05 December 2012

Heart Sutra: Horiuzi Palm-leaf mss. Transcription

"Facsimile of the two palm-leaves of Horiuzi, sent to Prof. Max Müller in 1880.
Catal. of Japanese books and mss. in the Bodleian Library, No. 45."


The image is a facsimile of the so-called "Horiuzi Palm-leaf MSS." of Hōryū-ji monastery. The manuscript was preserved in Hōryū-ji, and is said to date from 609 AD.  Georg Bühler notes in Müller (1881) that a comparison of the script with India manuscripts and inscriptions argues for a date in the 8th century. He hypothesises that all of those later scribes and stone masons of other editions were being deliberately archaic. However the simpler hypothesis is that the Horyuji manuscript is late.

The manuscript begins with the Heart Sūtra. From page 2, line 2 we find the Uṣnīṣavijaya Dhāraṇī. The last line is a complete Sanskrit syllabary in Siddhaṃ script - preceded by the word siddhaṃ and ending with llaṃ kṣa. Each texts begins with the auspiscious mark ࿓ called yigmo in Tibetan, which is often erroneously interpreted as oṃ.

Transcription of the Heart Sutra
Numbers in square brackets are line number. Syllables in curly brackets are doubtful readings.  Note the complete lack of punctuation and syllables are fully separate - except for the mantra where they clump into words.
RECTO [1] ࿓ na ma ssa rva jñā ya ā ryā va lo ki te śva ra bo dhi sa ttvā ga mbhī raṃ pra jñā pā ra mi tā yaṃ ca ryāṃ ca ra mā no vya va lo ka ya ti sma paṃ ca ska ndhā stā śca sva bhā va śū nyaṃ pa śya ti sma [2] i ha śā ri pu tra rū paṃ śū nya tā śū nya tai va rū paṃ rū pā nna pṛ tha k śū nya tā yā na pṛ tha grū paṃ ya drū paṃ sā śū nya tā yā śū nya tā ta drū paṃ e va me va ve da [3] na saṃ jñā saṃ skā ra vi jñā nā ni i ha śā ri pu tra sa rva dha rmā śū nya tā la kṣa ṇā a nu tpa nna a ni rū ddhā a ma lā vi ma lā nā nā na pa ri pū rṇa ta smā cchā ri pu tra śū nya tā [4] yāṃ na rū paṃ na ve da nā {na} saṃ jñā na saṃ skā rā na vi jñā ni na ca kṣū śro tra ghra ṇa ji hvā kā ya ma nā {msi} na rū paṃ śa bda ga nda ra sa spra ṣṭa vya dha rmā na ca kṣu rdhā tu yā va nna ma [5] no dhā tu na vi dyā nā vi dyā na vidyā kṣa yo nā vi dyā ksā yo yā va nna ja rā ma ra ṇaṃ na ja rā ma ra ṇa kṣa yo na duḥ kha sa mu da ya ni ro dha ma rga na jñā naṃ na pra pti tvaṃ bo dhi sa tva sya pra jña pā ra mi [6] tā a śri tya vi ha ra ti ci tta va ra ṇa ci ttā va ra ṇa nā sti {tva} da tra sto vi pa rya sā ti krā ntaḥ ni ṣṭha ni rva ṇaḥ trya dhva vya va sti tā sa rva bu ddhāḥ pra jñā pā ra mi tā a śri tyā nu tta rāṃ sa mya ksaṃ bo dhi {sa hi} [7] saṃ bu ddhā ta smā jñā ta vyaṃ pra jñā pra mi tā ma hā maṃ trā ma hā vi dyā maṃ traḥ a nu tta ra maṃ tra a sa

VERSO [8] ma sa ma maṃ tra sa rva duḥ kha pra śa ma naḥ sa tyaṃ a mi thya tvā {d} pra jñā pā ra mi tā yā mu kto maṃ tra  ta dya thā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā || pra jñā pā ra mi t {hrid} yā sa ma pta.


The handwriting is not too bad compared to some manuscripts. Some of the conjuncts are difficult to read. The syllables a sa śa and ma are easily confused.

This text has a different maṇgala to Conze's edition: namas sarvajñāya 'homage to the omniscient'.

Mistakes include: anānā for anūna; prajñāpramitā for prajñāparamitā; vijñāni for vijñānaṃ (plural for singular); na vidyā nāvidyā na vidyākṣayo nāvidyāksāyo when only nāvidyā nāvidyāksāyo makes sense in context of nidāna sequence; na missing from na saṃjñā; sa hi, or perhaps a hi, where expect samyak; niṣṭha-nirvaṇaḥ should be niṣṭha-nirvāṇāpraptaḥ (else it doesn't make sense); hṛda(?) yā  for hṛ da ya possible because of space constraints. Lots of odd sandhi, missing anusvāra and visarga but this could be down to Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

I've added minimal punctuation to aid reading - but read carefully, previous editors have frequently got the punctuation wrong. A couple of insertions were required and are in square brackets. There are many errors in the ms. and it's possible I've made some as well.
࿓ namas sarvajñāya | āryāvalokiteśvara-bodhisattvā gambhīraṃ prajñāpāramitāyaṃ caryāṃ caramāno vyavalokayati sma paṃca-skandhās tā[ṃ]ś ca svabhāva-śūnyaṃ paśyati sma | iha śāriputra rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatāyā śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ evam eva vedana-saṃjñā-saṃskāra-vijñānāni | iha śāriputra sarva-dharmā śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā anutpanna anirūddhā amalāvimalā nānān aparipūrṇa | tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ na vedanāna [na] saṃjñā na saṃskārā na vijñāni na cakṣū-śrotra-ghraṇa-jihvā-kāya-manāmsi | na rūpaṃ-śabda-ganda-rasa-spraṣṭavya-dharmā | na cakṣur-dhātu yāvan na mano-dhātu na vidyā nāvidyā na vidyākṣayo nāvidyāksāyo yāvan na jarāmaraṇaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo | na duḥkha-samudaya-nirodha-marga | na jñānaṃ na praptitvaṃ | bodhisatvasya prajñapāramitā aśritya viharati [a]cittavaraṇa | cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvad atrasto viparyasātikrāntaḥ niṣṭha-nirvaṇaḥ | tryadhvavyavastitā sarvabuddhāḥ prajñāpāramitā aśrityānuttarāṃ samyak saṃbodhi [sam yak] saṃbuddhā | tasmā jñātavyaṃ prajñāpramitā mahā-maṃtrā mahāvidyā-maṃtraḥ anuttara-maṃtra asamasama-maṃtra sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ satyaṃ amithyatvād | prajñāpāramitāyām ukto maṃtra  tadyathā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā ||
prajñāpāramit [hṛda]yā samapta.
This text forms the basis of the Sanskrit edition published by Max Müller, which in turn forms the basis of the edition by Vaidya, This is significant because Vaidya is widely available on the internet and is the text which appears in the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon. The text is quite different from the critical edition by Conze (1948, 1967).

In terms of the history of the study of Prajñapāramitā texts in the West this is an important document. Though it is far from perfectly copied, and probably not at old as the priests of  Hōryū-ji monastery say it is, it is never-the-less old. It ought to have been carbon dated before now, but I've seen no reference to any attempt. The ms. dates from not long after the Heart Sutra was composed and probably can claim to the the oldest ms. of it in existence. Not only that but it continues to influence study and perception of the Heart Sutra. The excellent calligraphy book by John Stevens reproduces this text with only minor amendments for example; and much of it survives into Vaidya's Sanskrit text.


  • Conze, Edward (1948) ‘Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.
  • Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167.
  • Müller, Max. (1881) ‘The Ancient Palm Leaves containing the Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛidaya Sūtra and Uṣniṣa-vijaya-Dhāraṇi.’ in Buddhist Texts from Japan (Vol 1.iii). Oxford University Press. Online: http://archive.org/details/buddhisttextsfr00bhgoog
  • Vaidya, P.L. (1961) Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṁgrahaḥ (part 1). Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 17. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. Online: http://dsbc.uwest.edu/

04 December 2012


Another article of mine has been published. This time in the newly revamped Western Buddhist Review. BTW I am now a member of the editorial board of the WBR. Finishing these more in-depth articles was one of the main reasons for giving up blogging.

The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭicca-samuppāda. Western Buddhist Review. 6, Dec 2012.

This article surveys the Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭicca-samuppāda in the Pāli Nikāyas, with some reference to Chinese parallels, exploring the similarities and differences between the presentations to further elucidate the doctrine which has been at the forefront of the teaching of Sangharakshita and the Triratna Buddhist Order. English language sources are also surveyed and critiqued. Most writing to date has focussed on a single text, the Upanisā Sutta, which is shown to be unrepresentative of the class as a whole, and a new locus classicus is suggested in the Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta. The Spiral Path is seen to conform to the general outline of the Buddhist path as consisting of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

My friend Maitiu and I are working on a  study of the Chinese Spiral Path texts which can be found in section 5 of the Chinese Madhyāgama. Representatives of the main themes can be found in this block of 14 sūtras. As with other parallels the differences are relatively minor.

23 November 2012

Heart Sutra Syntax

Dr. Edward Conze
UPDATED. This is one of those issues where I just have to write down my thoughts and there's not enough to warrant a published article.

I'm studying the Heart Sutra to practice my Sanskrit, and for the joy of chanting it aloud.  And I've found an interesting puzzle. Like many people I'm familiar with Conze's critical edition in Buddhist Wisdom Books (2nd Ed. 1975); checked against the version in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (1967) which contains the variant readings he found, and against Vaidya's edition (which is also online). The part that concerns me is right at the start:
ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitā-caryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhās tāṃś ca svābhavaśūnyān paśyati sma.
I think this sentence has been parsed incorrectly by Conze. There are three syntactical problems with this rendition.

