17 September 2021

Hostility To Change In Buddhist Studies (And Elsewhere).

There is a story in Adam Becker's book What Is Real? part of which he admits might be apocryphal, but which nevertheless accurately conveys the social dynamic in physics in the 1950s. It is true that in 1952, Max Dresden gave a lecture on the work of David Bohm to an audience of physics luminaries at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. Dresden himself would have been happy to ignore Bohm, but his students pestered him to read Bohm's paper outlining an alternative approach to quantum mechanics. Bohm's idea is that the quantum world is literally particles and waves combined: with the particle carrying the physical properties and the wave guiding the motion of the particle (the idea is also known as a pilot wave theory). The interesting thing about this, as Becker relates, is that "Bohm's theory was mathematically equivalent to 'normal' quantum physics" (90).

What Bohm showed was that the Schrödinger equation was consistent with at least two different and mutually exclusive descriptions of physical reality. But there can be only one reality. Other descriptions of physical realities consistent with the Schrödinger equation soon followed, but Bohm's was the first alternative to emerge. The Copenhagen supremacy was dead at that point. But it has not been replaced in university textbooks because, despite many alternative proposals, none of them is known to be the right one. In the absence of a good model, students are taught the bad one that is most familiar.

Bohm had previously done highly regarded work at Princeton. In 1952, Bohm was out of the mainstream and living in exile in Brazil because of problems with the US State Dept arising from his left-wing politics (it was the McCarthy era). Dresden finished his presentation (including the maths) and the floor was opened to questions. He was expecting some push back from the audience about this but was unprepared for the wave of vitriol that washed over him. As Becker recounts it:

"One person called Bohm a 'public nuisance'. Another called him a traitor, still another said he was a Trotskyite. As for Bohm's ideas, they were dismissed as mere 'juvenile deviationism', and several people implied that Dresden himself was at fault as a physicist to have take Bohm seriously. Finally, Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Institute spoke up.... "if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him." (90, My emphasis)
"if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him."—Oppenheimer (allegedly)

In his 1980 book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm suggested that "the scientific way of thinking is stereotypically stubborn" (3). Another physicist, Max Planck, lent credence to this supposition when, frustrated with the lack of progress in quantum theory he quipped "science proceeds one funeral at a time". This turns out to be a paraphrase of something more subtle that he wrote in his 1949 "Scientific Autobiography":

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. . . . An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth." (1950: 33, 97)

Of course, to be fair to physics, Planck's ideas were widely accepted by the time he wrote this and many of them bear his name, e.g. Planck's constant. Still, Planck and Bohm were not alone in thinking this way. A decade later, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn wrote:

"Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change… " (90).

I take the message here to be that only people not invested in the status quo are flexible enough to change it. And we can note that it is intuitively the case not only in science, but in every aspect of life. The use of "men" to mean "people" is a paradigm that has changed in my lifetime because a generation of women forced us to rethink gender. And rightly so. Science is no longer dominated by men by virtue of their gender roles in society. Women make excellent scientists and scholars.

Speaking of women in science, Professor Katalin Karikó, has recently been reported in a UK newspaper as saying

“If so many people who are in a certain field would come together in a room and forget their names, their egos, their titles, and just think, they would come up with so many solutions for so many things, but all these titles and whatever get in the way,” (emphasis added)

Karikó, now a senior vice-president for RNA protein replacement therapies at BioNTech in Germany, "endured decades of scepticism over her work and was demoted and finally kicked out of her lab while developing the technology that made the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines possible" (my emphasis).

Interestingly Karikó says that the adversarial competitiveness disappeared when she moved from academia to industry, where all that counts is an efficacious product. Still, if academic science proceeds one funeral at the time, industrial science makes progress only on what is profitable for shareholders.

