29 March 2013

Finding Easter Eggs in Pāli Texts

I've been studying the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) for some time now. We are fortunate to have three extant versions of the text: Pāli (KP), Chinese (KC), and Sanskrit (KS). KC is from one of two Chinese Saṃyuktāgama translations (Taisho 2.99, no.301) related to the Sarvāstivādin School and was translated in the mid 5th century CE. The original language was probably a Sanskritised Prakrit aka Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.  KS is from a cache of texts in Turfan from a manuscript copied in the 13th or 14th centuries. There is presently no published English translation of the Sanskrit (a situation I hope to rectify).

The text seems to have been quite important as it is cited directly by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7); and indirectly in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Laṅkavatāra Sūtra. It's also likely that Chandrakīrti who commented on MMK had a different Sanskrit version that the Turfan Ms. 

In this essay I want to explore a single passage which contains an elaborate play on words that gets lost in translation. I call this passage paragraph 5c:
  • KP: Tañcāyaṃ upayupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti ‘attā me’ti.
  • KS: etāni ced upadhyupādānāni cetaso ’dhiṣṭhānābhiniveśānuśayān nopaiti nopādatte nādhitiṣṭhati nābhiniviśaty ātmā meti |
  • KC: 若無此取者,心境繫著使不取、不住、不計我
  • KP: And that obstinate tendency of the mind to attachment and grasping this [noble disciple] doesn’t approach, doesn’t hold, [he] doesn’t insist on ‘the self is mine’.
  • KS: And [they] don’t hold this obstinate tendency of the mind to grasp and cling, they don’t accept, [they] don’t insist on or have a tendency to say: ‘this is my self’.
  • KC: Not seizing those, they don’t have the obstinate mental state of attachment; they don’t insist on, or think wrongly about ‘I’.”

Buddhaghosa’s commentary on KP throws light on this passage. He says
Tañcāyanti tañca upayupādānaṃ ayaṃ ariyasāvako. (SA 2.33)
'Tañcāyaṃ' means that attachment and grasping, and this noble-disciple.
This makes it much easier to unravel the syntax by supplying a subject who does not insist on the statement ‘the self is mine’, without whom the sentence is puzzling since on the face of it the subject who doesn't hold the wrong view is the same subject as the one bound by attachment and grasping (which is caused by wrong views). The reference to self is part of the oft repeated formula found in Early Buddhists texts regarding wrong views about the self, namely:
rūpaṃ etam mama, eso'ham-amsi, eso me attā ti samanupassati
he regards forms: this is mine, I am this, this is myself.
The formula is repeated for each of the skandhas, and in each case the assutavant is incorrect, where as the sutavant ariyasāvaka knows that it is not true.

What I particularly want to draw attention is a form of syntax which is unusual in English. We can for instance say "I sing a song" but not "I work a work" or "I talk a talk". Mostly this kind of idiom doesn't work in English but it is common in Pāli and Sanskrit. We have several examples here, though in the negative. The Pāli has (with the verbal root of the two words in parentheses):
upayaṃ na upeti (upa√i) - he does not attach the attaching
upādānaṃ na upādiyati (upa√pad) - he does not cling the clinging
adhiṭṭhānaṃ nādhiṭṭhāti (adhi√sthā) - he does not insist the insisting
Compare the Sanskrit:
[upayaṃ]* nopaiti  (upa√i)
upādānaṃ nopādatte (upa√pad)
adhiṣṭhānaṃ nādhitiṣṭhati  (adhi√sthā)
abhiniveśaṃ nābhiniviśati (abhi-ni√viś) he does not tend the tendency
We can see that where KP has upaya, KS has upadhi. This is difficult to explain because upadhi means ‘addition, attribute, or ‘condition, support’; so it might mean ‘tendency to grasp at supports where upadhi refers to dvayaṃ niśrito ‘based on a duality’. BHSD s.v. upadhi suggests that S. upadhi = P. upadhi (upa √dhā) ‘foundation, basis’; or upādi = upādāna. So KS could be intending upadhi as a synonym of upādana. However upadhi doesn’t seem to fit here, and from the Pāli we would expect to see upaya. What's more the play on words breaks down with upadhi. So it seems that upadhi is a substitution, though it does occur twice in the text.

Other features of the syntax hide the play on words to some extent. The nouns are all given in advance and some are compounded: upayupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ. We are left wondering about the role cetaso (a past participle in the genitive or dative case). My translation above takes things as they come, but here I'm exploring an alternate possibility. If we take the nouns to go with the matching verbs then we might rearrange things like this:
Tañ ca ayaṃ upayaṃ na upeti, upādānaṃ na upādiyati adhiṭṭhānaṃ nādhiṭṭhāti abhinivesaṃ [abhinivisati] cetaso ānusayaṃ 'attā me’ti.
And he does not grasp the grasping, cling to the clinging, insist on the insisted, incline the inclining, this tendency of the mind [i.e.] 'this is my self'.
Clearly this doesn't work so well in English and there are strong arguments for not trying to use Pāli syntax for English translations. How might we improve it then?
And he does not grasp, cling to, insist on, or incline to this tendency of mind [i.e.] 'this is my self'.
I have taken a liberty here. KS completes the pun by including abhiniviśati where Pāli lacks the parallel. Given the structure I believe it was intended to be included and that the Pāli scribes left it out in error. It completes the picture and it's hard to imagine the author of this play on words missing the opportunity. So the Sanskrit is not an interpolation.

