vyavadāyate 不淨 avimalā
na hīyate 不增 anūnā
na vardhate 不減 aparipūrṇāḥ
"In each case the Chinese is a perfectly good rendition of the terminology contained in the Sanskrit Large Sutra, while the Sanskrit Heart Sutra in turn represents a perfectly good rendition of the Chinese" (Nattier 1992: 172).
Repairing this artefact of translation would be relatively easy were it not for the phrase 是諸法空相. However, the Chinese Heart Sutra contains this phrase because it is in the source text. Admittedly the terms have been altered from verbal to nominal forms, and we could fix this, the matter of the extra phrase is more difficult because we only have a small number of Sanskrit texts and it is not found in either, despite the antiquity and relative fidelity of the Gilgit ms.

All Dharmas and the Mark of Emptiness

Where does the phrase 是諸法空相 come from? The CBETA Lexicon tool shows that the phrase does not occur in any Chinese text before Kumārajīva uses it in T223, his translation of PPS. In the Sanskrit PPS (kimura) the compound sarvadharma occurs quite often with svabhāvaśunya eg:
  • tathā hi svabhāvaśūnyāḥ sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_2-3:129)
  • svabhāvaśūnyā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_4:55)
  • svabhāvaśūnyā hi kulaputra sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_4:94)
  • tathā hi bhagavan sarvadharmāḥ śūnyāḥ, (PSP_4:130)
But in the whole text śūnyatālakṣaṇa occurs only twice:
bhagavān āha: śūnyatālakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā, ānimittalakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā, apraṇihitalakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā. (PSP_4:67)
"The bhagavan said, for this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods (devaputrā), has the mark of emptiness; this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods, has the mark of signlessness; this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods, has the mark of desirelessness." (Cf Conze 1975: 351 - the text is almost obscured by imposed subject headings).
Which is a reference to the three vimokṣas and thus to śūnyatā as meditative state, not abstract principle. And:
sarvadharmā hi subhūte viviktā asvabhāvāḥ svabhāvaśūnyāḥ, anena subhūte paryāyeṇa yena lakṣaṇena prajñāpāramitā saṃvidyate tenaiva lakṣaṇena sarvadharmāḥ saṃvidyante yad uta viviktalakṣaṇena śūnyatālakṣaṇena. PSP_5:12
"For, Subhūti, all mental objects are isolated, without essence, empty of essence. In this way, Subhūti, perfection of wisdom is recognised by this mark, that is by the mark of isolation, the mark of emptiness." (Cf Conze 1975: 441, who seems to translate every other verb as "exists", but here and elsewhere saṃvidyate clearly does not mean "exist", but instead means, "is known, is recognised; is perceived")
This doesn't really help us because here it is prajñāpāramitā that is marked with emptiness (śūnyatālakṣaṇa). Now we have a third object to which this condition can apply. In a related passage from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā we find:
śūnyatāsvabhāvā hi subhūte pañca skandhāḥ, asvabhāvatvāt / na ca subhūte śūnyatā lujyate vā pralujyate vā (Aṣṭa XII; Vaidya 126. Cf. Conze 1973: 173)
For, Subhūti, the five skandhas are the essence of emptiness, because they have no essence. And, Subhūti, emptiness cannot break or destruct.
The point is that śūnyatā cannot be broken (√ruj, pra√ruj), which is at least related to the idea that is doesn't arise and pass away.
As an aside, here lujyate is from a PIE root *leug̑- "to break" (the only common English cognate is lugubrious). The dialect of the composers of the Ṛgveda only had r, however the text was redacted by speakers of a dialect that retained the r/l distinction who reinserted l. The Eastern dialect of Māgadhī developed into l-only (King Asoka referred to himself as lāja rather than rāja); whereas Western dialects tended towards r-only (See Despande p.70ff.). This is interesting because recent evidence has shown that the original Prajñāpāramitā text was composed in a western dialect, namely Gāndhārī (Falk and Karashima).
There is an interesting passage in Aṣṭa XV:
iha subhūte bodhisattvā mahāsattvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupamiti dharmaṃ deśayanti | evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ | evameva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ | yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam, anutpannam aniruddham, evam eva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvādavikalpāḥ | (Aṣṭa 15.2)
Here Subhūti, the bodhisatvas mahāsatvas, being unexcelled fully-enlightened Buddhas, teach the Dharma that form has the [same] condition of space in the world. So also sensation, apperception, and volition. In the same way, Subhūti, all dharmas have the condition of space, not coming, not going, just like space. Just as space does not come or go; it is not made or unmade or shaped, it does not last, remain, or endure, it does not arise or cease, so also all dharmas do not come or go; they are not made or unmade or shaped, they do not last, remain, or endure, they do not arise or cease, they are not falsely distinguished from these aspects of space.
And the reason this is true is that, "all dharmas are in a state of emptiness" (śūnyatāgatika sarvadharmāḥ).

