02 November 2018

Buddhism, Bodhisatvas, and the End of Rebirth

This essay is dedicated to the memory of
Urgyen Sangharakshita (1925-2018)
There is a pernicious trend in Buddhist historiography. It is the attempt to smooth out inconsistencies and present Buddhism as far more coherent and unified than it ever was in practice. A prominent manifestation of this is the idea that there really is no difference between the so-called "arahant ideal" and the so-called "bodhisatva ideal". While I'm sure that those who take this approach are sincere in their belief that playing down the differences is a worthy cause, it obscures the reasons the new idea emerged in the first place. Those reasons are intrinsically interesting.

In the last 20 years we have discovered a great deal more about the early Mahāyāna than was previously known. A great summary and assessment can be found in a pair of articles by David Drewes (2010a and 2010b). We now know, for example, that what we call Mahāyāna was actually a rather disparate group of ideas that took centuries to converge. It emerged in monasteries, in all likelihood alongside mainstream Buddhism (though, of course, Mahāyāna became the mainstream, eventually).

By about 200 BCE all Buddhists were starting to reject the early Buddhist  doctrines and to quietly rewrite or replace them. In my article on karma (Attwood 2014), for example, I traced the rejection of the idea that karma is inescapable. Later Indian Buddhists did not accept this constraint (niyāma) and modified the doctrine of karma to allow for the consequences of actions to be avoided. One mostly did this using religious practices, especially ritualised confession, though later simply chanting a mantra was thought to literally eliminate all evil karma.

I've shown in previous blog essays that all Buddhists found the sutta version of dependent arising wanting and rewrote it, especially where it appeared to interfere with the working of karma; i.e., where dependent arising says that consequences cannot outlive the conditions for their existence. When this ceases, that ceases.


Awakening as the End of Rebirth

It is repeatedly and frequently stated across the Pāli texts, that awakening is tantamount to the cessation of or the liberation from rebirth. "I will not be born again" is something that arahants frequently exclaim upon awakening. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), often referred to as "the first sermon", the Buddha concludes his account of his awakening by saying:
ñāṇañca pana me dassanaṃ udapādi akuppā me cetovimutti. ayam antimā jāti. natthi 'dāni punabbhavo ti. (SN v.423)
This knowledge and vision arose for me: "My liberation of mind is unshakeable. This is my last birth. Now rebirth doesn't exist."
A more common refrain, heard across the Nikāyas is this one:
khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā ti
Birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn.
No doubt there are variations on these as well, but there is no need to search them out. It is clearly understood that awakening is synonymous with the end of rebirth. So whatever else happens to a tathāgata after death, they are not reborn. And the reason for this is found in the nidāna formulation of dependent arising. For example, in Dasabala Sutta (SN 12:21), “from ignorance as a condition, there is volition” (avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā), from volition as a condition, there is discrimination (saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ)” and so on, up to, “from the condition of birth, there is aging and death” (jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ), which is said, in this case, to be the origin of the whole mass of suffering (evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti)” (SN ii.28). In the suttas (re-)birth is synonymous with dukkha. To be born, even as a deva, is to suffer. To end suffering one must be completely extinguished (pari-nibbāṇa). Thus the tathāgata is never coming back and that is the way it must be or awakening is not an escape from suffering.

This escape was cause for celebration in the early days of Buddhism. The Buddha was the first man to escape suffering, by escaping rebirth. And in this myth the Buddha shares some features with Yama. We think of Yama as the King of Hell (naraya), but as I showed in my essay on him, he is not a god, but rather a Brahmanical culture hero. Yama's claim to fame is that he was the first man to find his way to the ancestors in the sky (svarga) after death, i.e., to the pitṛloka or "world of the fathers". Yama opened the door to a cyclic afterlife. This is significant, because no other Indo-European culture has a cyclic eschatology (Plato's speculations aside, the Athenian afterlife was not generally cyclic). A cyclic afterlife appears to be a regional feature of cultures in the sub-continent. 

The myth of Yama shows the Vedic speaking people adopting this eschatology into their mythos. To be more precise, it shows the Vedic patriarchy adopting the myth - we have no idea how women were placed in this scheme because they are not mentioned. The Vedas are the literature of a group of men who barely gave a thought to women. The Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad is antinomian for many reasons, not least because it shows some women claiming and receiving equal status with the leading male protagonist.

The Buddha is hailed in Buddhist mythology as opening the doors to the deathless by none other than Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins of the late Vedic period. The doors to the deathless are open and the Buddha left hundreds, if not thousands of followers behind who were also liberated from rebirth. Many of them had their own students numbering in the thousands. The presence of the Buddha was not necessary while living arahants were able to teach those with "but a little dust in their eyes". Buddhism ought to have prospered on this model. But it did not. And we have no good accounts of why.


The Collapse of Early Buddhism

What is seldom if ever acknowledged is that the Buddhism of the Pāli suttas did not last. It did not do what was needed for the societies in which it persisted. It was once thought that the Mahāyāna was a radical departure from monasticism introduced by lay Buddhists. But this has been put to rest. Mahāyāna grew out of the the monastery. In the early Mahāyāna sūtras the term bodhisatva is applied to full-time, hardcore meditation practitioners aiming at awakening. And this shows that awakening was still seen as a potential, if hard won goal. Amongst the mainstream sects the interest was in the analysis of mental events and theorising about how they contributed to bondage or liberation. Many schools were primarily focussed on śāstras or commentaries which attempted to make something coherent from the dog's breakfast of the Nikāyas. Before the advent of Protestant Buddhism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, all Buddhist sects were primarily focussed on śāstra rather than sūtra; even those sects which advertised themselves as being focussed on sūtras (like the Lotus Sutra sects) still relied on commentaries.

The received tradition was sometimes simply rejected, but more often than not the commentaries present themselves as essentializing the Dharma. By this I mean they present a coherent, and therefore highly partial, account as the whole of the Dharma. What the Buddha (is reported to have) said becomes less important than what he meant,  and many people were happy to tell the world what he meant. The rise of the śāstra literature meant that the confusion, incoherent, contradictions, and conflicts of the early Buddhist texts were set aside in favour of a unified view. The problem was that there were at least a dozen different unified views by the beginning of the Common Era.

The Theravāda often collude with naive scholars in pretending to represent early Buddhism. They don't. Modern Theravāda is just that, modern. As with all the other sects, Theravādin monks for many centuries mostly studied Abhidhamma commentaries when they studied at all - even when they spent their lives copying out Pāli texts. They had given up on meditation and they have given up on awakening. As Peter Masefield outlines in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (1995), the view had arisen (despite considerable literary evidence to the contrary) that the presence of a Buddha was required for people to awaken. A Buddha was special in being self-awakened (so to speak), but everyone else needed the physical presence of a Buddha. After the Buddha's death, Masefield argues, no more arahants were liberated. Monks did memorise suttas, but they were chanted as magic spells at ceremonies and rites.

Against this we have to weigh the fact that many of the prominent modern Western Theravādin bhikkhus are connected to Thai and Burmese traditions that re-invented meditation in the 18th and 19th Centuries. These monks have long believed that their reinvented tradition maps onto what is found in the suttas preserved in Sri Lanka (though the bhikkhu lineage of that country died out and had to be re-established from Burma twice).

This situation of revised and essentialised teachings was still apparently unsatisfactory to Mahāyānists. There is no normative account of why this was so. However, I can offer my own explanation for this. I think it all begins with the absence of the Buddha. 


The Absent Buddha

The arguments I outline below derive from reverse engineering. By looking at the form that innovations take we can get an idea of what problem they were trying to solve. And there is a common thread to many of these innovations. And it is the problem of the absence of the Buddha. It was in this context that new figures began to emerge in the Buddhist imagination as replacement Buddhas, but designed without his "flaws" in mind. Because when Mahāyāna sūtras disparage the arahants, the real target is the father-figure who left and never returned. 


Pure Land

Consider the Pure Land schools. The earliest Pure Land Sūtra featured Buddha Akṣobhya in his Pure Land Abhirati. As Jan Nattier (2000) has shown, getting into Abhirati was hard work. Then came Amitābha living in Sukhāvati and he made it easy. The two Sukhāvativyūha Sūtras introduced the idea that one only need call his name in devotion and he'll meet you at death and guide you to Sukhāvati where everything was arranged to perfection (according the patriarchy of the day).

Take a step back and consider the form of this doctrinal innovation. It is predicated on the idea that Śākyamuni is dead and not coming back, and that the next Buddha Maitreya is not going to arrive for some billions of years. We are on our own. Part of the problem is that early Buddhists instituted a rule that there could only be one Buddha in any world at a time. The cultural evolution of the world followed a set pattern. The Buddhadharma had to flourish and die out before a new Buddha could be born to rediscover the Buddhadharma from scratch, since this is a defining feature of a Buddha. The main effect of this invented doctrine is that it raises the prestige of the so-called historical Buddha to its zenith. 

I showed, in my article on karma, that raising the prestige of the Buddha was a central concern for Buddhists. Over time, the Buddha became more magical and powerful until he was effectively a god. The prototypical event for this observation was the meeting with Ajatasattu. In the Pāli versions the king is doomed by his patricide. But in the later Mahāyāna retelling, the king is saved from his own evil karma by meeting the Buddha. The mere presence of the Buddha purifies him of patricide - one of the five unforgivable karmas that result in immediate rebirth in Hell.

The unforeseen consequence of gradually raising the prestige of the Buddha is that it began to appear to make awakening in his absence impossible. And his absence was an established fact. The authors of the Pure Land texts, some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, simply invented parallel universes with immortal Buddhas who could arrange for us to jump the tracks and be reborn in this alternate universe - the apotheosis of the Buddha. While Akṣobhya was a task-master, Amitābha was a soft touch. He only required your devotion. We know the metaphysics of this set up. Amitābha is a god, pure and simple. Sukhāvati is Heaven. We are sinners who can only be saved via the intervention of an external agency (or "other power") not touched by the sin of the world. 

Pure Land became one of the leading forms of Buddhism in the world and remains in that position some 2000 years later. The reasons for its popularity are not hard to fathom. It is an undemanding form of Buddhism, most of the work is done for you by an magical immortal father figure, in the afterlife. He just wants you to love him and most of us love our Daddy (or want to). 


The Evolution of the Bodhisatva

It's too early I think to have a proper history of the bodhisatva since we are really just getting used to the new information about their true relevance in early Mahāyāna. But we can take a similar reverse engineering approach to the mature concept of bodhisatvas like Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, or Avaklokiteśvara. The most important feature of the mature concept of the bodhisatva is that they are enlightened but take rebirth.

