27 December 2013

Evolution: Trees and Braids.

One of the most powerful visual tools for thinking about evolution is the tree. When scientists want to present evolution of any kind they typically show this kind of diagram which branches as it travels  from bottom of the picture upwards, becoming every more diverse as new lines split from old. The upwards motion itself also invokes metaphors, particularly "up is good" and its corollary "down is bad". We forget that every living thing presently alive, from bacteria to blue whale, is the product of 3.5 billion years of evolution and thus equally evolved.

The tree diagram shows us for example that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor some 5 million years ago, and indeed that all life seems to have evolved from a single kind of organism. We see the same paradigm in physics and diagrams of the evolution of the universe and in the study of ancient texts. Diversity of similar objects in the present seems to automatically imply a common ancestor.

Buddhists use to paradigm to point to the common origins of Buddhism. However in my last essay I cited Paul Harrison's comments on the Vajracchedika: "...to put it in a nutshell, the idea that the wording of any Mahāyāna sūtra can be restored to some original and perfect state by text-critical processes must be abandoned: all lines do not converge back on a single point." (Harrison 240, emphasis added) 

In this essay I will try to show that the tree diagram inevitably falsifies evolution and other complex developmental processes. The project of making lines converge is not always able to account for the complexity of reality. I will also propose another, better, metaphor for conceptualising and visualising these processes. In writing this I also have in mind a discussion on Sujato's blog about how we interpret and make conjectures about the origins of Buddhism based on the textual evidence which dates from some centuries after the putative origin.

Horizontal Links

Let's begin with bacteria. The standard view of bacteria is that like other forms of life they evolved into thousands of species which can be classified in the standard taxonomies, using the standard Latin nomenclature: Genus species. For example Bifidobacterium longum occurs in the gut of infants and plays several roles including breaking down the complex sugars in milk to help the infant digest them. While Streptococcus pneumoniae is a very different bacteria that colonises the lungs and other tissues and causes pneumonia and also meningitis. These two bacteria have very different habits. And yet Lynn Margulis argued that bacteria have no species because they can all shared genetic material.

Biology blogger, Julius Csotonyi, has called them "Plagiarizing Wizards", Csotonyi's account of "horiziontal gene transfer" is amusing and informative at the same time. Any bacteria can share genetic material with any other bacteria and some viruses (which Lynn Margulis characterised as stripped down bacteria). It is partly this ability that geneticists employ when the insert or remove genes from organisms. This assimilation of genetic material changes the organism. We might say that in assimilating foreign genes they had become a new species, just like that.

Furthermore, Csotonyi says "Even more amazingly, there is evidence that under stressful conditions (e.g. heavy metal-polluted waterways), the rate of horizontal gene transfer between bacteria increases, as if stress induces a more urgent swapping of genetic ideas for a solution."

Graphical representation of horizontal gene transfer. The branched tree-like structure represents the evolutionary lineage (geneological tree) of representatives of earth's major types of life forms. Sometimes genes can be transferred (horizontal gene transfer) between otherwise distantly related species. This is illustrated by bridges forming between branches of the tree, where genes 'jump' from one lineage to another. 

Image: Barth F. Smets, Ph.D.
Bacteria always live in communities of many 'species' or as we ought to say 'varieties'. And these varieties swap genes. Each gene codes for a protein which performs a specific task. It may be a structural element, or an external marker used for communication, or very often it will be an enzyme which facilitates and/or catalyses a particular kind of chemical reaction. In the heavy metal example, a protein might chelate a heavy metal atom - i.e. warp it in an organic molecule that effective seals it off from the chemical environment surrounding it, rendering it inert. Chelation is the first line medical treatment for heavy metal poisoning. And this ability which one bacteria has, can rapidly spread through a whole population of bacteria under ideal conditions. For example, this is how bacteria can acquire immunity to antibiotics. It only takes one bacteria to express a gene that produces a protein that neutralises the antibiotic agent. That bacteria survives in a situation of drastically reduced competition for resources and thus breeds rapidly, but also passes on the gene that makes it successful.

Thus the tree structure cannot describe the process by which the current variety in the population of bacteria occurs. The diagram looks more like the image on the left. The technical term is a reticulated network, but below I will propose a metaphor drawn for nature for it.

In the diagram above, higher level structures such as mitochondria and plasmids are also shared between varieties. Further up the taxonomic ladder we strike the phenomenon of hybridisation. We are probably all familiar with the popular, and useful, definition of a species that says that two organisms are different species if they cannot breed and produce viable offspring. Thus a horse and a donkey can produce offspring, mules, but they are sterile and we consider them different species. We also see lion and tiger hybrids in captivity producing sterile, so called, ligers. Wolves and dogs on the other hand produce viable offspring, and as a result the domestic dog has been reclassified as a sub-species of wolf. Hybridisation is far more common than has previously been suspected. Reporting on an article in Nature the National Geographic News said "on average, 10 percent of animal species and 25 percent of plant species are now known to hybridize." Of course most times these inter-species matings result in infertile offspring. But not always. When the offspring are fertile then a new species is born. Off course the chances of successful hybridisation are low, but they seem to be considerably higher than the likelihood of a beneficial mutation in a single gene, let alone the accumulation of such mutations. 

Clearly any hybridisation event that is viable produces a cross-link in the "tree". Certainly in the plant kingdom where this is going on in 1 in 4 species the result is going to be a highly cross-linked reticulated network, rather than a tree. For animals less so, but the cross-linking is going to outweigh the splitting supposed to be caused by beneficial mutations by orders of magnitude. 

Family tree of the four groups of early humans living
in Eurasia 50,000 years ago and the gene flow
between the groups due to interbreeding.
Image credit: Kay Prüfer et al.
One of the fascinating genetics/evolution stories of recent years was the discovery in 2013 that modern humans in Eurasia appear to have Neanderthal DNA indicating that our two species Homo sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis interbred to some extent (see Discover) before Neanderthals went extinct. We Eurasians, then, are hybrids of H. sapiens and H. Neanderthalensis. There was also apparent interbreeding between other late varieties of modern humans such as Homo Denisova and Floriensis (see also here and here and this). It's getting more and more difficult to maintain the the genus Homo can be represented by a simple tree. The hominid family tree is highly cross-linked and in fact resembles a reticulated network. That said all present day humans are considered to be the same species and subspecies, i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens. 

A Braided Skein

I've often commented on the way that Buddhism has hybridised with the cultures that surround it. If the Iranian Origin thesis is correct then the Śākyas arrived in the central Ganges plain at a time (ca. 850 BCE) when it was extremely culturally diverse. First wave Indo-Aryan speakers had already begun to dominate over local speakers of Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, and possibly Dravidian languages, but the latter were still present. Second wave Indo-Aryans (the Vedic speaking Brahmins) were already moving east and starting to influence and be influenced by the cultures there. Not only this but there is evidence of considerable genetic variation in India also (e.g. Ethnic India; DNA Testing). I've described the emergence of Buddhism, Jainism and Ājīvakism (and to some extent Upaniṣadic Brahmanism) as the culmination of a process of assimilation and synthesis of elements of the cultures associated with these various languages. So by the time Buddhist texts are composed we see influence from Brahmins in the form of gods such as Indra, Brahmā, and (probably) from Austroasiatic in the form of local spirits associated with water and/or trees such as yakṣas and nāgas for example. In the Buddhist doctrine of karma we can see influences from Brahmanism and Jainism along with remnants of Zoroastrianism (hope to get this conjecture published soon). And we know that such hybridisation continues. Buddhists continue to borrow elements from other cultures and religions down to the present. 

Rakaia River on its way
to the sea.
Even if the Iranian Origin thesis is wrong, the course of the development of Buddhism is clearly not a simple tree structure resulting from internal splits. generating the traditionally names sects. No doubt there were internal splits, but there was a great deal of hybridisation as well. The tree image is inadequate to describe such development. Taking my cue from Indian use of river metaphors, I have envisaged the development like the course of a braided river system. There is an overall flow in one direction, but the flow constantly branches and recombines across a broad bed. There are no straight lines. At times there seems to be a "main-stream" and at other times no one stream dominates, the patterns of branches and convergences is constantly changing.

And of course even if the Śākyas did originate in Iran, things were by no means simple there and then. The influence of Egyptian religion, particularly in the matter of eschatology (or afterlife) for example is quite obvious. Witzel's method of comparative mythology, in his book Origins of the World's Mythologies, purports to trace the roots of our story telling to Africa ca. 65,000 years ago as the first (successful) migrations of modern humans into the rest of the world commenced. And so on back and back until we can no longer determine any source. 

Metaphors and Schemas

One of the basic schemas identified by George Lakoff by which we organise and conceptualise our experience is the origin-path-destination schema. The tree diagram is a variation on this basic schema adding binary divisions and multiple destinations to a single point of origin. And it seems natural for us to organise information along these lines because the schema is one of the fundamental patterns we use to build conceptual metaphors. The origin-path-destination schema is something like a Kantian a priori. But in this case the metaphor does not quite fit reality. We need to invoke another schema to better fit our experience. I suggest that in terms of fundamental human experience the schema that best fits is the community made up of a number of inter-marrying families. As time goes on certain characteristics tend to be retained in families over generations, but at the same time characteristics morph and change because of intermarriage. Likewise the community may remain relatively stable as an entity over many generations despite continual changes in personal due only to birth and death.