Firstly the verb vyavalokayati (vi + ava + √lok; conjugated as a 10th class verb) has no object. If we break the sentence when Conze says, then it suggests that the verb vyavalokayati is intransitive. Avalokiteśvara is just looking, not looking at anything. This is a little bizarre, but worse when we consider the rest of the sentence.

The second problem is the place of ca. This is an enclitic particle that follows the word it applies to. Here it joins two sentences. This suggests that the second sentence must begin with tāṃś - an accusative plural 'they' (with a sandhi change from tān to tāṃś to accommodate the following ca). This means that pañcaskandhās must belong to the first sentence, but as it is in the nominative singular case it doesn't fit. In this case tāṃś is referring back to the object of the previous sentence - except that it does not have one.

Thirdly tāṃś (pronoun) and svabhāvaśūnyān (adjective) are both accusative plural forms. With what are they agreeing if not the five skandhas?

Let me just describe what is happening in this sentence for the non-Sanskrit reader. The first sentence has two clauses: The subject of the sentence is the Noble Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo). He is practising (caramāṇo) the deep (gambhīrāṃ) practice of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ). Here caramāno is a secondary verb in the form of a present participle which describes an action taking place at the same time as the main verb. The two words gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ are in the (feminine) accusative singular - gambhira being an adjective which must match it's noun.  As such prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ is the object of the secondary verb, caramāṇo.

While practising Avalokiteśvara did the action of the verb vyavalokayati sma. The particle sma is called a "periphrastic past". To make a present-tense verb past, one has the option of just adding sma after it, as paśyati 'he sees' does in the next phrase. Conze's rendition of this as "looked down from on high" is fanciful and seems to be based on over analysing the word avalokita. Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary is more sober and suggests 'inspecting, examining' which makes more sense. Conze got carried away here in reading vyavalokayati as an intransitive verb and it left him a problem in the form of pañcaskandhās which has no clear syntactic relationship with the other words in either sentence, but is important in the text.

Now we know that extant manuscripts have a lot of variation - hence the need for critical editions. Conze (1967) notes here show that there is a majority with his reading, but some variations amongst the 12 Nepalese manuscripts. Regarding this passage (N stands for Nepalese manuscript).
Ne - omitted;
Nb,c pañca-skandhān svabhāva-śūnyāṇ vyavalokitavyam
Nk (begins) vyavalokitavyam
Nd,l - omitted.
Vaidya has:
... व्यवलोकयति स्म। पञ्च स्कन्धाः, तांश्च स्वभावशून्यान् पश्यति स्म॥
... vyavalokyati sma | pañca skandhāḥ, tāṃśca svabhāvaśūnyān paśyati sma
Vaidya has the same problem: what to do with pañcaskandhāḥ in the nominative plural? Now Conze renders this part of the passage "He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and saw that in their own-being they were empty".

I think this is a blunder on Conze's part, because the sentence simply can't say this. Pañcaskandhās is unambiguously a nominative plural, and thus the subject of the sentence. In the sentence pañca skandhāḥ, tāṃśca svabhāvaśūnytān paśyati sma it is clearly the pañca-skandhāḥ that did the seeing. Hence the superimposed comma (which Sanskrit entirely lacks) because otherwise it is nonsense.

Conze's reading is also problematic because it suggests that the skandhas have self-existence (svabhāva) which is empty; and as I understand this text (and Nāgārjuna) a central plank of Prajñāpāramitā thinking is that dharmas and skandhas all lack svabhāva. Self-existence is not possible according to Nāgārjuna. Surely the text must be saying that the skandhas are empty of svabhāva, rather than that their svabhāva was empty?

There is a simple solution to this dilemma which is suggested by Conze's Nepalese manuscripts b & c. Which is that pañcaskandhās is in fact an accusative plural: pañcaskandhān. However -ān followed by t undergoes compulsory sandhi change to -āṃs. Thus we expect to see pañcaskandhāṃs tāṃś ca. The difference is more subtle in Indic scripts which indicate the anusvāra with a dot:

पञ्चस्कनधांस्  vs  पञ्चस्कन्धास् 
pañcaskandhāṃs vs pañcaskandhās   

We know that Nepalese manuscripts are often sloppy with anusvāra. It solves both the problem of the lack of object for vyavalokayati and the placing of ca. In favour of this theory is that in Vaidya's edition of the long Heart Sutra we find just this, i.e. pañca skandhāṃstāṃśca.

The amended passage now reads:
āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma pancaskandhāṃs, tāṃś ca svābhavaśūnyān paśyati sma.
Noble Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva, practising the deep practice of the perfection of wisdom, examined the five skandhas and saw them empty of self-existence.
This simple change also avoids the awkwardness of Conze's translation, and makes more doctrinal sense.

It's important to be aware that the original Sanskrit manuscripts did not have punctuation and the hand writing was often very poor, especially on later Nepalese manuscripts. Conze himself complains of this. A manuscript might have looked a bit like this:

There's little or no punctuation in this style of writing, and no word breaks as each syllable is written as a standalone. For the record pañcaskandhāstāṃśca would look like this in Devanāgarī

पं च स्क न्धा स्तां श्च

paṃ ca ska ndhā stāṃ śca
In this manuscript it would not be hard to confuse stāṃ and ntāṃ, it's only a matter of a single misplaced stroke, or a smudge. In the image below I've taken the syllable from the manuscript above: stā is on the left and is altered to read ntā on the right (this ms. leaves off the anusvāra or ):

However the loss of anusvāra is the simplest answer to the conundrum. I'll see if I have time to check the Chinese at some future date. This section of the text was almost certainly composed in China, and there is no parallel in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer. p. 147-167. (Originally published in: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1948, pp. 33-51.)

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. 2nd Ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.

'Facsimile of the Horiuzi Palm-leaf MSS. of Hōryū-ji Monastery' in Buddhist Texts from Japan. (Anecdota Oxoniensia, Aryan series), 1881. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Falongsibeiye.png
Vaidya, P.L. (1961) Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṁgrahaḥ ( part 1). Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 17. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. Online: http://dsbc.uwest.edu/ [This volume contains editions of both long and short versions of the sutra].

Chinese Texts
照見五蘊皆空T 8.251 ST XuanzangHe observed that the fives skandhas are all empty.
照見五隠空T 8.250 ST KumarajīvaHe observed that the five skandhas are empty.
照見五蘊皆空T 8.253 STHe observed that the fives skandhas are all empty.
照見五蘊自性皆空。彼了知五蘊自性皆空:T 8.252 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence. He knew the five skandhas were empty of self-existence.
照見五蘊自性皆空T 8.254 & 257 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence.
觀察照見五蘊體性悉皆是空T 8.255 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence. (with synonyms)

LT = Long text; ST = Short text.

15 November 2012


Just a quick note to let people know that an article of mine has been published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol 3.

This article explores the plausibility of Michael Witzel’s speculation that the Śākya tribe might have Iranian origins, or at least Iranian connections. Circumstantial evidence suggests that ideas associated with Iran and Zoroastrianism appear in north-east India, especially amongst the śramana groups,and in particular amongst Buddhists, but not in the Brahmanical culture.Whereas Buddhism is frequently portrayed as a response to Brahmanism,or, especially by Buddhists, as ahistorical, Witzel’s suggestion gives us a new avenue for exploring the history of ideas in Buddhism. This essay attempts to show that, at the very least, possible connections with Iran deserve more attention from scholars of the history of ideas in India and especially Buddhism.

03 August 2012

Changing the World: a Case Study.

This post, the last I have planned for this blog, is an extended version of an essay I submitted to Śabda the newsletter that our Order use to keep in touch (it's like a once a month manual forum). Many Buddhists are interested in changing the world. Over my lifetime the world has changed significantly, and I thought it might be interesting to write up some reflections on this change, and how it was achieved.

The world changed in 1971. 

In 1971 President Nixon unilaterally dismantled the Bretton Woods Agreement. This multi-lateral agreement on monetary policy was put in place to help the world recover financially from WWII. It spawned the IMF and the World Bank. Part of Bretton Woods was the gold standard. The countries involved agreed to fix the exchange rate of their currency to the value of the US Dollar, while the US agreed to peg the value of their currency to the value of gold. The expense of the war in Vietnam was putting great pressure on the US economy. Then the French began to swap their US dollars for gold. This caused a drain on gold reserves in the US and choked their money supply. In the face of these problems Nixon may not have had much choice but to withdraw from the gold standard. This is something for goldbugs to keep in mind.  As we will see this was the thin edge of the wedge.

In the same year the UK introduced the Competition and Credit Control Act. Economists joke about this really being 'all competition and no control'. The main effect of these changes was deregulation, which allowed private sector debt to begin to accumulate. From 1945 to 1971 there was a period of economic stability, with no notable crises. The IMF tell us that since 1970 "there have been 147 bank crises, 218 currency crises and 66 country-financing crises". In 1971 the motto of Polonious was decisively thrown out. The world began to borrow to finance consumption and to gamble on asset prices.

During the 1980s politicians influenced by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics, also known as Neo-classical economics, gained power. They were aided in part by divisions amongst the other dominant school of economic thought: the Keynesians. It was the ideas of John Maynard Keynes which had produced the post-war economic stability. Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA (and Lange in NZ) implemented policies inspired by the Chicago School. These policies are also known as Neo-liberalism. One of the main things they did was pursue deregulation of the economy. This pursuit was based on an ideological view of markets which they said could be left to themselves to sort out prices. Underlying this view was the 19th century utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. And overlaying it was an over-estimation of the power of computers to predict the behaviour of the economy, and the validity of the computer models being used to make predictions. All around the first world Neo-liberal policies removed trade barriers, sold off public assets, down sized government departments, and took the deregulation of finance almost to it's logical conclusion.