Why do we need the awakened to come back? On one hand the answer is obvious. We want our loved ones to come back to us. The Vedic speakers were entranced by the aboriginal Indian idea that after death one would be reborn amongst one's ancestors just as many Westerners are in love with the idea of people "coming back". We have an incurable nostalgia for the dead. We want to see them alive and well again. Belief in an afterlife has been linked to burying bodies with grave goods, the practice of which is arguably as old as modern humans, if not older (though the first undisputed evidence dates from around 40,000 years ago).

On the other hand, it speaks to a deep seated insecurity. Living teachers simply did not create the required confidence in the Buddhist population of India. And this can have two main causes. Firstly, the standard of teaching may have declined, leaving students doubting the efficacy of their practice regimes. Secondly, and I think more likely, is that the placing the Buddha on a pedestal to raise his prestige had a detrimental effect on Buddhist communities. The higher the Buddha got, the lower human teachers were and the closer relatively to their human students.

This problem is not particular to India or Buddhism. When you raise the goal of religion to the zenith and talk about it in absolutist terms; when the goal is perfection, then no human being can ever come close. In fact, even if most teachers are fantastic, the one who goes bad seems to taint all of them. In this process, the goal becomes unreachable and any attainments that humans do achieve are down played by comparison to perfection; while imperfects that show up confirm suspicions.

So yes, we do see arahants being talked down to and mocked in degrading fashion in some Mahāyāna sūtras. Perhaps this is not because they are not awakened; they are arahants, after all, and thus very much awakened. Perhaps it is because they fall short of some imaginary perfection that has been set up in opposition to mere human awakening. That is to say, it is not because people were falsely claiming to be arahants as is sometimes suggested, but that Mahāyānists allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that perfection was attainable on some level, just not by human beings. Mahāyāna is delusional in the way that all theology is delusional. It sets up an impossibly high standard, insists on judging people (harshly) by that standard, and in the absence of any human exemplars, transfers its devotional feelings onto imaginary magical beings.

The result is the classic matter/spirit duality.  I have discussed this in some detail in the past, analysing the metaphors involved and showing how they form an interlocking set of ideas that self-reinforce (like a cybernetic feedback loop). I also extended this in a series of essays on the idea of "spiritual" looking at the language and power relations involved in organisations which frame themselves as "spiritual" (see Bibliography). This duality has powerfully shaped all religions which tend to favour the (imaginary) spirit side of the equation. 

In some forms of Buddhism, this duality contrasts the bodhisatvas as pure beings made of light with dirty humans made of shit. For example, Śāntideva goes on an extended rage about the disgusting human body in his celebrated work on Mahāyāna, the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It covers two pages in the definitive translation by Skilton and Crosby. The language is harsh and hate-filled. Buddhists attempt to excuse the tirade as a skilful means (upaya) but to me it is inexcusable; the epitome of unskillfulness. It is born out of a deep-seated hatred based on a matter-spirit duality.


Other Approaches

I think these two examples demonstrate the principle. We might also cite tathāgatagarbha doctrine, as a way of making the Buddha present in his absence. Or the passage from early on in the Golden Light Sutra in which the Buddha is proclaimed to be immortal (he only appeared to die). Or the idea of everything being interpenetrated by the dharmakāya, the true form of the Buddha, magically above change and decay (i.e., permanent). Or the idea that one can imagine oneself to be a Buddha already and magically transform oneself into a Buddha in reality (while avoiding delusions of grandeur and other mental problems).

We also know that around the same time the first images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara and Mathura. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Gandhara had been conquered by a group of pastoralists known by their Chinese ethnonym 月氏 Yuèzhī. They appear to have had caucasian features (judging by portraits on coins) and to have spoken an Iranian language. However they also adopted many local norms as well, including, possibly, the Buddhist religion. The resulting Kushan Empire was a melting post of Persian, Greek, Yuezhi, and Indian ideas, attitudes, and practices. Perhaps it was coming into contact with theism (Zoroastrianism) that made the Buddhists in that region aware that the absence of the Buddha was problematic? In any case it was amidst this milieu that images of the Buddha as a man were first made. 

Having identified the pattern we can see how it makes sense of a range of innovations over time.


Presence

Everywhere Buddhists demand the presence of the Buddha or they resign themselves to despair and give up on awakening (as the Theravādins did before they reinvented meditation). And this is no accident. Where do we find a principle of required presence in Buddhism? We find it precisely in the doctrine of dependent arising. The idea was initially to describe the arising of suffering in the presence of sense experience. And it does an OK job of this for an Iron Age idea. But before long Buddhists began to treat it as a theory of everything. It is as though a Freudian were to argue that the world is structured into world-ego, world-id, and world-super ego, and that cosmic sex is the driving force of every process in the universe. For all I know there are Freudians who think like this, but I bet they have never tried to rewrite the equations of classical mechanics to show how sex is the basic force in the universe.

Once you take dependent arising to be a theory of everything then it is only logical that awakening requires the presence of an awakened teacher. Because without the necessary condition, the effect cannot arise. But the underlying condition for all awakening in Buddhist mythology is the Buddha. If this is so then the presence of a Buddha is a requirement for a world in which there is awakening.

We don't know how the argument went because the Mahāyānists did not show their working. They might have reasoned that since there are awakened people then a Buddha must be present somehow, and since that Buddha is not physically present he must be present in some other form: corporeal in a parallel universe, or incorporeal in ours. Or they might have reasoned from the physical absence of the universe combined with a desire that awakening were possible again, believing that it currently was not.

However, this way of thinking also misunderstands awakening. No matter how many different ways we say it, Buddhists always end up thinking of extinction as something; or as arising. Cessation is the right word. The point is that sensory experience stops when we withdraw from attention from it. Trivially, if I am focussed on writing, the outside world fades from my mind. And, more profoundly, when we use concentration techniques to bring about the complete cessation of sensory experience, aka emptiness. The use of emptiness as a metaphor was about the worst road Buddhists could have taken. It was a disastrous philosophical blunder because it led to Buddhists thinking of emptiness in metaphysical terms rather than as the simple absence of sense experience. 

Absence of sense experience is essential to awakening. And yet we made Buddhism all about the presence of the Buddha. The former is Buddhadharma, the second is mere religion (and no better than any other religion which invokes the presence of a father figure). 


Conclusion

Arguments, scholarly, religious, or increasingly both, that seek to minimize the distinction between arahant and bodhisatva, however sincere in their motivation, damage our understanding of the history of ideas in Buddhism. Such approaches actively prevent us from asking interesting questions about why Buddhism changed and if we never ask the questions, we never answer them. Whether or not the new ideas were totally novel or evolutions is of course interesting. And yes, we can often find precursors in the Pāli texts; texts that were composed and edited over centuries that overlapped with the emergence of the new doctrines. 

We scholars, especially, have to resist the urge to bowdlerise our presentations of the history of ideas in Buddhism. However, Buddhists can also benefit from an interest in the actual history of our religion. We cannot understand a cultural phenomenon (or really a set of phenomena) if we refuse to see anything that sits outside normative accounts. To be sure, the real story is complex and convoluted. It does not fit neatly into a six week university teaching block. But it is worth telling nonetheless.

Let's face it, what makes history interesting is conflict. Without it, history is boring. Pretending that there was no conflict in Buddhist history is a gross mistake. Sure, religions all present significant figures as saints, but so what? This is not interesting at all, because people are not saints. The fact that all Buddhists repudiated the teachings that had been ascribed to the Buddha is perhaps the most interesting fact about Buddhism. But no one ever says that this is what happened. The least interesting story—the hagiographical version—dominates both academy and temple. Yawn. The story is trite, tedious, and simply untrue. The telling of it tendentious and smacks of insecurity. All too often it is the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the rhetoric of truth.

We have to be willing to see change ("everything changes") and to ask why things change. Cultures and doctrines change for reasons and it only seems reasonable to enquire as to those reasons. Buddhism is not special in this regard. We need to be willing to face up to the fact that the Buddha died and is not coming back. 

Sadly, my teacher Sangharakshita died this week, aged 93. He had a good life, all things considered: he was a good friend to hundreds of people and he inspired hundreds of thousands of people to practice the Buddhadharma (our movement operates in India where social movements happen on vast scales). I'm not suggesting that he was a saint, but on balance he did a great deal of good and most people who met him were glad of it. He was loved. But he's gone and he's not coming back. As I loved him, so I mourn, but I'm not interested in fantasies of his reincarnation and return. I don't want false comfort. The Triratna Buddhist Order is well placed to carry on providing a context for practising the Buddhadharma that combines a good deal of tradition with some conscious modernism. We could do better, but Sangharakshita gave us a robust organisation. Succession is long settled and nothing much will change now that his suffering is ended. Now is the time for practice. 

vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā
All experience is perishable; sensual sobriety is the way to succeed.
(the supposed last words of the Buddha. DN ii.156) 



~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Attwood, Jayarava. 2014. Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

David Drewes. 2010a. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

David Drewes. 2010b. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x https://www.academia.edu/9226471/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_II_New_perspectives

Masefield, Peter. 1995. Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Paul & Co Pub
Consortium.

Nattier, Jan. 2000. "The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23 (1), 71–102.

Skilton, A and Crosby, K. 2008. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford University Press

05 October 2018

Quantum Bullshit

I was appalled recently to see that a senior professor of Buddhism Studies—whose work on Chinese Buddhist texts I much admire—had fallen into the trap of trying to compare some concept from Buddhist philosophy to what he calls "quantum mechanics". Unfortunately, as seems almost inevitable in these cases, the account the Professor gives of quantum mechanics is a hippy version of the Copenhagen interpretation proposed by Werner Heisenberg back in the 1920s. In a further irony, this same Professor has been a vocal critic of the secularisation and commercialisation of Buddhist mindfulness practices. The same problems that he identifies in that case would seem to apply to his own misappropriation of quantum mechanics.