Now one test of this is to look at how the Chinese translators handled it. In Chinese we would expect a phrase like 'he does not cling the cling' to be confusing because the two words would likely be represented the same character.

KC 若無此取者 is literally ‘if not a seizer of those’ (i.e. existence and non-existence). It corresponds closely to KS. etāni ced upadhyupādānāni, but is similar to KP. Tañcāyaṃ upayupādānaṃ when it is read in the light of Buddhaghosa’s commentary. This confirms that Buddhaghosa’s reading is the correct one.

KC 心境繫著使 breaks down as: 心境 ‘mental state’ which renders S. cetaso; 繫著 ‘to be bound, attached’ seems to correspond to KP adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesa and KS adhiṣṭhānābhiniveśa, where abhiniveśa means ‘obstinate or tenacious’; 使 renders S. anuṣaya ‘bias, proclivity, tendency’.

不取、不住、不計 are clearly the equivalent of P. na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti. For 不住 compare P nādhiṭṭhāti (i.e. na adhiṭṭhāti) ‘does not insist’ where adhiṭṭhāti (Skt. adhitiṣṭhāti) is from adhi+√sthā. the character 住 means ‘stopping, settling, staying’ which is Sanskrit √sthā 'stand, remain', so I have read it as Sanskrit adhitiṣṭhati. Re 計 DDB includes the notions of ‘discriminating, construing, and positing’ so there has been a slight reinterpretation here from nādhiṭṭhāti ‘attā me’ti (doesn’t insist on 'this self is mine') to 不計我 ‘does not construe a self’. While a self (P. attā, S. ātman) is not explicitly denied in Pāli Nikāyas, thinking in terms of a self is discouraged in the strongest possible terms. The attitude seems to be that a self is not relevant. However it seems that as Buddhist philosophy moved towards more ontological thinking that the denial of the existence of a self seemed a natural progression from warnings not to think in terms of a self.

This passage in particular shows up the way that an Indic original helps to makes sense of the Chinese. A problem discussed by Bucknell (2010). By contrast previous translators, apparently relying on the Chinese alone have rendered this passage as:
“Suppose one is without this grasping, not grasping at a mental realm which causes suffering, not dwelling, and not discerning a self.” Lapis Lazuli (2010)

“In one who has no such attachment, bondage to the mental realm, there is no attachment to the self, no dwelling in or setting store by self.” Choong & Piya (2004)
Some of the nuances get lost. Clearly “grasping at a mental realm” or “bondage to the mental realm” is far less satisfactory than “mental state of attachment” in Buddhist doctrinal terms.

So the Chinese does not pick up on this elaborate pun that we see in the Indic texts, and lends weigh to my first translation. However the nature of the play on words gives the sentence an added and ingenious structure. We can see that the structure has been marred in both the extant Pāli and Sanskrit, which are, of course, both translations. However the structure gives us what is called a checksum in computer jargon: a way of assessing the fidelity of transmission. Metre is often able to alert a read that a passage has been altered. For example the last verse of the Kāraṇiya Mettā Sutta is in a different metre from the other nine verses suggesting perhaps that it was added later. The structure here allows us to see how the sentence was originally constructed and what it meant. Of course we do not know when or where this sentence was composed, nor by whom, but they were more than averagely clever in this instance. 

When a computer programmer leaves a little message, or even small application that performs simple and usually benign functions, hidden in their code it is called an Easter egg. It is something for later generations of programmers or users to discover and delight in. Here the early Buddhist author has left us an Easter egg, and if one appreciates the subtleties of Indic grammar it is quite delightful. 


KC: CBETA. http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T02n0099_012 
KP: Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka. Version 4.0. 1995. Vipassana Research Institute 
KS: Tripāṭhī, Chandra. (Ed.) (1962). 'Fünfundzwanzig Sūtras Des Nidānasaṃyukta' in Sanskrittexte aus den Turfanfunden (Vol. VIII). Edited by Ernst Waldschmidt. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962. [Includes translation into German]: 167-170. 
Bucknell, Roderick S. (2010) ‘Taking Account of the Indic Source-text,’ in Translating Buddhist Chinese: Problems and Prospects. Konrad Meisig (ed.). Harrossowitz Verlag. 
Choong Mun-keat & Piya Tan (2004) ‘Saṃyukta Āgama 301 = Taishō 2.99.85c-86a’. Dharmafarer. Online: dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/6.13a-Sa-301-Kaccayanagotta-S-rev.pdf (pages numbered 89-91) 
Lapis Lazuli Texts (2011) ‘Saṃyuktāgama 301: Kātyāyana.’ Wikisource. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/ Saṃyuktāgama_301:_Kātyāyana

22 March 2013

Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics

SKANDHA in the Sanskrit Dictionary (Comparing MW and Apte) primarily means 'bough, branch; shoulder bone (scapular); break, fracture.'  It also means 'a branch of knowledge', 'a chapter in a book', and 'a division of an army' which are obvious metaphorical extensions. Added to this the word apparently means 'a troop or multitude', which is not obvious from the etymology. The supposed root is skandh 'to collect'; sometimes confused with skand 'spring, jump, spurt'  from PIE *skand (AHD) or related to Latin scandare 'to climb, ascend, descend'. Frankly it would seem that the dictionary definition and etymology are inconsistent, except, funnily enough in the Buddhist sense of a 'collection'. However in point of fact the skandhas are not collections at all, and I can't help but wonder if 'collections' have been tacked on here precisely to accommodate Buddhist usage, thus fouling the trail.