Another interesting passage is the section which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet (a ra pa ca na...) as an acrostic by which to remember various aspects of emptiness upon which to meditate. In PPS (Kimura 1-2: 85) we find the phrase
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇām ādyanutpannatvāt
The letter 'a' is a door, because of the the primordial non-arising of all dharmas.
Here mukha is usually (following Conze) rendered as "door" or "opening", but may also mean "mouth, face, head; chief". What the letter 'a' (a-kāra) is, in practice is a mnemonic, a place holder, or a reminder, for a word that begins with that letter, i.e. anutpanna 'unarisen'. More hints about the meditation practice are found elsewhere in the text:
"Moreover, Subhuti, the Bodhisattva, who courses in perfect wisdom, admonishes the Bodhisattvas as follow: 'Sons of good family, may you become skilled in the consummation of the letters! May you become skilled in one letter, in two letters, etc. to: in forty-two letters! May you through these forty-two letters come to a state which has moved away from everything. May you meditate on the 42 letters as contained in one letter, and may you meditate on one single letter as contained in 42 letters!" (PPS VIII 5.3; Conze 1975: 587. For more on this, see my essay The Wisdom Alphabet Meditation on visiblemantra.org.)
Although I don't think there is any direct connection between the Heart Sutra and the Arapacana Alphabet this does at least confirm that the idea of dharmas not arising was also stated in this context. However, as discussed in the essays about form is emptiness, I think this refers to the state of śūnyatā-samādhi where there is no experience. Buddhists involved in the Prajñāpāramitā texts seem to have come to ontological conclusions on the basis of this experience. By this I mean they adopted the stance that śūnyatā-samādhi was reality, or at least a more fundamental reality than what we normally experience. When you take consciousness and subtract all experience, what you are left with is awareness with no subject or object, no spatial or temporal orientation, and so on. This state is often described a luminous.

While this certainly tells us something interesting and profound about the nature of our minds, I think it is a mistake to turn from epistemology to ontology on this basis. Defining reality on this basis seems, frankly, foolish to me. Reality is almost impossible to understand from a single point of view, which has led to a tendency to solipsism in both Western and Eastern philosophy, even after the power of comparing notes on experience has been demonstrated by scientists.

The solipsistic tendency in "hardcore" Buddhism is pronounced and perhaps unavoidable. The experience of no (normal) experience is so vivid and compelling that it must be hard not to use it as an absolute reference point around which we organise our worldview if we have it. Just as ontological dualism seems entirely plausible to those who've had out of body experiences, or God seems to exist for those who've had that kind of experience.


In many cases where the Heart Sutra is problematic, where Conze has made a mistake (Nattier 1992, Attwood 2015) or where the original Sanskrit translator has made a mistake (Huifeng 2014, Attwood 2017), the philologist can see the error and suggest a solution (although some philologers seem reluctant to offer such solutions, I am not). Of course, whether religieux accept such suggestions is another matter. Even errors can be authoritative when they are over 1000 years old.

But in this case there is no obvious resolution. The introduction of the phrase "all dharmas are marked with emptiness" is a discontinuity, because it is not found in any Sanskrit witness, albeit that we have very few Sanskrit witnesses: only a handful of manuscripts in two small caches.

That said, the idea is itself fairly orthodox and in keeping with many statements found elsewhere in the Prajñāpāramitā literature. So it is not wrong in the way that some other parts of the Heart Sutra are wrong. Once again, we see the issues of authority and authenticity are complex with respect to the Heart Sutra. The creator of the text appears to have faithfully copied a passage from Kumārajīva's text, and the Sanskrit translator to have tackled it with some success, even if some of his word choices were not. But where did Kumārajīva get it from? Did Xuanzang also have a source with this phrase, or did he include it because it was in Kumārajīva's text, which he was apparently copying (at least in this passage)?



Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.

Conze, Edward. (1975). The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.

Deshpande, Madhav M. (1995) 'Vedic Aryans, non-Vedic Aryans, and non-Aryans: Judging the Linguistic Evidence of the Veda', in Erdosy, George. The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

Falk, Harry and Karashima, Seishi. (2012). ‘A First-Century Prajñāpāramitā Manuscript from Gandhāra — parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1)’. ARIRIAB 15: 19-61.

Karashima, Seishi, et al. (2016) Mahāyāna Texts: Prajñāpāramitā Texts (1). Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives of India Facsimile Edition Volume II.1. The National Archives of India and The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, Tokyo.

Kimura, Takayasu. (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin.

Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707
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