As I've said many times, whenever someone connected with Buddhism uses the word "quantum" we can safely substitute the word "bullshit". My use of the term "bullshit" is technical and based on the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt (image left). I use "bullshit" to refer to a particular rhetorical phenomenon. Here is the anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which I think sums up Frankfurt's arguments about bullshit precisely and concisely:
“Bullshit is rhetoric without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false; only whether or not their listener is persuaded.”
What I am suggesting is that Buddhists who refer to quantum mechanics are not, in fact, concerned with truth, at all. A liar knows the truth and deliberately misleads. The bullshitter may or may not know or tell the truth, but they don't care either way. Their assertions about quantum mechanics may even be true, but this is incidental. The idea is to persuade you of a proposition which may take several forms but roughly speaking it amounts to:
If you sit still and withdraw attention from your sensorium, another more real world is revealed to you.
Certain Buddhists argue that a specific man sitting under a specific tree ca 450 BCE, while ignoring his sensorium, saw such a reality (Though he neglected to mention this). And then this thesis is extended with the proposition:
The reality that one "sees" when one's eyes are closed is very like the descriptions (though not the mathematics) of quantum mechanics.
I imagine that these statements strike most scientists as obviously false. The first hint we had of a quantum world was in 1905 when Einstein formalised the observation that energy associated with atoms comes in discrete packets, which he called "quanta" (from the Latin with the sense "a portion"; though, literally, "how much?"). Even this nanoscale world, which we struggle to imagine, is established by observation, not by non-observation. Equally, there is no sign in early Buddhist texts that the authors had any interest in reality, let alone ultimate reality. They didn't even have a word that corresponds to "reality". They did talk a lot about the psychology of perception and about the cessation of perception in meditation, within the context of a lot of Iron Age mythology. Given that there is no prima facie resemblance between science and Buddhism whatever, we might well ask why the subject keeps coming up.

I think this desire to positively compare Buddhism to quantum mechanics is a form of "virtue signalling". By attempting to align Buddhist with science, the highest form of knowledge in the modern world, we hope to take a ride on the coat-tails of scientists. This is still the Victorian project of presenting the religion of Buddhism as a "rational" alternative to Christianity. Generally speaking, Buddhists are as irrational as any other religieux, it's just that one of the irrational things Buddhists believe is that they are super-rational.

Had it merely been another misguided Buddhism Studies professor, I might have let it go with some pointed comments on social media. Around the same time, I happened to watch a 2016 lecture by Sean Carroll on YouTube called, Extracting the Universe from the Wave Function. Then I watched a more recent version of the same lecture from 2018 delivered at the Ehrenfest Colloquium. The emphasis is different in the two forums and I found that watching both was useful. Both lectures address the philosophy of quantum mechanics, but in a more rigorous way than is popular amongst Buddhists. Sean thinks the Copenhagen interpretation is "terrible" and he convinced me that he is right about this. The value of the lectures is that one can get the outlines of an alternative philosophy of quantum mechanics and with it some decisive critiques of the Copenhagen interpretation. Sean is one of the leading science communicators of our time and does a very good job of explaining this complex subject at the philosophical level.


What is Quantum Mechanics?

It is perhaps easiest to contrast quantum mechanics with classical mechanics. Classical mechanics involves a state in phase space (described by the position and momentum of all the elements) and then some equations of motion, such as Newton's laws, which describe how the system evolves over time (in which the concept of causation plays no part). Phase space has 6n dimensions, where n is the number of elements in the state. Laplace pointed out that given perfect knowledge of such a state at a given time, one could apply the equations of motion to know the state of the system at any time (past or future).

Quantum mechanics also minimally involves two things. A state is described by a Hilbert Space, the set of all possible quantum states, i.e., the set of all wave functions, Ψ(x). It is not yet agreed whether the Hilbert Space for our universe has an infinite or merely a very large number of dimensions.

For the STEM people, there's a useful brief summary of Hilbert spaces here. If you want an image of what a Hilbert Space is like, then it might be compared to the library in the short story The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges. (Hat-tip to my friend Amṛtasukha for this comparison).

Mathematically, a Hilbert Space is a generalisation of vector spaces which satisfy certain conditions, so that they can be used to describe a geometry (more on this later). One thing to watch out for is that mathematicians describe Hilbert Spaces (plural). Physicists only ever deal with the quantum Hilbert Space of all possible wavefunctions and have slipped into the habit talking about "Hilbert Space" in the singular. Sean Carroll frequently reifies "Hilbert Space" in this way. Once we agree that we are talking about the space defined by all possible wave functions, then it is a useful shorthand. We don't have to consider any other Hilbert Spaces.

The second requirement is an equation that tells us how the wave functions in Hilbert Space evolve over time. And this is Schrödinger's wave equation. There are different ways of writing this equation. Here is one of the common ways:

The equation is a distillation of some much more complex formulas and concepts that take a few years of study to understand. Here, i is the imaginary unit (defined as i2 = -1), ħ is the reduced Planck constant (h/2π). The expression δ/δt represents change over time. Ψ represents the state of the system as a vector in Hilbert Space -- specifying a vector in a space with infinite dimensions presents some interesting problems. Ĥ is the all important Hamiltonian operator which represents the total energy of the system. And note that this is a non-relativistic formulation.

We owe this formalisation of quantum theory to the fact that John von Neumann studied mathematics with David Hilbert in the early 20th Century. Hilbert was, at the time, trying to provide physics with a more rigorous approach to mathematics. In 1915, he invited Einstein to lecture on Relativity at Göttingen University and the two of them, in parallel, recast gravity in terms of field equations (Hilbert credited Einstein so no dispute arose between them). In 1926, Von Neumann showed that the two most promising approaches to quantum mechanics—Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger's wave equation—could be better understood in relation to a Hilbert Space.

[I'm not sure, but this may the first time a Buddhist has ever given even an overview of the maths in an essay about Buddhism and quantum mechanics.]

By applying the Born Rule (i.e., finding the square of the Wave Function) we can find the probability that any given particle will be found in some location at any given time. A common solution to the wave equation is a map of probabilities. For example, the probability plot for an electron in a resting state hydrogen atom looks like this (where shading represents the range probability and the black in the middle is the nucleus). And btw this is a 2D representation of what in 3D is a hollow sphere.



If we give the electron more energy, the probably map changes in predictable ways. An electron bound to an atom behaves a bit like a harmonic oscillator. A good example of a harmonic oscillator is a guitar string. If you pluck a guitar string you get a complex waveform made from the fundamental mode plus harmonics. The fundamental mode gives a note its perceived pitch, while the particular mixture of harmonics is experienced as the timbre of the note. The fundamental mode has two fixed points at the ends where there is zero vibration, and a maximum in the centre. The next mode, the 2nd harmonic takes more energy to produce and the string vibrates with three minima and two maxima - the pitch is an octave above the fundamental.


Using the fleshy parts of the fingers placed at minima points, it is possible to dampen extraneous vibrations on a guitar string and pick out the harmonics. Such notes have a very different timbre to regular notes. An electron bound to an atom also has "harmonics", though the vibrational modes are three dimensional. One of the striking experimental confirmations of this comes if we split sunlight up into a rainbow, we observe dark patches corresponding to electrons absorbing photons of a precise energy and becoming "excited". One of the first confirmations of quantum mechanics was that Schrödinger was able to accurately predict the absorption lines for a hydrogen atom using it.



And on the other hand, after we excite electrons in, say, a sodium atom, they return to their resting state by emitting photons of a precise frequency (in the yellow part of the visible spectrum) giving sodium lamps their characteristic monochromatic quality. The colour of light absorbed or emitted by atoms allows us to use light to detect them in spectral analysis or spectroscopy. For example, infrared light is good for highlighting molecular bonds; while green-blue visible and ultraviolet light are good for identifying individual elements (and note there are more dark patches towards the blue end of the spectrum).

The wave function applied to the electron in an atom gives us a map of probabilities for finding the electron at some point. We don't know where the electron is at any time unless it undergoes some kind of physical interaction that conveys location information (some interactions won't convey any location information). This is one way of defining the so-called the Measurement Problem.
rugby ball

I have a new analogy for this. Imagine a black rugby ball on a black field, in the dark. You are walking around on the field, and you know where you are from a GPS app on your phone, but you cannot see anything. The only way to find the ball is to run around blindly until you kick it. At the moment you kick the ball the GPS app tells you precisely where the ball was at that moment. But kicking the ball also sends it careering off and you don't know where it ends up.

Now, Buddhists get hung up on the idea that somehow the observer has to be conscious, that somehow consciousness (whatever that word means!) is involved in determining how the world evolves in some real sense. As Sean Carroll, says in his recent book The Big Picture:
“...almost no modern physicists think that 'consciousness' has anything whatsoever to do with quantum mechanics. There are an iconoclastic few who do, but it's a tiny minority, unrepresentative of the mainstream” (p.166).
The likes of Fritjof Capra have misled some into thinking that the very vague notion of consciousness plays a role in the measurement problem. As far as the mainstream of quantum mechanics is concerned, consciousness plays no part whatsoever in quantum mechanics. And even those who think it does have provided no formalism for this. There is no mathematical expression for "consciousness", "observer", or "observation". All of these concepts are completely nebulous and out of place around the wave equation, which predicts the behaviour of electrons at a level of accuracy that exceeds the accuracy of our measurements. In practice, our experiments produce data that matches prediction to 10 decimal places or more. Quantum mechanics is the most accurate and precise theory ever produced. "Consciousness" is the least well-defined concept in the history of concepts. "Observation" is not even defined.

In the image of the black rugby ball on a black field in the dark, we don't know where the ball is until we kick it. However, a ball and a field are classical. In the maths of quantum mechanics, we have no information about the location of the ball until we physically interact with it. Indeed, it appears from the maths that it's not physically in one place until information about location is extracted from the system through a physical interaction. And by this we mean, not a conscious observer, but something like bouncing some radiation off the electron. It's as though every time you take a step there is a possibility of the ball being there and you kicking it, and at some point, it is there and you kick it. But until that moment, the ball is (somehow) smeared across the whole field all at once.

Put another way, every time we take a step there is some probability that the ball is there and we kick it, and there is some probability that the ball is not there and we do not kick it. But as we step around, we don't experience a probability, and we never experience a ball spread out over all locations. Whenever we interact with the system we experience the ball as being at our location or at some specific other location. Accounting for this is at the heart of different interpretations of quantum mechanics.


Copenhagen

What every undergraduate physics student learns is the Copenhagen Interpretation of the measurement problem. In this view, the ball is literally (i.e., in reality) everywhere at once and only adopts a location at the time of "measurement" (although measurement is never defined). This is called superposition - literally "one thing on top of another". Superposition is a natural outcome of the Wave Equation; there are huge problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of how mathematical superposition relates to reality.

