14 March 2014

Nonsense and Nonsensibility

The Red Queen shook her head. "You may call it `nonsense' if you like," she said, "but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary !"
At the end of my essay on negation in the Vajracchedikā I asked a question:
When Conze insists that the Perfection of Wisdom "had resorted to the enunciation of plain contradictions as a means of expressing the inexpressible" (cited by Jones 220) what exactly is he doing?
I've already partially answered this question in my essay On Credulity, where I wrote: "People want to believe... People apparently don't want to believe in science which they see as prosaic, mundane, and uninspiring. Accurate, but cold, grey, dull and limited. Whereas magic is exciting and has infinite possibility."

If we need any proof that magic is attractive we need only cite the worldwide Harry Potter phenomenon that made J K Rowling one of the richest people in the world. And her books are a drop in the ocean of fiction in which magic operates. Even mainstream literature cannot help but engage with the wish for magic to be real, with magical realism being a very popular genre. Of course, the vast majority of us make the distinction between a fictional world in which magic is operational and a factual world in which it is not. But we are attracted to the world where magic operates. The attraction is fairly easy to understand. Magic enables us to take shortcuts and to take control of our fate to a greater extent than most of us ever experience. The same can be said of super-heroes, cartoon characters and fictional heroes. In a world where most of us are at the mercy of various faceless bureaucracies and our choices are arbitrarily constrained in ways we either don't understand or don't consent to, we dream of being more powerful. Or we dream of escape to a better world.

Buddhists play into this attraction also. Buddhism holds out the possibility of solving all of our problems, not by addressing them head on, but by indirectly transforming our minds so that our problems no longer seem like problems. By identifying a single, seemingly simple, cause for all problems, like, say, 'desire', and offering a simple (if arduous) way of dealing with desire, Buddhism taps into our desire to be free from afflictions and troubles, to escape our tribulations (this special case of desire even has a special name: dhammacanda). Alternatively, Buddhists sometimes offer us an easy way to a perfect world where all the hard work of Awakening is made easy. 

What are we to make of the idea that some Buddhist texts and masters set out to deliberately confuse us in order to paralyse that part of our mind which is logical so that another, illogical, part of our mind can come to the fore and liberate us from desire? Conze is particularly fond of this idea that unmitigated paradox is part of the method of Buddhism. In my review of Paul Harrison's approach to the Vajracchedikā (a locus classicus of paradox) I tried to show that paradox was not intended by the author of the sūtra. I also mentioned in passing that neither Harrison nor the other translator whose work I cited, Richard Jones, believed that the use of negation was intended to be paradoxical. I've made the same point with respect to the Heart Sutra.

There must be distinct advantages to a paradoxical approach to understanding since it is so popular and relatively long lived. The interpretation of the Vajracchedikā as presenting an apparent paradox is, for example, important to Zen Buddhists. Consideration of paradoxes in the form of the koan is also an important Zen practice. There is a strong theme amongst Modernist Buddhists that reason is the enemy of liberation. There are relatively few of us (European) Enlightenment oriented Buddhists compared to Romanticism oriented Buddhists.

There is a shadow side to this paradoxical approach that I think can be detected in comments by Conze and others. If, on the face of it, Buddhism is paradoxical and confusing, then it is only the adept who can make sense of it. Conze clearly believed himself to be such an adept. In his commentaries on the Vajracchedikā and Heart Sutra he makes several references to his inability to adequately convey in words the truth of the texts he is commenting on, but hints that it is entirely clear to himself what they are getting at. Such a paradox creates a hierarchy within the community - those who "know" and those who don't. Those who know cannot say exactly what they know, since it is something that defies reason and cannot be put into words; and they cannot say exactly how they know, since it can only be communicated with paradoxes. Many of us are perfectly willing to buy into such a situation. We want to believe that there is a special (i.e., magical) knowledge that some 'masters' possess. Mostly we simply shine in their presence and obtain indirect kudos from being closer to the inner-circle. All too often we find that the emperor has no clothes on and wants to go to bed with us! But, being the kind of social animals we are, we crave being part of the inner circle so much that we don't mind if it means spouting nonsense. 

Now, in Conze's case, there is another dimension, because he was a particular kind of character in a particular kind of environment. By this I mean that he was a gifted academic who did not suffer fools gladly and, as his memoirs make plain, he thought many of his colleagues were fools. Conze had been a staunch opponent of National Socialism in Germany, joining the Communist Party in reaction to the Nazis and authoring several communist tracts. One can easily imagine the rhetoric of Marx appealing to his Romantic leanings. Eventually, Conze emigrated to England. But in England he was subject to considerable racism. His neighbours several times denounced him to the authorities as a spy and, when no action was taken against him, they set fire to the wood where he lived in a caravan. His English academic colleagues were no more welcoming. At Oxford they refused to recognise his German doctorate and insisted on calling him Mr Conze. Conze, being a man convinced of his own superiority to the average man, and indeed to the average Oxford Don, must have found this painful. Later on, he found that his history as a communist barred him from accepting job offers from US universities, and strictly limited the amount of time he could spend in the USA (which I think he found more congenial than stuffy England, where prejudice against Germans has still not completely abated, even now).

