25 December 2015

Taishō 256: The Other Chinese Heart Sutra

(14th Century Japan).
There are three versions of the short text of the Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. To date I have focussed almost exclusively on T250 and T251 (see Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions). T256 (T 8.851.a1-852.a23) is interesting in its own right and I have begun familiarising myself with it. The text contains a transliteration of a Sanskrit text alongside a Chinese text. Both the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are somewhat idiosyncratic. T256 has a preface which tells us about its provenance and tells the story of how Xuanzang received the text in the first place. There is also a manuscript of the text, which was obtained from Dunhuang by Aurel Stein and is now in the British Library. The manuscript (Or.8210/S.5648) has been digitised and put online as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). The text in the manuscript has a number of alternate characters and some other differences that might be scribal errors.

In his recent book on the Heart Sutra, Kazuaki Tanahashi (2014) makes repeated mention of a comprehensive study of the Heart Sutra in Japanese by Fukui Fumimasa (2000). Apparently Fukui also studied S.5648 and T256, but he only writes in Japanese. Very little of the huge volume of Japanese research into this text makes it into European languages. The glimpses Tanahashi provides into Fukui's work are tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying. In English we have a transcription and Romanisation of T256 by Matsumoto (1932); however, his Chinese characters are handwritten (due to limitations in print media in 1932) and are a little difficult to read in parts. In 1977 Leon Hurvitz published a complete translation of the Chinese preface along with a romanisation and translation of the Sanskrit text. Chen Shu-Fen 陳淑芬 (2004) wrote a detailed study of the methods used to transliterate the text and a partial reconstruction of the Middle-Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration.

British Library Manuscript Or.8210/S.5648
Both Hurvitz (1997) and Chen (2004) attribute T256 to Xuanzang. For example, Hurvitz says in his translation of the introduction:
Preface to the copy humbly made, of the record inscribed by the upadhyāya of the Monastery of Compassionate Grace, on a stone wall of the Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good in the Western Capital.
Note 18.3.2020. 
Hurvitz (1975) makes it clear that Xuanzang was definitely intended here and that Rulu was wrong.
In a note (1977 121, n.56) Hurvitz says that the upadhyāya or preceptor of 慈恩 was a reference to Xuanzang. And thus, the text was attributed to Xuanzang. However, in an email exchange between myself and the Chinese translator, Rulu, (Buddha Sūtras Mantras Sanskrit) it became clear that Hurvitz correctly interpreted 慈恩和尚 as "upadhyāya of Monastery of Compassionate Grace"; however, he was mistaken about who this referred to. The first two characters, 慈恩 Ciēn, are part of the name of a monastery, 大慈恩寺 The Great Monastery of Compassionate Grace, which was located in Changan, the main capital of the Tang Dynasty (now the site of the major city of Xian). Note also that the 大興善寺 (Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good) was also in Changan, not Loyang as Hurvitz suggests (1977: 108). During the Tang Dynasty, Loyang was referred to as 东都 The Eastern Capital and T256 refers to 西京 The Western Capital, meaning Changan.

It seems that 慈恩 is also an epithet for Xuanzang's foremost disciple, 窺基 Kuījī. Xuanzang was strongly associated with two Monasteries in Changan, initially with Hongfu Monastery 弘福寺 and subsequently with 西明寺 Ximing Monastery. These two were where he did his translations after returning from India. Kuījī, by contrast, was associated with Ciēn. And the preceptor of Ciēn was Kuījī. As mentioned in a previous essay (Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions):
Xuánzàng’s students, 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696) produced commentaries on the Heart Sutra in the late 7th century (Nattier 1992: 173). These have both been translated into English: see Shih & Lusthaus (2006) and Hyun Choo (2006) respectively.
In that essay I noted Lusthaus's argument that Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text to refer to. Lusthaus saw in this fact a challenge to Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis. However, Lusthaus also thought that Woncheuk composed his commentary after Xuanzang's death and I argued that this was entirely consistent with Nattier's hypothesis. Here a similar argument applies to Kuījī. The fact that the two of them had a Sanskrit text when they were students of Xuanzang, decades after his return from India is also consistent with the Chinese Origins hypothesis. In fact, we expect this, especially if, as we suspect, that Xuanzang was involved in the Sanskrit translation. Wriggins (2004: 9) has Xuanzang beginning to learn Sanskrit before his departure for India. What would be more natural for a student of Sanskrit than making a translation of a well-known and -loved text? And, as I have noted, the composer of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra seems unfamiliar with some of the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā tradition. After he returned, Xuanzang was asked to translate the 道德經 Dàodéjīng into Sanskrit (Wriggins 2004: 196), so we know that he did translate some texts from Chinese into Sanskrit.

Tanahashi refers to the earliest known text of the Heart Sutra, a stone inscription erected in 672 by 唐高宗 Emperor Táng Gāozōng at Hongfu Monastery, Changan. Tanahashi is also mistaken in thinking that this presents a challenge to the Chinese origins hypothesis (2014: 81). I will deal with this inscription in my next essay.

What the Chinese Origins hypothesis says is that the Heart Sutra is composed in Chinese after the translation of the Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra by Kumārajīva in 404 CE, i.e., T223 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》, since it clearly borrows from this text. And it must have been composed prior to Xuanzang's leaving for India in 630 CE, since Xuanzang reportedly had a version of the text by the time he left China, possibly much earlier, though this could be an apocryphal story. The association of Xuanzang with the production of the Sanskrit text and its transmission back to China is based on supposition (and perhaps a little wishful thinking), but it is neither implausible nor at odds with the known facts. Any time after Xuanzang's arrival back in Changan in 645 CE we can fully expect Chinese scholars to have access to a Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra alongside a Chinese text. That we have evidence of precisely this is a sign that the theory makes an accurate (but not decisive) prediction. At the very least, it does not conflict with the hypothesis, as Lusthaus and Tanahashi try to make out.

