29 May 2015

Individuals, Philosophy, and Interconnectedness

Mycorrhizal fungus on roots
In Dan Everett's entertaining and thought-provoking book on his meeting with the Pirahã people of the Amazon (Don't Sleep There Are Snakes), one of the quirks of the culture he describes is the firm belief that no outsider can understand the Pirahã language. There is some objective justification for this, since in 300 years of contact with Europeans no outsider had ever managed to learn to speak Pirahã. Even the name Pirahã is Portuguese. As Everett began to gain proficiency in the language and to communicate with them in it, the view of the Pirahã people did not change. Despite conversing with him in their own language they continued to believe that he could not understand their conversations amongst themselves. This could be amusing, as they openly discussed what they thought of him as though he could not understand. At one point it was terrifying as the whole tribe got blind drunk and the men decided to kill him. The fact that they plotted at the tops of their voices allowed Everett time to hide their weapons and lock himself and his family in their house until everyone sobered up.

I bring this up because as I sat down to write about philosophy this image came back to me of people who believed themselves to be isolated by language, despite the evidence of their ears. The philosopher all too often proceeds as though theirs is the only mind in the world and they ought to be able to figure everything out from an isolated point of view. They do this despite communicating and even arguing over the details with other philosophers. Philosophers can be like the Pirahã.

A number of authors have made me rethink my own approach to philosophy, but in particular it was an article by Mercier & Sperber that made me rethink what philosophers do (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason). They make a case for reason having evolved to help groups make decisions, partly based on the fact that individual humans are in fact quite bad at reasoning since they frequently fall into cognitive bias or logical fallacy. 

We have a real problem in thinking about ourselves. To me it seems as though we, especially in the English speaking world, have been infected by a thought virus that is distorting how we see the world. It begins, of course, with the Greeks, but closer to home a complex of thinkers gave fertile ground for this virus. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism already see people as isolated. In Herbert Spencer's thought it translated into "survival of the fittest" as a law of nature. In society this translated into a libertarian ethic that justified exploitation of others for the purposes of accumulating wealth and power. Darwin was influenced by Spencer and took up the cry of "survival of the fittest". More modern influences are Ayn Rand (who advocated selfishness) and John Nash (the inventor of Game Theory, who believed all humans are completely self-interested). Richard Dawkins applied this ideology to biology and came up with the "selfish gene". To some extent we can see the obsession with the individual as an outgrowth from Romanticism, but combined with Utilitarianism it tends to dehumanise. 

Feminist intellectuals have been made an important contribution in identifying power structures in society. Power and wealth have more or less always been concentrated in the hands of a small number of men - a structure called Patriarchy. However, Feminists generalise this concentration of power to all men, which is where I disagree with them. In identifying the elite we can begin to identify and critique the ideas put forward to (self) justify their hegemony. Higher education and access to public discourse was largely a preserve of the elite until quite recently. With open access to universities during the brief window of liberalism in the 1960s-1980s people who were not part of the elite were trained to think. The trend is towards increasing elitism once again, suggesting that our window of opportunity is closing. Part of the problem with pre-twentieth century philosophy is that philosophers and other intellectuals were usually members of the class which they defended. The modern elite co-opts middlemen to enact their power through granting tiny amounts of authority over workers or underlings. While we vote for our government, we are unlikely ever to vote for our boss or our priest! 

We are presently living in a time of backlash against liberalisation from the elite; a time of increasing economic inequality that pays lip service to "rights" but in fact seeks to undermine the ability of anyone to challenge the power structure. Our civil rights are constantly being eroded by government for plausible reasons related to terrorism, though we seldom really consider the role of the government in making us the targets of terrorists in the first place. Had our respective governments not been involved in illegal wars and ham-fisted foreign policy of decades past, behaving like a playground bully, would we be in the position of sacrificing freedoms for security?

But really what started me down this road was thinking about how wrong the idea of survival of the fittest is when applied to individuals. Perhaps the most dangerous idea in history, because in the final analysis there is literally no such thing as an individual.


I've written quite often about metaphors and how they inform how we think. I've been critical about the underlying metaphors of the idea of what we call "spiritual" for example (see Spiritual I: The Life's Breath and Metaphors and Materialism). I've also written about the tree as the fundamental metaphor for evolution and have proposed the braided river system as a better, a far richer metaphor that could lead to more sophisticated thinking about evolution. A real set back for thinking about evolution was the application of Neoliberal ideology to evolution to produce the concept of the "selfish gene".

For a variety of reasons the solitary apex predator has fascinated humanity and over-whelmed other narratives that might be drawn from nature. The glamour of the predator is sublimated and becomes attached to the elite. Hogging resources and conspicuous consumption seem to be justified by equating members of the elite with apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain. Workers are equated with the herd animals that predators feed on. Of course it's not surprise that the same elite has made a sport out of hunting and killing predators, driving many of them close to extinction. And all this is entirely "natural". It's an ugly way of putting it and the spin doctors have of course found more appealing ways of justifying elites, while at the same time using nature documentaries to increase the glamour of predators.

Interestingly the recent trend in wildlife documentaries has been to show the sociality of apex predators, and the degradation of species on the verge of extinction due to human activity. Curiously the current round of BBC documentaries on sharks makes them not feared hunters and ruthless killers like the documentaries of the 20th century did. Now they are perfectly evolved, sleek, efficient and dynamic creatures which at the same time exhibit characteristics which evoke our empathy. Sharks who care for their young for example, or who are social. Metaphorically, or mythically in the sense it is used by Roland Barthes, this is saying that elite are only human, and no one can blame them for having out-evolved other fish in the sea. Indeed one ought to admire their the efficiency with which they go about sating their voracious appetites. So are documentary makers trying to justify the elites (who control what gets on TV) or do we share the goal of emphasising communality, symbiosis, and cooperation? Are they propping up the hegemony or undermining it? I'm not sure. 

The fascination with apex predators is only one way to look at ecology. In my lifetime Lynn Margulis, with considerable resistance from men in her field, managed to establish and popularise the idea that the cells that make up plants and animals (eukaryotes) are in fact the result of a series of symbiotic mergers between varieties of bacteria. At least three species of bacteria were required to get us to where we are. Last to join the party were the mitochondria. These organelles were free living bacteria that developed the neat trick of being able to metabolise oxygen, which up to that point was a metabolic poison. By becoming permanently embedded in the ancestors of all eukaryote cells, mitochondria bequeathed the ability to metabolise oxygen to plants and animals. So each of our cells is actually a little community.

Tree/fungus network
Tree fungus internet. BBC
Tree-fungus networks. SciAm
Another well know example of symbiosis is the commensal relationship of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. This symbiotic relationship is ubiquitous amongst trees. The fungi assist trees by breaking down the soil and making nutrients available, while the trees provide fungi food in the form of sugars. Neither can thrive without the other. Indeed the soil itself would not exist except for the action of fungi. The usual narratives of evolution, with survival of the fittest at their heart, cannot comprehend how important this relationship is. Symbiosis is a constant and vital feature of life on earth.

In the last few weeks we have seen that this relationship is more far reaching that we had imagined. Networks of fungi link trees and allow trees, including trees of different species, to share resources. A dying tree, for example, might send food to other trees via the fungal internet. The diagram on the right shows how two species of tree are connected in a small wood. Such fungi also enable a plant which is being grazed to warn it's neighbours, by sending chemical signals through fungal network, giving them the stimulus to produce more of the poisonous chemicals they use to deter grazing.

Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life. In this view, evolutionary fitness is achieved through forming cooperative communities in which symbiosis is the most significant form of relationship. In these relationships the individual organism actually has blurred boundaries at best. In fact the individual tree is penetrated by fungi that also penetrate other trees and link them together and enable to them to share resources and communicate other information. Tree and fungi have individuals aspects and overlapping aspects. Remove one and the other cannot live, though each has it's own DNA and reproduces independently. 

Animals all have a similar kind of symbiotic relationship with their gut flora. All of use carry around a couple of kilos of micro-organisms in our gut. We have long known that they assist us in breaking down our food. More recently it has become clear that the role these micro-organisms play is far greater. They not only break down food, but help to synthesise essential molecules, and are now implicated in the regulation of our immune system. (Compare: Commensal Bacteria at the Interface of Host Metabolism and the Immune System. Nature.) Indeed we could say that, like trees, animals are surrounded by a film of bacteria and fungi that are our interface with the physical world and that play an active role in our continued survival. We reproduce separately, but cannot live apart. 

A fantastic example of symbiosis in progress occurs in cicadas. These insects have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Hodgkinia, which live inside their cells (endosymbiosis). The long periods cicadas spend underground has had an extraordinary effect on the bacteria. Hodgkinia has evolved into two different species, both of which continue to reside inside the cells of cicadas. But what's more, the different species have suffered degradation of their genome through accumulated mutations and the isolation of life inside a host cell. Collectively the different species of bacteria still perform the same functions in the symbiotic relationship, but individually we see only a minimal functioning genome. Incidentally since all bacteria can successfully exchange nuclear material, they are technically one species with many varieties. Cicadas have other bacterial endosymbionts that are not similarly affected. 

So it seems that all plants and all animals are involved in symbiotic relationships with members of other kingdoms, particularly bacteria and fungi. Symbiosis is not a rare and unusual feature of some organisms that can be treated as a special case of evolution. Symbiosis is the key to understanding life as we know it. And our definitions of individuals skew the reality of what an organism is.

The ubiquity of symbiosis and other forms of cooperation amongst living things could easily have informed the metaphors and myths of nature that we use to understand and guide our lives. Had the founders of modern evolution not been Imperialists and libertarians looking for justification of their way of life, then we might have understood our place in the universe rather differently. Had Christianity been imbued with a sense of the web of life, rather than the Great Chain of Being, then we might have better appreciated our role in the whole. Sadly, we have the view that we do. So new science struggles to make headway. Results that ought to seem normal, to confirm our general hypothesis of how the world works, currently seem like outliers and exceptions. It may be many generations before enough examples build up to change the paradigm. I won't see the change in my lifetime, but there is reason to believe that such a change will come. 


It is sometimes argued, following the Whorf-Spair hypothesis, that we see the world as being made up of individuals acting as agents because of the noun/verb structure of our language. I think opinion in the linguistic community has swung away from this view, not least because Whorf was at times inaccurate in his descriptions of the North American languages on which he based his other ideas. We know of course that the subject/object distinction can break down in meditation. Those who experience this speak very highly of it and say that it is what we all ought to be aiming for. Unfortunately the ability (be it talent or dedication) to achieve these kinds of breakthroughs is rare. Most of us are trapped in a world of subjects and objects and have to make the best of it.

When we look closely we see that what appears to be an individual human, is in fact a community with many levels. Each cell is a community of endosymbionts, bound together for billions of years. But other types of newer endosymbionts also occur, with bacteria living inside cells, but as bacteria rather than as organelles. In our bodies dozens of different types of cells, totalling many trillions of cells, form an interlocking community. They work together to maintain optimal conditions for life. Another view of this is that our bodies maintain optimal conditions for taking in low entropy energy and excreting high entropy energy and everything else is incidental. In any case, surrounding this community is a halo of loosely bound symbionts that are intimately involved with our extracting nutrients from the outside world and protecting us from pathogens. 

In the case of animals we always need at least two, one male and one female, for reproduction (though of course some animals are hermaphrodites, and parthenogenesis does occur on rare occasions). Each organism has a use-by date, after which it ceases to be viable. Before that time it endeavours to create offspring that, by a combination of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, will be at least as well adapted to its environment as its parents, if not better. But if this strategy is to work then a large population is required to allow sexual recombination of genes to prevent a genetic bottleneck. Inbreeding causes mutations to build up too quickly and can be fatal to a species. Thus the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual, the couple, or even the extended family, but the tribe made up from a number of clans which in turn contain several extended families.

Other kinds of relationships are also essential. For example, in a city where no one grows food, everyone is reliant on distant producers they will almost certainly never meet to supply them with food. Water comes through miles of pipes and sewerage leaves through more miles of pipes. We exist in a web of relationships that sustains us.

The question then becomes, why are we so focussed on individuals? The answers are complex and would take too much time to articulate in full. One answer is that there is a distinct advantage to some individuals when we all think of ourselves as individuals. For most of us there is safety in numbers and individualism means we are less able to defend ourselves (and our wealth). This can be and is exploited by rogue individuals (the elite) who operate not like apex predators, in fact, but like parasites: they benefit at our cost, but both go on living. Through the socially liberal times when wealth sharing was the fashion this was less obvious. But since Neoliberalism took hold at government level, inequality has been rising again. In the last 30 years 90% of people have seen their wealth eroded, while the top 10% have seen substantial increases. All the gains in wealth have been at the top. What we have instead of wealth is more sophisticated entertainment! Or once expensive goods produced under slave-like labour conditions in third world countries that make us feel rich. It's the old trick of bread and circuses again. 

There are good arguments for seeing ourselves primarily as members of a community rather than as individual free agents. At the very least we need to be be far more highly attuned to how we relate to those around us, how we rely on each other to survive. People we rely on for food and water, shelter, for example ought to be important to us. Their well being is our well being in a very real sense. We ought, for example, to see taxes, not as the amount the government takes from us, but as our contribution to the general welfare. It's how we look after teachers, nurses, firemen, police and military who carry out tasks that benefit everyone. If we do not look after them, then our own welfare is put at risk. Unfortunately the elite are wealthy enough to avoid paying small amounts of tax and compensate by spending large amounts on educating their kids, private health care and so on. It's cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. 

Unfortunately the basic myths and metaphors of our modern society tend to blind us to important aspects of nature like symbiosis and highlight incidental aspects that benefit only the few. The reason for this is that for some centuries the myths of the people have been controlled by elites. Before industrialisation folk had their own stories, their own music, their own ways. Each community had their own versions of these, though as Michael Witzel has discovered we also share some myths across most of humanity. Now we all draw from a central well that is controlled by elites. The internet does offer a kind of ersatz alternative: margarine to the butter of a healthy human community. It looks and spreads like butter, but it is what it is: yellow grease.

The underlying myths and metaphors are what make the stories we tell sound plausible. Those of us who want change need to be aware of our own myths and metaphors. We can challenge old, poisonous views like "survival of the fittest" applied to human affairs. We can recast the story. We know that we cannot simply force collectivity onto people. That doesn't work. We also know that certain aspects of collectivity have a downside. Innovation and creativity require eccentrics pursuing their own goals and leaders drawing people along with them. But there must be a happy medium in which we honour our symbiotic, communal nature of life without sacrificing individuality completely. The odds are against us because the media used to communicate ideas and values to the masses are controlled by the elites, mostly run by people who are comfortable wielding their little modicum of authority, and tasked with distracting us from the serious business of life. But if we don't keep trying to shift the ground by choosing different myths, then we abandon humanity to a dystopian future. 