Firstly, as Schrödinger pointed out with his famous gedanken (thought) experiment involving a cat, this leads to some very counterintuitive conclusions. In my analogy, just before we take a step, the rugby ball is both present and absent. In this view, somehow by stepping into the space, we make the ball "choose" to be present or absent.

Worse, the Copenhagen Interpretation assumes that the observer is somehow outside the system, then interacts with it, extracting information, and then at the end is once again separate from the system. In other words, the observer behaves like a classic object while the system being observed is quantum, then classical, then quantum. Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption of Copenhagen is simply false.

In fact, when we pick up the cat to put it in the box, we cannot avoid becoming entangled with it. What does this mean? Using the ball analogy if we kick the ball and know its location at one point in time then we become linked to the ball, even though in my analogy we don't know where it is now. If someone else now kicks it, then we instantaneously know where the ball was when it was kicked a second time, wherever we happen to be on the field. It's as though we get a GPS reading from the other person sent directly to our phone. If there are two entangled electrons on either side of the universe and we measure one of them and find that it has spin "up", then we also know with 100% certainty that at that same moment in time, the other electron has spin "down". This effect has been experimentally demonstrated so we are forced to accept it until a better explanation comes along. Thus, in Schrödinger's gedanken experiment, we always know from instant to instant what state the cat is in (this is also counter-intuitive, but strictly in keeping with the metaphor as Schrödinger outlined it).

As you move about the world during your day, you become quantum entangled with every object you physically interact with. Or electrons in atoms that make up your body become entangled with electrons in the objects you see, taste, touch, etc. Although Copenhagen assumes a cut off (sometimes called Heisenberg's cut) between the quantum world and the classical world, Hugh Everett pointed out that this assumption is nonsense. There may well be a scale on which classical descriptions are more efficient ways of describing the world, but if one atom is quantum, and two atoms are, and three, then there is, in fact, no number of atoms that are not quantum, even if their bulk behaviour is different than their individual behaviour. In other words, the emergent behaviour of macro objects notwithstanding, all the individual atoms in our bodies are obeying quantum mechanics at all times. There is no, and can be no, ontological cut off between quantum and classical, even if there is an epistemological cutoff.

In terms of Copenhagen, the argument is that wave function describes a probability of the ball being somewhere on the field and that before it is kicked it is literally everywhere at once. At the time of kicking the ball (i.e., measurement) the wave function "collapses" and the ball manifests at a single definite location and you kick it. But the collapse of the wave function is a mathematical fudge. In fact, it says that before you look at an electron it is quantum, but when you look at it, it becomes classical. Then when you stop looking it becomes quantum again. This is nonsense.

In Schrödinger's cat-in-the-box analogy, as we put the cat in the box, we become entangled with the cat; the cat interacts with the box becoming entangled with it; and so on. How does an observer ever stand outside a system in ignorance and then interact with it to gain knowledge? The answer is that, where quantum mechanics applies, we cannot. The system is cat, box, and observer. There is no such thing as an observer outside the system. But it is even worse because we cannot stop at the observer. The observer interacts with their environment over a period of years before placing the cat in the box. And both cat and box have histories as well. So the system is the cat, the box, the observer, and the entire universe. And there is no way to get outside this system. It's not a matter of whether we (as macro objects) are quantum entangled, but to what degree we are quantum entangled.

This is a non-trivial objection because entanglement is ubiquitous. We can, in theory, speak of a single electron orbiting a single nucleus, but in reality all particles are interacting with all other particles. One can give a good approximation, and some interactions will be very weak and therefore can be neglected for most purposes but, in general, the parts of quantum systems are quantum entangled. Carroll argues that there are no such things as classical objects. There are scale thresholds above which classical descriptions start to be more efficient computationally than quantum descriptions, but the world itself is never classical; it is always quantum. There is no other option. We are made of atoms and atoms are not classical objects.

Carroll and his group have been working on trying to extract spacetime from the wave function. And this is based on an idea related to entanglement. Since 99.99% of spacetime is "empty" they ignore matter and energy for the moment. The apparently empty spacetime is, in fact, just the quantum fields in a resting state. There is never nothing. But let's call it empty spacetime. One can define a region of spacetime in terms of a subset of Hilbert Space. And if you take any region of empty spacetime, then it can be shown to experience some degree of entanglement with all the other regions nearby. In fact, the degree of entanglement is proportional to the distance. What Carroll has suggested is that we turn this on its head and define distance as a function of quantum entanglement between regions of spacetime. Spacetime would then be an emergent property of the wave function. They have not got a mathematical solution to the wave equation which achieves this, but it is an elegant philosophical overview and shows early promise. Indeed, in a much simplified theoretical universe (with its own specific Hilbert Space, but in which Schrödinger's wave equation applies), they managed to show that the degree of entanglement of a region of spacetime determined its geometry in a way that was consistent with general relativity. In other words, if the maths works out they have shown how to extract quantum gravity from just Hilbert Space and the wavefunction.

Other questions arise from this critique of Copenhagen. What is an "event"? What is an "observation"? The problem for Buddhists is that we assume that it has something to do with "consciousness" and that "consciousness" has something to do with Buddhism. The first is certainly not true, while the second is almost certainly not true depending on how we define consciousness. And defining consciousness is something that is even less consensual than interpreting the measurement problem. There are as many definitions as there are philosophers of mind. How can something so ill-defined be central to a science that is all about well-defined concepts?


More on Interpretations

In 2013, some researchers quizzed physicists at a conference about their preferred interpretation of the measurement problem. This gave rise to what Sean Carroll called The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics:


Sean Carroll comments:
 
I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that the results of this poll should be very embarrassing to physicists. Not, I hasten to add, because Copenhagen came in first, although that’s also a perspective I might want to defend (I think Copenhagen is completely ill-defined, and shouldn’t be the favorite anything of any thoughtful person). The embarrassing thing is that we don’t have agreement.

Just 42% of those surveyed preferred Copenhagen - the account of quantum mechanics they all learned as undergraduates. Mind you, Carroll's preferred interpretation, Everett, got even less at 18%. However, it may be more embarrassing than it looks, because there are multiple Everettian interpretations. And note that several existing interpretations had no supporters amongst those surveyed (the survey was not representative of the field).

In Carroll's account, Copenhagen has fatal flaws because it makes unsupportable assumptions. So what about the alternatives? I found Carroll's explanation of the Everett interpretation in this lecture quite interesting and compelling. It has the virtue of being parsimonious.

Just like other interpretations, Everett began with Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. But he stopped there. There are no special rules for observers as classical objects because there are no classical objects (just classical descriptions). In this view, the rugby ball still both exists and does not exist, but instead of the wave function collapsing, the interaction between the ball, the field, the observer, and the world cause "decoherence". If there are two possible outcomes — ball present at this location, ball somewhere else — then both happen, but decoherence means that we only ever see one of them . The other possibility also occurs, but it is as though the world has branched into two worlds: one in which the ball is present and we kick it, and one in which it is somewhere else and we do not kick it. And it turns out that having split in this way there is no way for the two worlds to interact ever again. The two outcomes are orthogonal in Hilbert Space.

While this sounds counterintuitive, Carroll argues that the many worlds are already present in the Hilbert Space and all the other interpretations have to introduce extra rules to make those other worlds disappear. And in the case of Copenhagen, the extra rules are incoherent. Everett sounds plausible enough in itself, but given the number of particles in the universe and how many interactions there are over time, the number of worlds must be vast beyond imagining. And that is deeply counter-intuitive. However, being counter-intuitive is not an argument against a theory of quantum mechanics. Physics at this scale is always going to be counterintuitive because it's not like the world on the scale we can sense. And at this point, it will be useful to review some of the problems associated with differences in scale.


Scale (again)

I've written about scale before. It is such an important idea and so many of our misconceptions about the world at scales beyond those our senses register are because we cannot imagine very small or very large scales.

We understand our world as classical. That's what we evolved for. Modern humans have been around for roughly between 400,000 and 200,000 years. But we discovered that there are scales much smaller than we can experience with our senses only about 400 years ago with the development of the microscope. As our understanding progressed we began to see evidence of the world on smaller and smaller scales. Each time we had to adjust our notions of the universe. At the same time telescopes revealed a very much larger universe than we had ever imagined.

Quantum mechanics developed from Einstein's articles in 1905 and was formalised mathematically in the 1920s. It has never been intuitive and it is so very far from our experience that is unlikely ever to be intuitive.

Humans with good eyesight can see objects at around 0.1 mm or 100 µm. A human hair is about 20-200 µm. A small human cell like a sperm might be 10 µm, and not visible; while a large fat cell might be 100 µm and be visible (just). A water molecule is about 0.0003 µm or 0.3 nanometres (nm = 10-9 m). But at this level, the physical dimensions of an object become problematic because the location in space is governed by quantum mechanics and is a probability. Indeed, the idea of the water molecule as an "object" is problematic. The classical description of the world breaks down at this scale. The average radius of a hydrogen atom at rest is calculated to be about 25 picometres or 25x10-12 m, but we've already seen that the location of the electron circling the hydrogen nucleus is a probability distribution. We define the radius in terms of an arbitrary cut off in probability. The estimated radius of an electron is less than 10−18 m (though estimates vary wildly). And we have to specify a resting state atom, because in a state of excitation the electron probability map is a different shape. It hardly makes sense to think of the electron as having a fixed radius or even as being an object at all. An electron might best be thought of as a perturbation in the electromagnetic field.

The thing is that, as we scale down, we still think of things in terms of classical descriptions and we don't understand when classical stops applying. We cannot help but think in terms of objects, when, in fact, below the micron scale this gradually makes less and less sense. Given that everything we experience is on the macro scale, nothing beyond this scale will ever be intuitive.

As Sean Carroll says, the many worlds are inherent in Hilbert Space. Other theories have to work out how to eliminate all of the others in order to leave the one that we observe. Copenhagen argues for something called "collapse of the wave function". Why would a wave function collapse when you looked at it? Why would looking at something cause it to behave differently? What happened in the universe before there were observers? Everett argued that this is an artefact of thinking of the world in classical terms. He argued that, in effect, there is no classical world, there is only a quantum world. Subatomic particles are just manifestations of Hilbert Space and the Wave Equation. The world might appear to be classical on some scales, but this is just an appearance. The world is fundamentally quantum, all the time, and on all scales.