Debt fuelled consumption and speculation, especially the latter, pushed up prices causing inflation. Inflation required pay rises, and further price rises. Until it all collapsed in a recession. Then began to pile up again. Each cycle was a little worse because some of the debt carried over. In the Third World it rapidly lead to ruin and poverty for many. Africa succumbed first in the 1970s. South American countries were hit in the 1980s. In South-East Asia ruin and poverty came in the late 1990's. Now the First World faces ruin.

The response to repeated crises was to further deregulate the economy, and particularly finance. In the UK this was done by a Labour government. The Labour party still describe themselves as "socialist", but alongside typically socialist policies like expansion of the welfare state, they pursued an extreme Neo-Liberal approach to the finance sector. This further deregulation allowed for more debt, and more risky lending. Banks, who make money from debt, were happy to oblige. Successive governments around the world followed similar policies.The whole thing gained momentum so that debts accumulated exponentially.

The finance sector generated huge amounts of income but concentrated it in the hands of a tiny minority. It generated even hugher amounts of debt. Today the UK is the most indebted country in the world. Recent estimates place our private sector debt at 450% of GDP, which includes household debt (including mortgages) at 100%. Government debt by comparison is just 81% of GDP.

The most recent crisis exposed corruption in the finance sector, and the massive scale of our indebtedness. Five years later we're still going down hill, with Europe teetering on the brink (of what?). Many first world banks are technically insolvent, but somehow reporting record profits and paying out large bonuses. Now we learn that some have been manipulating interest rates. They are propped by government borrowing amounting to a trillion pounds. Executive pay is increasing exponentially. Unemployment is high. So much for the "free market". What this approach to banking amounts to is national socialism. However the practitioners of this peculiar form of socialism for the rich, are still emphasising that the poor must pursue a pure form of free-market capitalism. Many intellectuals are pointing to disturbing parallels with Europe in 1931.

The same trend has exacerbated environmental problems. At the moment there are direct and indirect incentives to exploit resources at the maximum rate with no regard to the environmental consequences. Governments seem paralysed by fear of the business sector. And business and finance spend billions of dollars/pounds lobbying for favourable laws. The political will to address any of these problems does not exist at present. And those economists who did predict the credit crunch of 2007 are saying that we have not seen the worst. There is another massive credit crunch coming in 2012 or 2013.

How did this happen?

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

Lewis Powell Memo
The second major event of 1971 was the Lewis Powell Memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System". Powell characterised the situation as a war in which business interested were threatened by social change emphasising the values of cooperation and mutual aid (our values). The memo makes a series of detailed proposals for an aggressive response by conservative businessmen.

Businessmen should endow universities with chairs to teach conservative business practices, and financially support conservative institutes. Powell proposed that a number of very well resourced think-tanks be set up. These would help to create and promote a consistent, potent message. Deregulation was central to their agenda. They needed to train spokesmen in communicating the conservative message, and create booking agencies to help organise speakers. They also invested in media companies to ensure access. They did all this, and needless to say they funded conservative political parties. Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court two months after the memo was published.

At the same time US conservatives began to politicise fundamentalist Christians who had been disengaged to that point, creating a whole new constituency of millions of ultra-conservative voters.

Conservatives all over the world have benefited from this coordinated strategy to hijack democracy in the USA, and fight a war against their own people. A steady stream of graduates with PhDs in what amounts to conservative ideology, finds jobs in universities and think-tanks to explore and publish their ideas and influence new generations of students and intellectuals particularly economists. There are close linked between Neo-conservative though and Neo-classical Economics. Through manipulation and control of the media a constant presence of the conservative message is maintained. Powell's memo is one of the most important documents of the 20th century, it is the founding charter of the Neo-conservative religion.

However I should sound a note of caution. Some historians have noted that there is little evidence that Powell Memo had any real impact. Even so it remains iconic because it sums up the mood of conservatives in the US at the time, and it summarises what actually happened in terms of the mobilisation of conservatives.

As a result of these policies conservative ideas have been at the forefront of politics. Deregulation has wrecked the world's economy, and helped to wreck the environment. Conservatives set the agendas on which elections are fought (they are doing so again in the UK right now). Business policy became political policy; business values became social values. The world changed because conservatives captured the cognitive map, dominated the debate by choosing the frames, and made laws that represented their values.

Something that I did not say in my original essay was that during this time the hippies were busy taking mind addling drugs, catching crabs and growing their hair long. As John Lydon said with venom in an interview from the late 1970s the problem with hippies was that "they're complaisant". While people in the 1970's counter-culture were tuning in, turning on and dropping our, the conservatives where tuning in, turning on and taking over. This is relevant because many of the leaders of First World Buddhism were hippies or felt inspired by the counter-culture. Some still do feel inspired by that era. But the hippies changed nothing. Their self-indulgent abdication of civil responsibility simply allowed the conservatives to dominate political life.

This how American businessmen succeeded in changing the world. They certainly created a much bigger impact on the world than Buddhism has done. It might be argued that we are few and poorly resourced. But the basic problem seems to be that we don't care, or don't care enough. There are plenty of people out there to make common cause with. We suffer from what Glenn Wallis has called sufficiency. We think Buddhism is a magic panacea entirely sufficient for all purposes be it psychological integration, emotional positivity, and even social change. So we don't look elsewhere, and we don't make common cause with people who share our values. And honestly, most people share our values at least to some extent. We're not as special as we'd like to think, and that feeling of specialness really is a problem for us because it's an expression of ego.

Now What?

I ended by report to the order with this question: "OK, I've understood this, now what?" This was as much to do with the word limit on reports as anything. I'm quite clear on some of the measures I'd like to see in response.

Firstly we must as a priority involve ourselves in civic society. This may require some education. But there are plenty of resources for that in this day and age. We Buddhists almost always have a strong sense of values. At the very least we should all book a time to go and meet our elected representative and try to communicate our values to them. We're about 1% of the UK population, but we're clustered and if we all visited our representative then we'd be heard. Democracy only works if people participate. Your representative can only represent you if they know you. But we need to go further. We need to engage in whatever public forums are open to us and speak up about our values and aspirations (this will require a major effort to de-jargonise Buddhist-speak else no one will understand what we are saying).

There are many arguments for and against this, but for me the bottom line is that if you take altruism seriously as a virtue, then you need to act to resist laws and policies which visit suffering on people. If we want society to reflect our Buddhism values, then making a few thousand converts is not enough. We need to influence public policy, which we do by being personally involved.

Secondly there are pressing problems such as environmental degradation that need concerted action. Concerted political will only emerges when there is a clear public will. If we're not even in the discussion our voices won't be heard. We live in a world where in some places people are dying of starvation and malnutrition, and in other places dying from obesity. There is no shortage of food on planet earth, even for a much larger population. Speaking as an over-weight Buddhist, I say there is no excuse for being a fat Buddhist (except in some very rare glandular disorders). Charities and Aid are only sticking plasters. Necessary for the short-term but long term we need to be thinking about changing the political systems we live in. In the First World we have the greatest chance of making these changes precisely because we live in relatively free democracies.

My third point follows on from this. The major powers continually act with greedy self-interest when dealing with the rest of the world. If we had acted more honourably at key points in history, then there would be considerably less war in the world now. For instance if the European powers had kept their promise to the Arabs lead by Prince Faisal at the end of WWI then our relations with the entire Middle East would be very different. The UK and the USA governments in particular have behaved abominably right up to the present. We have to let them know 'not in my name'.

Lastly we need to understand how political debates are framed, and set about reframing them. And here I think I've gained valuable experience in dealing with how Buddhist debates are framed. What I reject is the traditional ultraconservative fundamentalist framing of Buddhism; and Buddhism as a supernatural panacea. And it is very interesting to note the religious tone to Neo-Liberal discourse, and the idea of the supernatural ability of markets to determine price (which reminds me very much of karma). I've already written several blog posts on the Renegade Economist site regarding these issues: Framing the Debate Part I and Part 2, and Distorting Darwin or How the West Was Won.


So that's it for Jayarava's Raves. I have nothing else planned out to say on Buddhism. In a sense I feel I've said what I wanted to say about it. If you read one essay a week it would take you six years to read them all. I have been working on packaging some of the essays up into a book (or perhaps two) but I have no deadline in mind at present.

Now I want to engage with the institutions of society more, to take part in the public debate. I will certainly do all this as a Buddhist, and I will draw on the Dharma. However I won't be setting out to convert people to Buddhism, only to encourage them (and myself) towards paying attention, expressing empathy and altruism, and finding contentment in their lives. And after all it's only a blog, and not even very popular.

Thanks to all my readers over the years. And Thanks especially to my friend Ann 'Pema Yutso' Palomo for inspiring the whole project.

27 July 2012

The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor

"Whatever complex biological and neural processes go on backstage, it is my consciousness that provides the theatre where my experiences and thoughts have their existence, where my desires are felt and where my intentions are formed."

Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
ONE OF THE MOST fundamental metaphors we use when talking about mind is: the mind is a container. The container prototype is very important in terms of how we interact with the world. A container is a physically finite and bounded space, with a clear distinction between inside and outside. Containers often, but not always, have lids which seal the inside from outside, or vice versa.

Our body is a physically a container with a sealable opening at either end: a mouth and an anus. We put food into our body via our mouth. The mouth itself is a container, because we put food into it as well. Various things happen inside our body And shit comes out of our anus. Similarly we breath into our lungs (which are inside our body) and out. Virtually all other animals follow a similar body plan, and set of biological processes.

But these metaphors have implications which go well beyond the way we talk. George Lakoff and his colleagues, especially Mark Johnson, have shown that abstract thought is always metaphorical, and that the metaphors we draw on for abstract thought are often based on how we physically interact with the world.