Buddhist Interdependence

It's often assumed that systems thinking (which is a broad label for the kinds of ideas I'm writing about here) is "just like" the Buddhist idea of interdependence. I can see why systems thinking is attractive to Buddhists, but it has hardly anything in common with traditional Buddhist thinking, despite what some modern writers would have us believe. To begin with these is no sign of any interest in interdependence in the early Buddhist texts. Dependent arising is largely focussed on mental states and these are not interconnected, but arise in a strict series, and the conditions of which are precisely stated (either sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition; or the nidānas or upanisās). It is only once Buddhists begin to apply Dependent Arising as a Theory of Every that we see interdependence emerge as a subject. And even then it appears to draw on Vedic religious ideas as much as Buddhism. Interconnectivity is a feature of the Vedic worldview which bases religious power on the ability to identify and manipulate correspondences between things in this world and things in heaven. 

Even so the chief sources of interdependence, such as the Gandhavyūha Sūtra, point to interdependence being a metaphor for śūnyatā. The idea being that all dharmas have the same important characteristics of lacking svabhāva (meaning precisely that a dharma cannot be a condition for its own existence). Thus if one can understand even one dharma, then one can understand them all. Or at least, one can understand of them all, that aspect which has soteriological value. Of course that soteriological value is often confused with an ontology, but it need not be. The image typically used for this way of seeing dharmas is Indra's Net: a net covered in jewels with the special property that each reflects all of the others. Far from pointing to some mystical dimension of reality, it is illustrating śūnyatā in metaphors and symbols rather than concepts. Despite the fact that Buddhists saw pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything, this more basic idea continued to exist alongside it. Perhaps because meditators seem to revalorise the importance of examining experience and undermine any grandiose philosophising that has been going on, from time to time. 

For most Buddhist intellectuals, for most of Buddhist history, "nature" has been seen as part of saṃsāra. And when Buddhists have imagined paradise, they have imagined it in decidedly unnatural ways: as perfectly flat, covered in precious stones, populated by beings who don't have sex and are born by apparition in gigantic lotus flowers, and so on. If Buddhists were nature lovers, there is little sign of it. It is true that some monastic rules seem to suggest that monks were proto-environmentalists, in fact the principle was that they not be a burden on the people who supported them. 

This has not stopped modern Buddhists from adopting the principles of ecology and environmentalism and claiming kinship between the two worldviews. I think this kinship is far from obvious. That said embracing environmentalism is a sane response to the damage that industrialisation and globalisation has caused and are causing in the world. When the climate of the whole planet is being nudged in a direction that is inimical to human life, any narrative that motivates people to take mitigating actions is better than none. On the other hand this can back-fire as has happened with the story of climate change. Too much of the climate change story has been built on unsound foundations, which has given wriggle room to those who wish to avoid thinking about it. And now it is probably too late to prevent catastropic change, at least James "Gaia" Lovelock thinks so.

On a cautionary note, I think the idea that this translates into "saving the planet" is hubris. The planet, life, will be fine no matter what humans do. It has survived for 3.5 billion years and suffered much worse than our manipulations (e.g. global ice-ages, comet strikes, planetary scale volcanism, mass extinctions). We tend to think of ourselves as the most advanced form of life, but in fact all forms of life presently around are equally evolved. Bacteria are the dominant form of life, with fungi a close second. And this will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Everywhere people have been, excepting space, bacteria beat us to it. From Antarctica to the hottest hot springs; from the upper atmosphere to the deepest depths of the ocean,; in the purest streams to toxic waste dumps; bacteria find a way to live and often share that ability with other species.

At the moment we have the basic metaphors and myths about nature, the environment, and our place in it wrong. What we have all seems to be based in Neoliberal ideology, or to have been developed along it and share the basic values of Neoliberalism. It's not in harmony with how nature actually is. And this means that we are not in harmony with nature, or with each other. We see ourselves all wrong. We only exist inside a series of nested and over-lapping communities. At the moment we are afflicted by parasites that are sucking our blood. If we see to the health of the communities we live in, then the parasites will most likely be dealt with quite incidentally. At least this is what nature is telling us.

In the Triratna Buddhist Order we have this image of the Order as being like the thousand-armed form of Avalokiteśvara and each one of us being like a hand, playing our part in the compassionate activity of the bodhisatva. My implement is a symbolic pen. I like to think of Gaia having a near infinite number of limbs, and every organism playing a part in a harmonious and efficient organism, gloriously surfing the entropy wave together.


Further Reading
Lovelock, James. (2000) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press.
Margulis Lynn. (1998) Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

22 May 2015

Critiquing Buddhist Karma

In researching karma and rebirth I came across an interesting article by well known scholar of religion, Paul J. Griffiths. It dates from 1982 and while there was some immediate response from one scholar and the article has been cited a number of times, the ideas in the article seem to end up going nowhere. I read recently that 90% of humanities articles are never cited!

One of the main points made in the Griffiths article is that there is very little critical evaluation of Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist ideas more generally. My own reading on the subject of karma has turned up few critical articles (see Bibliography). What's missing, according to Griffiths, is a critical engagement with Buddhist ideas. By this he specifically means a genuine attempt to assess the validity of truth claims made by Buddhists (1982: 277).  

Scholarly publications on Buddhism seem to fall into a number of categories:
  1. Descriptive works which are concerned with continuing to flesh out the history of Buddhism and to describe the intricacies of this complex subject. The opening up of Chinese Buddhist studies and comparison of Chinese, Gāndhārī and Pali versions of the early Buddhist texts mean that this descriptive phase of Buddhist studies will continue for the foreseeable future. 
  2. Apologetics, that is works whose aim is to defend a Buddhist worldview in some form. We have both religious apologists who seek to retain the traditional elements of Buddhism, and secular apologists whose views are broadly aligned with a Buddhist tradition and who write in such a way as to bolster traditional readings, particularly of history. 
  3. Polemics of the field of Buddhist Studies itself, which are aimed not at Buddhism per se, but at the hubris of scholars making claims based on texts which contain far more uncertainly, ambiguity or down right incoherence than Buddhist Studies scholars like to admit. At best these result in more sophisticated articles of type 1.
  4. Ideological polemics aimed Buddhism, which essentially criticise Buddhism for not being, for example, Christian, Vedic, or Marxist enough. 
There's quite a bit of work which is comparative, especially recently comparative ethics, which seeks to find points of cross-over between Buddhist thought and the Western Intellectual tradition. These seem to combine descriptive and apologetic modes of writing. It's a mode of positively engaging with Buddhism, but it never really gets down to assessing the truth claims made by Buddhists.

There is a large gap in the market when it comes to the kind of critical attention that Griffiths has in mind. And in an age where the claims of religion are increasingly challenged head on, it is surprising that Buddhism appears to be escaping the kind of scrutiny that atheists are directing to Christianity (which may simply be a measure of how unimportant Buddhism is in the West). Although Griffiths was writing more than 30 years ago, very little appears to have changed. There is almost no critical engagement with Buddhism in the Academy and yet at the same time attention is lavished on Buddhism. This might be because disproving the truth claims of Buddhists would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg for scholars of Buddhism (though the survival of the field since Griffiths is a counterargument to this). Many people see the criticisms that I propose, for example, as "destroying" Buddhism (at the very least I regularly have people tell me that I am not really a Buddhist). Another factor is that many scholars of Buddhism are clearly in love with their subject and have all of the objectivity of the love struck. They can hardly be expected to criticise their love interest.