Thinking in these terms leads to new approaches to old problems. For example, most physicists are convinced that gravity must be quantised like other forces. Traditional approaches have followed the methods of Einstein. Einstein took the Newtonian formulation of physical laws and transformed them into relativity. Many physicists take a classical expression of gravity and attempt to reformulate it in quantum terms - leading to string theory and other problematic approaches. Carroll argues that this is unlikely to work because it is unlikely that nature begins with a classical world and then quantises it. Nature has to be quantum from the outset and thus Everett was on right track. And, if this is true, then the only approach that will succeed in describing quantum gravity will need to start with quantum theory and show how gravity emerges from it. As I say, Carroll and his team have an elegant philosophical framework for this and some promising preliminary results. The mathematics is still difficult, but they don't have the horrendous and possibly insurmountable problems of, say, string theory.

Note: for an interesting visualisation the range of scales, see The Scale of the Universe.


Conclusion

Quantum mechanics is a theory of how subatomic particles behave. It minimally involves a Hilbert Space of all possible wave functions and the Schrödinger wave equation describing how these evolve over time. Buddhism is a complex socio-religious phenomenon in which people behave in a wide variety of ways that have yet to be described with any accuracy. It's possible that there is a Hilbert Space of all possible social functions and an equation which describes how it evolves over time, but we don't have it yet!

Buddhists try to adopt quantum mechanics, or to talk about quantum mechanics, as a form of virtue signalling -- "we really are rational despite appearances", or legitimising. They either claim actual consistency between Buddhism and quantum mechanics; or they claim some kind of metaphorical similarity, usually based on the fallacy that the measurement problem requires a conscious observer. And this is patently false in both cases. It's not even that Buddhists have a superficial grasp of quantum mechanics, but that they have a wrong grasp of it or, in fact, that they have grasped something masquerading as quantum mechanics that is not quantum mechanics. None of the Buddhists I've seen talking or writing about quantum mechanics mention Hilbert Spaces, for example. I'm guessing that none of them could even begin to explain what a vector is let alone a Hilbert Space.

I've yet to see a Buddhist write about anything other than the Copenhagen interpretation. I presume because it is only the Copenhagen interpretation that is capable of being shoehorned into a narrative that suits our rhetorical purposes; I don't see any advantage to Buddhists in the Everett interpretation, for example. Buddhists read — in whacky books for whacky people — that the "observer" must be a conscious mind. Since this suits their rhetorical purposes they do not follow up and thus never discover that the idea is discredited. No one ever stops to wonder what the statement means, because if they did they'd see that it's meaningless.

Thus, Buddhists who use quantum mechanics to make Buddhism look more interesting are not concerned with the truth. They do not read widely on the subject, but simply adopt the minority view that chimes with their preconceptions and use this as a lever. For example, I cannot ever recall such rhetoric ever making clear that the cat-in-the-box thought experiment was proposed by Schrödinger to discredit the Copenhagen interpretation. It is presented as the opposite. Again, there is a lack of regard for the truth. Nor do Buddhists ever present criticisms of the Copenhagen interpretations such as those that emerge from Everett's interpretation. Other criticisms are available.

And this disregard for the truth combined with a concerted attempt to persuade an audience of some arbitrary argument is classic bullshit (as described by Harry Frankfurt). Buddhists who write about quantum mechanics are, on the whole, bullshitters. They are not concerned with the nature of reality, they are concerned with status, especially the kind of status derived from being a keeper of secret knowledge. It's past time to call out the bullshitters. They only hurt Buddhism by continuing to peddle bullshit. The irony is that the truth of Buddhism is far more interesting than the bullshit; it's just much harder to leverage for status or wealth.

~~oOo~~


Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

For those concerned about the flood of bullshit there is an online University of Washington course Calling Bullshit.

If you have a urge to learn some real physics (as opposed to the bullshit Buddhist physics) then see Leonard Susskind's lecture series The Theoretical Minimum. This aims to teach you only what you need to know to understand and even do physics (no extraneous mathematics or concepts).

28 September 2018

Edward Conze: A Study in Contradiction

I wrote this introduction to Edward Conze for my book on the Heart Sutra

No introduction to the Prajñāpāramitā would be complete without some reference to the eccentric German scholar, Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979), aka Dr Edward Conze. I think this is particularly important because his reputation is rather inflated. There is no doubt that he was a gifted linguist and a pioneer of studying the Prajñāpāramitā texts, but he was also a snob, a racist, and a misogynist. People who are in no position to judge still rave about what a great scholar he was, but much of his scholarship is tainted by poor attention to detail and infected his peculiar personal religion. Since I am in the business of revising the history of the Heart Sutra, I may as well put Dr Conze into some perspective as well.

The key historical source for Conze’s life is his own Memoires of a Modern Gnostic (1979 I & II), written at the behest of Jan Willem de Jong (see Wiles 2018). The Memoires were published in two parts, the first being more biographic, the second his impressions of politics, people, and places. Conze wrote a third part, in which he gave frank opinions of certain people and included comments from parts I and II considered libellous by his lawyer. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, as far as I can tell Muriel Conze destroyed part III and no copies remain. Which is probably just as well judging by parts I and II. Some years ago I asked Sangharakshita about the rumour that he had a copy and he definitely does not.

Jan Nattier (2003) noted several principles for extracting historical information from normative texts such as Buddhist sutras, one of which was the principle of embarrassment. This states that if something is included in a text which reflects poorly on the author, then it is likely to be true, for few authors set out to darken their own reputations. A great deal of what Conze says of himself reflects poorly on him and social changes in the last 10-15 years have not improved the outlook. Indeed some admissions approved by his lawyer in 1979, would very likely see him arrested in 2018.

Conze is a difficult figure to pin down. His own mother apparently said of him, “He himself is nothing at all, just a bundle of contradictions” (Conze 1979: I 29), though elsewhere it is apparent that their relationship was difficult. Reading the Memoires we meet a man who has many of the prejudices we might expect of someone with his privileged background, but who is nevertheless an avowed Communist and denounces his own class. He hates warmongering but is constantly engaged in personal conflicts, and harbours animosities based on perceived weaknesses and faults in others. He declares his own genius, but is, for all that, a rather sloppy editor and translator (something he admits); he is an industrious worker, but a rather lazy intellectual. He can say things like “Ever since the radio was introduced in the early twenties, I have hated it with all my heart and all my soul” (I 103), then a few pages later casually mention something of importance that he heard on the radio (I 113).

Conze was an intellectual who rejected science as a “bag of tricks” and instead embraced the anti-intellectual pursuits of astrology and mysticism. His “life-long acceptance of magic... has not been so much due to theoretical considerations as to the early acquired intuitive certainty that beyond, or behind, the veil of the deceptive sensory appearances, there lies a reality of magical, or occult, forces” (I 32).  This classic matter-spirit dualism, to go with his elitist, social dualism, is key to understanding his exegesis of the Heart Sutra. Even though he appears to adopt a language of non-dualism: his realm of non-dualism lies beyond this one. His is very much a dualistic non-dualism, with a Platonic/Romantic distrust of his senses.

Above all, in writing this, I want to correct the bias with which Conze is presented to the public. The picture of the mega-star scholar toiling selflessly to bring the Dharma to the people is contradicted by his own account of himself. For one thing, he made it clear that he despised the common people. “Speaking of ‘hoi polloi’, it has always been a cornerstone of my beliefs that there are two qualitatively distinct kinds of people... ‘the Noble ones’ and ‘the foolish common people’... the elite and the canaille” (I 52). The word canaille literally means “a pack of dogs”. Of course, this kind of bigotry, along with overt racism, was instilled into people of his social background from an early age and it would have been remarkable if he had risen above it; though this does not excuse it or make it any more palatable.

At times Conze seems to have something of a Messiah complex. For example, when he says, “From early times onwards it has been my conviction that I have come from a higher realm... and that I was sent to the Western barbarians so as to soften their hearts by teaching them the Holy Prajñāpāramitā" (I 55). And yet he had no tolerance at all for people he considered his social inferiors, let alone for "barbarians". A messiah who hated the people he had been sent to save.


Early Life

Adelle Köttgen & Ernst Conze
Date unknown. Family photo from Ebay

Edward Conze was, as he admits, a man of his class and age (1979 I iv). In other words, he was an early 20th Century, German bourgeoisie. The Conze family owned textile manufacturing plants in the small, but wealthy town of Langenberg, in Northern Germany near the Ruhr Valley (2016: xvii).  His mother's family,  the  Köttgen's were also "textile barons" (Heine 2016: xvii). Conze describes the 1903 marriage of his parents, Dr Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962) as, "a marriage between two factories" (I 1). 

Ernst Conze studied law at Bonn University (gaining a doctorate) then joined the Auswärtigen Amt (Foreign Office), where he served in Berlin and Antwerp, before being posted to Britain as a Vice Consul. Eberhart was born in London, in 1904. However, the family soon returned to Langenberg where Ernst became a magistrate in Wipperfürth and Cologne. He became District Court Director in Düsseldorf, and from 1924 to 1934, he held the office of President of the Reich Disciplinary Chamber (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 262). Adele was a painter of some talent, even exhibiting her work in 1930 (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 875). In old age, Adele converted to Catholicism and moved to a monastery near Heidelberg.  

Eberhart's paternal grandfather, Gottfried Conze, was deeply involved in the monarchist politics of the German Empire under Wilhelm II and in "the Protestant Church" (Lutheran?). One of his great-grandfathers, Gustav Köttgen, was part of the nascent Communist movement in the mid-1800s. Frederick Engels came from the same region and a similar background and Conze claimed some familial relation to him (though it is not clear how they were related).

His parent’s marriage was unhappy and he did not have a good relationship with his mother (I 4). He notes that she had great potential but was forced into the life of a small-town hausfrau with no prospect of escape. She was bored and bitter and since young Eberhart leaned towards his father, she included him in the enmity she felt for Ernst Conze. His younger brother, Wolf (b. 1906), however, was the object of her affections. This seems to have affected Conze's relations with women generally. Accused of grooming a young woman in one of his classes he complains that it is ridiculous because she is blond and he does not even like blonds but prefers women who look like his mother.

Despite the nationality of his parents, being born in London entitled Conze to British Citizenship. Both his parents were Anglophiles as well as Anglophones. When he visited England in 1924 he renewed his citizenship and thus, when he fell afoul of the Nazis, he was able to escape to Britain.