So when "a thought comes into our head" there are two metaphorical processes happening. Firstly we are allowing that our head is a kind of container. This might be obvious because physically our skull is a hollow chamber of bone filled with our brain. It also has some extrusions attached and several openings. But the head here is also standing for the what goes on 'in' the head, a form of metaphor called metonymy: where a part stands for the whole, and sometimes vice versa. Our head is the container of thoughts; that is the head here stands for the mind as the container of thought: the thought is in [the container of] the mind, which is in [the container of] the head. The head is a particular kind of container, more like a room which we inhabit. Experientially when the thought comes into my head, I become aware of it because it enters the space "I" also occupy.

The second metaphorical process that is happening is that both "I" and the thought are (metaphorically) solid objects with shape and mass. We can take an idea and turn it over in our heads, kick it around; we juggle priorities, manipulate data and crunch numbers; we weigh alternatives, and can be weighed down by our cares. "I" am the same kind of object because I exist in the same domain as the ideas - thinking goes on in my head, and I am thinking my thoughts.

As metaphors there is absolutely nothing wrong with these abstractions. Abstraction allows us to be much more sophisticated in how we interact with the world and each other. Abstraction allows us to use our imagination to consider how things might be, to think about new ways of using tools for example, or new ways to modify tools to do a certain job. In part at least this ability to abstract is related to a set of neurons called mirror neurons. These neurons are active when we do an action, but also when we see an action being performed by someone else. If the action is a facial expression, then something interesting happens: observing the action our own neurons become active and we have a sense of what it would be like to have that facial expression. This allows to know how someone is feeling by observing their face (and their body language and listening to the tone of voice). This is a very useful facility to have.

However we are not usually aware of what we are doing: we have the result without understanding the working. In fact the working only became visible when we started to use powerful real-time brain scanning techniques. When we respond to a smile we aren't aware of the mechanisms that allow us to parse the visual information, recognise the face and the expression, and translate that into an internal state that we can feel, and then formulate a response. We just smile back or mutter humbug or whatever.

Similarly when a thought comes into our head we see this is a naive realistic way: just as though something with shape and mass has entered a room in which we were already an occupant. For many centuries philosophers took this metaphor as real and asked a lot of questions about the container and the nature of the container. Alternatively as the ODP definition says we think of consciousness as a special kind of room (a theatre) in which we observe the experiences we have, with the implication that we are the audience watching the action on the stage. Since we started to learn about the function of the brain we have extended the metaphor to make the brain the container of consciousness or personality.

But as comfortable as this way of referring to our minds it's still just a metaphor, not a reality. Remember that a metaphor is when you explain one thing in terms as though it were something else. It's very important to remember what it is you are describing, which is a hard thing to keep in mind. The mind is also sometimes a leaky container!

Most people, I think, would be surprised to learn that this metaphor is not universal. Luhrmann (2011) surveying the ethnographical literature on hallucinations, notes some research conclusions: "The Iban [tribe of Borneo] do not have an elaborated idea of the mind as a container". (p.79) In the context of research on psychosis this means that "the idea that someone could experience external thoughts as placed within the mind or removed from it was simply not available to them."

We also know that people experience the complete breakdown of the sense of in-here and out-there under certain circumstance (e.g. Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke). So the metaphor is not universal, not hardwired. It is a culturally conditioned aspect of a virtual model which our organism generates for the purposes of optimising its interactions with the environment. But the metaphor is so pervasive in English that it's very difficult for me to write a sentence about the virtual model without referencing the mind as container metaphor.

I might add that all of the aspects of consciousness are similarly contingent and plastic.

I came across a quote from Wittgenstein recently which seems apposite: "meaning is use". By this he seems to have meant that a word takes it's meaning not from a relationship with the object it names, nor by the ideas the objects engender, but only from the way that speakers use the word. There is something in this. However I would add some caveats because the study of sound symbolism, and embodied cognition don't allow for a strict application of 'meaning is use'. Research in sound symbolism tells us that the sounds we use to make words are symbols, and that there is a relationship between the symbols we choose and the objects and events we are observing or thinking of. The case I've been making above is that how we think, the very metaphors we use to represent abstract ideas are based on how we physically interact with the world. So, yes 'meaning is use' but use is not arbitrary, it is motivated (to use de Saussure's term) by these existing relationships, i.e. it operates within limits and tends towards pre-determined states.

The thing I wanted to draw out is that the question 'what is consciousness' might not be a sensible qustion. We might accurately answer that consciousness is the experience of being aware, of having a sense of agency and a first-person perspective. In effect there might be no 'Problem of Consciousness'.  There is certainly an experience, but does it point to a real container, a real theatre in which we experience consciousness? The answer would seem to be that is does not.

I think this would be the Buddhist answer as well, or it would be outside of Western Buddhism. As I suggested above it's very difficult for use Westerners to think of consciousness at all without unconsciously invoking a metaphor which we habitually take to be real. The very terminology we use asserts the reality of the abstractions and metaphors we use to describe the experience. In a targeted, but not comprehensive search I have not found viññāṇa being used in the sense of a container of experience in Pāli. Indeed just what viññāṇa refers to is not entirely clear to me except that it is an essential component of perception; and that it is consistently distinguished from the sense objects (rūpa, sadda, etc) and from the sense organs (cakkhu, sota, etc), and that it comes in six varieties (cakkhu-viññāṇā, sota-viññāṇa, etc.) including mano-viññāṇa. So the one thing this does not look like is the theatre of experience. If, for instance the Buddhist texts say that we experience vedanā in viññāṇa, then I have yet to find the passage where they do. In what sense does viññāṇa resemble our Western conceptions of consciousness at all? My response would be that it doesn't resemble it at all.

One can broaden search quite easily by looking for viññāṇasmiṃ/viññāṇe (the locative singular), which we would expect to translate 'in consciousness' if viññāṇa were a container. We find many examples of this grammatical form in Pāli. One of them is indeed treating viññāṇa a metaphorical container. At M iii.18 and many other places the assutavā [i.e. the ignorant, or uninformed person] seeks (in vain) for self in viññāṇa and viññāṇa in self. But it's clear that the view being described is not one that the knowledgeable Buddhist would subscribe to.

At M i.139 we find another use of the locative (with the sense of 'with reference to'). Here it is the well-informed (sutavā) disciples of the nobles, and they become fed up (nibbindati) with reference to rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāṇa. At M i.230 a materialist says of the khandhas: With viññāṇa [and the others] as self (atta) a person (purisapuggala) from resting in viññāṇa (viññāṇe patiṭṭhāya) produces merit or non-merit. Gotama proceeds to demolish the views of the materialist, treating the khandhas as he customarily does: not mine, not me, not myself.

And that accounts for all of the occurrences of viññāṇāsmiṃ/viññāṇe I found in a brief survey of the nikāyas. No doubt there are others, but they don't stand out. Buddhist texts, so far as I can tell, are aware that some misguided people do use the 'mind as container' metaphor, but the Buddhist Theory of Mind does not. For Buddhist thinkers there is no theatre of experience, there is just experience. The implication for us is that the experience of being in a theatre of experience, is just another experience. Perhaps the difference lies in the lack of theatres in Iron Age India and the largely outdoor lifestyle of the Buddhists. Virtually all of the action of the Pāli Canon takes place outside.

In any case we think very differently from the ancient Buddhists about the mind. Recall also that they did not see emotion as a separate category of experience but lumped it in the citta. (Cf Emotions in Buddhism) Judging by their language we can see that they lived in very a different world to us. Our conceptions about the world, the mind, and life generally are often not applicable to the past; nor theirs to the present. Our scientists and philosophers have spent time and resources looking for this theatre, and ironically neuroscientists seem to be confirming that our ancient forebears were right: mind as a container is a figment, generated by hypostasizing a metaphor we once used to describe the experience of having experiences.


This essay was inspired by reading: On Containers and Content, with a Cautionary Note to Philosophers of Mind, by Eric Schwitzgebel.

Mind Metaphors in Pāli

iti kho, ānando, kammaṃ khettaṃ viññāṇaṃ bījaṃ taṇhā sineho... hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ (AN i.232 )
Thus, Ānanda, action is a field, cognition is a seed, and craving is sap... cognition is established on a low level. 

Seyyathāpi bhikkhave, kūṭāgāraṃ vā kūṭāgārasālā vā uttarāya vā dakkhiṇāya vā pācīnāya vā vātapānā. suriye uggacchante vātapānena rasmi pavisitvā kvāssa patiṭṭhitāti. (SN 12.64 )
Just as if, bhikkhus, a roofed house or roofed hall with windows in the north, south or east. When the sun rises where do rays land when they come through the windows? 
Yaññadeva bhikkhave paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ tena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati... Seyyathāpi bhikkhave yaññadevāpaccayaṃ paṭicca aggi jalati, tena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. (MN 38)
Bhikkhus, whatever condition cognition arises upon, it is called after that... just as whatever condition fire burns, it is named after that.

Magic trick
Pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ vedanā bubbuḷupamā
Marīcikupamā saññā saṃkhārā kadalūpamā,
Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ dīpitā diccabandhunā.
(SN 22.95)
The kinsman of the Sun has taught that:
form is like a ball of foam, sensation is like a bubble,
perception is like a mirage, intention is like a plantain,
cognition is like an illusion, 

20 July 2012

Revisiting Greater Magadha

WHEN JOHANNES BRONKHORST'S BOOK Greater Magadha hit the scene a lot of us were over-awed by the scope and complexity of the argument. I wrote about my first encounter with it in a blog post called Rethinking Indian History (2009). A the time we thought it must be significant, and the new theory did seem to solve some of our problems. It was exhilarating to realise that history was able to be re-written.