The concept of common origins, of seeking for common origins certainly has power at times and it certainly has a powerful grip on our imaginations. But it always over-simplifies the origin. Whether we are dealing with evolution as a whole, the human species, or the products of our culture like the Buddhist religion, or the texts produced by our Buddhist ancestors, there is extremely unlikely to be a simply origin. We Buddhists in particular want to trace everything back to one man. But that one man was just as much a product of his conditioning as any human being. We all have to learn the language and the ways of our family, community and nation. In a multicultural environment like 500 BCE Ganges Plains, or 21st century UK, we also have to engage with differences. Looking backwards there are always continuities and discontinuities and hybridisations. Whoever the Buddha was, he was a member of a family and a community that shaped him just as we were shaped by our families and our communities. Indeed one of the implications of the Iranian Origin thesis is that we should place more emphasis on the culture of the Śākyas as a community as the source of Buddhist beliefs, especially regards morality, and less on any one individual. This might explain why a name had to be invented for the founder at a later date. It is interesting that Buddhists were often known as Śākyans in ancient India - the early medieval Mīmāṁsā thinker Kumārila refers to Buddhists as 'the Śākyas'.

Even if we can point to a single founder, he himself was the product of complex processes. When we see the Buddha as a like a spring (a origin-path metaphor) we actually falsify what we know about every human being - even the most remarkable people are shaped by their environment, by teachers, by family, by history. In fact since he wrote nothing, it was the Buddha's followers who shaped our views of what Buddhism is. What they remembered, what they emphasised, and what chance allowed of that subset to survive is at least as influential as the Buddha himself presuming he existed.

Buddhism is the product of complex historical and cultural processes - a braid rather than a tree.


31 Dec 2013: Seems my use of the word "braid" was on target: Viewpoint: Human evolution, from tree to braid by Professor Clive Finlayson. "Some time ago we replaced a linear view of our evolution by one represented by a branching tree. It is now time to replace it with that of an interwoven plexus of genetic lineages that branch out and fuse once again with the passage of time."
9 Jan 2014. I've also just watched this, quite high level, presentation featuring Lynn Margulis who is also very critical of the tree metaphor for describing evolution - indeed she is a major inspiration for this outlook. 
28 Mar 2014. See also my essay Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution.  
22 Apr 2015. Sweet potato naturally 'genetically modified' Eurek Alert. "Sweet potatoes from all over the world naturally contain genes from the bacterium Agrobacterium."  These genes have been transferred to the genome of the sweet potato and are passed on when it reproduces. This more evidence that a simple linear tree does not describe the processes that go on in evolution. 
29 Apr 2015. Paul Heggarty, Warren Maguire and April McMahon. (2010) Splits or waves? Trees or webs? How divergence measures and network analysis can unravel language histories. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B. 365. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0099. 
Abstract: Linguists have traditionally represented patterns of divergence within a language family in terms of either a ‘splits’ model, corresponding to a branching family tree structure, or the wave model, resulting in a (dialect) continuum. Recent phylogenetic analyses, however, have tended to assume the former as a viable idealization also for the latter. But the contrast matters, for it typically reflects different processes in the real world: speaker populations either separated by migrations, or expanding over continuous territory. Since history often leaves a complex of both patterns within the same language family, ideally we need a single model to capture both, and tease apart the respective contributions of each. The ‘network’ type of phylogenetic method offers this, so we review recent applications to language data. Most have used lexical data, encoded as binary or multi-state characters. We look instead at continuous distance measures of divergence in phonetics. Our output networks combine branch and continuum-like signals in ways that correspond well to known histories (illustrated for Germanic, and particularly English). We thus challenge the traditional insistence on shared innovations, setting out a new, principled explanation for why complex language histories can emerge correctly from distance measures, despite shared retentions and parallel innovations.
Also http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1559/3829

27 March 2016
Another group of scientists challenging the tree structure include Ford Doolittle, William "Bill" Martin and Tag Dagan. For example:
Indeed the whole issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (12 August 2009, 364 (1527)) is themed 'The network of life: genome beginnings and evolution' 
22 Apr 2016.
DNA proves mammoths mated beyond species boundaries by ScienceBlog.com 21 Apr 2016.
27 Apr 2016
A chapter and an article critiquing the use of the tree metaphor in linguistics. 
Geisler, Hans and List, Johann-Mattis. (2013) Do languages grow on trees? The tree metaphor in the history of linguistics. In Classification and Evolution in Biology, Linguistics and the History of Science. Concepts – methods – visualization. Stuttgart: Steiner. 111-124. https://www.academia.edu/8538449/Do_languages_grow_on_trees_The_tree_metaphor_in_the_history_of_linguistics
List, J-M., Nelson-Sathi, S., Geisler, H., and Martin, W. (2014) Networks of lexical borrowing and lateral gene transfer in language and genome evolution. Bioessays. 36(2): 141–150. doi: 10.1002/bies.201300096. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3910147/

15 Jan 2017

See also: Arborescent.

22 July 2019
Just noticed this article in Tricycle Magazine which predates my own attempts in this area. Whose Buddhism is Truest? No one’s—and everyone’s, it turns out. Long-lost scrolls shed some surprising light. By Linda Heuman (Summer 2011). 

20 December 2013

Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'?

Lines from a Buddhist Sutra
British Library
Most Buddhists will be familiar with the problem of finding two different translations of a text they are inspired by and discovering that the two are inexplicably different. This experience was partly what motivated me to learn Pāli and then Sanskrit (and to dabble in Chinese) in the first place. I remember reading the Bodhicāryāvatara in two translations and being puzzled at the differences. I did not realise at the time that one was a direct translation of the Sanskrit and the other was a secondary translation from the Tibetan translation, which helped to explain some of the major differences. 

If we aren't motivated to learn a scriptural language in order to see for ourselves what the text is saying, presuming it is possible to understand it, then we have limited choices. What most people seem to do is make an aesthetic judgement on which English rendering appeals more. I often hear people say that they prefer this or that translation with no reference to the source language. A monoglot Buddhist will say that some translation captures the meaning and some other translation more literal, with no apparent irony. How does one assess the success, let alone the literalness of a translation when one cannot read the language it was translated from?

Another approach I commonly see is to seek out as many translations as possible and hope to triangulate what the underlying text says. One sees quite elaborate attempts at new renderings of texts with no reference to the Sanskrit or Pāḷi, for example. I've even seen these referred to as a new 'translation'. An old friend used to study the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta by giving each participant in the study group a different translation to read from. Sometimes this is successful and other times not.

Thus we Buddhists make choices between translations on superficial and subjective bases, and we probably think of the translation we are familiar with as "the text". Do we ever stop to wonder what "the text" means if "the text" can be rendered 20 different ways in English? Aren't the different translations in fact different texts?

Critical Editions

But the situation is almost unimaginably worse than this scenario. Because most translations are from critical editions. In the process of making a critical edition one collects up all the surviving 'witnesses' (manuscripts, inscriptions, and earlier editions) and examines each one, possibly correcting scribal errors. Typically each witness is different from all the others, even when they are copies of the same 'original'. Scribes inadvertently introduce errors, large and small, and editors deliberately make amendments, subtractions and additions. Then choosing the best manuscript (best can be judged on any number of bases) one notes all the variations from the best one in the other manuscripts. Traditionally this is first done on a large grid. To produce a critical edition one selects from the variations to produce a text that is consistent and coherent. And if this does not produce a comprehensible or likely reading an editor can suggest an unattested reading that fits better (hopefully with notes to explain the logic of their choice). The editor tries to reconstruct the text as it was first transmitted, or as the author intended it to be. The result is a single text with all the variations footnoted and usually extra notes on amendments (though one of the great problems of Indian textual studies is the practice of silently amending non-standard Sanskrit forms thus obscuring dialectical variants).

And it is these critical editions which end up being translated. In the case of the Heart Sutra for example, Conze consulted more than two dozen sources all different from each other. And he made a number of decisions about the author's intention that in retrospect look doubtful at best or were simply wrong (as discussed in my series of essays on the text earlier in 2013). So each translation hides complexity, sometimes vast complexity, and an industrious process of simplification that is fully subject to human foibles. 

But still worse, some Indian texts can now only be understood by reference to commentaries, often centuries removed from the composition of the text and written by sectarians. Again in the case of the Heart Sutra the commentaries disagree on how to interpret the text along sectarian lines.For example tantrikas treat the text as tantric because it contains a dhāraṇī. And more often than not the commentary itself must undergo textual criticism in order to reconstruct the author's text because it too is subject to all the processes of change that affect a text. 

There is no Diamond in the Diamond Sutra.