Clearly the main meaning of 'branch' (or a tree or a line) is not related semantically to 'collect', but etymologists also draw attention to semantic similarities with Greek κλάδος (klados) 'branch, shoot, an offshoot' (CSED); from PIE *kldo- from *kel 'to cut' and giving rise to English 'calamity, clade, clast, gladiator' etc. The problem here is that, while the semantic field is very similar, the phonetics don't seem to be related.

Another possibility is that skandha comes from a PIE root *(s)k(h)ed or *sked (AHD). It has a form  nasalised form *skend and partly covers the semantic field 'to split' - which would connect it semantically with *kel 'to cut' This root is not well represented in Sanskrit, but is the root behind English words such as 'scatter, shatter and shingle'. If this is the PIE root then it is not well represented in Sanskrit either. I think we have skandha < *skand 'to split off, to branch' and that skandhayati is a denominative. I don't see any other related forms. This rarity of form may have led to confusion with Sanskrit skandh and (homonymous) skand 'to jump'. However I can't be sure of this without a lot more research.

Thus the etymology of the word is obscure. However I think we can agree that 'aggregate' as a translation is madness, and that other modern translations of Buddhist usage (group, mass, heap) are almost equally unhelpful. If indeed skandha were related to Greek klados, at least semantically, then we might translate skandha as 'branch'. The skandhas, then, might be thought of as the five 'branches of experience'. This might be interesting in light of the word prapañca (On the origin of the word prapañca from the branching of the hand into five fingers see: Translating Prapañca). We might postulate that prapañca (becoming fivefold) is related to the five branches of experience, though clearly some work would be required to establish this speculation. Since this is a blog rather than an academic publication I can take liberties and so for this essay I translate skandha as 'branch'; as one of five branches (pañcaskandha) of experience; it's justified by the dictionary and, as we will see, it works pretty well here. I would note that the branching of the end of limbs into five digits is universal amongst animals. What appear to be exceptions (horse hooves etc) turn out to have have fused two or more of the five digits and embryonic forms often begin with five distinct digits. This ought to be a very common basis for metaphors and we should not be surprised to find it.

Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought, 2009) has suggested with reference to the term pañc'upādāna-kkhandhā, that Pāli upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha where aggi-kkhandha means 'a blazing mass' but c.f. Sanskrit skandhāgni 'fire made with thick logs'. (MW) I now wonder whether aggi-kkhandha just means 'a burning bough'. The phrase pañca upādānakkhandha is often rendered 'five aggregates of clinging', where we might read it as 'five branches which are fuel [for the fire]'; where upādāna means 'fuel' and 'the fire' is 'the fire of being'. I find the connection with the extended fire metaphor entirely plausible (see Playing with Fire; and Everything is on Fire!) and I suggest that it works even better when khandha is understood as 'branch'.

Having looked, somewhat inconclusively, at the meaning of skandha, let us now examine a passage from the Pāli Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (M 109; iii.15ff ) which tells us something about the relationships of the skandhas:
The four elements are the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of form. 
Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of sensations. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of recognition. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of volitions. 
Name & form is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of cognition.
Here someone has tried to show the dynamics of the skandhas. The form branch (rūpa-kkhandha) of experience is made up from the four elements: earth, water, fire and wind (catur mahādhātupaṭhavīāpotejovāyo;); or in experiential terms: resistance, cohesion, heat and movement. There's every reason to believe that just as cakkhu 'the eye' stands for the visual faculty; that paṭhavī stands for the experience  of resistance. Before looking at the other branches let us look at an interesting passage (SN 35.93) which sheds further light on this. 
The production of cognition is conditioned by a pair. Visual-cognition arises conditioned by the eye and forms. The eye is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Forms are impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So this pair is transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.

Visual-cognition is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason (hetu) or condition (paccaya) for the arising of visual-cognition, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-cognition ever be permanent?

These three things [i.e. forms, eye, & visual-cognition] coming together, encountered and co-occurring are called visual-contact (cakkhu-samphassa). Visual contact is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason or condition for the arising of visual-contact, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-contact ever be permanent?

The contacted (phuṭṭha) is sensed (vedeti); the contacted is willed (ceteti); the contacted is recognised (sañjānāti). So these things (dhammā) are transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.
[The other senses are outlined in identical terms.]
So now our model has rūpa being made up of the elements (dhātus); and contact (phassa) is the condition for the next three branches. S 35.93 fills in a gap here. Contact comes about when rūpa, cakkhu (the eye, or visual faculty) and cakkhuviññāna 'visual cognition' come together; the latter in fact being conditioned by the former pair. And then contact is sensed, willed, and recognised. 