Another explanation is that we have adopted the anthropologist's disinterested, objective stance. I recall discussing this with an anthropologist friend who did her post-graduate work on stupa building projects in New Zealand and Australia. She showed me pictures from her Australian group which showed physical relics of the Buddha and the previous Buddha. I scoffed, since at best the previous Buddha is a myth, but she told me that her stance was to accept that this is what they believed and to focus on how this belief affected their lives and actions. The fact that they venerated such "relics" was more interesting than the truth of their claims. Assessing the belief played no part in her approach to research. Her work is thus mainly descriptive. Such is also true for those whose focus is historical or linguistic.

My impression is that it's not just Buddhism. The whole field of Indology skirts around the problem. Of course criticising Indian thought is a political minefield. Another problem for Western scholars who positively engage with Indian thought is that they risk being labelled as racists or cultural imperialists. Professors Michael Witzel and Wendy Doniger for example regularly suffer these canards, largely because their work does not satisfy the criteria of nationalists.

Doing Philosophy with Buddhism

Problems emerge when we engage with Buddhist ideas as philosophers. There is a great deal published now on the subject of Buddhist (or Indian) philosophy and the history of Buddhist ideas. As philosophers we cannot be content with a descriptive approach. We have an imperative to weigh the claims of Buddhists to see if they are true, or to what extent they are true. And if they are not true, then we have an obligation to say so, and to make a case for abandoning the claim. It's very difficult for Buddhists to do honest philosophy when we are in love with Buddhism. We are too strongly subject to cognitive bias. The same is true for many scholars of Buddhism. Personally, I found the intellectual weakness of Buddhist teaching, and in particular the teaching I had received directly, quite shocking once I began to study the history of Buddhist ideas in earnest (I think of Professor Gombrich's 2006 Numata lectures as a watershed in this sense).

Some Buddhist bloggers have taken up the challenge, to some extent: e.g. myself, David Chapman,  and Glenn Wallis (and others who used his blog as a vehicle; with whom my relationship is complicated). But we are not always consistent, or always coherent, and we all have different approaches and agendas. One thing we all have in common is limited success in engaging mainstream Buddhists. There's very little interest from the wider Buddhist community, who almost universally prefer to read confirmation of their beliefs rather than challenges. The most popular Buddhist blogs simply reflect Buddhists beliefs back to them. Thus those of us who write critically about Buddhism, are either preaching to the converted or to the birds.

What makes Griffiths interesting is that he is trying to do philosophy with Buddhist ideas, rather than trying to justify a religious view. And this means that his paper is one of the most interesting articles ever published on Buddhist philosophy. It is certainly a relief from the steady stream of (re)interpretations of Nāgārjuna's impenetrable jargon-filled jumble. Not only do the least interesting philosophers of Buddhism seem to get all the attention, but we seldom seem to get to the nub of the issues they were grappling with.

There was a response to Griffiths (1982) from White (1983) and then a rebuttal from Griffiths (1984), but little beyond that. Bronkhorst has tackled the problem of teleology in Indian conceptions of karma across the board (2000). More recently Cho (2014) has joined the discussion from an interesting angle. In response to attempts to jettison karma by secularists he argues that Westerners have failed to understand how traditional cultures make use of karma. Meanwhile apologetics continue to multiply: e.g. ThanissaroBodhiSangharakshita, and Vessantara's resent essays Some Problems with Not Believing in Rebirth & More on Rebirth.

Griffiths acknowledges that there is a difficult apprenticeship to grapple with the subject. It requires at least some familiarity with a number of scriptural languages. Griffiths's own article suffers from a common complaint, which is over-reliance on Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya as a source book on sectarian Buddhist views. This general over-reliance on the Bhāṣya is because most of the surviving source material is only available in Chinese translation. Sanskritists and Palists have historically not had the Chinese language skills to match. It's not surprising as mastering these languages takes years of effort (it takes about 5 years to get really confident in Sanskrit), though this is changing.

Griffiths Thesis

Griffiths distinguishes three major functions of karma in Buddhism (280):
  1. as an "explanatory cosmogonic hypothesis"; the universe as created by volitional acts.
  2. as an "explanatory hypothesis for the varied states and conditions of sentient beings"; why we are human, why some have good/bad fortunes.
  3. as a means of social control in Buddhist societies; "acting as a powerful mechanism for regulating and enforcing the essentially hierarchical structure of Buddhist societies and of providing a rationale for Buddhist soteriological practice..." 
From these functions Griffiths derives seven truth claims, seven propositions that have to be true if the Buddhist account of karma is to be judged true as a whole (in the article they are labelled P 1-7). Griffiths is at pains to say that he has no space for a full treatment of these propositions. However, for our purposes even a superficial analysis is useful. In this essay I will focus on the propositions that Griffith deduces from the second major function. 

In my previous essays I have already showed that Buddhist cosmogony cannot be taken literally, thus the propositions (P1 & P2 n Griffiths notation) that derive from this function are not very interesting since they are patently false. If it once provided Buddhists with a satisfactory account of the origin of the universe then it does not now do so. Griffiths emphasises this when he shows that for the karma theory of the origin of the universe to be true, it means sentient beings must precede the origin of the universe, which is nonsensical.

The propositions (P6 & P7) associated with the third, regulatory, function probably do help to regulate Buddhists societies as long as they are treated as being true. Traditionally Buddhists have believed in a supernatural function of the universe, which correlates past actions to present vedanā and future punarbhava or rebirth. In fact my own work has already shown that Buddhists did not come up with a completely coherent account of this function. But a coherent narrative is perhaps less important than a compelling narrative when it comes to motivating people to ethical behaviour. 

This brings us to the truth claims for the second function. These seem to me to be the most important claims made by Buddhists. As an explanation for our present state, Griffiths suggests that the Buddhist theory of karma makes the following truth claims (282, paraphrased):
P3 Each individual undergoes more than one life.
P4 The parameters for any individual are set at conception and result from actions in previous lives.
P5 There is no undeserved suffering.
As critical readers we must not only assess the validity of the author's conclusions, but also the strength of the reasoning involved and the validity of this starting propositions. We need to be clear that the basis of this account of karma is Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. I have a serious objection to P5, but let us work through Griffith's argument. 

Multiple lives
P3 Each individual undergoes more than one life.
Griffiths argues that if define an individual as having physical continuity in time, then P3 is incoherent since death clearly disrupts physical continuity. A soul inhabiting many bodies is unacceptable to Buddhists. Buddhists conceive of an individual as a series of psycho-physical events (khandhas). In this view death is not an interruption to the series, even though the individual body ceases. I've already discussed Vasubandhu's approach to rebirth to some extent. He believed that rebirth occurred an appreciable time after death if only to account for the time taken for vijñāṇa to travel from one physical location to another. Vasubandhu was against instantaneous arising of vijñāṇa elsewhere. 

As such Griffiths reformulates P3 as
P3' Any given caused continuum of momentary states exhibiting sentience (i.e. an individual) does not cease with death (283).
This allows Buddhists to eliminate any tendency to postulate a more substantial something which dies and is reborn. Griffiths notes, as I have done, that Buddhists are likely to assert P3' when they are concerned with social control and as the basis of morality. If actions have consequences, but the consequences are lived by someone else, then that is no motivation for morality. Thus Buddhists discussing morality emphasise personal continuity. Whereas Buddhists discussing metaphysics and identity stress mere processes. 