Take the Sanskrit Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as an example. For a start the title ought not to be translated as Diamond Sutra or even Diamond Cutter. This was a choice made by Max Müller in 1884 and has been slavishly repeated ever since. But as Conze remarks in the notes to his 1957 edition, the word vajra was very unlikely to be understood as meaning "diamond" by its audience. In that milieu vajra almost certain meant 'thunderbolt' (that wonderfully unscientific word that combines thunder and lightning). Really, we ought to translate vajra as 'lightning bolt'.

Chedikā is from √chid 'to cut off, amputate; cut, hew, split'. A noun form is cheda 'cutoff; cut' and the adjective is chedaka 'cutter, cutting' and in the feminine chedikā. Sandhi rules dictate that initial ch is doubled to cch when preceded by a vowel. Then we ought to ask what kind of compound vajracchedikā is.  Other compounds with -ccheda suggest that it is the first member of the compound which is cut off - i.e. guṇaccheda 'cutting the chord' or dhyānaccheda 'interruption of meditation'. These are tatpuruṣa compounds. Monier-Williams lists no other compounds ending in the feminine -cchedikā. Since "cutting off the lightening" is an unlikely rendering and it is in the feminine gender following prajñāpāramitā which is also feminine, we must suspect a bahuvrīhi compound (i.e. it is an adjective describing prajñāpāramitā): "the perfect wisdom that cuts like lightening". I think this is probably what it means. So really we should refer to it as the [Cuts likeLightning Sutra, though it's extremely unlikely that the facts will result in a change. 

The Manuscript Tradition and Editions.

Paul Harrison and Shōgo Watanabe have provided us with a detailed account of the history of editions of the Vajracchedikā (Vaj). There are now ten published editions, including Harrison & Watanabe. The first of these was produced in 1881 in Devanāgarī by the redoubtable F. Max Müller. Müller had four witnesses of which two were copies of the same original and two were Chinese block prints. All of these witnesses post-date the composition of Vaj by at least 1500 years. They are copies of copies of copies and each copying introduced errors. It was Müller who introduced the system of breaking the text into sections. His numbering has been retained in subsequent editions, but they do not occur in any manuscript.

Not long after Müller produced his edition a number of manuscripts of Vaj were found and began to be published. Aurel Stein discovered a Central Asian ms. in 1900 that was published by F. E. Pargiter in 1916 (P). This manuscript is thought to date from the late 5th or early 6th century (though dating on palaeographic grounds can be doubtful). Five of the nineteen folios had been lost and many others were poorly preserved. The Pargiter text appears to be similar to the Chinese translation by Kumārajīva (401 CE).

A partial manuscript was found in 1931 as part of a cache of texts discovered near Gilgit (G). The seven surviving folios are dated to the 6th or 7th century. This ms. was not published until 1956 in a Roman script edition. A facsimile edition was published in 1974. Another Roman script version was published by N. Dutt in 1959 which used portions of Müller to fill in the gaps. However none of the Roman script editions were entirely reliable and in 1989 Gregory Schopen published a new edition which corrected the many mistakes. Schopen's edition is available online from the Gretil Archive.

Amongst several editions of the complete Vaj brought out after these finds, only Conze's 1957 publication has attracted any attention. Conze based his edition on Müller's, but presented it in Roman script and included amendments based on the published versions of P and particularly G. Conze introduced a number of innovations such as western punctuation and hyphenated compounds. "However, Conze did not use M consistently as his base text, occasionally making changes to the wording in which he conflated his various witnesses arbitrarily. He also failed to list the differences in his witnesses exhaustively." (Harrison & Watanabe 92). Never-the-less Conze's edition has become, as it were, canonical and most subsequent studies and translations have been based on his edition and this means, for example that "philosophical questions have also been addressed on less than solid foundations..." (92). 

In 1961 P. L. Vaidya produced yet another edition based on Müller but, as per Conze, with "improvements" based on G as it was then (unreliably) published. This text is widely available on the internet via the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon and the Gretil Archive for example. And yet Harrison & Watanabe conclude it "can safely be set aside" (92). Similarly the edition by Joshi simply rearranges the text of previously published editions. 

Finally we have an incomplete ms. (MS 2385) discovered in the Schøyen Collection dated to the 6th or 7th century, and recently published by Harrison & Watanabe  (2006). This text is missing it's ending. Fortunately the Schøyen ms. (S) is very similar in character to the Gilgit ms. (G). Indeed S and G are closer to each other linguistically than either is to the edition of Pargiter (P). Both contain a number of similar Prakritic features (see Harrison & Watanabe (97-99) S contains sections 1-16c; whereas G contains sections 13b-14e and 15b-32b. And thus, while they are not identical where they overlap, together G and S make up a reasonably consistent single text (see below).

In addition a total of twelve identifiable fragments of Vaj have been discovered in Central Asia. Other texts have been catalogued but are presently lost somewhere in the Nepalese National Archives it seems!

So to sum up the most widely used edition of the Sanskrit Vaj is unreliable; the most widely available to those outside academia is also unreliable. An important problem in the history of this text is that the sources available to Müller are considerably longer than P, G or S. Do we treat this as one text that was added to, or do we treat this as one text in at least two recensions, one shorter and one longer? 

One of the weird things about Vaj is that it suggests that anyone who recites "even one verse of four lines" (catuṣpadikām api gāthāṃ) stands to benefit. But this text is not in verse. There's no evidence that it ever was in verse except this phrase. Is it a stock phrase that was used unthinkingly? Or did the text once exist as verse? As far as we know only one Prajñāpāramitā text is in verse: the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā.

So far we have a Sanskrit text, available in multiple recensions and versions which may well not point back to a single point of origin, and known far and wide by the mistranslated title. The situation in Chinese is almost as complex with seven different translations of texts which vary in length and quality. 

The Text in Translation

When we read a translation it is almost always the case that this background complexity is completely suppressed or at best highly compressed. 

When it comes to translations we are similarly blessed with many options. Max Müller published his translation in 1894. Conze has published three versions of his English translation with only the most recent being widely available. As with the Heart Sutra, Conze's edition has become standard amongst Buddhists, but when examined it is problematic. My preliminary assessment is that Conze's translation of Vaj suffers from his beliefs getting in the way, just as in his Heart Sutra. Conze in particular embraces paradox and nonsense because it fits his preconceptions about Prajñāpāramitā, but this causes him to mistranslate and to obscure the ways in which the text does make sense.

Schopen has published both a translation of the Gilgit ms. and a complete translation. And translations have also appeared by Mu Soeng, Red Pine  and Richard H. Jones. Now we can add the translation by Harrison of the combined S and G manuscripts. Apart from Schopen and Harrison all the available translations are based either on Müller's or Conze's Sanskrit editions with all their faults. As one might expect there are a number of translations from Chinese also, mainly from Kumārajīva's translation.

Unfortunately the translation by Harrison is relatively inaccessible, though it is based on by far the most carefully constructed edition. There is in fact one interesting and useful presentation of the translation on the web based at Oslo University's Bibliotheca Polyglotta. Though the website in theory makes the text available to everyone, I don't think many Buddhists will find the site, and many won't feel comfortable with the presentation in multiple languages and versions, it is not formatted for easy printing for off-line study, and it lacks all the extensive discussion and notes from the publications mentioned. It would be advantageous to have a popular publication with the Sanskrit text and Harrison's translation (with notes) side by side.

One development mentioned briefly above is worth drawing attention to. Promoted as "a new translation" (it is not) the Diamond Sutra website, by one Alex Johnson, is an extreme example of using English translations found on the internet to try to triangulate the underlying text and produce something more comprehensible, though in this case he has singularly failed to find the text. What the author has done, essentially, is to produce a collage of all the versions. No attention is paid to which text has been translated into English - though translations from Chinese are invariably from Kumārajīva's version and from English from Müller or Conze. At times it strays very far from the Sanskrit and/or Chinese text as the elaborations of previous translators are incorporated to produce a rather bloated and turgid rendition of little doctrinal or literary merit (though clearly Johnson has laboured long to produce this, he'd have been better to spend his time learning Sanskrit or Chinese). Nor is any attention given to the context of the sutra. A single example should suffice: in Section 5 he has the Buddha say, "When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature." But "Buddha nature" is entirely anachronistic and out of place here. It is never mentioned in the text. This late Buddhist idea has been crowbarred into the text in a most inelegant way. The Sanskrit text here is "hi lakṣanālakṣanataḥ tathāgato draṣṭavyaḥ" (Harrison 115). This says: "For a Tathāgata should be seen from the non-characteristic of characteristics.” [As ever arguing against naive realism and reification of sense data] Reconciling Johnson's purple prose with this statement is impossible, and I would say, pointless. And yet if you search "Diamond Sutra" what do you find? 