Conze's attitude toward the National Socialist Workers Party or "the Nazis" is instructive. Fundamentally, Conze resented authority, but more so when he perceived power to be wielded by people he considered socially or intellectually inferior to himself.  He described Hitler as someone literally possessed by demonic forces but he also says that Hitler "illustrates the danger of allowing the lower middle classes to exercise power" (I 9). Hitler was not one of the social elite and thus lacked the upbringing and education to fit him for leadership (I 11). Indeed, it is likely that the mocking epithet "Nazi" reflects the same social prejudice, since it was a German shortening of Ignatius. The German bourgeoisie of that time would often tell jokes in which the butt was a Bavarian peasant named Nazi (Forsyth 112-3). 

Conze claims to have hated the Nazis, though he shared some of their views on race and democracy. He was deeply prejudiced against Africans and people of Africa heritage; e.g., “In due course [Notting Hill Gate] was finished off by the blacks, who slowly moved down from Paddington Station” (I 64). He writes about being "driven out of Notting Hill by the blacks” (I 102), but also notes, “My further comments on the negrification [sic] of Notting Hill Gate manifestly contravene the Race Relations Act of June 1977. They are therefore removed to Part III” (I 65). Dr Conze's bowdlerised remarks passed in 1979 but would be considered hate speech now. Even when he writes positively of Jewish people, he cannot help but use racial labels in essentialist ways. That someone is "a Jew" or "Jewess", for example, is always made clear, whereas he does not insist on referring to, say, Tucci, as "Italian" or de Jong as "Dutch". It is a curious fact that the mainstream were at the time, and are now, all too willing to overlook Conze’s overt racism. 

Conze recounts that his first contact with Buddhism was aged thirteen when he read an account of Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn (I 6). His interest in Buddhism continued through his university days. Shortly after gaining his PhD, he was introduced to Theosophy and astrology by Prof. Verweyen (I 9). Later on, he says that “the Conze family had always harboured a number of Theosophists though they were usually of the Rudolf Steiner persuasion.” (I 31) As a child, an aunt gave him a copy of Annie Besant’s translation and explanation of the Bhagavadgītā: “I was terribly excited by it” (I 31). In 1939 he also became a convert to astrology. He writes:
“Astrology has set me inwardly free from the claims a technological society can make on my allegiance. It has convinced me that Science, its basic, ingredient, has little cognitive value, but is rather a bag of tricks invented by God-defying people to make life increasingly unbearable on Earth and finally to destroy it” (I 32).
We should keep in mind that Conze was 10 when World War I broke out and 14 when it ended, through his teens and early 20s he must have been acutely aware of the impact of the war and the crushing burden of reparations. He lived through, though does not mention, Germany's brief period of hyperinflation. Combined with his background and what we know about his parents, we can imagine why Eberhart saw the world in apocalyptic terms. Another sign of the contradictions at work in Conze is that just four pages later in his Memoires he writes that:
“In the [1935 book] ‘Scientific Method of Thinking’ I spelled this out for practical Englishmen by saying that mankind was doomed unless [it] could apply to the ordering of Society the same kind of Scientific Methods which had led to all these discoveries in the Natural Sciences and that dialectical materialism provided that method” (I 36).
The idea that dialectical materialism might be in any way related to the scientific method demonstrates that, like many anti-intellectuals, Conze is almost entirely innocent of any knowledge of the subject that he hated. In any case, astrology and Theosophy were to influence his views far more than science throughout his life and were only reinforced by his contact with the well-known Japanese Theosophist, D. T. Suzuki.

As a young man, Conze had an intellectual infatuation with Communism. In 1932 he published his magnum opus, The Principle of Contradiction. The book is concerned with the philosophy of dialectical materialism rather than the practical or economic aspects of Marxism. Conze has said of the book, "In fact it contains all my later ideas without exception" (1975: ix). This is a telling statement. Conze already knew what he thought about everything before he approached Buddhist texts more seriously. Subsequently, his method was to look for and find confirmation of his views in those texts. Anyone who adopts this approach is bound to succeed.

His anti-authoritarian attitudes led him to help organise political activities, particularly once the Nazis rose to prominence and then power. Conze' communist affiliations in Germany and Britain later caused his application to work in the USA to be declined. Curiously, for a Communist, Conze appears to have nothing good to say about the working classes. The best we can say is that working class people seem to avoid his direct gaze and disapprobation. Judging by the Memoires, the point of Communism was to bring down the ruling elite, destroy the modern world, and take us back to the pre-industrial society; it was not to hand the means of production to the workers. Speaking of his visit to Spain in 1936 he says "In rural Spain I caught a glimpse of pre-Industrial man and I realized how much we have lost." (I 19).

Despite apparently being a Marxist, Conze appears to have no sympathy for class struggle, let alone class warfare. He was unembarrassed about dividing society into the elite and the dogs, to call himself a member of the elite, and to suppose that the elite ought to be in charge. We can only imagine what Marx would have made of this bourgeois attitude. Conze's was more the intellectual communism of the unhappy rich boy trying to get back at the parents who did not love him, than the practical communism of an oppressed worker seeking a fairer world. But he does not see this. In a classic case of psychological projection, describing English communists, Conze writes: "Most came from Public Schools and harboured obscure resentments about their parents, headmasters and the [Officer Training Corp]." (I 21).

Most relevant to the history of the Heart Sutra, young Eberhart showed early promise as a linguist, claiming that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages (I 4). Heine (2016) suggests that these included German, English, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian, Sanskrit and Pāli. His family's wealth allowed him to pursue a university education in a desultory fashion, moving around half a dozen different universities until he found a teacher to his liking. He describes himself as "rebellious", but I suspect he simply felt superior to his teachers. Being unwilling to put up with anyone he judged inferior and having more or less unlimited funds, he simply moved on. Surprisingly, given his approach, he completed a PhD in philosophy at the University of Cologne in 1928 (aged twenty-four). His post-graduate studies saw him continue the pattern of moving around.

He moved to Britain in 1933, largely to escape the Nazis. His stories about this vary. Early in the Memoires, he says he was warned by Nazis to flee in a rather bland encounter over the flying of a flag from his balcony, but later (I 40, n.1) he recalls being chased by the Gestapo and hiding from them in a mental hospital. There are many times in the Memoires where he seems unsure about whether to be humble or to brag and ends up humblebragging. In his introduction to the recent reprint of Conze's Principle of Contradiction, Holgar Heine (2016) suggests that, in fact, it was the public burning of most of the copies of the first German edition of this book by Nazis soon after it was published that led Conze to leave Germany.

We can only presume that it was around this time that Eberhart became Edward because he does not say. Conze had a variety of jobs during and after the war, supporting himself by teaching evening classes in German, psychology, and philosophy. Later, some bequests made him financially independent. The one permanent academic position he was offered was in the USA and the government there saw him as an undesirable alien because of his past as a Communist and his unwillingness to cooperate with them on exposing other communists. He saw the immigration officials as inferior and thus toyed with them for his own amusement, but it backfired on him. For a time Conze continued to be interested in left-wing politics and he made connections in the British Labour party, particularly with Ellen Wilkinson. Together, the two wrote anti-fascist pamphlets and two short books.

On fleeing Germany, Conze had married his partner, Dorothea Finkelstein, as much as anything to prevent her from being sent back to Germany and certain death because she was Jewish. This marriage of convenience (at least as far as Conze was concerned) did not last long; they separated soon after the war, briefly reconciled, but then Conze embarked on a series of affairs with his students that he took little or no trouble to hide. In the Memoires, he recounts, over several pages in small type, sexually assaulting a female student as though it were an amusing anecdote (II 116-118). On reflection he says:
“I did not want a wife at all, but a servant who would look after me while I was doing my scholarly work. If it had not been for the servant shortage which set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all” (I 31).
Conze and Dorothea were eventually divorced in 1962. Conze had met Muriel Green, who was to become his second wife, some years earlier in 1948. The two lived together as a married couple and Muriel changed her name to Conze by deed poll. However, their marital status occasionally caused problems for him, as it was unusual, even scandalous, at the time. Conze credits Muriel with providing the material stability that enabled him to continue his work. He was apparently incapable of any domestic task. However, before he met Muriel, Conze went through a crisis.

A visit to Spain in 1936 left him feeling disillusioned
"From the very start I saw clearly that a huge senseless tragedy was shaping itself, that many people (two million by the end) would be killed for nothing whatever and that few would gain anything from all this turmoil."
His comments on the situation in Spain led to a series of vituperous clashes with members of the British Labour Party, who were, to be fair, at that time under the influence of the Soviet Union. Conze says that he abandoned leftist politics at this point, but one imagines that he jumped before he was pushed. Already averse to many aspects of industrialised, "urban civilisation", Conze was now thoroughly disillusioned with the left, with modern democracy and secularism (I 26-7). Aged 35, he found that he was at an impasse. In short, he had a mid-life crisis. In his memoriam for Suzuki, he says:
“My political faith had collapsed under the impact of Stalinism and of what I had observed in Spain, my marriage had failed, my job seemed distinctly bleak, I had even started to consult psychoanalysts, and there seemed nothing left that I could live for.” (Conze 1967)

Midlife Crisis

Conze & Suzuki
It was at this point that Conze turned to religion, specifically to Buddhism. He credits this to his acquaintance with three men: D. T. Suzuki, Har Dayal, and Graham Howe. Of these three, Suzuki seems to have been the strongest influence. Zsebenyi (2004) suggests that it was reading Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism that helped Conze to see a way forward. 

Suzuki’s wife, Beatrice Lane, was a major figure in the Theosophical world. While he retained his ties with Zen Buddhism, Suzuki frequently presents Zen in metaphysical terms borrowed from Theosophy. It seems to have been Suzuki who introduced the vocabulary of “the Absolute” and “the Transcendental” into Buddhism. Given Conze's existing preconceptions about the world, we can imagine how this mystical absolutism might have appealed to him. Indeed, it led to a radical change in lifestyle for a period.
Under the impulse of D. T. Suzuki’s message I then withdrew into a private wood belonging to a Quaker friend of mine in the New Forest, and practised as much meditation as can be practised in this evil age. (1967)
This was the wood called Sandy Balls, located near Godshill Village, in the New Forest, Hampshire. The owner, Aubrey Westlake, warned him that the hut was unheated and none had dared to over-winter there, but Conze, determined to live an ascetic life, did so. He joined an irregular community of Tolstoyan Christian Communists, eccentrics, and gypsies. The local villagers apparently decided that Conze was a spy and reported him to the police. When this failed to produce the desired result, they tried to set fire to the wood. This was during WWII which Conze avoided serving in on medical grounds but also as a Buddhist conscientious objector.