The last three mental actions are equivalent to the three middle branches. We can match up the verbal and nominal forms: vedanā vedeti 'he senses sensations'; saṅkhārā ceteti 'he wills volitions'; and saññā sañjānāti 'he recognises names' or 'he recognises recognitions'. However note that the three verbal forms are in a different order than the nominal forms. And this is unusual. Sue Hamilton's comprehensive survey of the skandhas in Pāli finds that they always occur in the same order (Early Buddhism, p.72). 

Next we add the three branches of vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā to rūpa to make up nāmarūpa; and nāmarūpa is the condition for the arising of viññāna.

The astute reader will have already spotted a problem here: viññāna (associated with the six kinds of senses) is the condition for the arising of vedanāsaññā and saṅkhārā and thus indirectly the condition for  nāmarūpa. Thus we have two models in which the direction of the relationship between nāmarūpa and viññāna goes in opposite directions. How can we have two mutually exclusive models which are both  canonical? In the  Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna condition each other? If this was the original idea it might have survived in two fragmentary and contradictory forms with unidirectional conditionality. Or perhaps the Mahānidāna Sutta sought to harmonise the two different models by combining them. Certainly the Mahānidāna Sutta says that nāmarūpa is root, cause, origin and condition for contact (tasmāt iha ānanda, eseva hetu etaṃ nidānaṃ esa samudayo esa paccayo phassassa, yadidaṃ nāmarūpaṃ). Nāmarūpa is quite a problematic term in its own right: see Nāmarūpa. And in another model we find "nāma is 'sensation, recognition, impulse, contact and attention'." (vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro – idaṃ vuccati nāmaṃ. S ii.3). And this in a model where phassa is a stage in its own right that comes after nāmarūpa

It must be the case that viññāna is being used in at least two different senses: cakkhuviññāna (and the other sense-viññānas) and viññāna (as a standalone) cannot be referring to the same process or even the same kind of process. The standard explanation is that viññāna 'furnishes bare cognition of the object' (Nyanatiloka. Buddhist Dictionary) but this is still contradictory. In the model of the five branches we're looking at viññāna simply cannot amount to 'bare cognition' since it is preceded by vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā. Without 'bare cognition of the object' how could these three exist? Is the problem with the phrase 'bare cognition'? 

Elsewhere I have pointed out that viññāna is said in Pāli to be always related to the sensory stimulus that conditioned it. For example in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. (MN 38. PTS M i.259):
Bhikkhus from whatever condition viññāṇa arises, it is called that kind of viññāṇa. Viññāṇa arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-viññāna (i.e. visual cognition).
From the same sutta we know what viññāna is not: "that which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad." (yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī ti) This is cited as an example of a wrong view. We also know that Buddhists do not posit a 'theatre of consciousness', a metaphorical container in which experiences happen, since viññāna is seldom if ever used in the locative case, and where it is the text is usually arguing against a wrong view.

Idiosyncratic, but none the less insightful, bhikkhu Ñānavīra, says
Consciousness (viññāṇa) can be thought of as the presence of a phenomenon, which consists of nāma and rūpa. Nāmarūpa and viññāṇa together constitute the phenomenon 'in person'--i.e. an experience. The phenomenon is the support (ārammaṇa) of consciousness, and all consciousness is consciousness of something (viz, of a phenomenon). [Notes on Dhamma, p.81]
I don't think Ñāṇvīra has solved the problem I have identified here, i.e. the role of viññāṇa in the khandhas.  Since nāma depends on sense-viññāṇa. However he does add an interesting caveat to this discussion.
Consciousness, it must be noted, is emphatically no more 'subjective' than are the other four upādānakkhandha (i.e. than nāmarūpa)... It is quite wrong to regard viññāṇa as the subject to whom the phenomenon (nāmarūpa), now regarded as object, is present. [Notes on Dhamma, p.82]
Back in April 2012 I argued that Westerner terms like subjective and objective only obscure the discussion. In the Buddhist model of consciousness, subject and object are not relevant. This is a corollary of the idea that existence and non-existence don't apply to experience. We only get confused trying to marry the two modes of thinking about our experience of being aware. Indeed to think of viññāṇa as 'consciousness' is demonstrably wrong (see  The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor.) Nāṇavīra himself implies this, but doesn't not make the leap to rejecting the translation outright. We have our discussions as if Western concepts like consciousness, subject, object, etc., are givens. But they are not. The early Buddhists don't seem to have thought in these terms. Where they encounter this style of thinking, they tend to treat it as irrelevant to the task at hand. Ontological questions that fascinate Westerners, are just a distraction to early Buddhists. We are not trying to understand our self or our consciousness in the abstract, we are trying to understand why we suffer. Of course early Buddhists had a raft of assumptions about their experience of the world and we need to tease these assumptions out in order to understand their worldview. But imposing modern philosophical jargon often obscures more than it reveals.