I cite these examples to show that intellectual discourse can be and frequently is reluctant to change, and that even at the heart of academic physics, politics play a role. There is a general resistance to new ideas whoever proposes them and however they do it, even in the hardest of "hard sciences". However, and this is especially true in Buddhist Studies, this is not a healthy scepticism so much as it is dogmatism and/or egotism. When our title, job, role in society, and our very identity are bound up with a particular story, we don't want to know that the story is inaccurate. This is hardly rocket science. Economists call this the sunk cost fallacy. This is when we stay to the end of a bad movie because the tickets were expensive and we want to "get our money's worth". Sometimes known as throwing good money after bad.

But it is not just resistance to the innovative. There is another, darker aspect to the Buddhist Studies culture. Quite a number of Buddhists Studies academics are mean. I have some public examples to discuss, but I also have many comments sent to me in private and in confidence that confirm this. Many people tell me I'm better off out of it.


Meanness

Meanness is endemic in Buddhist Studies. And it mainly seems to involve men being egotistical and treating Buddhist Studies as a zero-sum game. Charles Prebish observed that when he was an early career academic:

“I was convinced that Buddhist Studies, as it was developing in North America, was misguided. In the first place, most of the role models for this blooming discipline: Edward Conze, Leon Hurvitz, Alex Wayman, and a few others, were amongst the meanest individuals in academe [sic]... they seemed to take real delight in humiliating students rather than encouraging them.” (Prebish 2019, cited in Attwood 2020).

Despite a few difficult encounters over the years, I took this to be relatively contained in the past, but in 2020 two women in Buddhist Studies posted a video chat posted to YouTube, titled It's Not Rigor, It's hazing. In the discussion they related how different male colleagues had deliberately humiliated them at separate public events. I found the link via Twitter account and it is interesting to see that several other women has similar experiences. For example, Stephanie Balkwill tweeted: "What got me was that every[one] else saw it that way at the time and did nothing, continuing to work with the person. I have subsequently learned that this behavior is habitual by him and evidently everybody knows it.";

Note, this is not online trolling, This is in real life, in person, in public, in your face trolling. As I say, I have many examples of this that I can't use without breaking confidences. Watching this video made me rethink some other encounters I'd had.

It's notable that neither woman in the video named names. Nor does anyone name names in public. Even though it's an open secret and "everybody knows it", nobody talks about it in the open. I presume this is because the bullies are still in their academic posts, still on hiring and promotion committees, still the editors of journals. If you want a career in academia, you can't join the #metoo movement. Power is the ability to silence your victims. I'm not saying Dan Lusthaus is Harvey Weinstein, but he does bully with impunity.

Anecdotally, I hear that a lot of early career scholars are abandoning traditional Buddhist Studies centred on philology, and are being attracted to other disciplines. Women especially seem to be branching out into Women's Studies, Gender Studies, and Queer Studies, although applying the ideas and practices of these other disciplines to studying Buddhism. They often study contemporary Buddhism, thereby avoiding any confrontation with the traditional angry male philologist. Choosing to be based in another field entirely, seemingly, provides a more conducive and supportive environment for doing research.

I want to make it clear that within Buddhist Studies my experience has been mixed. I am grateful to a number of generous peers and mentors who have enabled me to publish around 20 articles on various topics in various scholarly journals. There are many good people in this field; people who are happy to hear from a serious outsider asking for advice or for a copy of an article. I try to thank them in notes, but I doubt I've conveyed just how much help and assistance and encouragement I've received over the years.

Nonetheless, in early Sept 2021, Dan Lusthaus was busy trying to publicly humiliate me because we disagreed over an interpretation of some facts regarding mantra and dhāraṇī. Here is his last comment on this issue:

"Yes, we've all come to understand that your supporting evidence is your own theories, not the actual texts and what they say. And when the texts indicate something other than what fits your theory, you misread them."

By the way, if this is true, what does it say about the many Buddhist Studies academics who have read my articles and recommended them for publication and published them? When you pick up shit to fling at someone else, you end up with shit on your hands, Dan.