A corollary of P3' is that all moments of being are simply moments in a series. In the strong form of this idea, identity is always merely contingent. In fact there are no individuals. It's a moot point to claim that at any two moments any two "individuals" are linked at all. Without the sense of continuity, the concept of an individual, the concept of individual responsibility for actions, breaks down. 

I would add that this was Nāgārjuna's ultimate argument against mainstream Buddhist karma theories:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalam |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta eva bhaviṣyati || MMK_17.30 ||
If there is no agent and no action, could their be result born of action?
In the absence of a fruit, how can there be one who suffers the result? 
kleśāḥ karmāṇi dehāś ca kartāraś ca phalāni ca |
gandharvanagarākārā marīcisvapnasaṃnibhāḥ || MMK_17.33 ||
Defilements, actions, forms, agents and fruits;
Are like a Gandharva city, like a mirage or a dream. 
All the talk of morals is just an upāya, a lie that is justified by compassion. However Griffiths argues that neither P3 nor P3' stand up to criticism and are in fact both false, because the whole idea of an individual is false in the strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics. Taken to it's logical extreme we get to Nāgārjuna's conclusion, that ultimately none of these ideas constitutes a substantial reality. Nothing is what it seems and the idea that anything could persist long enough to earn the title "individual" is simply wrong. Ergo, there is no one to reap the fruit of actions, no one to be reborn. Here we see precisely why other Buddhists considered Nāgārjuna to be a nihilist. However, barred from any form of Realism (Sarvāstivāda and Pudgalavāda notwithstanding) Buddhists seeking an alternative to Nāgārjuna's perceived nihilism, fell into forms of idealism, specifically citta-matra, the idea that there is only mind.

Time and again when this idea comes up, Buddhists cite researchers into paranormal phenomenon such as Ian Stevenson or Jim Tucker. I've dealt with some of the problems of this kind of research previously: Rebirth and the Scientific Method (1 Oct 2010) and Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient (27 Jan 2012). What Stevenson in particular thought he had evidence for was reincarnation. The same soul returning to be incarnated in a new body. If this were true then the whole edifice of Buddhist metaphysics would be broken, since we vehemently deny that existence of a soul and the very possibility of reincarnation (Tibetan tulku's notwithstanding).

Influence of Previous Lives

P4 The parameters for any individual are set at conception 
and result from actions in previous lives.

By parameters Griffiths means state of congenital health, intelligence, physical appearance, i.e. all the factors that we would now ascribe to genetic inheritance from our parents. Not included, is what we will make of our lives within these givens. Clearly if the propositions P3 and P3' are false, then P4 must also be false, since it is predicated on P3 (previous lives). However, as Griffiths notes, Buddhist karma theory is not strictly deterministic. On this basis he is willing to grant that actions in a previous life might have influenced this life, with the caveat that the mechanisms suggested by Buddhists are hardly credible. 

It may be that Griffiths was not writing from a very informed position on genetics, or that in 1982 genetics seemed a less promising science. This was before the sequencing of the human genome for example. But from my point of view, Griffiths is far too generous on this point. Even if we take in the newish field of epigenetics, which (re)opens the door to Lamarckian passing on of passing on learned characteristics or at least parental responses to environmental conditions, the idea of influence from one life to another is no longer credible.

I've outlined Sean Carroll's argument against this and have yet to see any Buddhist attempt a refutation. Basically, if the body is made of atoms that hold the information which makes up our personality and memories, the second law of thermodynamics means that the information cannot survive our death. Additionally if there were other forces that could affect matter in any perceptible way we would have found them by now. The argument against this is typically dualistic. Mind stuff is different from matter stuff. However for mind stuff to be interesting it would have to interact with matter stuff, since mental events always have a material correlates. Such interactions would be detectable and thus since we do not detect them we have a strong argument against a separate mind stuff. There is only one kind of stuff. 

Thus Griffiths was too soft on Buddhists in this part of his argument. Hereditary does indeed set the parameters for our present lives, but there is no evidence that this has anything to do with having lived before. Our parameters are set by our particular recombination of our parents DNA, a few epigenetic factors and the environment we develop in. The combination of hereditary and environment explain everything about us without the need to invoke previous lives.

When one looks at afterlife beliefs they are almost always tied to the idea that the universe is moral or ethical. An afterlife is required to deal with the patent unfairness of life. And this brings us to proposition five. 


P5 There is no undeserved suffering.

This proposition is not logically contradictory or incoherent in itself. However, in Buddhism it is always tied to the previous propositions. One could hold this view independently of Buddhist truth claims (many conservatives appear to hold this view for example), but according to Griffiths, traditionally Buddhists always combined them. Indeed the attractiveness of Buddhist karma as an explanatory power is precisely for the kinds of extreme circumstances cited by Griffiths: e.g. the suffering of infants who have had no chance to commit the kinds of deeds that might warrant suffering a punishment (there's an assumption here that suffering can be deserved or undeserved, but we'll have to take it on face value for now). Explaining undeserved suffering has been a major feature of all religious moral narratives, which are necessarily predicated on the idea of deserved suffering. However, I think Griffiths has missed some subtly here. Buddhists have a variety of responses. While Tibetan Buddhists appear to believe that everything that happens is a result of karma, and this accept that the suffering infant must have been evil in a past life; the Pāḷi texts make it clear that karma does not account for illness, only for birth in the human realm where one is subject to illness and suffering.

I'm not aware of any traditional narratives from the Pāḷi to explain infant suffering, but there are several stories which purport to show how one might deal with the death of a child.  I'm thinking particularly of the Piyajātikā Sutta in which a man has lost his child and the Buddha simply tells him: that's just how it is (evametam evametam). The other stand out example is the story of Kisā Gotamī who loses her child, but is brought to a gentle understanding that death, even of an infant, is simply part of life one just has to learn to accept. None of the texts I am aware of attribute apparently undeserved suffering, such as the suffering of infants, to actions in a previous life. The one example of an infant suffering that comes to mind, is in the story of Aṅgulimala in which the eponymous character relieves the suffering of a mother having a difficult birth by using the magic of truth (I discuss this in Attwood 2014). Nothing in the story, in either it's Pāḷi or Chinese versions, suggests blame was apportioned to the infant. Aṅgulimala's suffering is a result of evil deeds in this life!

In my research on the inevitability of karma (Attwood 2014) I drew attention to a major change in how karma worked from the early Buddhist texts to the later texts. At first karma is absolutely inescapable. One must always live with the consequences of one's actions. This is very strongly emphasised. But gradually this criteria of karma is abrogated and ways to mitigate the effects of karma and to avoid them all together become mainstream Buddhism. The acme of this idea is the Tantrika chanting the Vajrasattva Mantra to eliminate any and all bad karma.

The fact is that even were the Buddhist theory of karma correct, there would be no way to link present suffering to past actions, because we do not have knowledge of those past actions. However, this limitation has not stopped Buddhists from constructing narratives which attribute present suffering to past actions in the form of Jātaka stories. These are mainly pious homilies which draw on the wider Indian culture (some of the stories also occur in Jaina and Brahmanical texts). Precisely this ability to see how past actions contribute to present suffering is one of the supernatural abilities which are attributed to the Buddha. This god-like ability is necessary for the Buddha to function as Buddhist saviour. In one view of this, the Buddha cannot be in the dark about this as we are, else we could not break free of suffering. He has to know how to act in order to not cause suffering. Since natural sources of knowledge cannot reveal this, the Buddha has to have supernatural knowledge. This is an example of a teleological argument of the type critiqued by Bronkhorst (2000).