Conze applied himself to meditation, probably using Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga as a guide. As a result, he says, that he “experienced a great elation of spirit” (I 45). Living an ascetic life left Conze with the symptoms of malnutrition, such as chronic diarrhoea and degeneration of the gums leading to the loss of all his teeth (I 47). His description suggests that he had scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency common amongst sailors before 1747 when James Lind described the efficacy of citrus fruit in preventing the disease. The combination of malnutrition, cold (“very cold indeed” I 46), sleep deprivation, and long periods of meditation probably contributed to the delusions he apparently experienced: “Unbidden, several psychic faculties came my way” (I 46). A great deal has been written about the effects this kind of punitive ascetic lifestyle can have on religious experiences. On top of this, Conze was already firmly convinced of a matter-spirit dualism that would have dominated how he interpreted any interesting experiences that he might have had. Such strong convictions can only be confirmed in the mind of the believer.

Conze does not say how long this period was, though it only takes about four weeks for the first symptoms of scurvy to appear. After an unspecified time, he was inclined to stop: “I also felt that I had gained as much insight as I could bear in my present body or realise in our present social circumstances” (I 47). No doubt the physical suffering caused by this lifestyle would have been difficult to bear; malnutrition causes extremely unpleasant symptoms. In the introduction to Further Buddhist Studies, he relates,
"Thereafter I decided to adopt an indirect approach and thus between 1946 and 1968 remained content to edit and expound the ancient Sanskrit texts of the philosophia perennis."
Note here the reference (in Latin) to the idea of the Perennial Philosophy. This is the idea that all the worlds religions share a single metaphysical truth and all traditions aim to realise that truth. This view was popularised in Britain by Aldous Huxley and the Theosophists. Conze seems to have been a fervent believer in this view.

At about the same time as the deterioration of his health due to malnutrition was making his retreat untenable, his first wife, Dorothea, asked him to move back in with her for the sake of their daughter. So he moved to Oxford and was assigned a job in the Ministry of Agriculture. This led him back into the world of academia.


Scholarship

Living in Oxford, with an undemanding job, gave Conze time to study and access to research materials in the Bodleian Library and the India Institute. He took Sanskrit lessons from Prof Burrow and met F. W. Thomas, with whom he collaborated on a translation of a Sanskrit Jain text. Academic connections led to further literary ventures and, after 1945, to invitations to teach abroad, including in Germany. Summing up the factors that enabled him to become a Buddhist scholar he cites:
“…unusual innate intellectual ability is only part of the story. I have also had the good fortune to be able to devote my entire life to continuous and almost unbroken studying and have kept up my one-man monastery through thick and thin” (I 51).
In fact, Conze lived with his wife, who he apparently saw as his servant, and this is hardly a "one-man monastery". He has already admitted that he eschewed meditation after the disaster of his retreat in the New Forest. Conze was no monk.

Lacking a permanent academic post, he made his living teaching evening classes in psychology and philosophy. He might have had a position in the USA, but his past as a Communist prevented him from ever being more than a temporary visitor in that country. And even then immigration officials and his attitude towards them made travel there difficult for him.

Conze produced some general books on Buddhism as well as editing and contributing to an anthology of Buddhist texts. This was at a time when books about Buddhism in English were still uncommon, and most of the books that did exist betrayed the misconceptions of the early European scholars. As such the books were well received and two, Buddhist Scriptures and are Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, are still in print (if only in cheap Indian editions). While Conze's work was an advance on what came before, his idiosyncratic take on Buddhism meant that he often simply substituted one set of misconceptions for another. This was partially corrected by the appearance of more genuine books about Buddhism, but Conze was so influential that his views altered the narratives of Buddhism in the West. 

Despite his personal animus towards so many people - his wife referred to him as "the old man who hated everyone" - Conze had a number of productive collaborations, for example, with Jan de Jong, Giuseppe Tucci, I. B. Horner, and Lew Lancaster. For D. T. Suzuki he expressed “unlimited admiration, little short of idolatry” (I 78). However, D. T. Suzuki is also a problematic figure. McMahan singles Suzuki out as a Romantic Modernist:
"In his discussion of humanity and nature, Suzuki takes Zen literature out of its social, ritual, and ethical contexts and reframes it in terms of a language of metaphysics derived from German Romantic idealism, English Romanticism, and American Transcendentalism" (McMahan 2008: 125).
John McRae has pointed out that Suzuki's approach is frequently incomprehensible. "[His] most cherished methodology seems to have been to describe some aspect of Zen as beyond ordinary explanation, then offer a suitably incomprehensible story or two by way of illustration" (McRae 2003: 74). Conze adopted a similar strategy in his exegesis of Prajñāpāramitā. As far as Conze was concerned, the literature pointed to a perennial Truth beyond the comprehension of most people. It is the scripture of a spiritual elite of which, again, he believes himself to be a member.

Given his other comments, we can presume that Conze saw a confirmation of his own views in Suzuki's ravings about Prajñāpāramitā, especially in Suzuki's rejection of logic. I also think Conze realised that this was a field in which he would never be inferior to anyone because there was no competition at the time. With his typical German energy and industry, he could easily and quickly dominate the empty field of Prajñāpāramitā Studies and never have to answer to an inferior mind again. His obscurantist approach allowed him to exclude would-be critics simply by affirming contradictions like "A = Not A". How does one argue with a man who insists that logic and rationality play no part in the Truth? What's more, he could assert that as a meditator, he had special knowledge (I think few people realised the brief extent of his experiment with meditation or that the principal outcome was not insight, but scurvy and derangement). Conze was the tailor who made the Emperor's new clothes, according to a design by Suzuki. The crowds of scholars and Buddhists who knew no better simply went along with it (and largely still do). 

Conze set himself the task of translating all of the Prajñāpāramitā texts into English. In a number of cases, as with the Heart Sutra, this also involved editing the Sanskrit texts. Conze wrote a long essay outlining the extent and history of the Prajñāpāramitā literature (1960) and published a lexicon which was intended to be expanded into a dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā (1967b). These now circulate as pdf files and despite their many flaws have not yet been superseded.

Surprisingly little subsequent work has been done in this field since Conze. At least some of this reluctance must be because Conze made the subject seem unattractive to rationally minded students of Buddhism. The very qualities that made him the king of Prajñāpāramitā may well have ensured that there was little interest in following his example.

I will make some specific comments on his approach to the Heart Sutra below, but can here cite comments by Harrison & Watanabe about Conze's work on the Vajracchedikā. Rather than creating a critical edition, Conze takes an unsystematically eclectic approach to the text.  It is based mainly on Müller's edition but occasionally he changed the wording, conflating the various manuscript sources arbitrarily. He does not list the differences between his witnesses exhaustively (2006).
"Nevertheless, most subsequent translations and studies have relied on Conze's edition, and philosophical questions have also been addressed on the less than solid foundation it provides. Here lies a major problem" (Harrison & Watanabe 2006: 92; My emphasis).
In the notes on his translation of the Gilgit and Afghan manuscripts of Vajracchedikā, Harrison (2006) shows that the major problem involves the negations. Conze takes a metaphysical approach to these, whereas Harrison shows that they were probably intended as an epistemic observation: see my essay The Use of Negation in Vajracchedikā. Similar problems attend Conze's other translations. His work is unsystematic and directed toward confirming his idiosyncratic, Theosophy-inspired, anti-intellectual personal religion. As he admits:
“I am constitutionally incapable of registering meaningless details correctly (that is the price of being an intuition type). Even when reading proofs I miss most of the misprints, because I automatically read, not what is there, but what ought to be there. In addition, both my interest and my training in grammar leave much to be desired…” (I 92)
Unfortunately, the details that Conze misses are not “meaningless” but have quite major implications for how we understand the text. In the case of the Heart Sutra, his mistakes garbled two passages. Curiously enough, so little scrutiny did his work receive that these mistakes went unnoticed for almost seventy years. Such was his mystique and the expectation of nonsense that he created. Note that reading what ought to be there is exactly the method that I ascribed to Conze above. I believe this unconscious bias operated on many levels. Conze pursued confirmation of his beliefs and found it. 

Similarly, Conze’s translation of the Large Sutra is randomly eclectic. He does not rely on a single edition, but chops and changes, drawing first from this and then that source without any clear boundaries. He acknowledges that some will find this method “questionable” (1975: x) which is an understatement. On the other hand, almost none of the research agenda he sets out in his introduction has been followed up. Again, he did a lot of work himself, but only a handful of scholars continue his work. As he says, the translation [of the Large Sutra] is a continuation of his work on the Abhisamayālaṅkāra; a text “so elliptic and cryptic that a translation was considered impossible” (I 68-9). Now that we have a good edition (Kimura 2010) of the Nepalese manuscripts that he describes as “often unbelievably careless and corrupt” and a good facsimile edition of the Gilgit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (Karashima et al 2016), we can judge Conze’s methods quite accurately. It is often difficult to match his text to the available Sanskrit texts because his primary orientation was to the Abhisamayālaṅkāra rather than the text itself. As we will see this results in a whole other layer of confusion as regards the Heart Sutra.

Such issues will seldom surface for the average reader since they mainly read translations by popular religious figures. These people often don't bother to learn Sanskrit but simply paraphrase Conze and offer a few etymologies of varying accuracy. On the whole, religious translators have been oblivious to problems in source texts and simply gloss over any difficult passages as though they make sense. However, if there are problems with the source text, the translation is unlikely to be better. Dealing with Conze’s translations reveals him to be one of the most quixotic and idiosyncratic of Buddhist translators. Indeed, Paul Griffiths (1981) singles Conze out as the foremost practitioner of “Buddhist Hybrid English”, in which a translation uses mainly English vocabulary but is presented with Sanskrit syntax. In Conze's case, the choice of vocabulary often boggles the mind as well. Harrison brings this out in the introduction to his translation of Vajracchedikā.
"I has been a long cherished ambition of mine to make a translation of a Mahāyāna sūtra in which nobody courses in anything, speaks thus, or produces a single thought... although we have thoughts, think them, entertain them, although thoughts arise and occur to us, we never 'produce' them. Linguistic oddities such as this are best avoided" (Harrison 2006: 136).
Although Harrison does not say so, all of these examples of linguistic oddities are drawn from Conze's oeuvre. Conze was a great mangler of the English language. With Conze, we must constantly be on the alert not just for awkward translations but also for erroneous translations. Conze frequently allows his metaphysical imagination to inform his translations – very many verbs seem to mean “exist” in his vocabulary when very few of them mean that in Sanskrit. Being concerned, as he is, most of the time, with absolute being, he tends to torture his translations so that they appear to share his obsession. It took me many years to realise that Conze had fundamentally misunderstood the Prajñāpāramitā.