The purpose of this account based on the examination carried out by Harrison & Watanabe is to highlight how complex the manuscript traditions are and how the processes of textual production in the present suppress complexity at every stage, thus to some extent falsifying the witness statements. Vaj is actually not a complicated case, but it highlights a problem that Buddhists simply don't think about. As I said with respect to the Heart Sutra, it is not so much a "text" as a tradition with multiple, competing, variously unreliable, texts. I don't want to go down the road of post-modern textual criticism and deny the existence of the text altogether. For one thing I don't know enough about post-modernism to be credible. But we are obliged to think more about what we mean by "the Diamond Sutra". The production of the text we read is a process in which various scribes and editors have been involved. Many decisions have been made to prune the tangled mass of the tradition in order to present us with reading matter and ideas as homogeneous and simple as possible. Reality is somewhat different:
"... we ought to expect multiple branching of the manuscript tradition, with enlargement and other textual changes not fully present in some of the branches, despite the late date of their witnesses. This presents the editor of texts like this with considerable problems which cannot be gone into here, but to put it in a nutshell, the idea that the wording of any Mahāyāna sūtra can be restored to some original and perfect state by text-critical processes must be abandoned: all lines do not converge back on a single point." (Harrison 240. Emphasis added)
So according Harrison there might not be a (discoverable) single point of origin, a single authoritative text. And this is an argument against criticisms of Conze. That fact that Conze's version is popular with Buddhists is what makes it authoritative, however uncritical those Buddhists have been. Perhaps we have to consider that his version, with all it's faults, is no less valid than other versions? But wouldn't this be rather too defeatist? Ought not errors of reading and translation be repaired? Awkward and infelicitous, not to say inaccurate, translations can be improved on. Though experience does suggest that given the choice Buddhists will cling to a familiar corrupt text rather than embrace a repaired new one.


In the last twenty years I have gone from naive follower to engaged reader, to published scholar. I've discovered along the way that editors and editions can be unreliable. In my education as a Buddhist I was inculcated with the greatest respect for Dr Conze. My Buddhist teacher dubbed him one of the great Buddhists of the 20th century. But as a scholar his methods left much to be desired and his particular Buddhist beliefs seem to have hampered his scholarship. Most of his work is problematic and all of it needs redoing. I hope to do this for the Heart Sutra in the English speaking world (by formally publishing the material I've been blogging) and clearly Harrison, Watanabe and Schopen have done so for the Diamond Sutra. The Sanskrit edition of the Aṣṭasāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra is apparently good enough, so we only require a re-translation of that text (several partial translations have been produced, but as yet no one has undertaken the whole task).

But all of this is simply to play the same old game and something about it nags me. A standardised text is almost a lie. It rests on the idea, drawn from Classical scholarship, of a single author sitting down and composing a text that was then corrupted by scribes over time. But Buddhist texts don't seem like this. They almost always seem to be the product of local traditions (plural) preserved in local dialects and languages.

Clearly Buddhist texts are not like Vedic texts. They are not revelations of eternally unchanging texts. They have not been preserved with the kind of fidelity that Vedic oral texts have. Given that we live 800 years after Buddhism died out in India, the home of Sanskrit text production, we must wonder how much or how little of the variation has survived the burning of Buddhist libraries. If we have this many variations now, how many more were lost? 

Buddhists are often fundamentalist when it comes to texts. We have a 'cult of the book' as Gregory Schopen terms it. The book itself becomes an object of worship (I know of at least a couple of Buddhist shrines that have never-read books on them). The book itself symbolises knowledge, but is in conflict with the anti-intellectual injunction against the written word as definitive. In this view, wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox. So even though the Diamond Sutra is a sacred text, it need not be read, though it is chanted from memory in many monasteries and widely studied

The Buddhist tradition is strangely hostile to complexity at times. We are always trying iron out wrinkles, usually with unintended consequences. It begins to seem a little quixotic to insist that our texts are unitary phenomena. Was the Vajracchedikā composed as single text? Did it once stop at what Conze calls "The First Ending" (§13a) only to be restarted by a latter author? How did the later authors justify adding words, lines and sections? Were they like Alex Johnson, i.e. well meaning but incompetent editors trying to resolve textual variations without really understanding the text? If Harrison is right and the lines do not converge then which Vajracchedikā do we take to be authoritative. In China it's usually the translation by Kumārajīva that is authoritative if there is a choice (though as discussed, this is not true in the case of the Heart Sutra

Practising Buddhists often resolve these conflicts and contradictions by changing the frame of the discussion and invoking the authority of personal experience. Which is to say they sidestep the textual issues by trumping the authority of the text with a higher authority. Only in doing so they retain the text as object of worship as the (ultimately faulty) encapsulation of "perfect wisdom". On the other hand historically merely hearing the Vajracchedikā is said to have brought about miraculous conversion: in ancient times for example for Huineng the patriarch of Zen and in modern times by Sangharakshita who, aged 17, both realised he was a Buddhist after reading an early translation from the Chinese and also had a series of mystical experiences that shaped his approach to Buddhism (and indeed to life) subsequently. 

The other frame change we like to invoke is to cite "the Absolute", a term drawn from German idealism but applied to Buddhism especially by Conze. Sometimes the term non-dual is used instead though the meaning is more or less the same. Modern Buddhists frequently believe that there is a viewpoint that stands outside the framework altogether and sees things as they are - though heaven forbid that we call this the god perspective! The Absolute is beyond words and concepts and yet encompasses all words and all concepts. And crucially the Absolute can be invoked to resolve all doubts and all disputes. If one cannot think through a problem to a satisfactory conclusion that is because not all problems are amenable to thought or reason. Some problems and doubts are only resolved by adopting the godlike perspective of the Absolute.  This is the viewpoint which insists that wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox.  Unfortunately credibility is strained at times when people who clearly do not have access to this perspective, use nonsense to silence questions and stifle discussion. 

So, is there any such thing as 'a text'? I spend my time reading and studying and creating texts. However, the sacred Buddhist text as a unitary object with well defined boundaries is a fiction. With a tradition like the Prajñāpāramitā we have a number of texts which represent the tradition in different ways at different times, but are themselves far from stable or fixed. The modern day obsession with fidelity of transmission does not seem to have been shared by our Indian antecedents. Texts were changed as expedient. Mistakes were as likely to be conserved as correct readings were. Better to think of a text as a sketch of a tradition from a particular place and time, seen after several generations of copying. It may be clear and focussed and relatively helpful in understanding the tradition which produced it, or it may be obscured and blurred and unhelpful. Sometimes it's hard to know which. Most Buddhist texts in fact seem to continue to be composed over a considerable period of time that may only have stopped with the destruction of Buddhism in India.


13 December 2013

Cause and Effect Metaphors in Pāli

I picked up George Lakoff's book Metaphors We Live By again recently. As often happens when I try to read non-fiction these days I found myself drifting off into a writing frame of mind, trying to organise my responses to what I've already read into coherent sentences and paragraphs.

This lead me to reflect on the idea that Buddhist doctrines describe a theory of cause and effect. I've spilt a lot of printer ink debunking the idea that paṭicca-samuppāda is a theory of causation. But the idea is particularly tenacious, and I'm unlikely to be the one that shifts it, partly because Buddhists themselves came to understand it this way. From its beginnings as a way of explaining how the experience of suffering arises, the theory became a general theory of how everything happens - a Theory of Everything. But I've tried to point out that it's not a very good TOE.

Pāli employs a number of synonyms which roughly mean cause or condition (in alphabetical order): upanisā, kāraṇa, ṭhāna, nidāna, nissaya, paccaya, hetu. Let's examine each of these in turn, and then consider them as a whole.

Upanisā (Skt upaniṣad). The dhātu is √sad 'to sit' with the preverbs upa 'near' and ni 'down' (the s is changed to retroflex by the preceding i); hence the folksy translation 'to sit down near to'. This ignores the way that preverbs work but it conveys certain religious ideas. For example upa-sad means to 'sit upon, to approach'; while ni√sad means to 'sit down'. A number of other verbs take the upa-ni preverb combination: upa-ni-gam 'to meet with, fall upon'; upa-ni-dhā 'to deposit', and later 'to produce, to cause'; upa-ni-pad 'to lie down beside'; upa-ni-bandh 'to write, compose; to explain' (from bandh to 'bind'); upa-ni-yuj 'to tie or join'; upa-ni-viś 'to lay a foundation' (viś 'to enter). Thus the etymology of the verb suggests that it probably means 'to sit with', or 'to sit on'. This term is mainly used in connection with the so-called Spiral Path, the sequence of progressive conditionality that leads through ethics and meditation to wisdom. The locus classicus is the first five suttas of the chapters of 10 and 11 in the Aṅguttara Nikāya.

Kāraṇa. This word comes from the ubiquitous dhātu kṛ 'to do, to make'. It derives from the causative form, and thus most closely resembles the English word 'cause'. It broadly takes in all kinds of agency. However it is not frequently used in relation to paṭicca-samuppāda.

Ṭhāna (Skt sthāna) comes from the dhātu sthā 'to stand, to remain'. This word is used in a variety of literal and figurative senses. One of this is 'grounds for' as in the reason for something, the grounds on which a supposition is based. This term is not really used in outlines of the doctrine of conditionality.

Nidāna comes from the dhātu 'to bind'; with the preverb ni 'down' The word dāna is a past participle thus nidāna is literally 'bound down'. Figuratively the word is used in the sense of basis, foundation.