Ultimately Griffiths rejects P5 on the basis that it is connected with P3. He also suggests that it is repugnant to most Western eyes and "certainly to Christians". However I find the latter an extremely weak argument. The karmic explanation is no less repugnant than the idea that an omnipotent God allows an infant to suffer, or causes that suffering, as part of some cosmic plan. Centuries of Christian arguments over Theodicy show that many Christians found there own narratives of apparently undeserved suffering equally repugnant. Griffith's objectivity has slipped here. 


Griffiths' own conclusion is that the philosophy of karma, as represented in the Bhāṣya does not stand up. He concludes:
"The empirical falsification of P1 and P2, the partial incoherence of P3 and its variant P3', the falsity of P4 in so far as it depends on P3/P3', the empirical falsification and moral repugnance of P5, and the vacuousness of P6 and P7 -- all these mean that Buddhist karmic theory as expounded in the major theoretical works devoted to it must be false." (291. Emphasis added)
I am in broad agreement with Griffiths, with some caveats as stated above. In some cases I find the case has strengthened over time. The empirical evidence against any kind of afterlife is much stronger in 2015 than it was in 1982. This is not to say that it is not possible to formulate a Buddhist theory of karma that is true, but that the traditional accounts are not true. Also any new formulation of karma must deal with the objections raised in the article.

As Griffiths points out, this may "pose many urgent questions for Buddhists". I suggested at the outset, such criticisms have largely been ignored. Those who write, for example, about Buddhist ethics do not seem to take a critical stance on traditional Buddhist moral philosophy. A great deal is written for example on whether Buddhist ethics is a virtue ethic or a consequentialist ethic, but very little about the fundamental validity of the worldview. And because we never really come to grips with the flaws in Buddhist thinking, we can never move on. Those who do write about it are marginal, if not marginalised. Dayāmati has asked why it even matters what kind of ethics Buddhism has in relation to the Western intellectual tradition.

One response is to quietly drop the subject of karma because of the supernatural aspect of it, which some people reject out of hand. Having rejected karma, one can then describe a secular humanist ethic with a Buddhist flavour: retaining the five or ten precepts, but explaining them in secular humanist terms. This suffers from the problem that many people identify in my own writing. A secular humanist account of ethics, albeit with a Buddhist flavour, is secular humanism rather than Buddhism. Isn't it?  If the underlying account of ethics is humanists, then the Buddhism is just window dressing or marketing. Certainly actions having consequences is no more a revelation in the Western intellectual tradition than is "everything changes". It's another case of "So what?" Defining what is Buddhist about Buddhist ethics in the absence of the supernatural elements is difficult. Buddhist ethics is predicated, as Griffiths suggests, on certain truth claims. Truth claims that turn out not to be true.

Coming back to the broader point about assessing truth claims, we can of course point to the efforts to research the effects of the practices known collectively as "mindfulness". On his blog, Justin Whitaker has written a useful summary of the latest round of recriminations against mindfulness, Buddhist mindfulness, morality, and Protestant presumptions. There is also criticism of the research into the effectiveness of mindfulness along the lines that it suffers from confirmation bias (unlike the rest of Buddhism?). There is a growing body of research and as long as it does not seal itself off from the outside world, like say paranormal research, then the scientific method will eventually sort out any kinks. These things take time. It is mildly interesting to see Buddhists attacking innovation and genuine attempts at scientific assessment, since this is exactly what we expect from a religious community. It confirms the problems that religious style thinking produces and highlights the clash with Enlightenment thinking.

If Buddhism is to have a future then we need to create an intellectual culture of open minded questioning and testing. At present, Buddhists are nice enough, but on the whole they don't ask the hard questions and they appear to dislike being asked hard questions by outsiders. And those who do ask hard questions are treated as apostates and outsiders. The problem is that a lot of what we take for granted as timeless truth is at best "a skilful means" and at worst simply false. But rather than face up to this and think about how to respond, most Buddhists are hiding their heads in the sand and pretending that such discussions are not happening. Of course the level of investment many Buddhists have in old ideas is enormous. For some, their whole identity is built on propounding "ancient truths" and all that. Scholars of Buddhism appear to be colluding with Buddhists in this. But it means that there is a huge amount of inertia. This calls for patience and compassion on the part of critical philosophers as we proceed to have this discussion that so many would rather not have.


Attwood, Jayarava (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma/ 
Bronkhorst, Johannes (2000). Karma and Teleology: A Problem and its Solutions in Indian philosophy. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies. 2000. (Studia Philologica, Monograph Series, XV.) http://is.gd/Z85330
Cho, Francisca. (2014) Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma. Religion Compass. 8(4): 117–127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12103
Griffiths, Paul J. (1982) Notes Towards a Critique of Buddhist Karma Theory. Religious Studies 18: 277-291. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034412500014128
Griffiths, Paul J. (1984) Karma and personal identity: a response to Professor White. Religious Studies 20(3): 481-485. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034412500016334
Hayes, Richard P. (1989) Can Sense be Made of the Buddhist Theory of Karma? [Paper read at the Dept of Philosophy, Brock University]. http://www.unm.edu/~rhayes/karma_brock.pdf
White, J. E. (1983) Is Buddhist Karmic Theory False? Religious Studies. 19(2):223-228. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034412500015055

15 May 2015

The Heart Sutra in Middle Chinese

Most people will know by now that the Heart Sūtra,《心經》  Xīnjīng, or Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya, was composed in China using chunks of text from Kumārajīva's early fifth century translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, i.e. 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》T 223, combined with a dhāraṇī similar to that found in a translation of the Mahāmegha Sūtra, i.e. 《大方等無想經》  T 12.387, and an introduction featuring the bodhisattva par excellence, Avalokiteśvara or 觀自在 Guānzìzài.† As such, the language of the Chinese text dates from what has been called the late Medieval period in China (600-1000 CE.) ,or a little before.

Mantra of the Heart Sutra
in seal script
The Art of Calligraphy
When we look at the Chinese versions of the text they are written in Chinese characters or 漢字(Hànzì). These same characters are still in use, mostly unchanged after all this time. One occasionally finds characters that have become archaic, or taboo, or that have shifted in meaning, but on the whole the Heart Sutra Hànzì have not changed. But what has changed considerably is the pronunciation of the characters. The language of the Medieval period is known as Middle Chinese and it is very different from Mandarin and other modern Chinese languages. The Indian parallel is Middle-Indic, of which Pāḷi is the best known example. Middle Chinese is still in the same language family as Mandarin, and so has many of the same features such as use of tones, monosyllables, and grammatical relations. The differences include different tones and many different syllable final sounds including more use of consonants (similar to Cantonese). Buddhist Chinese also features transliterations of Prakrit and/or Sanskrit words, e.g. 般若波羅蜜多 bōrě-bōluómìduō for prajñā-pāramitā; and some transliteration/translation hybrids, e.g. 舍利子 Shèlìzi for the name Śāriputra, where 舍利 transliterates Śāri and 子 translates putra. Some of these transliterations only make sense in Middle-Chinese, e.g. Buddha is regularly transliterated as 佛陀 Fótuó, nowadays almost always abbreviated to 佛 Fó. This makes more sense when we realise that in Middle Chinese 佛陀 was pronounced like bjut ta.