However, such a book is difficult to assess, and even after several years there has been little critical response to it from the field of Buddhist studies. A few reviews, but nothing of real substance. This may be because in order to place Bronkhorst's claims in context one must have a good grasp of a body of literature and evidence that is unfamiliar to most Buddhologists. If we haven't read Bronkhorst's oeuvre, for example, we'll struggle to really grasp where he's coming from. We also need to be familiar with writers on Indology such as Michael Witzel and Asko Parpola (neither of whom are read by many Buddhologists). The archaeological and anthropological studies are also critical - and they are scattered and from an entirely different discipline. And this work also relies on familiarity with Vedic literature and on the philological problems of dealing with it. In other words, there is not much criticism because not many of us are qualified to read Bronkhorst critically.

At the same time Bronkhorst's book seems seems to have over shadowed Geoffrey Samuel's book, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, which came out a year later. In fact, Samuel is by far the better author, his book is far more readable and accessible, and about 1/10th of the price! His treatment of the relevant material (mainly based on an unpublished book by Thomas Hopkins) seems more credible, though it still has its limitations.

At the time, I was very enthusiastic about Greater Magadha because it was one of those moments when I realised that everything I thought I knew might be wrong, and what could be more exciting for a scholar? However, I've been reflecting on Bronkhorst's book in the light of Geoffrey Samuel's book, and particularly Michael Witzel's equally awe inspiring writing (again far more accessible since he shares pdfs of many of his publications for free!). My conclusion is that Bronkhorst's thesis will not stand the test of time.

Bronkhorst, as my friend Dhīvan said in his recent M. Phil. thesis, is often arguing tendentiously. I like this word. It means that Bronkhorst has a conclusion that he is pursuing and this is reflected in how he treats the evidence. Everything is predicated on Bronkhorst's revised chronology and presented in such a way as to support his conclusions. In my view the evidence is read in the light of the theory, which is the opposite of the scientific method.

Poor Reasoning

There are some examples of faulty work in the Book, for example in the Appendix VI covering Brahmins in the Canon. Here he notes that the Ambaṭṭha Sutta may well refer to Sanskrit ambaṣṭha: i.e. someone born of a brāhmaṇa father and a kṣatriya or vaiṣya mother. Ambaṭṭha turns out to have a Brahmin father and a mother descended from a slave and is therefore low caste. Bronkhorst argues that here ambaṣṭha/ambaṭṭha must refer to the mixed caste of the interlocutor which is plausible. However, a slave is not a kṣatriya or vaiṣya so Bronkhorst is stretching the evidence to suit himself. Richard Gombrich is using the same kind of argument when arguing that the Buddha must have known about the Puruṣasūkta (ṚV 10.90) because he refers to Brahmins being born from Brahmā's mouth in the Tevijja Sutta. Bronkhorst points out that in the ṚV the Brahmins are born from Puruṣa's mouth, not Brahmā's and concludes that they Pāli authors "did not know" the sūkta (p.213). Bronkhorst seems to have a rather irrational aversion to Gombrich and it shows here in his inconsistent standards in treating the evidence. It also shows in his treatment of the humorous passages of the Pāli suttas which do not get a laugh from him.

Another example is the conclusion that because the Pāli texts are familiar with an idea found in the Dharmasūtras the Pāli texts must be late. The Dharmasūtras are much less securely dated than the Pāli, though the consensus seems to be that the written texts are originally post-Asoka. However, it is also widely accepted that they codify conventions that are a great deal older, so there is no a priori reason to assume that a detail in isolation is late because it is found in a Dharmasūtra. And the Pāli parallels are all details in isolation.

Bronkhorst is caught out using fallacious reasoning on two separate occasions and this must put us on our guard. These examples are from areas I understand well enough to be sure of my ground. It might be argued that these are relatively minor infractions, but if someone like me can spot these kinds of minor problems, what are the professionals seeing? (and when will they write about them?)


Closer to the heart of the matter is that the very concept of Greater Magadha seems flawed. Yes, there are two cultures on the Ganges plain ca. 1000 BCE and one of them is the Kuru-Pañcāla state. The other one is not Magadha, but the Kosala-Videha complex, which is formed from Vedic tribes forced to move east by the rise of the Kurus. Witzel has referred to these tribes as para-Vedic, as they seem to have had customs significantly different than the Kuru Vedic tribes. Videha in particular retains connections with the Kuru Brahmins and the Videhan Kings invite them east. This is what we see in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad when King Janaka invites a number of orthodox/orthoprax Brahmins to a debate. A debate which local boy Yājñavalkya wins. Yājñavalkya represents, even personifies, a major shift that is going on in the Brahmanical world. A shift away from the orthopraxy of the Kurus towards a new form of Brahmanism that forms the basis of what comes after. Not only is BU composed in Videha but so is the White Yajurveda, and the single extant recension of the Ṛgveda (which once existed in a number of different recensions). At this time Magadha hardly features in texts at all. Geographically Magadha is isolated from the major players by being south of the Ganges.

By the time of the Pāli texts Kosala is clearly more welcoming to Brahmins than Magadha, which is further east and, crucially (in my opinion), south of the Ganges. The Pāli texts show more Brahmin towns and more land gifts to Brahmins in Kosala than in Magadha. In fact, Bimbisāra gave only two grants and his murderous son Ajatasattu is not recorded as giving any. Later, we know that the Mauryas were not converted to Brahmanism, but still followed śrāmaṇa religions.

Witzel considers that the evidence of the texts themselves, especially the language involved, shows that the early Upaniṣads must predate the early Pāli texts by some centuries, although he does point out that for both literatures there is a long gap between initial composition and final redaction, and this blurs the boundaries. The early Upaniṣads represent a time before the Second Urbanisation (ca 600-500 BCE), while the Pāli texts represent a time when it is in full swing. A difference not dealt with by Bronkhorst as far as I can see. Magadha as a power, with its fortified capital city Rājagaha, is only associated with the Second Urbanisation.

"Greater Magadha" as a region, then, only has meaning in Bronkhorst's idiosyncratic revised chronology which places all of the Upaniṣads post-Buddha. If anything the region is Greater Kosala in the late Vedic period (ca. 700-500 BCE)! It is true that the idea of ethicised karma does make a first appearance in BU, and I think Bronkhorst is on the right track when he says the Buddhist idea is not a development of Vedic eschatology, or at least not a direct development. What seems to mislead Bronkhorst is the idea that the source of this idea came along only in the 5th century. I believe this is short sighted, and ignores what we know about the history of ideas in India.


A fact which no scholar has yet come to grips with is that Brahmins, as far as they are recorded in the Pāli texts are quite diverse: we have at least ritualist, renunciate and theistic Brahmins, we also have some that are just plain villagers. Upaniṣadic ideas and practices are not found with any clarity in Pāli, they don't stand out, but they can apparently be inferred. We never see the Buddha in conversation with a Brahmin about ātman, for instance, or about brahman, or the identity of the two (leading to mokṣa), or about oṃ, or the vedas. Where Brahmins express religious ideas in the Canon they are cosmological or related to a Creator God. The cosmological ideas are likely to have been common knowledge. The central ideas of the Upaniṣads are missing from Buddhist texts. This might be seen to support Bronkhorst's thesis, but I'm not so sure. My guess is that Brahmins maintained a relatively orthoprax exterior and kept the Upaniṣads secret for a long time--the word upaniṣad can mean 'esoteric'.

The theistic Brahmins have yet to receive adequate attention from scholars. Gombrich treats references to Brahmā as a criticism of brahman, but this only works in the specific context of the Tevijja Sutta, and what we see throughout the Canon is no mention of brahman, and many mentions of Brahmā. The theistic tendency has parallels in parts of the Mahābhārata, and may represent a kind of short-lived orthodoxy that is quickly over-written by the cults of Śiva and Viṣṇu which relegate Brahmā to saṃsāra just as the Buddhists did.


Taking Witzel's (1997) suggestion that the Śākayas arrived in North-East India rather late, I have developed this idea in my forthcoming article (draft on academia.edu). All things considered, we can probably say that they arrived in the decade or two following 850 BCE. That year (± ~10 years) marks the beginning of a major dry period in India. Witzel notes that other North-Eastern tribes such as the Malla and the Vṛji were known to live in the West (Rajasthan and the Panjab) by early Vedic texts, but are neighbours of the Śākyas in the Pāli texts. At this time Kosala-Videha culturally dominates the Central Ganges region, and the Magadhan city of Rājagṛha is just about to be founded.

The argument is quite involved and requires the weighing of many separate items of circumstantial evidence, but a case can be made for contact between the Śākyas and the Zoroastrian culture of Iran. What is suggested by this line of argument is that the idea rebirth is found throughout Indian (perhaps it was an indigenous belief) but the introduction of ethicisation follows contact with Zoroastrianism. I try to make the case for this happening in the 9th century BCE, giving it time to infect the early Upaniṣads. However, it could have come with Achaemenid influence after Darius claims Gandhāra and Sindh as provinces of Persia ca. 520 BCE.

Revised Chronology

One of the problems with Bronkhorst's argument is that he mixes texts from different eras and is relying on conjectural reconstructions. So he contrasts the Bhagavadgītā, which is certainly written in the common era, with other bits of the Mahābhārata (post Asoka, but probably BCE), Pāli texts (ca 4th century BCE) Upaniṣads (7th-5th century BCE), and reconstructions of ideas of early Jain and Ājivika beliefs. This is not comparing apples with apples. A century of ideological development in a milieu which sees a lot of mixing and matching, assimilation and adaptation of each other's ideas and practices can see major changes. So it seems to me Bronkhorst's method is flawed.