I suspect, though I can by no means prove this, that in the Perfection of Wisdom texts Conze found not only an engaging project but one in which he could find a measure of revenge against the establishment. By denying the possibility of a purely intellectual understanding of the texts Conze was fully in agreement with arch-Romantic D T Suzuki with whom he had a strong connection. It also meant that he could routinely exclude most of his colleagues from access to the Truth of these texts. He was industrious enough to dominate the field despite being rather slap-dash in his approach to editing Sanskrit texts and idiosyncratic as a translator - the phrase Buddhist Hybrid English might have been invented for his translations and his work is singled out in the article in which the term was coined (Griffiths 1981). Conze was as much concerned to exclude the plodding intellectuals of Oxford and the common man as he was to elucidate the texts for the cognoscenti. In his introduction to the Vajracchedikā translation his notes conclude:
"Spiritual discernment cannot, however, be conveyed by written instructions. It presupposes certain qualities of character, a certain direction of the will, and certain habits of behaviour. Where those are present, the intellectual information will come to life, and flare up into a blaze of light. Where they are not, boredom will result, and everything will appear too difficult. The reader will soon know which category he belongs to." (Buddhist Wisdom Books, p.20)
The implication here is that Conze too knows which category he belongs to. Indeed, the qualities he praises -- character, will and habits of behaviour -- are as much drawn from his aristocratic German upbringing as they are from Buddhism. He has no compunction in dividing his readership, or indeed the world, into superior and inferior people. And he had little or no time for the latter. Elsewhere, he says, "Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism is not a religion suitable for the brainless". Conze saw himself at the nucleus of the group of people interested in Prajñāpāramitā and he disdained those who were not at least part of the inner-circle, the boundaries of which he himself helped to define. 

So, one of the functions of paradoxical religious literature is to divide the world into those who know and those who don't. Religions, generally speaking, have an inner circle of adepts who 'know' and grow concentric rings of those who have progressively less understanding of the Truth. One of the first things the new convert must do is absorb and master the use of religious jargon and appreciate the hierarchy of those in the know. Buddhists are particularly fond of finding new meanings for old words and dropping Indian terms into conversations. It can take years to become familiar with all the intricacies of the lists and lists of lists. Mastery of the jargon allows the convert to join the in-crowd. There is this cultic aspect to all Buddhist groups.

It is strange, therefore, that the early Buddhists did not seem to feel the need to communicate in riddles. The criterion that bodhi must be experienced is still there, but the authors of the methods and doctrines associated with attempting to re-create that experience strive for clarity. It is not that the early Buddhists were completely rational and logical, clearly they were not. But they did not, so far as we know, set out to confuse the intellect or denounce reason. Indeed, the Pali texts seem to praise clear thinking and learning as very useful on the path. Understanding is praised. The post-canonical work Milindapañha is all about sorting out confusion and clarifying apparent contradictions. And I confess that this quality is what draws me to early Buddhist texts ahead of any others. 

However, suspicion of the inner circle appears to have developed fairly early on, as critiques of arahants are an important aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism. If someone is an arahant they have had the same experience as the Buddha. Originally no real distinction between buddha and arahant was made, except that the teacher tended to be revered, as a teacher is in India. How bad must things have got if arahant came to be seen as a lesser goal for those of inferior capabilities? How many charlatans must have falsely claimed that title and abused the position that came with it? And, of course, we find the distinction being hardened as time goes on with the outright dismissal of anyone not eager to join the inner circle of the Mahāyāna (be it Prajñāpāramitā, Ekayāna, or whatever). The idea of "higher teachings" or that Mahāyāna teachings are inherently superior are still to be found amongst Buddhists (just log into the Buddhist thread on Reddit for examples). 

Of course, we hope that somewhere in all that confusion that some of the adepts have had the kind of experiences we seek to have. That someone somewhere is released from that which plagues us, or that someone has, in some way, lived up to the hype. And that somehow they can communicate that experience to us in a way that will whisk us to nirvāṇa without passing Go. But, as far as I can see, there is no substitute for decades of practice. The Buddhists I admire are the ones who have been tempered by years of intense practice. In the end, there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance. I might be accused of being a Protestant for taking this line, and perhaps that is true. I certainly grew up in a broadly Protestant environment. However, life experience suggests to me that perseverance is amongst the most important human qualities.

A lot of nonsense is talked about Buddhism. To me, we have lost something essential if we give in to the notion that our religion doesn't need to make sense. Once we become tolerant of nonsense, then we stop being discerning when it comes to the distinction between sense and nonsense. If we are presented with information, or a "teaching" that doesn't make sense on face value, then we ought to keep asking questions until the idea dies a natural death or we find a way to make sense of it. For example, I find that, having taken on Sue Hamilton's idea that the Buddha was always talking about experience, many paradoxes are resolved.


  • Griffiths. Paul J. (1981) ‘Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists.’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4(2): 17-32.

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