This essay has at least shown how translating skandha as 'branch' and pañcaskandha as 'the five branches [of experience]' might work, and might be more comprehensible than present alternatives. It is intrinsically interesting that at least one of the strands that made up the Pāli Canon attempted to give the five branches of experience a temporal sequence, though whether it works is moot. My previous understanding, based on reading Sue Hamilton was that the skandhas did not form a sequence, but were to be taken collectively as the "apparatus of experience". That this attempt breaks down with the inclusion of viññāṇa is a puzzle that I'm sure I will come back to.

We have considerable work to do still to untangle early Buddhist ideas about why we suffer from Western ideas about our existence and the ontology of the self with which they seem to have been snarled. The first step in any comparative philosophy will be to understand early Buddhism on it's own terms and I don't think we have done this yet.


Note 5/5/13

In article by Collete Cox I found this the re the *Mahāvibhāṣā "In a discussion of the implications of the various meanings of the term "aggregate," or skandha, as a heap (rāśi), a bundle, an assemblage, or as a collection..." Thus the usage 'heap' predates Conze!
Cox, Collett. (2004) 'From Category To Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 543-597.

15 March 2013

Supernatural Disenchantment

I've already commented on this issue, but this is another take on my attitude to the supernatural coming at it from a slightly different angle. There are some experiences, waking experiences, don't when we have them we know that they are weird or unusual. I've written quiet often about out-of body experiences. It was reading Thomas Metzinger's account of his out-of-body experiences, and his realisation that when he analysed the phenomenon that there was no need to assume that his consciousness left this body, that finally set me free of believing in the supernatural. However in the UK belief in the supernatural is widespread (and do scroll down to see Derren Brown's response).

Super means 'over, above', so the supernatural is conceived of as a realm over and above nature, a higher realm. It is particularly the realm of God.  The 18th century writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg were influential in establishing the idea that one could communicate with spirits, and that there were multiple unseen realms (was he influenced by Indian cosmology in this?) The word 'supernatural' has been applied to the 'world' inhabited by ghosts and like entities since the 19th century. I suppose that this coincides with the rise of Spiritualism, itself said to begin in 1848 when Kate and Maggie Fox pulled off one of the great hoaxes of history: convincing people they could communicate with the dead.
"There is no such thing as a spirit manifestation. That I have been mainly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of spiritualism upon a too-confiding public many of you already know. It is the greatest sorrow of my life . . . When I began this deception, I was too young to know right from wrong." Margaret Fox (1888), quoted in Joseph F. Rinn, Searchlight on Psychical Research, 1954 (via BBC - Religions)
What we call "the supernatural" is actually a fairly loose collection of beliefs that invoke unseen entities and forces to explain unusual experiences. Some of these beliefs are old, and some, like spiritualism are more recent. They represent an strong form of mind/body dualism in which consciousness can exist in a refined realm of 'pure spirit', disconnected from the gross (impure) material world. Indeed many people appear to see the body as a vessel which temporarily holds consciousness in this inferior and unsatisfactory material world. Interest in this material world--particularly science--is seen as gauche and unsophisticated.

Unseen forces emanating from this other realm can affect our lives in various ways. They are responsible for luck and fortune for example. And for all manner of events which cannot otherwise be explained. Though they can affect the material world, the unseen forces are not like the physical forces (such as gravity or electro-magnetism). Unseen forces can not be measured, or detected by physical instruments. Indeed ghosts are difficult to photograph even though they can be seen with the eye. This highlights one of the fundamental contradictions of this way of thinking. What is the difference between the eye and a camera? It is precisely the brain interpreting the images that are formed by the lens of the eye.

The way that the supernatural interacts with this world is random and inconceivable, thus the interactions cannot be understood systematically. Most people believe in an ordered universe, but the supernatural subverts and defies this order, indeed it is when the order of the universe breaks down that the supernatural is apt to be invoked. Particularly it is when we are disappointed or disconcerted. Hence the supernatural beliefs which swirl around the subject of death. The bad things that happen to us, for example, are caused by luck, karma, fate, gremlins, God testing us, etc. The supernatural is an explanation for the inexplicable.

As the 20th century progressed the Supernatural accumulated more and more aspects, and Westerners began to explore other forms of religion and culture they incorporated exotic elements into their version of the supernatural. Folk beliefs from pre-Christian antiquity were partially preserved, and combined with Christian superstitions. To them are added some of the more exotic ideas of modern life like flying saucers and quantum mechanics.

Another rich source of superstition is India and its folk beliefs such as rebirth, and the 'vibrations' of mantras (especially hypostatized into crystals). I've written about the way we project profundity onto the Sanskrit language for instance. Some people literally believe that cakras (Sanskrit 'wheels') are supernatural entities ('energy centres') within our bodies. I've even met people with a rather literal belief our possession of a third eye. Western Buddhists in particular often seem to suffer no cognitive dissonance combining supernatural beliefs from Europe and India. Like the villagers of the Pāli Canon we are maṅgalika. For example seem happy to take on taboos against the left hand (despite the fact that few of us remember the original meaning of the word 'sinister') and the feet (See: Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?).