As I said above everything is predicated on Bronkhorst's revised chronology and presented in such a way as to support his conclusions. In other words, one has to accept the his new chronology, which places the Upaniṣads after Buddhism rather than before it, and allows Brahmins to absorb ideas, particularly karma and rebirth, from the śrāmaṇa milieu. But the reasoning is circular. The thesis only works if we accept the chronology; while the chronology only fits if we accept the thesis. The same argument applies to the reconstructions of Jain and Ājīvaka religious ideas, especially the latter which are reconstructed mainly from Buddhist texts (a rather unreliable source of information!)


I think Bronkhorst has made a valuable contribution to the historiography of India. He has certainly made many of us rethink our understanding of and approach to the history of India before the Common Era, and this is a valuable service. A major challenge such as this forces us to be more precise in stating our differences of opinion if we have them. There are reasons to be cautious in accepting Bronkhorst's argument. I find I am persuaded by Witzel's account of the evidence as much because he seems to have no particular agenda as anything. Witzel has repeatedly, and at considerable length, played with the pieces of the evidential jigsaw in order to make a coherent picture from them. Samuel has showed that it is possible to read the archaeological evidence as supporting the consensus chronology. Following Witzel I have tried to show that the ideas might have come from a third source, Zoroastrian Iran, and been introduced into śrāmaṇa and Brahmin culture at roughly the same time. (Revising the article for publication is my next job).

Another plus is that Bronkhorst has made it abundantly clear that Buddhism can no longer be studied in isolation, but is a branch of Indology. Ignorance of archaeology and material culture (the gist of Greg Schopen's critique of Buddhist studies as a subject) is no longer acceptable. The Late Vedic literature--the Epics, Early Upaniṣads, Brāhmaṇas, Dharmasūtras, Dharmaśastras and even the Gṛhyasūtras--is starting to look more relevant in understanding early Buddhism. Early Buddhism existed in a context and we have been overlooking, or over-simplifying this context for too long. The downside of this is that an already complex subject appears to become an order of magnitude more complex. And this at a time when we are just beginning to make use of the Chinese parallels to the Pāli Nikāyas and discover the influence of Central Asia in transmitting Buddhist to the East. And this also at a time when Buddhist studies is dying out as an academic subject in the UK.

So far as I am aware, no scholar has adopted Bronkhorst's revised chronology. And the whole thesis depends on acceptance of the chronology. It may be that more time is required for scholars to assimilate Bronkhorst's work, and to provide a critique. But in the meantime there are some obvious flaws in it that should make the reader wary of just accepting what he says uncritically.

I want to conclude with a coda on critical discourse. Not so long ago I was speaking to a prominent long time Buddhologist and they remarked that criticising someone else's work in print was coming to be seen as unacceptable. Certainly in the US where tenure depends on a positive reaction to one's work, critical dialogue is dwindling. Journals have apparently refused to publish critical articles.  If the refutation aspect of conjecture and refutation is abandoned, then progress in knowledge inevitably goes awry. Just look at economics!


Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden: Brill.

If you know of other reviews drop me a line.

13 July 2012

Semmelweis Reflex

Ignatius Semmelweis

ONE OF THE REAL BENEFITS of living in the UK is the BBC, a non-commercial network of TV and Radio stations. I'm a fan of Radio Four which is fairly high-brow in its approach to culture and science. Some years ago I learned about Ignatius Semmelweis on Radio Four.

Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician working in Vienna in the mid-19th century. His claim to fame is that he realised that doctors were spreading Childbirth Fever to women during childbirth, a disease which was frequently fatal. He recommended that doctors wash their hands in a chlorine solution before attending to each patient. In particular he made interns in his hospital who had been dissecting cadavers wash their hands before touch living patients. He obtained a definite decline in cases of Childbirth Fever and saved many lives. However, despite the clear benefits, his idea was so radical and preposterous that until Louis Pasteur established 'germ theory' in the 1870's, after Semmelweis had died, his hygienic practices were not widely taken up. Semmelweis published his findings in medical journals of the day, and wrote about this theory in a book, but made little headway. It's thought that doctors found his theory unbelievable. Trust in empiricism was still relatively new amongst scientists, and in those days doctors were not scientists. At the same time doctors were gentlemen and found the very idea that their hands were "dirty" and caused disease unseemly and unbecoming.

Today there was a magazine program which included Joanna Kavenna who published a novel, The Birth of Love, on the themes of childbirth and motherhood. Semmelweis is a character in the novel. While being interviewed on the subject of creatively she mentioned something called the Semmelweis Reflex. The Semmelweis reflex is a knee jerk rejection of a new idea because it is unfamiliar. There's a nice definition on Wikipedia:
Semmelweis Reflex (or effect) "is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms."
It's so easy to feel that we understand things. With understanding comes a feeling of being in control, or at least not too much at the mercy of events. It has to be said that medicine is vastly improved by understanding, though modern medicine certainly has its limits. People who wish to limit the influence of science will often point out the limitations of science, though on the whole the people that I see doing this seem woefully ignorant of science and in no position to judge it's limits.
Click image to embigg
One place we might expect to find a well developed Semmelweis Reflex is in the sphere of religion. Religious people are not known for welcoming new information, especially when it contradicts there beliefs. When Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859 the response from Christians was a Semmelweis Reflex. Evolution continues to be the watershed issue for Christianity, especially in the United States. In the USA there is an ongoing battle to have Christian supernatural ideas given equal or better status as evolution has in the education system.

On the right is a modified version of a diagram showing a simplified version of how Christian responses to evolution have evolved over time (based on a diagram that seems to be endemic on the internet. I found it here). My version attempts to show the relative chronology vertically. In the late 18th and 19th centuries we saw several attempts to incorporate evolution into Christianity, especially after Darwin. There were those, of course, who simply refused to look at the data, refused to read On the Origin of Species, and refused to consider changing their views. What we then see is the emergence, mainly in the last 20th century a series of increasingly sophisticated approaches involving outright rejection of evolution. If the Semmelweis Reflex can be sustained over 150 years it seems as though 'reflex' is not quite the right word any more. Indeed unlike Semmelweis's case, the establishing of facts (paralleling Pasteur) doesn't seem to have initiating the overwhelming change in behaviour that it did in the case of hand washing amongst doctors.

Another classic Semmelweis Reflex can be seen in economics. Mainstream economists completely failed to predict the disastrous global financial crisis which began in 2007, and has become a depression one the scale of the 1930s. But there are a number of heterodox economists who did predict it. My favourite is Steven Keen of the University of Western Australia. He realised in 2005 that private debt was rising exponentially in Australia, with similar trends in the entire Western World. Neo-classical economic models ignore private debt, since they see credit and debit as cancelling each other out. In fact Neo-classical macro-economic models make a number of outrageous assumptions about complex systems, such as linear behaviour (the classic supply and demand graphs) and the concept of equilibrium which finds expression in the oft voiced trust that left to itself the market will find it's level. But anyone that knows anything about complex systems is that their behaviour is never linear, and never approaches equilibrium. Economists, sincere as they may be, are completely deluded about the extent to which their models fit reality. Progress in a discipline like economics comes one funeral at a time. In other words these hoary old economists are simply not going to change their minds, come what may. Our best hope it to outlive them and hope they don't cause too much damage in the mean time.

I believe that we are already seeing something similar over the issue of rebirth. I think I've done a pretty good job of outlining why rebirth is implausible, and have added some other points since publishing my blog Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient (27.1.12). The case is quite strong, and those willing to consider the evidence I've marshalled on the whole seem to agree with me. But then they almost certainly already agreed and were not convinced by my arguments. At best people appreciated my enthusiasm and thoroughness. So I'm preaching to the converted, which is not entirely satisfying because it's not a real test of my argument. And it needs testing.

On the other hand as people who commented, and as discussions elsewhere on the internet, have made clear, those who disagree with me seem unwilling to examine my argument in detail and point out flaws or inconsistencies. What they do is fall back on what they know, and a literal reading of Pāli suttas. I haven't seen objections on the basis of Mahāyāna scripture, for example, though it may exist. Most of these reactions simply restate the mature theory of kamma and rebirth as they were taught it, ignoring the inconsistencies in the presentation, and say that it must be taken as a whole or not at all. In other words they are having a Semmelweis Reflex.

The point is that neither side seem to be really thinking about the issues and weighing the evidence. They're just taking sides because it fits their ideology or doesn't. Rebirth is integral to the Buddhist tradition--it is assumed at every step. The fact that it does not seem plausible on the basis of what we now know leaves us with a difficult task. I don't think anyone has really got to grips with it yet. Most rebirth deniers just seem to be dodging the issue. On the other hand I see fundamentalism as the kiss of death for Buddhism in the modern West, because it will be seen in the light of religious fundamentalism more generally. If fundamentalism continues to gain ground it will certainly alienate the mainstream of Western Society who seem heartily sick of religious dogma.

The problem needs to be addressed on two levels. We need to be clear about the facts, both from the tradition and the new facts emerging from scientific and historical investigation. But we also need to look at the level of values and salience. For the fundamentalist the tradition has enormous gravitas that affects the way that salience is assessed. Many fundamentalists have tipped the scales so far that science carries no weight. Every scholar, author and academic finds their own theory more salient than any other, though the good ones remain open to persuasion. In other words we need to try to communicate the facts, but at the same time the value of these facts. Obviously for someone like me scientific knowledge has great salience. Not only can I not ignore it, but I actively seek it out, and make it a priority to learn new things. This is not true of many religious people, and so we must frame the debate carefully.

There is also an ethical issue involved in deliberately attacking someone's belief system. One can very easily stray into violent behaviour. If someone is not receptive to us, we cannot force them to listen without doing violence to them. Making people receptive to us usually means making an empathetic connection with them first. This involves understanding and appreciating what they value and why. In order to change someone's mind we have to be able to imagine ourselves in their shoes. And very few non-religious people seem willing or able to do this.