Although Lusthaus may well sincerely believe his mean-spirited remark, it is clearly is false. My friends in academia not only assure me of this, but they also say that this bad behaviour is typical for Lusthaus (sound familiar?). I am playing the game of scholarship to the best of my ability and I have published ten articles on the Heart Sutra in scholarly journals offering expert peer-review. Each article has persuaded an editor and at least one reviewer (supposedly an expert in the field) that the article should be read by other academics and considered on its merits. I have no leverage over these people and they have no obligation to publish my work if it is substandard, and they are not shy about saying so, especially in anonymous reviews. And of course, many anonymous reviews are extremely mean.

It's hard to say what Lusthaus gets from being mean to me. Lusthaus has tried to bully me several times in the past. I've encountered him a few times over 25 years, mostly in the annals of the listserv Buddha-L which he now runs. I've seen him do this to numerous other people. The fact that Lusthaus is a bully is widely known in the field. Because of this, one friend in academia urged me, privately, to "not take him seriously". In my experience ignoring bullies does not stop the bullying. And having someone go out of their way to try to publicly humiliate you is tiresome and counterproductive, even if everyone knows he's a bully.

I can sort of understand some academics circling the wagons to exclude me—a self-taught amateur—but the same people have been doing this to Jan Nattier—a consummate professional scholar and educator—for thirty years. Nattier's 1992 proposal that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is a new paradigm and casts doubt on much that has been said about this and other Prajñāpāramitā texts. Moreover the close reading of the text that follows in Huifeng (2014) and in my many articles, shows that Nattier was exactly right and that we really do need a new paradigm for understanding the Heart Sutra and for Prajñāpāramitā.

Lusthaus published some comments in 2003 that he asserted undermined Nattier's thesis but I showed that Lusthaus was merely deducing his axioms. This is the process by which a series of logical deductions will eventually reproduce your starting assumptions as valid conclusions. When we assume that the Heart Sutra was composed in Sanskrit, i.e. if this proposition is treated as axiomatic, and then apply deductive reasoning to the early Chinese commentaries, after a few deductive steps, we can conclude that the Heart Sutra was composed in Sanskrit and it looks like the conclusion is inferred only from reading the commentaries. In fact, the deduction doesn't come from the commentaries, it comes from the axiom itself. All deductive reasoning is subject to this limitation. I refuted Lusthaus's assertions in print in my Pacific World article: "The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest", showing that his reading of the text and his logic were flawed. So maybe he's still mad about this. I've known other male Buddhist Studies academics hold a grudge in this same way.

I certainly have many limitations, as a scholar and as a person. I'm keenly aware of this. But I carefully try to work within my limits and one or two friendly academics read every article before I submit them. Every statement I've made is the result of a careful analysis, checked and rechecked by me and several other knowledgeable people. It's backed by textual evidence and by previous scholarship (where possible). Not only is everything I have said in my articles testable, but it's clear what kind of evidence would refute it. No one has presented that kind of evidence yet. As soon as they do, I will certainly change my tune. Unfortunately, arguing can be trumped by shunning... "if we cannot disprove Jayarava, then we must agree to ignore him."

As a scholar with no formal "training" (see the video mentioned above for comments on this term) there is nothing special or clever about what I do. I see myself as feasting on the ample low-hanging fruits that others have ignored. Mostly, I'm just stating the obvious in ridiculous amounts of detail. One of my best articles (Epithets 2017) was a more organised and complete version of one of Jan Nattier's footnotes which explores some ideas proposed by Yamabe Nobuyoshi (1992 fn 54a). I checked with Nattier and Yamabe before publishing this refinement of their idea. And I'm happy to be doing this scut work. Honestly, I'm honoured to be tidying up after Jan Nattier, she is an inspiration to me. I never set out to change the world. I only set out to read the Heart Sutra. It's not my fault if the existing scholarship has missed the blindingly obvious. I'm just the messenger. I was as surprised as everyone else that no one had seen what I see. Now I can't unsee it and I have been attempting to communicate it. Ten articles later, there are still low hanging fruit that no one can see because they refuse to acknowledge that fruit even exist. Ironically, the deliberate withholding of attention is central to understanding Prajñāpāramitā (my interpretation of Huifeng 2014).