One of the odd features of the supernatural in modern times is the attempt to 'prove' the existence of the supernatural despite the fact that by definition it ought not to be provable. Many popular books purport to 'prove' everything from UFOs to reincarnation. And these popular books are taken quite seriously and uncritically as proof of their subjects. However the more rigorous that scientific experiments are at eliminating the possibility of hoax or prestidigitation, the less likely they are to succeed in detecting the supernatural. Under the strictest conditions which allow for no human intervention, where any observed effects must necessarily be due to the supernatural, nothing is ever observed. The Amazing Randi, a stage magician, has made a second career out of successfully debunking such experiments by showing how conjuring tricks are involved. Derren Brown has done similar work to show how psychics and other fakers do their tricks. (See On Credulity). However, like the confession of the Foxes, debunking does little to damp the enthusiasm for the supernatural.

Since pre-scientific cultures typically have some kind of supernatural belief, our contemporary encounters with them are seen as confirmation of our own remnant of folk beliefs. And virtually all our religious texts are written in pre-scientific milieus. Buddhism for example originates in the Iron Age and, though it continues to develop, it never quite throws off that Iron Age worldview. There is confirmation bias involved so that any experience which appears to confirm our belief is eagerly embraced. Stories of the supernatural are sought out, preserved, and spread. Reports that cast doubt are set aside as uninteresting or materialistic. Reports of fakers are also dismissed. Some fakers, having been caught out, have come back careers in the the same field (Uri Geller). I've explored some of this territory before: Derren Brown etc. (Again, see On Credulity).

Ignorance of Science.

It's become apparent to me as an adult with a university education in science that, although everyone in the West studies science at school to some extent, there is a large section of the population who have no good grasp of basic concepts like forces, energy, chemical elements and compounds, or crystals (let alone the more sophisticated versions of these ideas). Many of the words are treated almost like magic spells used to invoke unseen forces and entities, when in fact they all refer to seen entities (seen in the sense of being subject to reliable measurement). As well as being, or perhaps because they are, weak on science these people seem to be susceptible to pseudo-science. I seems that many people actively want to see the world in magical terms. In a world where public aesthetics often tend towards brutalism (concrete boxes and sharp edges) people want a little magic in their lives. Whether it be a woo belief (in fairies, angels, ghosts, lay-lines, God, aliens etc.), a penchant for hallucinogenics, or just a fascination with horror movies (which mostly invoke the supernatural in some way) people want to be enchanted. These Romantics like to quote Shakespeare (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5):
Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
               There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
               Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
People have quoted this text at me time and again to show how limited my thinking is. No one stops to ask what Shakespeare can have meant by "philosophy" in Elizabethan times. They seem to forget that 400 years have passed in the meantime and the scientific revolution has made Horatio's philosophy, such as it was, completely outmoded and superseded. There is today far more to science than any one person could possibly hope to encompass and comprehend. Even with training and a sustained interest in science I can only scratch the surface. On the other hand to know nothing about the science is to be close to barbarism. For better of worse our fates are now bound up with science and technology.

Seeing Things

All human beings have a mild form of apophenia. This is the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli. We need this ability to interpret our sensorium, but the ability is typically tuned to err slightly on the side of significance. Consider our ability to see shapes in the clouds. We most often see faces and animals, because these are the patterns we seek out in the jumble of sensory stimuli. At its worst this tendency to see patterns and attribute meaning to them can become pathological. A portrayal of this pathology can be found in the film A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of mathematician John Nash. Actually though he was a gifted mathematician, his mind was not that beautiful a lot of the time. In his development of Game Theory he viewed humanity in terms of his own psychotic aetiology: delusional, paranoid, self-seeking. And these qualities are built into Game Theory which now informs everything from 'target culture' in the UK Health Service and Education sector; to massive bonuses for bankers; to military strategy. But that is another story.

Unusual experiences are often thought to be especially significant. However, many of these experiences seem to be merely attention grabbers. I know a lot of people who believe they have experienced ghosts or similar phenomenon (the Triratna Buddhist Order owns a haunted house in Cambridge: the story of its haunting is elaborated by an outsider here). Almost none of these experiences are significant except that they are good stories, telling them gets attention, and they act as a confirmation of the supernatural paradigm. They keep the magic alive. Just like in Peter Pan (the archetypal puer aeternus) there is magic because we all believe (and when we stop believing a fairy dies). People who see things that have no substance don't want to be told that they had a hallucination. Hallucinations are significant in the wrong way and reflect badly on the seer. So anyone who wished to report their experience is likely to insist on the significance of it in order not to look foolish. They may even, unconsciously, embellish the details in order to make it seem more plausible.

The particular hallucinations we see are to some extent culturally determined, but how we interpret what see see or hear is strongly culturally determined. If you don't believe in ghosts to begin with, then you are unlikely to experience one, or if you experience something (say, sleep paralysis) then you are far less likely to ascribe the experience to supernatural entities or forces (See Encultured Hallucinations - Genealogy of Religion). Belief itself changes what we think we see, and how we interpret what we see.