Nissāya (we expect Skt niśrāya, but in practice this is unknown, and we find niśraya in Buddhist Sanskrit texts) is from the dhātu √śri 'to lean, to resort' and it again adds the preverb ni 'down'. The grammatical form is a gerund (a type of non-finite verb used to indicate actions preceding a main verb) which has become lexicalised, i.e. become a word in its own right. Literally it means 'leaning on; nearby'; and figurative 'by reason of, because of, by means of. A form upanissāya is also mentioned, meaning 'basis, support, foundation'.

Paccaya (Skt pratyaya) like nissāya is a gerund from a verb √i 'to go' with the preverb paṭi (Skt prati) 'towards, back'. The literal meaning is 'going back to' or 'resting on'. We get the word paṭicca (Skt pratītya) meaning 'grounded on, on account of' from the causative form of the same verb.

Finally hetu comes from the dhātuhi 'to impell' and means 'cause, reason'. Hetu is used in relation to paṭicca-samuppāda in the famous lines spoken by Assaji to Sāriputta which resulted in Sāriputta's awakening:
ye dhammā hetuppabhavā tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo.

Here hetu-ppabhava means 'arising or coming into being (pabhava) with a reason or from a cause (hetu).' Hetu is clearly a synonym of paccaya in Pāli as the two are often used to reinforce each other: "A reason exists, a basis exists for the purification of beings" (atthi hetu, atthi paccayo sattānaṃ visuddhiyā. M i.407). However the question here is whether or not we have free will - whether or not our efforts will bare fruit, or we are at the mercy of fate.


Now interestingly enough the word 'cause' itself is of unknown origin. It is used in Latin, but the etymology stops there. This may mean that the word is not of Indo-European origin. The Classical Latin causari meant "to plead, to debate a question." (OEtD)

I've gone into the etymology of paṭicca-samuppāda at some length. Briefly the word is a complex compound meaning 'arising from a foundation' or 'arisen based on a dependence' - hence dependent arising, conditioned co-production and so on. The choice of words here does not imply causation. On the contrary the metaphor is quite different from that of causation. Here the image evoked is of building up from a base.

We know that another form of the doctrine uses the locative absolute formulation: while x then y; when not-x, then not-y. Now Sanskrit and Pāli are very sensitive to the temporal separation of actions. One of the main uses of the gerund is to tell the reader the sequence of actions separated in time, but connected. We do this with word sequence and implication in English. In Pāli we find constructions like: sa bhagavantaṃ upasamkammati, upasamkamitvā, abhivadeti, abhivadetvā ekamantam nisidati, "He approach the Bhagavan, having approach he greeted him, having greeted him he sat to one side." The gerund form tells us that each action is completed in sequence before the main finite verb 'he sat'. Thus when the Pāli uses the locative absolute indicating simultaneity of being and non-being, this is really quite significant. If this is causation then it only works when the cause is constantly present. This is not like the impulse we give and object when we pust it. Bhikkhu Ñāṇavīra used the image of a house being built: first the foundations, then the walls then the roof. The sequence is necessary - no walls, the roof can't stay up; no foundations and the walls can't stand. The foundations enable the walls to stand, and support them while standing, but we would not ordinarily say that the foundations cause the walls to stand.

The same metaphors apply in the case of the terms nidāna, nissaya, and upanisā. All of these tell us that x is the basis or foundation for y. None of these central terms imply causation. The idea being expressed is that x is a specific condition (idapaccaya) for y; x is a necessary condition for y, and perhaps even a sufficient condition; but x does not cause y. Indeed the aspect of causation is a mystery - how the eye and form give rise to eye-discernment, and how eye-discernment is never discussed. Although the process of craving leading to grasping seems obvious, there is no explanation offer - the theory relies on our experience to make the idea seem plausible. The mechanisms are transparent to the early Buddhists - they see only effects, and necesssary conditions and not see, or at least do not comment on causes. Indeed it is not until the advent of neuroscience in the latter half of the 20th century that any plausible explanation for how desire becomes additction was put forth. A recent (2011), useful description of the state of our knowledge can be found in David J Linden's book Pleasure.

We know that one of the most popular ways of stating the idea of paṭicca-samuppāda is the verses spoken by Assaji to Sāriputta when he suggests that the Tathāgata has spoken of the causes of things that arise from a cause (hetuprabhāva). Now here hetu does mean cause in our sense - as I pointed out it comes from a verb meaing 'to impell'. But I think we have to view this in the broader context outlined above. Just because the word is used here, does not change the bulk of the technical vocabulary. Thus we might be better to translate hetu here as 'reason'.

Origins of the World's Mythologies

Michael Witzel is one of the most prolific scholars in Indology of any period. His publications have set the standard in the field of the early history of India and the Indic languages. His 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, published by Oxford University Press, is extremely ambitious in scope and intriguing in its content. In a lesser scholar I'm sure that such a work would be dismissed, but Witzel has the stature and the background to carry it off. I've previously been strongly influenced by Witzel's work. His theory on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe led to my own article on that subject being published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Vol. 3). 

I'm a long way from assimilating all of the ideas in the book, but want to begin to note what I find interesting about it. I won't be critiquing his methods because frankly I'm not qualified. They are explained in some detail and my layman's eye tells me only that he has at least set out how he proceeded. It seems a plausible enough way to proceed and I see every sign of his dealing well with complexity and exceptions. Witzel repeats several times that the project is heuristic a term he borrows from textual criticism to mean still gathering information, though he thinks his outline of the general features is likely to accommodate any new facts. Inevitably the result is a broad brush-stroke, rather speculative picture. There will be many who find this kind of speculation unwarranted, but I have always been fascinated by such an approach which crosses disciplines and fields. Books like this are pioneering efforts, providing a background against which more detailed investigations can proceed.

Witzel's method is primary comparative mythology, but he approaches this in a novel way. Instead of comparing individual myths or themes, he compares whole mythic systems. In this I believe Witzel has been strongly influenced by the field of comparative linguistics. The comparative method works best across whole languages rather than with isolated words or points of grammar (though these may be important signposts). So while it is neither here nor there that Latin pater becomes fader in Germanic, it is very significant that everywhere that Latin words begin with  /p/ the Germanic cognate will begin with /f/. This systematic shift in consonant sound is an aspect of Grimm's Law (after the elder of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob). As an example I have looked in detail at how the sounds in words for five and finger are related across various Indo-European languages in studying the Sanskrit word prapañca. Similarly here Witzel is looking for, and finds, systematic correspondences in the mythologies of far flung cultures.

What emerges is that mythic systems spanning Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Asia, South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas share important features. In particular they share a story arc. Individual myths are fitted into this same story arc in these regions. By contrast the myth of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia follow an very different story arc. These two areas roughly correspond to the ancient landmasses of Laurasia and Gondwanaland and Witzel has chosen these names to represent them - though he is fully aware of the different chronologies of geology and human evolution.

The striking conclusion from the shared features of Laurasian myth that the mythology "...can be traced back to a single source, probably in Great Southwest Asia, from where it spread across Eurasia, long before the immigration of the Amerindian populations into North America and before the Austroasiatic colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar, and the Pacific." (19)

That is to say that Witzel claims that he can identify elements of an ancient mythology common to a group of people who lived at least ca. 20,000 years ago. This figure emerges because the first migrations from Siberia into America via the Beringa land bridge (which crossed the Bering Strait). Testing this thesis will be a monumental task as it involves a huge amount of evidence from across multiple disciplines (the book is about 660 pages). Along the way Witzel provides many examples of testable hypothesis and gaps in our knowledge. We get no sense that the theory is complete or unequivocal. Witzel is not making unwarranted claims to knowledge, but proposing a conjecture to be further tested.

Chapter One introduces the main ideas and situates his study in the history of such studies. Chapter two explores his comparative method and chapter three explores the Laurasian myth in greater detail, noting all the variations and contrary evidence. Witzel is not afraid to cite contradictions which is always a good sign. However he does try to show how or why such evidence might be understood in his framework. Chapter four explores evidence from other fields such as linguistics, physical anthropology. genetics, and archaeology which serve to bolster the thesis because they are largely in agreement with the results of comparing myths. It should be noted however that much of this evidence is disputed or ambiguous. Interpretations exist which flatly contradict Witzel. Thus here at least we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Chapter five looks at the Gondwana mythology as a study in contrast, giving both the main characteristics of these myths and discussing the similarities and differences. Clearly in some cases the two broad traditions intrude on each other. Chapter six speculates on the first myths that might underlie both Laurasian and Gondwana mythology, which Witzel refers to as Pan-Gaean Mythology. Certain myths, such as the story of a flood that nearly wipes out humanity, are more or less ubiquitous around the world. Chapter seven deals with changes in Laurasian Myth over time.