This meanness and use of public humiliation is not new to me. Indeed this has been a feature of my life. People use coercion and manipulation in attempts to control or negate other people all the time. It's a kind of sickness for a social primate, but in my experience (across cultures) this is the norm in life. Buddhism does not escape it (as we have learned to our great cost in the West) and Buddhist studies is mired in it. Bullying and shunning are commonplace.


Studying the Heart Sutra

I never even wanted to study the Heart Sutra. I'm still not that interested in it. But I had the opportunity to audit Sanskrit classes at Cambridge University with Vincenzo Vergiani and Eivind Kahrs (who was appointed to K. R. Norman's post when he retired). This was before Cambridge University finally killed off Indology and ancient Indian languages. I read Sanskrit in 2012 because they no longer offered Pāli and everyone told me (rightly) that knowing Sanskrit would improve my Pāli. As well as many textbook passages, I read stories from the Hitopadeśa, most of the Sānkhyakārikā, verses from the Mahābhārata, and passages from the Vākyapadya. I just wanted to read a Sanskrit Buddhist text, but I fully intended to keep my focus on Pāli.

What drew me into studying the Heart Sutra was the mistake I found in the first sentence of Conze's Sanskrit text: a transitive verb treated as intransitive, a noun in the wrong case, and a misplaced colon. The simple addition of an anusvāra (धाधां) and omission of anusvāra is the most common scribal error in these manuscripts. At least two of the extended text manuscripts have the noun in the correct case (making it the object of the transitive verb). A difficult nonsense sentence is transformed into a relatively straightforward three clause sentence. Lacking confidence back then, it took me 10,000 words to describe this problem and propose a solution (Attwood 2015). I covered all the bases, with help from Jonathan Silk and Jan Nattier on the Tibetan texts.

This initial insight was not dependent on Chinese origins or Nattier's work in general. It was all about Sanskrit grammar. No one else had seen this error in a text first published by Conze in 1946, revised in 1948, 1967, and translated numerous times. It's 2021 now, and long overdue for academia to wake up and think about this and my other grammatical points (Attwood 2018a, 2020a). Whether they agree with me over Chinese origins or not, these are basic questions of Sanskrit grammar.

I naively thought that if I published this small discovery (which I did in 2015) that academics and Buddhists alike would be like, "Oh yeah, now that you point it out...". I thought perhaps some might go as far as citing my discovery. However, in the intervening six years, not one single academic has discussed my article let alone adopted my suggested correction. The whole article was recently summarily dismissed in a footnote by senior Japanese scholar Saitō Akira (2021), in favour of the defective reading that makes no sense in Sanskrit.

Buddhist Studies academics have long preferred the defective version of the Heart Sutra and loudly praised Conze for his "meticulous scholarship" in producing a defective edition, a lousy translation, and a harebrained mystical interpretation. This preference for familiar confusion over unfamiliar clarity is inconsistent with objectivity, the primary defining characteristic of scholarship. Objectivity, as Carl R. Trueman has said, is not neutral. Objectivity shows that all answers are not equal and some are wrong. Reality is a particular way, at least on scales relevant to the human sensorium, and not any other way. Objectivity is as much as part of philology, history, and philosophy as it is of science.

How can I make sense of this refusal to even consider the possibility of change?

Belief Is An Emotion About An Idea.

It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterfactual evidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true. Reed Berkowitz, discussing the similarities between QAnon and live action role-playing games, cites an article by Kaplan et al (2016).*

"Strongly held beliefs are literally a part of us. As such, attacks on core beliefs are treated very much as attacks on us, even as strongly as a physical attack." Berkowitz (2020)
* For a popular account of Kaplan et al's research see Resnick (2017) "A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone's political beliefs".