In discussion I always try to make it clear that what I doubt is the explanation of the experience, not the experience itself. We all know that the mind plays tricks on us. We all mistakenly attribute significance to experience, and we misidentify stimuli some of the time. And we don't like to think that we simply made a mistake if the experience felt significant or made us feel important. On the other hand there are uncanny and unnerving experiences and these are difficult to explain and we are seldom content with no explanation for the disappointing or disconcerting experiences we have.

We chose the explanations we give to experiences. We choose explanations on a number of different bases, but underlying this is a mechanism in which facts are given an emotional 'weight' and the facts that seem most salient to us are the ones that we have given weight to (the one's that feel right). For this picture I've suggested the analogy that belief systems distort the space in which facts have mass, causing reason to move in curves; in come cases, closed curves or circles.

Without an explanation we feel a sense of unease and dissatisfaction. People who believe in the supernatural have said to me "science can't explain everything" which I acknowledge. But they themselves seek to fill in all the explanatory gaps by invoking the supernatural. And the irony and the blatant contradiction inherent in this approach to knowledge is lost on them. Perhaps we have not changed so much from our animistic ancestors who saw the world as full of living beings, who anthropomorphized the forces of nature and ascribed motivations to them? Perhaps most of us still feel at the mercy of a capricious universe and want an explanation; or a lever to change the behaviour of the gods; or some kind of advantage in the confusion? Or maybe it's all of the above? In any case superstition is alive and well.


07 March 2013

All Experiences Are Ephemeral

This "verse" occurs several times in the Nikāyas. It sums up a great deal in the space of just a handful of syllables. Like other celebrated verses it was no doubt composed as a short text to memorise and reflect on. It seems to be the same style of verse that we find at the end of Udāna texts, or in the Dhammapada. This particular verse occurs in two variations which I analyse below.

One version is found in two places in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (S i.6 & S i.200):
1. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti,  tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.
All experiences are ephemeral; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.

The metre is old vatta. ( . = short,  _ = long )

. _ _ _ | _ _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _

This is a fairly flexible metre of eight syllables in two lots (padas) of four syllables (a & b). In this case two lines are combined into lines of 16 syllables (four padas), with both lines ending with short-long-short-long (in fact there is an introductory line in the same metre at S i.6 that I have not included in this post). This is similar to the "epic" styles that doesn't organise lines into verses (thus this is not actually a verse, just two lines of metrical writing). Lines in this metre need not rhyme, but here the final syllable of the final padas do.

The variant is found at DN ii.257, S i.158; Ap i.64, 274, ii.385, & J 1.95 (Mahāsudassana)
1. Aniccā vata saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Ephemeral indeed are experiences; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.
Again the metre is old vatta.
_ _ _ . | . _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _
My studies of Pāli metre are cursory to date, so I cannot comment on the comparitive aspects of the two versions. However we can say that this metre is associated with the early days of Pāli composition. Vatta metre went out of fashion by the later parts of the Canon. So these lines are old compared to the rest of the Canon. (See: Pāli Prosody)

Most of the terminology in the lines is familiar, but it's worth revisiting it. It makes a useful frame work for restating the view that the Buddha was talking about experience, and shows how we can apply this hermeneutic to an unfamiliar text.

Line 1a. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā

Aniccā (Skt. anitya) means 'impermanent'. The word appears to derive from the preposition ni 'downwards, inwards'. The route to the meaning of 'constant, continuous, permanent' is not clear, but the usage is consistent. Here it is in the nominative plural and thus goes with (and is predicated of) saṅkhārā.

The difference between the two version is in this second word either: sabbe or vata. The version with sabbe may well be related to the Dhammapada verse 277, which has a similar metrical pattern:
sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā
_ _ _ _ | _ . _ _
Sabbe means 'all'; while vata is an exclamtion suggesting emphasis or certainty 'indeed, surely, certainly'. Here sabbe is declined as a pronoun in the masculine plural and vata is indeclinable.

Lastly saṅkhārā means 'contructs' (nominative plural - the 'subject' of the sentence). The etymology is sam- 'together, complete' + khāra (Skt. skāra) an action noun from √kṛ 'to make'. Literally it means 'putting together', hence 'construct'. I take this word to refer to a particular model of knowing - sense organ meets sense object in the light of sense awareness which is called phassa (Skt sparśa) 'contact'. From contact we get 'data' or 'knowns' (vedana). Vedanā is a passive past participle from the causative form of the verb √vid 'to know, to find'. Thus vedanā means 'caused to know, making known'. It is through vedanā that we known our world (loka). So saṅkhārā are what are put together for us to know, or have an experience of, the world. Or to put it another way our experience is a construct. The English word 'experience' conveys the meaning, while highlighting my way of reading the texts (my hermeneutic).

So this pada reads 'all experiences [i.e. 'all knowledge arising from contact' or 'all that results from putting together sense object, organ and awareness'] are impermanent. And we understand this to apply to the domain of experience, not to the domain of 'what is'. It is a statement about the ontology of experience, not the ontology of objects. Experience is empheral even when objects are not.