Witzel's provisional outline of the story arc of Laurasian Myth is as follows:
In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man. The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time. Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink. The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors. There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the brining of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.
Cultures as far flung as Indigenous Americans, Polynesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Greeks and Celts have a system of mythology which draws on these themes (or mythemes as Witzel terms them) and in this order. Which is to say their system of myth is structured around this story or something very like it. Of course there are many variations and exceptions. Having grown up with Greek and Māori mythology and comparing it with the Indian myth I have subsequently studied, I am particularly struck by the parallels between Vedic and Māori myth both of which closely follow the general outline above. These are two populations that simply could not have come into contact for many thousands of years, suggesting that they must have shared these stories for the kinds of time periods Witzel is proposing. 

The origin of the Laurasian universe is mysterious. In the beginning there is darkness or chaos (from Greek khaos meaning "abyss") or non-being. Such images are found in myths from the Pacific, Greece, China, India and the Middle-East. The commonality spans geographical areas and language families (though language superfamilies are now being proposed, which I will discuss in a future essay). Sometimes this phase is characterised as primordial dark waters (water has no form) from which the earth (order) emerges. "The myth of primordial waters is very widely spread, especially in northern Europe, Siberia, and the Americas, the Near East, India, and Southeast Asia/Oceania" (113). One of the ways that the world is brought into being is through speech - a theme in Vedic, Icelandic, Maya, Maori and Biblical texts (111).

In his final chapter he sums up Laurasian myth:
"Viewed from the present vantage point... Laurasian 'ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correlation of the 'life' of humans and the universe. But someone, about 40,000 years ago, had to some up with it. As it is closely related to the concepts of the Paleolithic hunt, the rebirth of animals, and shamanism, it must have been a shaman who did so." (422)
Chapter three provides a detailed look at the sources and variations of what Witzel calls "Our First Novel", including lengthy quotes from published versions of world mythology. Witzel has given special place to old tellings of myth. "The earliest written codifications consist of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the (four major) Egyptian cosmogonies, the oral but--due to extremely faithful oral transmission--virtually "tape recorded" Vedic corpus, the Greek Theogony of Hesiod, the Japanese Kojiki, the Quiché Mayan Popol Vuh, the Hawai'ian Kumulipo, and not to forget, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible." (65) The point here being that, just as with older written texts the connections between cultures are clearer than in more recent texts.

One of the interesting contrasts of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology is cosmogony. The Laurasian stress on the creation of the universe is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies (105). For these people the world has always existed and always will exist. By contrast creation is a particular fascination for the majority of the world's people (given that the Laurasian area takes in China, India and Indonesia, who between them account for half the population of the world, in addition to Europe and the Americas). Gondwana myth is concerned with the origins of people however.

In addition there are some stories which are found to be ubiquitous. Chief amongst these is the flood. According to a widespread, more or global story (178ff and 348ff) at some point a flood nearly wiped all of humanity except for a few survivors. Witzel treats this myth as a survival of a much older Gondwana story since it is found in Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia and Australia as well. And it has been intelligently incorporated into the Laurasian story line. It is one piece of evidence pointing to what Witzel calls Pan-Gaean Mythology that must have existed when the migration out of Africa began ca 65,000 years ago.

All this is interesting from a Buddhist point of view because the Buddhist universe is beginningless and endless and has no creation story. In Buddhist stories there no primordial chaos and no bringing the world into being and no interest such things. Though many people cite the Agañña Sutta as a creation myth in fact it represents a Śākyan parody of a Vedic myth. There are elements of the Vedic cosmogony of a cyclic creation and destruction overlaid on this substrata, but its clear that it is part of a much larger process of assimilating elements of Vedic culture (for example virtually all the names of the members of the Buddha's family, including Siddhartha, have Vedic overtones. See my essay Siddhartha Gautama: What's in a Name?). According to Witzel this absence is characteristic of the mythologies of Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea. So this raises a question of how we relate Buddhism to Witzel's characterisation of world mythology. At first glance the basic Buddhist worldview would appear to be more like the Gondwana than the Laurasian. This is a subject that would require more study.

Witzel appears to have done something at once similar to, and yet vastly more far reaching than, Joseph Campbell's characterisation of the Hero's Journey. This overview can hardly do justice to the sweep of a 600+ page book that purports to describe 65,000 years of story telling and myth, though I hope that readers with an interest in myth and/or history will take up the challenge of reading it. It's clearly a book written by and for academics, but Witzel is a good writer who repays careful attention. I don't imagine the book would be beyond anyone who regularly reads this blog.

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Pbk: 978-0-19-981285-1
See also the article (2008) 'Slaying the Dragon Across Eurasia.' in In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropolog: In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Ed. John D. Bengtson. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
See also Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence. 24 Jan 2014  


06 December 2013

The Ethics of Amazon UK

One of my friends posed an ethical question last week regarding the online retailer Amazon UK. Should we boycott them because of what's been in the news. This is the (very) long version of my answer.

Most people know the story of the world's largest online retailer. Amazon.com went line in 1995 selling books, and was able to undercut the prices of traditional bricks and mortar stores precisely because it did not have to pay rent, salaries etc associated with physical stores. All they needed was a warehouse and a bunch of minimum wage drones to fill orders. Part of the reason Amazon succeeded what excellent customer service. Amazon became the success story of online retailing. In fact it took a longish while for the company to start making profits, but it was obvious from the outset that they had a "killer app" and they went from strength to strength. 

I'm a long time customer of Amazon in several countries and have sent books to friends and family around the world using Amazon. On very few occasions have I had any trouble with items arriving and then I've had excellent customer service from them. I'd have no trouble recommending buying from them on that basis. But in recent times Amazon in the UK have been in the news for other reasons.

Bad News from Amazon

Earlier this year (May 16) the BBC reported that "Amazon's UK subsidiary paid £2.4m in corporate taxes last year, the online retailer's accounts show, despite making sales of £4.3bn." Now there's a big difference between sales and profits. And one of the major deficiencies of financial reporting throughout the UK media is making precisely this distinction between turnover and profit. The question we need to know the answer to is what was Amazon's profit margin. Figures on this are a bit confusing, but what I found was this.

In April this year Amazon worldwide  reported a 37% drop in profits. Amazon made a loss of $39m, for the year 2012, even as it had sales totalling $61bn. On paper Amazon UK is simply not very profitable despite turning over tens of billions of pounds. How can a company with such high turn-over, with low overheads built into the structure of the business model (i.e. no shops or shop staff) make such dismal profits?

The reduction in profits is put down to "aggressive expansion plans and investment in new products." Profit ploughed back into expanding the company is not taxable. However they are also losing a lot from selling at a loss. By cutting prices they gain market share and in tough economic times their competitors may well go to the wall, like Borders did in 2011 (2009 in the UK) and has many independent book retailers have done. I'm not sure about Amazon as such but we know that generally speaking senior managers of corporations are receiving salaries and benefits in the millions, with well above inflation rises right through the recession years.

We also know that these big companies use management accounting strategies to hide profits. Starbucks UK for example pays royalties on the brand to a Starbucks company based in Holland where they gets huge tax breaks from the Dutch government. Starbucks also buys all it's coffee from a subsidiary in Switzerland which adds a mark up of 20% on the wholesale price and pays much lower taxes than it would in the UK. Thus the amount of taxable profit in the UK, which has relatively high rates of corporation tax, is diminished by bogus overheads, but the amount of profit available to pay to Starbucks shareholders is augmented by avoiding UK taxes. And of course those shareholders no doubt also avoid taxes in a variety of ways.

In the case of Amazon they pretend to operate from Luxembourg to avoid paying UK taxes. They also used a base in the Channel Islands to distribute CDs and DVDs to avoid paying VAT on them. though this loophole was recently closed. Clearly Amazon's sales here are enormous, billions of pounds, but the tax laws of various countries allow them to funnel profits through tax havens in such a way as to avoid paying tax in the UK.

Keep in mind also that Amazon received £2.5m in government grants to help them do business in the UK, which is £100k more than they paid in corporation tax. And this is a twist of the knife for the public who see themselves are subsidising Amazon shareholders. 

However it gets worse. As one would expect from a company with squeezed profit margins Amazon are trying to minimise costs - the highest cost in any business is always labour. As I write the BBC are running with this headline: Amazon workers face 'increased risk of mental illness'. The story is based on observations by an undercover reporter and commentary provided by Prof Michael Marmot a "stress expert". The reporter worked for just over the minimum wage and his performance was closely monitored using electronic surveillance - his movements between picking jobs was timed for example. Statistics are collected and can be used as the basis of disciplinary action. Every moment is monitored and there is no time to relax. As with every unskilled job, there people lining up to replace you. To be fair Amazon have responded that: "official safety inspections had not raised any concerns and that an independent expert appointed by the company advised that the picking job is 'similar to jobs in many other industries and does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness'." This was followed up by another undercover reporter from the Guardian which covers a broad range of topics similar to this essay. One wonders just how many journalists are moonlighting as Amazon employees at present? (And if they keep the money they'd paid, and if they pay the proper tax on it?) If you search for news on Amazon and employee pay and conditions you'll see that this kind of thing is not just a UK problem. There are widespread complaints about the way Amazon treat their lower level staff.