Kaplan (2016) notes that, presented with "counterevidence" (i.e. counterfactual evidence), "people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information." New information can create cognitive dissonance.

"Attacks on core beliefs are treated very much as attacks on us, even as strongly as a physical attack."
Berkowitz (2020)

This suggests that by presenting an alternative reading of the Heart Sutra Nattier generated negative emotions amongst those committed to a traditional reading, both conservative religieux and scholars alike. This religieux/scholar distinction is thin or absent in Buddhist Studies and in traditionally Buddhist countries, Buddhist Studies is completely dominated by religieux. Apparently no one sees the conflict of interests in this.

And it's not just that a Chinese Heart Sutra asks these men to change their minds. It goes a bit deeper than this. Because in confirming that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese digest text and the Sanskrit text a poor translation passed off as Indian, we are asking them to publicly admit they were wrong all this time. And this is a major challenge to their egos. Some people feel threatened by counterfactuals.

With respect to the Heart Sutra change is especially hard, heterodoxy is viewed especially negatively, and new information treated with heightened suspicion amongst the religieux in academic, simply because they are religieux in academia. The two conservatisms multiply. New information, even something as simple as a minor grammar correction, creates strong negative emotions in religieux (including academic religieux) because it conflicts with long held, cherished beliefs about the Heart Sutra, but also because it conflicts with the very identity of the religieux. Two strong emotional reactions combine into a perfect storm of denial and aggression. And this is expressed as intellectual incredulity and emotional hostility.

Some years ago, a chance meeting led me to look into the work of Hasok Chang, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. I was very struck by his inaugural lecture for example, and his book Is Water H20? which covers many of the same themes in more detail. One of Chang's main themes is that pluralism at certain stages of knowledge-seeking is an advantage. According to Chang's liberal view of science, having competing explanations strengthens science. His striking example is that the much maligned idea of phlogiston actually had more going for it than Lavoisier's idea based on transfer of oxygen to and from metals. Thanks to Lavoisier's relentless self-promotion we have to say that fluorine "oxidises" hydrogen when they react to form hydrogen fluoride, even though the reaction does not involve oxygen at all. A better generalisation is that electrons flow from hydrogen to fluorine. And phlogiston being a hypothetical fluid, would have provided a much better model for this process. But Lavoisier was more popular and persuasive than Priestly. Phlogiston was the Betamax of chemistry.


Conclusion

In my view Nattier (1992) is the single most important article ever published on the Heart Sutra. I still pore over it all the time. It's a tour de force of modern, secular, scholarship. A paradigm-slaying piece of writing. I find it exhilarating. And yet it has largely been ignored or, in Japan, subjected to disingenuous theological refutations and apologetics of the type: "The Heart Sutra cannot be Chinese because we believe it is Indian." Nattier opened the door to a completely new reading of the Heart Sutra as concerned with epistemology rather than metaphysics. Not my suggestion, by the way, but Huifeng's (aka Matthew Orsborn):

“It is our view that this shifts emphasis from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e. ‘there is no X’, to an epistemological stance. That is, when the bodhisattva is ‘in emptiness’, i.e. the contemplative meditation on the emptiness of phenomena, he is ‘engaged in the non-apprehension’ of these phenomena” (Huifeng 2014: 103).

We expect religieux to be sensitive to heterodoxy and to respond negatively to it, even to react violently. The sunk cost fallacy following huge investment of time and resources promoting orthodoxy virtually ensure this. Issues of belonging, identify, and status within a community are keenly felt by religieux and academics alike, and for the similar reasons. In Buddhist Studies a substantial proportion of the community are both academics and religieux. Even those academics who are not overtly religious, tend to be in love with Buddhism (and thus cannot see it objectively). If a scholar's first name is "Bhikkhu", then they are overwhelmingly likely to be a Theravāda apologist, though one of them got quite mad at me for saying so to his face a few years ago. Most academics are too canny to advertise their religious affiliations via the use a religious name in an academic context. It would be interesting to see some objective measure of how many Buddhist Studies academics think of themselves as "Buddhist". A good research project for someone studying contemporary Buddhist Studies. 