Line 1b. uppādavayadhammino

This pada consists of a single long compound uppādavayadhammino. We can analyse this in the following way: it is made up of three words: uppāda + vaya + dhammino and would scan as uppādāya ca vayāya ca dhammī or uppādāya dhammī vayāya ca dhammī. "whose nature (dhammin) is to arise (uppāda) and perish (vaya)." Dhammino is a nominative plural because it qualifies saṅkhārā which is in the same. 

This simply expands on the first point about impermanence. The nature of experience is that it constantly arises and passes away. It does this because our attention is always on a single aspect of the very broad range of input from our senses. We live in sensory information like a fish lives in water. So much of it that we hardly notice most of it. The Buddhist view is that we process this information one bit at a time. But we constantly scan our senses at such a rate that our experience seems to broadly take in our surroundings and proivides the illusion of smooth continuity. In fact our experience is grainy or lumpy in the same way that a film is made up of a series of still images. Projected onto a screen rapidly enough so that we cannot see them individually, but cognitively blur them into motion. 

It's worth reminding ourselves at this point that the sense of selfhood or first person perspective is subject to these same limitations. It is something that arises and passes away depending on where the attention is. In deep sleep and deep meditation there is no sense of self. In waking we can sometimes catch the sense of self being assembled. Some practitioners report that it is possible to operate without any overt sense of self or a first person perspective. Though I recall Sangharakshita's quip that before you can transcend the self, you have to have one. 

Line 2a Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, 

These are two verbs, the first a gerund and the second a finite verb in the 3rd person plural. The gerund forms a subordinate clause indicating an action which precedes the main verb. Here the plural number of the main verb makes it clear that we are still talking about experiences (saṅkhārā).

The verb uppajjitvā comes from uppajjati (Skt utpadyati). The root is √pad 'to go'; with the preverb ut- 'up' it means 'to go up' i.e. 'to arise, to come forth or out, to be born.'  There are two strategies for translating gerunds. We can either says 'having arisen...' or allow the order of the words to imply the order of the action and say 'arising...'

The vern nirujjhanti (Skt. nirundhati) comes from the preverb ni 'down' with the root √rudh 'to stop'. So it is literally 'to shut down, to cease, to be destroyed.'.

So this phrase says 'having arisen, they are destroyed' or 'arising, they cease'. All that can happen when a saṅkhārā arises is that it ceases. The duration of any particular sensation is a fraction of a second. The number of 25 frames per second for a film to fool our eye into seeing smooth motion may be a clue to the duration of any particular experience. However the early Buddhists did not have films!

Line 2b tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Having established the facts of the matter the verse gives us the punch line: happiness (sukho) is the quenching (vūpasamo) of them (tesaṃ); i.e. in the quenching of saṅkhārā. The word sukha is familiar enough not to need much comment: it is the opposite of disappointment and misery, i.e. contentment, happiness, and/or bliss. Sometimes, as I discussed some time ago in commenting on the Dhammapada, sukho seems to be a synonym for nibbāna.

The word vūpasama (Skt vyupaśama) combines the two preverbs vi 'apart' and upa 'up' with the verbal root √śam 'to labour or toil'. On its own upaśam means 'calm, quiet' and is not not predictable from the combination of preverb and root (this is very often the case). Here the vi preverb is being used in its sense of intensifying the verb. Thus vūpasama means 'allaying, calming, supression, quenching (especially of thirst).'


Where nibbāna means 'blown out or extinguished' using the metaphor of fire; vūpasama references the metaphor of thirst (taṇha Skt tṛṣṇa). And the thirst metaphor is familiar stuff for Buddhists. We thirst for experience because we think that pleasurable experiences amount to happiness. That this is not so was apparently obvious 2500 years ago in India, but this knowledge of the basic falseness of the idea has not quashed it. Indeed I would say that this idea is more prevalent, more powerful than ever and driving industrialised, first-world, 'Western' societies close to madness and destruction. The pursuit of pleasure through sensory stimulation or through appropriation of objects or wealth has damaged not only us humans, but many other species and the very biosphere itself. And our pursuit appears to show no signs of slowing down.

And here is this text telling us that happiness is the quenching of experience - the very opposite of what we believe. Happiness is found through quenching our thirst for experience, not by trying to satiate it. Because the thirst for experience can never be satiated. We'll never get so much pleasure that we don't want any more. And though the Buddha could not have known this, it is also the conclusion of people who study the brain and to some psychologists.

And even in these few syllables we find the key to quenching that thirst. It comes about through examining the transient nature of experience. Our practice consists in various techniques to produce various experiences. Firstly we try to calm down - the take the edge off the restlessness of our thirst. Then we turn our attention to experience itself - watching it arise and pass away. Noting the speed and duration of change. Noticing how there is never stability. The continuity that we experience on an every day level is grainy. And in the still depths of samādhi we can see the dynamics of experience arising and passing away. We can come to understand right to the core of our being the utter pointlessness of pursuing pleasure. Which is not so say we ought not to enjoy our food or sex or whatever. We enjoy whatever pleasurable experience that comes along. But we know it as it is (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). even our cherished self is just another experience arising and passing away. There is nothing in experience that can be grasped. Forms are like soap bubbles - an outline of something which when we take it in our hands simply vanishes.

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