So Amazon are pushing the boundaries of tax and employment law, possibly at the expense of the country and their employees, though they are not breaking it. Is there a moral issue here that would, for example, make us stop giving Amazon our business, like MP Margaret Hodge? (Leaving aside the issue of grandstanding MPs). As Frankie Boyle recently discovered. He was trying to recommend an ethical online retailer for the book he's flogging at the moment to his Twitter followers, and they kept coming up with objections to the alternatives. It seemed to boil down to this: big business is owned and run by big business and ethics are well down their agenda.

Not An Isolated Case

This problem of large, often multi-national, companies exploiting loopholes to dupe the UK out of the taxes they owe is not a small or localised problem. Most developed countries face something similar. It's partly a side-effect of the new Libertarian ideology, sometimes called Neoliberalism, though it seems highly illiberal to me. This ideology can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s (see for example the Lewis Powell Memo), but has much deeper roots in British philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Recently Andrew Simms, writing in the Guardian, placed the beginning of this movement in April 1947, at a conference in Mont-Pèlerin where:
"Philosophers, academics and historians gathered at the Hotel du Lac to discuss how to halt the spread of ideas that emphasised common purpose and governments acting directly in the public interest." 
Neolibertarianism, as it ought to be called, argued for no controls on the movement of capital in and out of nation states and for the reduction of all kinds of trade and financial restrictions. Within Europe we also have the free movement of "labour" (which means people). The rationale was that impersonal markets would function better (that is allow businesses free reign to make profits) when allowed to operate on a global scale without regulatory interventions by governments. The rhetoric was that free markets would deliver fair prices to consumers and more profit to shareholders. And part of the theory was that by allowing the rich and powerful to prosper it would, by so-called "trickle down effects" benefit the whole economy.

Of course the promise of a free market utopia has turned out to be a lie. Since the early 1970s a series of recessions in the developed world has been paralleled by a series of outright economic crises in Africa, then South America, then South East Asia and Japan, and now in Europe. Things came to a head in the developed world in 2007 with the collapse of so-called subprime mortgages. Not only had mortgages been sold to people who could not afford them, but such non-viable loans had been packaged as investment opportunities (rated as gilt by rating agencies when they ought to have been junk) and sold on by financial institutions across the globe. Some particularly malfeasant companies also hedged against the failure of the loans meaning they would make a profit either way - since the failure of gilt rated investments is very rare, betting against failure was very profitable when they did fail. And so the financial system itself began to topple, starting with Lehman Brothers' Bank. With the finance system in trouble the sheer scale of private sector debt (reaching 500% of GDP in the UK) became and remains a serious hindrance to economic activity. Though debt is largely ignored by mainstream economists. We're still in a situation of low investment, high (and rising) private debt which is likely to affect us the way it affected Japan from 1990 onwards - with overall stagnation for decades.

The pursuit of free market economics has enriched the 1% at the expense of everyone else. Free market ideology has left disaster in its wake across the globe. But because the 1% and government overlap considerably the possibility of getting substantial change - even in the face of a global economic crisis - is minimal. Even now UK politicians are claiming credit for having saved the day when they have simply plastered over the cracks and pretend that it's business as usual. The fact that almost no politician or economist saw the worse economic crisis in history coming has not given most of them pause to consider that they might be going about things the wrong way. A few heterodox economists now have a slightly higher profile: Steve Keen, Nouriel Roubini, Ann Pettifor and Ha-Joon Chang for example. A group of economics students in Manchester has demanded that their syllabus reflect the post-crash reality. But law makers rarely target their own activities, so any change is minimal and slow. 

Trickle down also turned out to be a lie. When workers are receiving pay increases less than inflation and senior bankers receive bonuses of four time their salary and pay increases of 1000% above inflation (in 2012) then we know that the Neolibertarian doctrines are not just operating at the national level. It is individuals with wealth and power who are changing the business environment in this way, and it is individuals who are willing participants in the implementation of such doctrines. In recent times the Occupy Movement coined the distinction between the 1% who are benefiting from free market economic and libertarian social policies and the 99% who are paying for it. Not only does wealth not trickle down, but it tends to flow upwards, enriching the wealthy at the expense of the middle and poor. And the policy result of hardship is to crack down on the needy and allow continuing free reign for the greedy.

To some extent we're still dealing with the outcomes of late Victorian thinking. Victorian thinkers were partly concerned with justifying British domination of the world through military power. The Empire asset stripped the colonies and massive enriched Britain, though then as now most of the wealth concentrated in the hands of the 1%. But ideas such as "survival of the fittest" became the guiding light. Britain dominated because it was better, fitter, stronger, and thus had an "evolutionary" advantage.  As theology was undermined by science, this kind of thinking replaced the divine-right thinking to some extent. The upper class intellectuals in Britain characterised human beings as they saw themselves in the mirror - individualistic, selfish, and greedy. But also, with no hint of irony, human beings were supposed rational. In other words they rationalised their own emotional responses and called their arguments 'reason'. Other responses were then irrational and/or unreasonable. And various philosophers developed these ideas until we get to the present where humans are still seen in this distorted lens by politicians and economists. In fact science has disproved the Victorians and shown that humans are social, empathetic and altruistic as well as hierarchical and competitive. However libertarians won the argument back in the 1970s and began to re-engineer society away from liberal values.

Another aspect of the social change of recent decades was the de-horning of the labour unions. Unions had been very powerful in Britain up to the 1970s and that power had clearly gone to their head. Unions were frequently greedy and deeply conservative - and here is an irony. The so-called Conservative Party is actually a vehicle for Neolibertarian doctrines and has been seeking to radically alter the structure of society for decades, and the socialist (even at times outright communist) labour unions were conservative in the true sense of resisting such changes and preserving more traditional social and business structures. When Thatcher was voted in on the Neolibertarian wave (along with Reagan in USA and the Lange Government in my home country, New Zealand), one of the first tasks was to drastically reduce the power of the unions who were blocking much of the Neolibertarian reform program. Unions were divided and conquered and now play a much smaller role in life in the UK. And as a result of changing legislation, managers are now able to place pressure on workers to accept progressively poorer pay and conditions as they do in companies like Amazon. Real wages have fallen consistently for many years now, and the number of people tied into contracts (so-called "zero hours contracts") that offer no guaranteed hours of work and no "extras" like holiday and sick pay are on the rise. Amazon are by no means unique in using changes in labour laws to get more from their workers while offering much less. In fact it's the norm these days.

It might be argued that the new Libertarianism was a predictable response from business people, politicians and classes with hereditary privilege (in the UK the three often overlap considerably) whose interests were threatened by changes happening in our society in the post war years. Certainly the conditions that apply now are not specific or localised. Across the developed world the same conditions have been set up by business people who want to own everything, rather like the feudal lords of the past. Except in the past a feudal lord had duties to their dependants and these days there are no duties except to share-holders.

Amazon are simply one of many large companies exploiting the business and legal environment set up by libertarians (from both the left and the right of the political spectrum) in order to allow them to do just that. Amazon have broken no laws in any country so far as I know. The argument is that the way they exploit tax and labour laws is immoral, not illegal.. We can prosecute illegal behaviour by large companies, though it is very expensive to do so. We cannot prosecute for legal but immoral behaviour. We can only change the law. But the present representative are reluctant to change the law because they benefit personally from the status quo in most cases.

Tall Poppies And Scapegoats

Amazon are high profile and successful. Founder Jeff Bezos has a net worth in the 10's of billions and his own space program! Part of the reason the outcry focusses on companies like Amazon here is the UK's deep misgiving about people who are successful. If you inherit money and have no talent at all you can be prime minister (the present PM for example), but if you start from nothing and work your way up you have broken the unspoken rules of class that still lurk in the British unconscious. The term we used in New Zealand for our own version of this is "Tall Poppy Syndrome" - i.e. it's the tall poppy, sticking up above the wheat, that get's eaten or beheaded first. At it's best this can lead to genuine humility and at its worst to hateful media campaigns aimed at bringing stars down to earth (as I write the media are gorging on the salacious details of the private life of a celebrity chef, for example). I'm not sure how the British did not manage to come up with a word for Schadenfreude because they savour the failure of the successful like no other people I know. 

On the other hand because Amazon is successful and Bezos is now a billionaire with his own space-ship, that draws a certain amount of respect from the 1%. At the heart of the British conservative ideology is the notion that wealth equates roughly with morality. If, through business enterprise, one has become fabulously wealthy then one must ipso facto be morally worthy. Of course effortlessly inheriting wealth is an even stronger sign of one's inherent worth, but becoming a billionaire is also a positive sign. This is a relatively new accommodation by the upper classes to "new money".