Of course many people will prefer to stay out of the discussion. People say they are happy with their beliefs and have no desire to convince anyone of anything. Sadly this kind of cop-out see to be a modern default setting. I would argue that both religious and secular ideas are laced with an imperative to be in dialogue with others and to help other people understand your point of view. Buddhism is one of the great proselyting religions, and it's imperative is to teach other people how not to suffer. Inherent in a secular view is the betterment of humankind through knowledge. People can't better themselves if thy remain ignorant.

But this is not a call to take sides. Far from it. This is a call to empathise with your neighbour, and to treat them as you would be treated by them. Without first establishing empathy their can be no communication. Empathy doesn't need to be learned, we're all born with the ability. But we learn to suppress it with respect to outsiders and that needs to be unlearned.


06 July 2012

Why I am (Still) A Buddhist.

Cairn and flag to celebrate my private ordination,
June 10, 2005. (Cairn ~ 1.5m). In the hills above
the Guhyaloka Retreat Centre, Spain.
(38.620356,-0.186663 looking almost due west.)
GIVEN THE TONE of my blog over the last two years especially, and some of the responses to what I've written, I've been meaning to pause for thought and write something about why I'm still a Buddhist. Glenn Wallis of Speculative Non-Buddhism expressed his enthusiasm for such a project when I mentioned it to him. So here goes, but it might not be what you expect, because the subject is by nature personal rather than impersonal. I've tended to avoid being personal here because it's bitten me in the arse before now, but I can't avoid it today.

In the last couple of years I've been quite busy becoming disenchanted (nibbindata) with traditional Buddhism. I've been analysing and critiquing some of the central doctrines of Buddhism. I did not set out to attack Buddhism, I set out to discover Buddhism in more detail. However on closer examination I found the presentations of Buddhism wanting at every turn, and have been endeavouring to articulate the various problems as I see them.

In the process I have discovered that there are Buddhist fundamentalists who seem to see me as a kind of anti-Buddhist agent provacateur bent on destroying the True Faith. There are also a number of people who feel disappointed with Buddhism for various reasons who have sought to make common cause with me, though I don't find their self-indulgent little revolutions very attractive, and such contacts frequently turn sour when it becomes apparent that I have no intention of sacrificing Buddhism on their bonfire. Then there are the people who have either reinvented Buddhism in their own image, or developed their own special philosophy which peripherally touches on Buddhism, and who want to share it with me, mistaking my critical stance for an openness to every crackpot idea that comes along. After seven years of this I'm a bit jaded, and more likely to give up blogging than I am to give up Buddhism.

I became a Buddhist in 1994, after a bit of shopping around. I've had a more or less life-long interest in psychology and human potential thanks to my mother, Durelle Dean, a true seeker, and until recently a born-again member of a pentecostal church and a missionary working in rural Africa. (She's looking at becoming a Catholic at present!) We get on famously, btw, and I'm about to publish her memoir of her childhood. By the time I went to the Auckland Triratna Centre I was quite clear about what I was looking for. I was looking for a community to belong in. I had toyed with 12-step groups for a couple of years (I'm 20 years sober now), and I'm grateful to my old school friend Gareth Masefield for introducing me to the Steps. It was also Gareth who suggested I try meditation to help with recurrent depression, which I still experience. But why community?

Taupo, looking south.
I grew up in Taupo, New Zealand. A small town in a small country. Technically I'm a hick, as one of my English friends amusingly pointed out to me. I lived in a rough neighbourhood in that hick town, it wasn't East LA, but it was often frightening and sometimes violent. A guy in Taupo, called Geoff Henshaw, had a chemistry set (probably the only one in town) and I became fascinated by science, at which I turned out to be a prodigy, and ended up doing a degree in chemistry. But there's not much scope for being an egghead in hick town, and being good at maths and science had a negative impact on my social circle. Geoff moved on and out of my life after less than a year (and he promptly forgot me as I discovered years later). When I was twelve my family also moved to NZ's largest city, Auckland. Being a pubescent hick in the large and (from my point of view) sophisticated city was no fun, and even the city kids weren't impressed by my knowledge of science. I became more dislocated. Though I met Gareth around that time (also good at science) and had other friends, I did not feel I belonged anywhere. After about four years I found a new friend in Mary Holmes, whose family welcomed all kinds of waifs and strays. Mary's friends were my friends for a while which was both a treat and an education. I even lost my virginity to one of Mary's friends, who is now a senior civil-servant in the NZ government. Going to university to study chemistry meant a new town, and new friends. I loved the classes and labs, but I didn't identify with the science crowd and was still dislocated. I made a few friends, but started to come apart, and depression set in once again. And so it goes. I never quite fit in anywhere.

Allan, Mitch, Lee, Jaimi
Then one year my brother Allan and his wife Lee, living in Australia, decided to go on a road trip, beginning from Melbourne, north through Sydney and Brisbane, up to Darwin and Cairns, down the middle via Uluru and Alice, to Adelaide, and then back to Melbourne. There to start a family (they now have two grown-up kids Jaimi and Mitch). They set off with a caravan and six months of unscheduled time. They'd drive for a bit, find a place to park the caravan, set up their temporary home. But then, since Allan played rugby, they'd head down to the local rugby club and have a few beers with the locals. Sometimes if they were around for the weekend and the local club needed an extra player, Allan would play for them. And they did this for six months the whole way around Australia. Everywhere they went had a place to go to meet like-minded people, with whom they shared a set of values (of a sort) or at least a common interest. If you play sport in the Australia or New Zealand you need never be lonely. Needless to say I didn't play sport.

Hearing about my brother's experience I realised that there was something missing in my life. This was the late eighties and in Auckland there were lots of choices. Durelle was involved in all sorts of things, but latterly Sahaja Yoga. I was reading Robert Bly, Sam Keen, James Hillman, Jung, and chanting oṃ namaḥ śivāya with the yogis occasionally (I always did like a sing-along). I 12-stepped for a while, but didn't find the community vibe I was looking for. If the Alexander Technique people had had a community in NZ at that time I might have gotten involved in that. But they didn't and the nearest training centre was in Australia and it was very expensive! But through my Alexander Technique teacher, Peter Grunwald, I heard about a big men's gathering over a long weekend on the theme of male archetypes, so I headed off to that. We did drumming in the woods, trust games, and a sweat lodge and all that stuff. It was fantastic! And afterwards I got an invite to join a regular men's group which I attended for a while. In the end I felt it was too small scale, and did not constitute a community. It was what I did on Thursdays evenings. I'm grateful to Trevor Johnston (founder of Bean Supreme) for his inspired leadership of that group, and for making meditation sound attractive, but I moved on.

And so to the Buddhist centre to see if meditation might help with depression. It was almost immediately obvious that the Auckland Buddhist Centre was what I had been looking for. I was greeted by Guhyaprabhā, the class leader. We don't really have publicity seeking famous teachers in our movement, so in all likelihood you've never heard of Guhyaprabhā. A really beautiful woman in many ways, with a good mind, and an adept meditator. She taught me the basics of meditation, but even more she and her team showed me that I had been looking for a spiritual community, and that I had found it. Guhyaprabhā now also lives in Cambridge and remains a dear friend. After 10 weeks I was already eager for more, and immediately signed up for the next class. The leader of that course, Guhyasiddhi, also became a lifelong friend. I felt at home at the ABC. As well as finding a bunch of people to hang with, I was discovering that a lot of the New Age 'wisdom' I'd been hearing for years had been recycled from Buddhism. I felt I was getting information from source. Given that I was unhappy a lot of the time I was interested in what Buddhism had to say about this, and it did, and does make sense to me.

Those were some of the happiest times of my life. Difficulties followed as they always do with people: more depression; a broken marriage; bad advice from amateur Buddhist psychologists; and friends who betrayed me for stupid reasons. My first retreat was a mix. In the deep end I loved the long meditations and weird rituals, but it was also a time of anxiety and it was a few years before I could let go and enjoy retreating. I usually had some kind of crisis for the first dozen or so (and thereby became notorious). But almost two decades later, looking back, some of the peak moments of my life have been lived on retreat. Various pics from retreats are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other stand out connections: Nityajyoti in Wellington, and his seat of the pants classes with me flying alongside and making tea. Sona who came from the UK to lead two week ordination training retreats, and is so very kind and helpful, Very direct at times as well, which is rare in an Englishman. I found other mentors who offered friendship and kindness. All of them are down to earth and do not require special treatment or artificial reverence. I met my dear friend Peter Willis through Gareth initially, but then he started coming to the centre and we started playing music together, and through music found a deep friendship. I miss Peter very much. I also met Victoria Chammanee who I immediately fell in love with, which might have complicated things, but we managed to sustain a friendship with that is one of the most important relationships in both of our lives.

Jayagupta & me with our
private preceptor, Nāgabodhi (centre)
freshly ordained 13 June 2005.
And then there's Nāgabodhi. We made friends comparing insomnia experiences at a place called Ngati Awa, on the Kapiti Coast about 16 or 17 years ago. He's amazing. Always laughing, but capable of great seriousness as well. Always caring and concerned. Always encouraging, but testing to see if there's options I need to consider (I could have saved myself considerable misery by more carefully considering his questions in 1998!). When he and I did my private ordination ceremony together, and he gave me my initiation and my Buddhist name, I felt so loved and so loving. It was a time of intense joy, and a highlight of my life. The ordination courses was four months on retreat, a shitload of meditation, and making more friends. I understood things up in those mountains in Spain, late at night, pacing around in the dark under the brilliant stars, that made my whole life makes sense. For the first time I saw the 'logic' of my life. These are not the traditional insights of Buddhism, but they were the insights I needed to have. And I came back as Jayarava (Cry of Victory). I love my name. I associate it with the joy and happiness of my ordination, and a sense of spiritual rebirth I had on the ordination course. I use my birth name for legal purposes still, but it's not me any longer. I left that guy in the mountains.