A number of schemes exist to transcribe Chinese using Roman letters. So we see 心 written as xīn, hsin, shin, etc. Most commonly these days scholars use the Pinyin system, which was proposed by the Chinese Government in the 1950s (fact check) and represents the Beijing accent. Pinyin can be used with diacritics to indicate tone, but is often used without (resulting in considerable ambiguity). It can sometimes be difficult to know which scheme scholars used in the past, because they almost never specified. The introduction of Unicode, making it easy to include non-Roman and non-standard characters in an electronic document, has greatly facilitated communication about these subjects because it is now easy to include Chinese characters in publications.

If you look up the Chinese pronunciation of the Xīnjīng you will almost always find the modern Mandarin transcription of the characters, rather than the pronunciation of the time it was composed. Mostly one sees the Mandarin version, or sometimes a Cantonese version. A character like 心 'heart' is pronounced xīn in Mandarin and sam in Cantonese, but was sim in Middle Chinese. Note that in Middle Chinese the relationship to Tibetan becomes more clear in this case. The corresponding Tibetan word is sems (pronounced sem) and a Proto-Sino-Tibetan root has been reconstructed as *siǝm. Tibetan sems, like Chinese 心 (below), is used to translate the Sanskrit word citta.

The pronunciation of earlier phases of Chinese is not obvious, because the writing system was not phonetic. However, pronunciation can be inferred from rhyming patterns in poems, and especially from the Chinese' own attempts to analyse these in rhyming dictionaries from as early as the Sixth Century. Wikipedia has a reasonably good article on reconstructing old Chinese. It's important to remember also that Middle-Chinese was not one language or dialect; just as modern written Chinese can represent different dialects, so can Middle-Chinese. Thus, one reconstruction is not going to represent all possible dialects or even all accents, just as English spelling does not.

There are various modern reconstructions of Middle Chinese pronunciation from written sources. I'll be basing this reconstruction on the book by Baxter & Sagart (2014) which contains 5000 characters. These authors insist on a number of caveats. Firstly, their notation is not a definitive guide to pronunciation, but a transcription scheme like Pinyin. They do admit, "in most cases we can be confident that the distinctions [in the system] are not artificial and existed in some variety of Chinese at the time". Other authors have attempted a true phonetic reconstruction, but Baxter & Sagart remain wary of such efforts and suggest that a great deal more research would be required for a true phonetic reconstruction. (2014: 12). In addition, Baxter and Sagart chose chose their notation to be ASCII friendly - i.e. so that it would be virtually independent of electronic platform.

The traditional way of describing a character is in terms of initial sound, final sound and tone. Middle Chinese tones don't correspond simply to Mandarin. There were four tones, though it's not entirely certain how these sounded:
平 píng  < bjaeng 'level'     - no mark
上 shǎng < dzangX 'rising'    - final X
去 qù    < khjoH  'departing' - final H
入 rù    < nyip   'entering'  - final -p -t or -k.
Initial glottal stop is indicated with an apostrophe. More information on the pronunciation of the reconstructions, and comparisons with other systems of reconstruction, can be found on the Wikipedia Middle Chinese page, The Baxter-Sagart transcription scheme can be found in the Wikipedia Reconstructions of Old Chinese page. Baxter and Sagart's tables are online here.

The text reconstructed below is 《心經》 T 251, attributed to Xuanzang (玄奘). The Chinese characters are followed by the Pinyin romanisation, the reconstructed Middle Chinese, and finally my translation. At the end I'll include the Middle Chinese version as a whole. Where a character's pronunciation has not been reconstructed by Baxter & Sagart, I've looked at Pulleyblank (1991), Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (which includes Middle Chinese pronunciation but no source information), and the Wiktionary entry (which includes information from a variety of named sources) to get an alternative and used red text to indicate these.

Given the state of our knowledge, there are inevitably some gaps and some uncertainties regarding tone. I think such a project will be intrinsically interesting and those with knowledge and skill will hopefully take up this first effort and improve on it.
† Avalokiteśvara is better known in Chinese by the translation used by Kumārajīva: 觀世音 Guānshìyīn 'watching the sounds of the world' (cf T 250). This was shortened to 觀音Guānyīn. It is sometimes said to be because of the death of the Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty (唐太宗; 599-649) to avoid uttering one of the characters in his personal name 李世民 Lǐ Shìmín. This is a traditional form of Chinese taboo, but that it applies in this case is disputed. Indeed, the word 世 'world' is so common it would be hard to avoid it completely. The form 觀自在 Guānzìzài ('watching one's existence') was introduced by Xuánzàng. However, they may also reflect a change in the underlying Sanskrit name, dating from about the 5th century. The name was originally Avalokita-svara ('examined sounds') and changed to Avalokita-īśvara 'examined lord'; a-ī > e according to Sanskrit rules) after the figure absorbed some of the attributes of the god Śiva, including the epithet Īśvara.

Xīn jīng
Sim keng
Heart Sutra

觀自在           菩薩    行   深   般若波羅蜜多             時,
guān zì zài     pú sà, xíng shēn bō rě  bō luó mì  duō shí
kwan dzijH xawX bo sal hang syim ba nya ba ra  mil da  dzyi
When Avalokiteśvara bodhisattva practiced the deep perfection of wisdom,

照     見    五   蘊   皆    空,     度  一   切     苦   厄 。
zhào   jiàn wǔ   yùn, jiē  kōng    dù  yī   qiè   kǔ   è
tsyewH kenH nguX on,  keaj khuwng, duH 'jit tshet khuX 'eak
He saw the five aggregates as completely empty, and overcame all states of suffering.

舍利子           色    不   異    空,    空      不   異  色;
Shè lì zi       sè   bù   yì   kōng,   kōng   bù   yì  sè;
syaeX lijH tsiX srik pjuw yiH  khuwng, khuwng pjuw  yiH srik
Śāriputra, form is not different emptiness, emptiness is not different form

色   即    是     空,     空     即     是    色。
Sè   jí   shì    kōng,   kōng   jí    shì   sè. 
srik tsik dzyeX  khuwng, khuwng tsik  dzyeX srik  
Form is empty, emptiness is form.
* Middle Chinese uses the same character 空 for empty and emptiness. The Sanskrit mss sources disagree on the correct interpretation of this line
受、    想、    行、  識,   亦   復     如  是。
Shòu,  xiǎng, xíng, shi,  yì   fù    rú  shì
dzyuwX sjangX hang  syik, yek   bjuwH nyo dzyeX.
Vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāra, & vijñāna, are the same

舍利子        是    諸   法    空     相,
Shè lì zi   Shì   zhū  fǎ   kōng   xiāng,
syaeX lijH tsiX dzyeX tsyo pjop khuwng sjang
Śāriputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

不    生     不    滅,   不    垢  不    淨,    不    增    不   減。
bù   shēng  bù    miè,  bù   gòu bù   jìng,   bù   zēng  bù   jiǎn.
pjuw sraeng pjuw  mjiet pjuw gu  pjuw dzjengH pjuw tsong pjuw heamX
not born, not dying; not dirty, not clean; not increasing, not diminishing

是     故, 空     中      無  色,  無   受、   想、    行、  識;
Shì   gù, kōng   zhōng   wú  sè,  wú  shòu,  xiǎng, xíng, shi;
dzyeX kuH khuwng trjuwng mju srik mju dzyuwX sjangX hang  syik,
Therefore: in emptiness there is no form; no feeling, no thought, going? [choice], knowledge

無   眼、   耳、  鼻、   舌、  身、  意;
Wú  yǎn,   ěr,  bí,   shé, shēn, yì;
mju ngeanX nyiX bjijH zyet  syin  'iH
No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind;

無  色、  聲、    香、    味、   觸、    法;
Wú  sè,  shēng, xiāng, wèi,  chù,    fǎ;
mju srik syeng  xjang   mjəjH tsyhowk pjop
No colour, sound, smell, taste, touch or dharmas.