What all of the wealthy seem to have in common is a desire to protect their wealth from taxation. The narrative of taxation is that it is the government getting something for nothing (undeserving) and spending it unwisely. That the private sector has caused a global financial crisis on more than one occasion in living history does nothing to dent this view that the government can't be trusted with money. Government, the libertarians believe, is inefficient. Thus they sell off national assets and companies to the private sector (and often to foreign owners). The upshot is that the wealthy, who make up the majority of the cabinet as well as sitting on the boards of large companies, are not in a hurry to force tax avoiders into compliance. Ironically arch Tory, Boris Johnson, has recently said we ought to be thankful to the rich for contributing so much of the tax take. It is true, but it's also true that they only pay a fraction of the tax owed. And if they paid what was owed we'd have no problem affording our health system for example. Poor people end up paying a much larger share of their income because they have fewer ways of hiding it in tax havens. 

Thus government is not in a hurry to punish tax avoiders and companies like Amazon are free to exploit the many loopholes that tax legislation leaves them. In the case of Amazon this includes the on-paper fiction that in fact they don't do business in the UK, but from Luxembourg and the Channel Islands (both well known tax havens). This does not affect their ability to attract subsidies for doing business in the UK mind you - and this is how we know the government is complicit. 

So in many ways Amazon are just a convenient target for a whole range of misgivings about the wages of Neoliberalism and the crossing of class boundaries. Like hundreds of other companies they exploit the letter of the law to avoid paying companies tax, to erode wages and working conditions, and generally to funnel money away from the government and the public and into the pockets of shareholders who apparently live in the Cayman Islands (for tax purposes). Unable to strike at the system we make a scapegoat to bear the weight of our anger and frustration. And the Neolibertarians will happily let us scapegoat Amazon because it distracts people from the system. If crippling Amazon is the cost of business as usual, then their attitude will be "so be it", as long as the system itself survives. There is no "honour amongst thieves".

Manufactured Consent

There is no doubt that the whole system is corrupt. Politicians and business people have colluded over decades to set up the world's economies in this way. Conspiracy is too strong a word I think, though there has been a collective vision and will, and collusion in implementing it. I see this as the true legacy of the baby boomers. Some people have no doubt set out to make the world a better place, sincerely believing that the economic lies of Neoliberalism would achieve this. They believe because their school teachers and university professors taught them economics and politics with this slant and because our public schools are designed, as much as anything, to encourage obedience to the will of authority. 

There has always been a quid pro quo for the masses. The Romans used to call it bread and circuses. We now get exquisite forms of entertainment that tickle and caress our senses. As the Buddha said, we are intoxicated with the pleasures of the senses. Only now the stimulants are like a refined form of Crack. In the Buddha's day pleasures must have been fairly basic: food, clothes, gold, booze, gambling and sex. Maybe some bhang or opium. Back then opium probably was the opium of the people. Nowadays we have 100s of media channels catering to every taste. We can shop till we drop on cheap imported goods produced by children and slaves and never leave the comfort of our homes. Even the poor can participate in undreamt of ways in this circus. We're all eating so much high calorie food that fatness is an "epidemic". But it's especially the poor who are fat in the Neolibertarian world because cheap food is laden with sugar and fat (and salt). Never before in history has fatness been a disease of the poor. And this fact alone separates us from any other time in history.

For most people life is perhaps less meaningful than at any time in history. Many of us are more focussed on parasocial relationships with fictional characters portrayed by actors than we are on friends and family. Sexual relations are wildly skewed by ubiquitous consumption of pornography and the encroachment of porn inspired imagery into everyday life. We eat more for pleasure and comfort than for nutrition. We seldom spend any time in nature. Religion has, partly through its own inept stupidity, become a source of fear and loathing rather than "tidings of comfort and joy" (as the Christmas carol would have it). The very things that might give us a sense of meaning and purpose have been turned into demons.

Amazon provides us with cheap and easy consumer goods and entertainment. At the click of a mouse. In return we're expected to look the other way when they avoid taxes and exploit workers. That's the Faustian pact. And most people have long ago tacitly signed up to this deal. I'm as much a part of that as anyone. The unspoken threat is that if we start complaining about all the cheap stuff and the ease of acquisition, then the supply of entertainment and consumer goods will dry up. We'll have to face out lives without any distraction.

Amazon are not special except they were the first to succeed in a big way online. Targeting Amazon becomes part of the circus. It feeds the media demon that sets out to over-stimulate the basic emotions of fear, hatred, disgust and lust. These are the emotions that are controlled by the parts of the brain that even reptiles have. The emotions we share even with reptiles. The lowest common denominator and the most powerful motivations for action. And yet we're helpless to act on these media stimulated emotions because it's all virtual. The media companies, who all act in just the same way, are happy to scapegoat Amazon because it takes the heat off them. The BBC as a publicly funded organisation need not participate in this economy of reptilian stimulation, but keeping up with the neighbours is fundamental to the British middle classes, so they do.

Another aspect of the media which Noam Chomsky has highlighted throughout his career as a political commentator is the manipulation of the information presented via news media in order to, in his words, "manufacture consent". In his documentary of the same name he shows how the media manipulated public opinion on various issues but particularly America's various wars in South East Asia in order to bolster nationalism and public support for foreign wars. Arguably they did the same for more recent wars in the Middle East.

I've already commented on the way that government has put almost no effort into pursuing the avoidance of tax as an issue, and yet since day one in office they have systematically attacked people who benefit from or rely on social welfare payments. A 35% pay rise for bankers does not bother them, but that someone might receive £1 extra in welfare is a cause for grave concern. A government run by privately educated, hereditary millionaires, spends millions of pounds each year on PR departments which pour out propaganda against the poor. And the poor are criticised for getting something for nothing and a culture of entitlement - which is a stroke of genius in a way, because the message comes from people who inherited millions, titles in some cases (Osborne is fittingly a Baron), and used their family connections to get into positions of power.


Amazon's modus operandi is merely symptomatic. They're a successful company selling people stuff they want at the best price, but accompanied by good customer service, and a lot of added value in the form of reviews and suggestions for other stuff you might like. They're a pleasure to do business with and while they exploit the tax and labour laws to the fullest extent (in these difficult times) they don't seem to break the laws as they stand. They are keeping to their side of the Faustian pact. Targeting Amazon won't change the legal framework in which they operate. Perhaps we ought to join with others in organisations like 38Degrees to campaign for them to be more straightforward in their business dealings with the UK (i.e. to admit that they do sell stuff here and to drop the fiction that they're not based where all their massive warehouses are). We can hope that in making an example of larger companies we make a point to all the others. However there is no guarantee that his helps, as the case of Starbucks seems to show (there has been no change in the tax laws for example). We ought also to ask pointed questions of our politicians on how they personally benefit from laws they pass (very many stand to benefit from privatising healthcare for example) and why they have not acted to close loopholes that only benefit the rich. The present government have enacted radical changes in welfare and education, but not in tax or finance. It's pretty obvious why that is. But since the advent of Neolibertarianism this is the norm from governments left and right.

All of us are complicit to some extent. Being a member of this society means participating in the circus to some extent. We all rely on money for example which ties us into systems of production and consumption that embody greed and hatred. Even making conscious ethical choices doesn't extricate us from the circus. In fact the idea of "outside the circus" might be purely theoretical. I can't write this without being plugged into the system in a number of ways - physically and metaphorically.

If there is a Buddhist angle on this then it is the injunction to look at and work on the conditions. One may feel that not doing business with Amazon is the right thing under the circumstances. But given that the vast majority of the population are part of the Faustian pact I doubt it will make much difference. Collective actions have had some success in individual cases, but they have yet to make any inroads into the system. The problem is systemic.

Do we opt for disengagement and withdraw from the system as much as possible? This certainly has merit, but again the vast majority are plugged into the Matrix and don't want to be unplugged. Dropping out certainly did not help in the 1960s and 1970s, it just cleared the field and made it easier for the Neolibertarians. As such it seems that making common cause with those who critique and attack the system would make more sense. How far to take it though? Do we join Al Qaeda? I don't think the Great Satan will be brought down by acts of brutality and murder - empires tend to be much better at brutality and murder in any case and we've shown that we can out compete Al Qaeda on that front because we can mount all out wars on a national scale as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq (against the public will!).  Who might we make common cause with? In ones and twos we make no difference. Even 10 or 20 thousand wouldn't make much difference. We need hundreds of thousands of people willing to take action, to march, to argue, to propose credible alternatives, and to donate money to fund it all. I don't see any such grouping. I see isolated individuals and small, ineffectual groups. If you join a political party all you get are constant invitations to fund raising events and requests for money, which is frankly depressing.

We're Doomed

In fact I believe that the outlook is bleak. If the global economic crisis did not rock the world of politics and economics off its axis, and it seems not to have, then what will it take to change things? A year or two back James Lovelock published another iteration of the Gaia theory in which he said he thought we were beyond the point of no return on the environment. I believe we're also over a tipping point economically and politically. The signs are already showing of another economic crisis down the road. Some were predicting it this year, but this has shown to be overly pessimistic. Now, however, we're far more aware of the causes of recessions and collapses: asset and commodity price bubbles for example, and yet we are deliberately building a house price bubble; or too much private sector debt, and yet today it was announced that household debt had reached an all time high. And so on. It cannot end well. And frankly, in this context, Amazon are the least of our worries.

Of course everyone must follow their own conscience.


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