I moved to Cambridge in 2002, and was ordained in 2005. I've been living with Buddhists, working with Buddhists; all my friends are Buddhists. I've been going on retreats, courses, weekends, gatherings, seminars (all paid for by my Buddhist employer as part of an innovative remuneration package).  I found friends in Satyapriya, Vidyavajra, Gambhiraḍāka, Śākyakumara, Emma, Sanghaketu, Dhīvan, Amanda (and many others). I live with Nāgavīra and Jayasiddhi, one of a dozen Buddhist communities in Cambridge. Dozens of people have passed through our semi-monastic home, from Holland, Venezuela, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Mexico, England and New Zealand. It's had its ups and downs but has been very rich, and I have few regrets. This is my life now, though I hope one day to go back to New Zealand as, like the Māori people, I feel that the landmarks of my birthplace--Tauhara, Waikato, Taupō-nui-a-tia, Aratiatia, Kaingaroa, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe, Tongariro, Kaimanawa, Uruwera--are part of my genealogy.

Not long after ordination I went on a retreat focussed on White Tārā. I didn't know anyone there, but as we sat together, sang mantras and praises together, cooked and ate meals together, all in spirit of kindness and friendship based on shared values, a connection emerged that epitomises for me why I'm a Buddhist. Being a member of this community opens up the possibility of deep communication and friendship that I have never experienced in any other context.

I've been chronically ill for the last few years and often get a bit out of touch with my local community. When times are tough I hunker down writing, or go to the Cambridge University library, or I get sucked into the internet. But I recently went to a farewell do for a colleague, who for 15 years had dedicated himself to helping at the Cambridge Triratna Centre, doing everything from designing the website, to cleaning, and leading classes. Vajrapriya is doing some shorter retreats--a week here, a month there--before setting off to Spain for a year on retreat in 2013. The thing is that there was so much warmth and love in the room. About 70 people all wishing him well, and celebrating his positive qualities, telling anecdotes. And I felt good being part of that. Was it intellectually rigorous? Not hardly. But it was all very warmly human, and I felt at home amongst these people, and I'm happy to sort out the metaphysics later. Indeed the combination of human relationships like this, and intellectually sorting our the metaphysics is just about perfect for me.

I'm grateful for our community. I feel sorry for people who don't have what I have. Though I'm so critical, I actually find a ready audience amongst my peers. Many of us have similar concerns. Our community has its share of ideologues, but because we constitute a practice community rather than a faith community we can carry quite a lot of intellectual dissent. And we do. I see saṅgha as essential to the process of growth and change. No doubt groups have their downsides, but humans are social monkeys, and we're actually worse off alone. Parasocial relationships: soap operas, celebrities, teachers, blogs, forums, all the modern ersatz communities, are no substitute for getting into relationship with people. Ethics is really only empathetic relationships, nothing more, but nothing less. You can't practice outside of human relationships.

Of course I see that I fell in love, and my critique of falling in love applies to me as much as anyone. "Naivety demands betrayal" according to Robert Bly, though he may have been quoting James Hillman. And I have been betrayed at times. But losing naivety is not a bad thing. In being betrayed I've grown. Better to be betrayed by friends than enemies I suppose, as the long term consequences are usually less severe. I suppose my friends and enemies would be quick to point out I've done my share of betraying (I claim to be a Buddhist, not a saint). I didn't fall in love with Buddhist ideas until later. I was first and foremost a saddhānusarin. I fell in love with the reality of people living and working together with a set of shared values and common goals, and very obviously benefiting from it. Today I might grumble that we are too idealistic, but better that than too cynical. For all the iconoclasm in my blog it's actually a small part of my life.

Of course now I find myself deep in a critical inquiry into Buddhist ideas, the work of a dhammānusarin. The ground work was laid by studying Saṅgharakṣita who remains something of an enigma to me. I'm really very grateful to him, and love him; I'm inspired by his life; and find him frustrating at the same time. He's very kind and friendly in person. Unfailingly so, I believe, whatever is said about him on the internet. I am a Saṅgharakṣitarite Buddhist at heart. He encouraged me to really think about Buddhism in the first place, not to have blind faith, and our correspondence (such as it is) on my recent ideas to date has been encouraging. I don't think just any kind of Buddhism would suit me, and I've no intention of leaving the Triratna Order. I doubt many movements would put up with me slaughtering their sacred cows for long. I have no real interest in Secular Buddhism, though some secular Buddhists were interested in me for a while.

More recently I'm very grateful to Richard Gombrich who has been quite generous over the years, without ever being under any obligation to be so. His Numata Lectures in 2006-7 (that subsequently became What the Buddha Thought) caused a revolution in how I thought about and approached the practice of Buddhism. You can see the change in my blog from around that time. And that lead me to his student Sue Hamilton. I think it's fair to day that Sue is not a great writer, but the ideas she wrote about now saturate my thinking. It was Sue that woke me up to Buddhism being about experience rather than reality. She's not working in the field any more, but graciously responded when I wrote to her. I feel I've developed her ideas in my own way. Many of the scholars I've bugged with my questions have responded, usually positively. I'm grateful to Satyanandi (Fellow of Trinity College) for writing a letter of introduction for me to get a Cambridge University Library reader's card, my most precious possession.

Anyone expecting an intellectual defence of Buddhism from me might be puzzled by what I've written so far. If you only know me through my writing you might be forgiven for thinking that I am someone who has a fiercely intellectual approach to Buddhism. But really I don't. The intellectual side of things is only my pastime. Here's my definition of 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist':
  • Buddhism is the stuff that Buddhists do, and the experiences that Buddhists have doing that stuff.
  • One is a Buddhist if one does stuff that other Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists.
Yes, they are circular, and there is a chicken & egg problem for those who like that kind of thing. I'm someone who does stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and therefore I consider myself a Buddhist. I'm still a Buddhist because the experience of doing that stuff is something I value more than solving intellectual problems. Belief seems to have little to do with why I'm a Buddhist, so even my own intellectual critique seems to have little effect on my feeling that I am a Buddhist. Indeed attacking views makes me feel more of a Buddhist, and my intellectual understanding of the dynamics of experience have resulted in quite strong faith in our methods.

I'm bored by intellectuals who carp from the sidelines, who are not involved in a Buddhist community and have never engaged in any Buddhist practice, but feel confident to comment on Buddhism. Like armchair sports fans, or vicarious travellers it's possible to become very knowledgeable but still to have no sense of what it feels like to kick a ball into a goal, or arrive in a new country. Intellectuals, especially the armchair variety, seem to get caught up in definitions; in what we are supposed to believe or think. They mistake the map for the territory. They are convinced that thinking is the most important thing because it's what they like doing and what they are good at. However most of the important phenomena of Buddhism are felt rather than thought. Buddhism is all about experience. Thinking about Buddhism in the absence of any experience of Buddhism is just having a wank. We all enjoy a wank, but let's not pretend it's anything more than it is. Or perhaps, if that offends, we could paraphrase Frank Zappa, and say "thinking about Buddhism is like dancing about architecture".

What people say they believe is far less important to me than what they do and how they behave, which is a far better indication of what they really value. It's also how I know I have anything important in common with them. Some of the kindest, most empathetic people I know are not great intellects (no disrespect intended). Bad philosophers can still be good human beings (and good Buddhists). They often make far better friends. It's all very well being able to have a good argument with someone, but when the chips are down I want a friend who is loyal, empathetic, kind, and practical; I want a community who'll support me. I don't give a fig for the professed beliefs of the Amish, but if my barn burned down I'd surely love it if the community showed up and made an event out of building a new one together. The fact that we generally don't behave like this seems like a malaise to me. I happen to like the vibe in my Buddhist community, and I like the experience of practising Buddhism. I've watched many people be transformed by our practices and it still gives me a buzz watching friends striving to be better people, and succeeding in whatever degree. I've also watched the internet chatter about Buddhism over many years, and come to the conclusion that it has little to offer. Text is not really suited to mediating human interactions, or communicating values. Realising this I stopped doing forums and started writing longer more considered essays instead. Comments on my blog have only reinforced my perceptions about internet interactions generally. On the whole they've not worth much. Better one hour spent talking to a real person than a 1000 hours spent online.

It is no doubt fun to exercise one's intellect. I love writing the stuff I do and spend hours doing it. But I also like solving killer sudoku puzzles. The most important thing is human relationships, which have to be lived rather than solved by logic. I suspect that it's more important to be able to have a laugh at yourself than to understand the metaphysics of Kant, or the phenomenology of Heidegger (perhaps because I can only do the first). Such things are for the intellectual elite. Certainly I admire people who can cope with that level of intellectual activity, but if I had to choose I'd rather share a good joke with someone than share a philosophical insight. Not that thinking is totally unimportant, just less important. I don't think I can be fairly accused of not thinking. Sharing ideas can be stimulating and interesting, but sharing a laugh is to experience a wordless and deeply satisfying sense of connection and empathetic resonance. And explaining the joke kills it. I discovered today that this opinion is not original.
The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent. 
Henry Menken. "Critical Note" in "Clinical Notes" in The American Mercury (January 1924), also in Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924) [My emphasis] Via Wikiquotes.

So, I still do the stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and I enjoy the experience. Which is what makes me a Buddhist. Yes, their are flaws in Buddhism and in Buddhists, but perfection is a myth. There are no perfect human communities, but at least our community is striving individually and collectively to improve itself. It's all very well being a critic, but I'll finish with the words of Jean Sibelius:
"Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

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