無   眼     界,  乃    至     無   意  識   界;
Wú  yǎn    jiè,  nǎi  zhì    wú  yì  shí  jiè;
mju ngeanX keajH nojX tsyijH mju 'iH syik keajH
no  eye-element, up to no mind-cognition element

無   無  明     亦   無  無  明      盡,
Wú  wú  míng   yì  wú  wú  míng   jǐn, 
mju mju mjaeng yek mju mju mjaeng tsinX
Also no ignorance of exhausting of ignorance.

乃    至     無  老    死   亦  無   老   死   盡;
Nǎi  zhì    wú  lǎo  sǐ   yì  wú  lǎo  sǐ   jǐn;
nojX tsyijH mju lawX  sijX yek mju lawX  sijX tsinX
And even no aging and death, no exhausting of aging and death

無   苦、 集、  滅、   道;  無   智,  亦   無  得。
Wú  kǔ,  jí,  miè,  dào;  wú  zhì,  yì  wú  dé.
mju khuX dzip mjiet dawH  mju trjeH yek mju tok
No suffering, cause, cessation or way.  No wisdom, also no attainment

以  無   所    得   故,菩提薩埵        依   般若波羅蜜多           故,
Yǐ  wú  suǒ   dé  gù, pútísàduǒ      yī  bōrěbōluómìduō       gù, 
yiX mju srjoX tok kuH bo-dej-sal-twa yiX ba nya ba ra  mil da kuH
Since nothing is attained, the bodhisattva reliant on perfection of wisdom,

心  無   罣   礙。 無  罣  礙   故, 無   有    恐       怖,
Xīn wú  guà  ài. Wú  guà ài  gù,  wú  yǒu   kǒng     bù, 
Sim mju gwae aemju gwae ae kuH, mju hjuwX khjowngX po,
his heart is without hindrance. Since he is not hindered, he is not afraid,

遠      離  顛   倒   夢      想 ,   究    竟      涅   槃。
yuǎn   lí  diān dǎo mèng    xiǎng, jiù   jìng    niè  pán.
hjwonX lje ten tawX mjuwngH sjangX kjuwH kjaengH yeol ban
far from upside-down  dreamlike thinking and finally attains  nirvana

三   世    諸   佛   依    般 若  波  羅  蜜  多  故,
Sān shì   zhū  fú   yī   bō rě  bō luó mì duō gù,
sam syejH tsyo bjut 'j+j ba nya ba ra  mil da kuH
All Buddhas of the three worlds depending on the perfection of wisdom,

得  阿  耨   多   羅  三  藐    三  菩 提。
de  ā  nòu  duō luó sān miǎo sān pú tí.
tok 'a nuwH da  ra  sam mak  sam bo dej
attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

故  知    般 若  波  羅  蜜  多,
Gù  zhī  bō rě  bō luó mì duō, 

kuH trje ba nya ba ra  mil da  
Therefore know the perfection of wisdom,

是    大    神   咒 ,  是    大   明      咒,
shì   dà   shén zhòu, Shì   dà   míng   zhòu,
dzyeX dajH  zyin ju    dzyeX dajH  mjaeng ju
is a great magical spell, is a great spell,

是     無   上     咒,  是    無  等    等     咒,
shì   wú  shàng  zhòu, shì   wú  děng  děng  hòu
dzyeX mju dzyangX ju   dzyeX mju tongX tongX ju
an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell.

能   除    一   切    苦    真    實   不    虛,
Néng chú  yī   qiè   kǔ   zhēn  shí  bù   xū
noj  drjo 'jit tshet khuX tsyin zyit pjuw khjo
It removes all suffering; it is truly real  not false ,

故    說  般 若  波  羅  蜜  多  咒。
Gù  shuō bō rě  bō luó mì duō zhòu,
kuH seol ba nya ba ra  mil da ju
Therefore, recite the perfection of wisdom spell.

即    說   咒   曰:
Jí   shuō zhòu yuē:
tsik seol ju  hjwot
That is to say the mantra which goes:

揭   帝   揭    帝   般   羅  揭   帝   般   羅  僧    揭  帝 
Jiē  dì   jiē  dì   bō  luó jiē  dì   bō  luó sēng  jiē dì 
gjet tejH gjet tejH puɑn la gjet tejH puɑn la seung gjet tejH
gate gate paragate parasamgate

菩 提  薩     婆    訶*
pú tí  sà  pó hē
bo dej sal ba xa
bodhi svaha

* Note. There are two different versions of the last word. The CBETA version of T 251 ends 僧莎訶 sēng shā hē, which is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word svāhāHowever, the print editions of the Taishō notes that the Song, Yuan and Ming versions of the Tripiṭaka all had 薩婆訶  sà pó hē, where the two characters 萨婆 approximate the Sanskrit conjunct syllable sva. Since this makes for a better rendering of the Sanskrit svāhā, I've adopted it here.

Middle Chinese Heart Sūtra

Sim Keng
kwan dzijH xawX bo sal hang syim ba nya ba ra mil da dzyi
tsyewH kenH nguX on keaj khuwng, duH 'jit tshet khuX 'eak
syaeX lijH tsiX srik  pjuw  yiH khuwng, khuwng pjuw  yiH srik
srik   tsik dzyeX khuwng, khuwng tsik dzyeX srik 
dzyuwX  sjangX  hang syik, yek  bjuwH  nyo  dzyeX.
syaeX lijH tsiX dzyeX tsyo pjop khuwng sjang
pjuw sraeng pjuw  mjiet pjuw gu  pjuw dzjengH pjuw tsong pjuw heamX
dzyeX kuH khuwng trjuwng mju srik mju dzyuwX sjangX hang  syik,
mju ngeanX nyiX bjijH zyet  syin  'iH
mju srik syeng  xjang   mjəjH tsyhowk pjop
mju ngeanX keajH nojX tsyijH mju 'iH syik keajH
mju mju mjaeng yek mju mju mjaeng tsinX nojX tsyijH mju lawX  sijX yek mju lawX  sijX tsinX
mju khuX dzip mjiet dawH mju trjeH yek mju tok
yiX mju srjoX tok kuH bo-dej-sal-twa yiX ba-nya-ba-ra -mil-da kuH
sim mju gwae ae. mju gwae ae kuH, mju hjuwX khjowngX po,
hjwonX lje ten tawX mjuwngH sjangX kjuwH kjaengH yeol ban
sam syejH tsyo bjut 'j+j ba nya ba ra  mil da kuH
tok 'a nuwH da  ra  sam mak  sam bo dej
kuH trje ba nya ba ra  mil da
dzyeX dajH  zyin ju dzyeX dajH  mjaeng ju
dzyeX mju dzyangX ju dzyeX mju tongX tongX ju
noj  drjo 'jit tshet khuX tsyin zyit pjuw khjo
kuH seol ba nya ba ra  mil da ju
tsik seol ju  hjwot
gjet tejH gjet tejH puɑn la gjet tejH puɑn la seung gjet tejH bo dej sal ba xa



The Chinese text comes from the CBETA version of the Taishō edition of the Chinese Tipiṭaka.  
Baxter, William H. and Sagart, Laurent. (2014) Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. Oxford University Press.
Pulleyblank (1991), Lexicon of reconstructed pronunciation in early Middle Chinese, late Middle Chinese, and early Mandarin. University of British Columbia Press.
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