Meanness is, to some extent, just something we meet in everyday life and have to deal with. Including in our workplace, though usually work culture norms do put a lid on it: it's pretty unusual to see public humiliation these days as it's considered harassment. People are mean for all kinds of reasons, and these may not be obvious from the outside. Often it's a cry for help. We can offer people who behave meanly compassion on a good day, but being subject to their abuse does make it hard to think clearly or respond creatively in the moment. 

Still, while we can delve into the psychology of meeting counterfactual evidence and the negative emotional responses it generates, to explain the phenomenon, the bottom line is that trying to humiliate colleagues is not acceptable behaviour. It has likely aborted many promising careers in academia. My other idol, Sue Hamilton, for example, left academia and never looked back. Anecdote suggests many Buddhist Studies academics are decamping for greener pastures that offer a more collegial working environment and a coherent body of theory to work with.

Unchecked meanness makes for an unproductive environment. I'm sure it has contributed to driving people away from studying Prajñāpāramitā: a sub-field that everyone agrees is of central importance to understanding Buddhism, but in which almost no one works.

The academic field of Buddhist Studies needs to address this issue of senior academics publicly humiliating students and junior colleagues. But the problem that Buddhist Studies has no core set of values or theory remains. It's a field, but without a discipline. An Order without a rule. Senior academics have power but there are not enough checks and balances. And this is why abusive behaviour got established and continues to be a problem. And why the people who want to change it are fighting an uphill battle.

Quite honestly I'm tired of talking about the Heart Sutra. I'm just repeating myself now. I have a few loose ends to tie up and then I'm going to do something else. And chances are that my research will go on being suppressed by academia despite meeting all the criteria for serious consideration. Perhaps it is just too radical. Or perhaps I have to hope I outlive Lusthaus and co? Trouble is I'm fifty-five (old for a heretic) and not in great health, so that strategy lacks appeal. 

I have either made a good argument in my ten peer-reviewed articles on the Heart Sutra or I have not. I don't expect a Nobel Prize or an honorary doctorate (though I'd accept the latter). Rather, if I have then I deserve to be taken seriously, and if I have not then I have earned the right to see a proper refutation in print (not just a short footnote) and to have a right of reply.

However, before this basic level of respect is afforded to me, I'd like to see Jan Nattier get her dues. Nattier deserves to get the lion's share of the credit. She is my ādiguru and my work is almost entirely derived from hers (one or two minor points about Sanskrit grammar notwithstanding). I also think that Huifeng/Matthew Orsborn's contribution has been massively under appreciated. Give them the credit they are due, and what is due to me as a systematiser of their work, will fall into place. I'm relatively unimportant in this story. 

If you have not already, then please read Nattier (1992) and Huifeng (2014). Read them properly, slowly, read all of the notes, think about the method, follow the evidence. If you have a better explanation for the discrepancies between the passages copied from Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā and the versions found in the Hṛdaya then, by all means publish it. Prove us wrong, if you can

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Becker, Adam. (2018). What Is Real? John Murray.

Berkowitz, Reed. (2020). "A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon: Playing with reality". Medium.com.

Chang, Hasok. (2010). "The Hidden History of Phlogiston: How Philosophical Failure Can Generate Historiographical Refinement." HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 16 (2), 47-79.

——. (2012). Is Water H20? Evidence, Realism, and Pluralism. Springer.

Kaplan, J., Gimbel, S. & Harris, S. (2016). "Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence." Nature: Scientific Reports 6, 39589. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39589

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Planck, Max. (1949). Scientific autobiography and Other Paper. Williams & Norgate.

Resnick, Brian. (2017). "A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone's political beliefs: Why we react to inconvenient truths as if they were personal insults." Vox. Updated Jan 23, 2017, 8:37am EST. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/12/28/14088992/brain-study-change-minds

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