In his chronology of Prajñāpāramitā, Conze lumped the Vajracchedikā and Heart Sutra together as a period of contraction in Prajñāpāramitā texts ca 400 CE. This idea cuts across the trend of all Mahāyāna texts to expand over time. We now know that the Vajracchedikā is likely very much earlier and in fact follows the usual trend of expanding as it goes. The Heart Sutra, by contrast, was composed in China as a 抄經 chāo jīng or digest text, ca. 645-661 CE.  The earliest Prajñāpāramitā text was probably the one that evolved into the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, although the Vajracchedikā is likely to have been another Prakrit text of a similar vintage from a different area (one with less easy access to the Silk Road). Unfortunately, Conze's chronology of Prajñāpāramitā is still in use.

No scholar has since approached Mahāyāna Buddhism with quite the enthusiasm and industry of Conze. However, industry and enthusiasm in the absence of proper discipline or guiding principles simply run amok. The great shame is that so much of what he did needs to be done over but, at the same time, there seems to be little interest in Prajñāpāramitā in academia. Mysticism is not as sexy as it once was and the mainstream is focussed on the more rational aspects of Buddhism. A handful of scholars struggle away, year after year, to bring Prajñāpāramitā into the light, but the heavy burden of Conze makes that difficult. 


Heart Sutra

Conze first published a translation of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra in the journal of the Buddhist Society, The Middle Way in 1946 (see 1948: 51). His Sanskrit edition appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1948. This was subsequently revised in 1967. The edition makes reference to Chinese texts and includes some quoted Chinese characters. Since Conze makes it clear in the Memoires that he did not speak or read Chinese, he ought to have credited the person who helped him with the Chinese. Between 1955 and 1957 Conze published a series of articles in The Middle Way. These were collated and published as Buddhist Wisdom Books (1958), which contained a translation of and commentary on the Vajracchedikā and a version of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra along with a translation and commentary. A second edition appeared in 1975.

The Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra that Conze published contained a number of simple grammatical errors (Attwood 2015, 2018b). I'm sympathetic to Conze's inability to proofread as I suffer a similar affliction. However, I find readers will often pick up on mistakes I miss, and editors are usually very sharp-eyed when it comes to mistakes of mine (I'm very grateful to them for it). Where were Conze's readers and editors? And where were his critics for 70 years? Many scholars, some of the best in our field, looked at Conze's edition of the Heart Sutra and did not notice the obvious mistakes. I feel obliged to ask why not, but hesitant to supply answers because I fear there is no excuse. 

Conze presented the Heart Sutra as a Mahāyāna version of the four noble truths (or “holy Truths” as he calls them), going to elaborate lengths to try to make make the case for this (1958: 90, 100-1). The idea is based on the commentary in the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Apart from the fact that Conze’s arguments are not convincing, when we look at his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā organised with subject headings taken from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra (Conze 1975), it shows that the Heart Sutra does quote from the section labelled as expounding the noble truths (āryasatyāṃ). However, the passage begins with the last few lines of the paragraph that supposedly outlines the second truth (samudaya) and ends halfway through the section on the third truth (nirodha). The Heart Sutra includes nothing from the paragraphs on the first (duḥkha) or fourth (marga) truths. So, at best, the reference is partial. In reality, the author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra strains our credulity, because even reading the full passage the connection with the noble truths is not apparent. 

The text is shoehorned into the traditional categories, obscuring what it is actually talking about. Which tells us that that author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra was not that interested in the text, but had their own agenda that the text was made to serve. And Conze does much the same thing. Interestingly, this is the most prominent feature of all the commentaries on the Heart Sutra since they first were recorded in the late 7th Century. Take this observation with the one about the unnoticed errors ,and we find a systematic picture of commentators telling us what the text means with almost no reference whatever to the text. 

To top it all, the Heart Sutra also appears to say that there are no four noble truths. Conze gets around the apparent contradiction by denying that "no" means "no". It cannot be an "ordinary negation", he says, “because it is used in a proposition of which one term, i.e., ‘emptiness’, is itself a self-contradictory unity of Yes and No.” (1958: 90) Unsurprisingly, Conze goes on to admit that this kind of rhetoric confused everyone who he had read his book before publication. Without any trace of irony, he refers to the effects of his self-contradictions as leaving his readers “dazed by so much splendour” (1958: 90). This might be an attempt at humour or it might be Conze's delusions, it's hard to tell at this remove. 

Another curious feature of Conze's commentary is the elaborate attempt to relate the wording to Abhidharma texts. The Prajñāpāramitā texts are, if anything, resistant to Abhidharma ideas, for example, retaining the simpler early Buddhist schema of five skandhas, rather than indulging in the proliferations that accompanied the development of dharma theory. In fact, there is no reference in the Heart Sutra to words that positively connote the Abhidharma. It is simply a coincidence that they both employ common categories that predate the Abhidharma. There is good reason to think that the Prajñāpāramitā movement was quite conservative and preserving meditative and doctrinal traditions that were old by that time.

Conze’s contempt for ordinary people is evident throughout his commentary on the Heart Sutra. He says, for example, that:
“This Sutra is not meant for the stupid, the emotional, or the uninformed. Other means will assure their salvation. Everything that is at all worth knowing is contained in the [Heart Sutra]. But it can be found there only if spiritual insight is married to intellectual ability, and coupled with a delighting in the use of the intellect.” (1958: 99).
We already know that Conze sees himself as amongst the elect and has a touch of messianic delusion. The influence of Theosophy can be seen in many statements such as 
“‘Emptiness’ is our word for the beyond, for transcendental reality… this is the mystical identity of opposites” (1958: 83). “[The bodhisatva] is able to bear the absolute aloneness of his solitary Spirit” (1958: 94)
“The series of negations… does not add up to nothingness, but points the way to a unique ultimate reality” (1958: 95)
“When viewed from the subject-side, the transcendental reality is known as ‘thought only’, because, one and simple, free from duality and multiplicity, it is without a separate object. This Thought, or Spirit, forms the very centre of our being” (1958: 96)
None of this has anything to do with Buddhism or Prajñāpāramitā, and most of these terms do not even have Sanskrit equivalents. When we read the Prajñāpāramitā sutras in Sanskrit or Chinese we find there are no spirits, no absolute being, no mystical identity, and no ultimate reality. Instead, we find a narrative based on the experience of cessation and the epistemological and/or soteriological consequences of the fact that experience may stop in meditation without the loss of consciousness. Conze looked for his perennial philosophy in Prajñāpāramitā and because he “read what ought to be there” he found it, even though it was not there.

This is not the work of a great scholar. He was certainly a busy scholar and worked in a field largely neglected by others, but Conze has thoroughly misunderstood the Heart Sutra in particular and the Prajñāpāramitā in general. 


Conclusion

That Conze deserves a place in the history of the Heart Sutra is undisputed. However, he has been dead long enough that we can see his life and his contributions in perspective. Summing up his contribution, Eric Zsebenyi (2004) says, “Conze’s pioneering accomplishment is still hailed as a model of meticulous scholarship, and he ranks among the greatest and most prolific modern translators of the Buddhist tradition.”  This may have been true at the time Conze died, but by the time I started regularly interacting with academics, it was not. No one I met while studying Sanskrit and attending conferences spoke highly of him as a translator or editor, though some do still acknowledge him as a “pioneer”. He was certainly prolific, but his work, like the man himself, was deeply flawed and full of contradictions. No one looks to him as a model scholar any longer. For myself, I have certainly had to spend a good deal of time and effort to understand and correct Conze’s many errors of translation and interpretation.

In perspective, Conze cuts a lonely figure. He believed himself to have been sent to soften the Hearts of barbarians, but this messiah could not love the people he was ostensibly sent to save. He characterises, Avalokiteśvara as "the Lord who looks down" (mistranslating the verb ava√lok) but, in fact, it is he who looks down on the world. And with disgust rather than compassion. Indeed, he could never wholly get along with another person. As he says, “Throughout my life I have been a stranger on this earth and never felt at home anywhere. Nor have I ever found anyone who was completely congenial or whom I could trust altogether” (54).

A more tragic epitaph for a Buddhist Messiah can hardly be imagined. Conze was a classic outsider as described by Colin Wilson, his former neighbour in Notting Hill Gate, in his book, The Outsider. The man that supposedly sees the world too clearly and cannot make their peace with what they see. On the other hand, Conze also seems to have worked well with certain colleagues who shared his privileged social background. He adored Suzuki and names many other men his friends. The fact is that the Memoires is addressed directly to Jan de Jong.

Above all, Edward Conze was a bourgeois Romantic. He had the bourgeois sense of heroic and even messianic destiny and entitlement (which, in fact, he shared with the Nazis). He hated modernity and fantasised about an idealised pre-industrial past when the elite were truly elite and the peasants were illiterate and happy. He had the Romantic distrust of his senses and of intellect, logic, and rationality; preferring intuition, astrology, and mysticism. He was obsessed with perfection and transcendence and, at the same time, loudly contemptuous of imperfection and inferiority. And he saw “blacks” as inherently inferior (another attitude he shared with the Nazis). Put another way, while preaching non-duality, Conze had all the characteristic prejudices of someone who accepts a profound matter-spirit duality as described in my essay  Metaphors and Materialism).

Whether Conze was contrary by nature or became that way through upbringing is a matter for speculation. We can imagine what changes his circumstances in life might have wrought on him, but we don't know and we mostly only have his word for it. The fact is, that he was a man marked by contradictions, in every aspect of his life. And yet, his reputation for greatness persists in Buddhist circles. Just as no one ever seems to really read the Heart Sutra, no one ever seems to really read what Conze wrote about himself. We might want to think about why the establishment have been so willing to overlook his faults, both confessed and apparent. Having read his Memoires in detail again, and having cleaned up the mess he made of the Heart Sutra, I find myself unwilling to participate in the beatification of Edward Conze. 


~~oOo~~

Bibliography

Conze, Edward.
—— 1946. ‘The Heart Sutra.’ The Middle Way, xx. 5, 105.
—— 1958. Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. Second edition 1976.
—— 1967. 'In Memoriam Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki 1870-1966.' The Eastern Buddhist. II/1.
—— 1975. Further Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Oxford, Bruno Cassirer
—— 1979. Memoires of a Modern Gnostic. Parts I and II. Privately Published.

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