Another piece of information, also pointed out by Rulu, is that the introduction tells the story of Xuanzang's receiving the Heart Sutra after he set out for India. It suggests that he stopped off in 益州 Yì zhōu, present day Chengdu, Sichuan, on his way. Though, since Chengdu is about 800km south-west of Changan and there is an imposing mountain range blocking travel to the west, it is not a likely stopping off point on a journey from Changan to India. The more plausible stories say that, due to political upheaval associated with the collapse of the Sui Dynasty, Xuanzang moved to Chengdu and became a bhikṣu there (cf. Wriggins 2004: 7). Xuanzang apparently spent time wandering through China collecting texts before heading to India. In any case, the introduction of T256 refers to Xuanzang as 三藏 or tripiṭaka. Someone expert in the branches of the Buddhist Canon (traditionally sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma) might be called 三藏, in this case corresponding to the Sanskrit traipiṭaka (the grammatical form is the same as the title jaina for someone associated with the jina, similarly bauddha is the Sanskrit for "Buddhist"). Those who remember the TV show Monkey, will remember that the Xuanzang character is called "Tripitaka". As Rulu points out, Xuanzang would not refer to himself in the third person or by this title; clearly, this is written about him, not by him. So apparently the preface was composed by a senior disciple, i.e., Kuījī, remembering his master in reverential terms.

However there is another little nugget at the end of this preface, which is that the text was transcribed by Bùkōng 不空, aka 不空金剛 (MC Bulgong Geumgang) or Amoghavajra (705–774) in response to an Imperial command. Amoghavajra was of mixed Sogdian and Indian heritage. He became a novice at a young age and then travelled to China where he received the bhikṣu initiation ca. 724 CE. Apart from a period of travelling, enforced by the expulsion of foreign monks from China, he lived most of his life in China and was a noted translator of Tantric texts. We don't know when he edited the text of T256, but we do know that in 771 CE he presented a petition to the throne asking that his translations be added to the Tripiṭaka. And the current preface of T256 was added after his death in 774 CE, which we know because it mentions his posthumous, 謚, name, 大辦正廣 (Dà bàn zhèng guǎng). Tanahashi translates Fukui's transcription of the preface of S.5648 and it also says that the text was "translated" by Amoghavajra (2014: 68). S.5648, suggesting that Xuanzang got the text directly from Avalokiteśvara which contradicts the account in T256.


Contra Hurvitz (1977), T256 was originally a text associated with Kuījī and was inscribed in stone in Changan at some unknown date, but probably after the death of Xuanzang. We can surmise that Kuījī had a Sanskrit text that he got from his teacher, because we know that his fellow disciple and rival Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text. A question remains over what form the Sanskrit text took - was it this transliterated version, or was there a lost manuscript in Siddham script? However, it's not clear whether that Sanskrit text influenced this version of the text. It seems we must attribute the final sūtra text to Amoghavajra, but he most likely only copied and slightly edited the Kuījī text. The current text of T256 probably entered the Canon ca. 771 but was updated sometime (probably soon) after 774 by (at least) the addition of a preface.

Given that Jan Nattier has given us reason to doubt the attribution of T250 and T251, this makes T256 more important than it might have seemed previously. An urgent task for researchers interested in the Heart Sutra is a comparison of the three Chinese versions of the short Heart Sutra in the light of the Sanskrit text in T256. And also a more detailed comparison of the Sanskrit text of T256 with the critical edition by Conze - though Conze used Matsumoto's version, Matsumoto acknowledges that he edited the text to conform to the edition by Max Müller. A diplomatic edition of T256, with a reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration would be useful for future researchers and I am working on this now.



Chen Shu-Fen. (2004). On Xuan-Zang’s Transliterated Version of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra (Heart Sutra). Monumenta Serica, 52, 113-159.

Fukui Fumimasa. (2000) Heart Sutra of the Comprehensive Study: History, social and material. Spring and Autumn, Inc. , 2000. = 福井文雅 『般若心経の総合的研究:歴史・社会・資料』 春秋社、2000年。

Hurvitz, Leon. (1975). ‘Two Polyglot Recensions Of The Heart Scripture.’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 3(1/2): 17-66.

Hurvitz, Leon. (1977). Hsüan-tsang 玄奘 (602-664) and the Heart Scripture in Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze. University of California at Berkeley Press, 103-113.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch'uk's Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra). International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture, 6, Feb: 121-205.

Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi. International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture, 3, Sept: 59-103.

Matsumoto, Tokumyo. (1932). Die Prajñāpāramitā-literatur: Nebst Einem Specimen der Suvikrāntavikrāmi-Prajñāpāramitā. Stuttgart: Verlag von W. Kohlhammer. [My thanks to Eva Ludolf for reading through the German preface to this article with me].

Nattier, Jan (1992). The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.

18 December 2015

The Problem of Class and Popular Buddhism.

Lim Soo Peng
One of the major problems for all Buddhists is that, in the inherited tradition, there are far too many ideas, attitudes, and practices for us to make sense of them all. This is made worse by the many internal contradictions in the tradition. We can really only understand a small subset, usually carefully cherry-picked for consistency. This problem is not helped by the history of repeated schism and reformation. With the formation of sects, differences of opinion about what constitutes orthodoxy (correct opinion) and orthopraxy (correct practice) become polarised and then sclerotic. The opposite happens when syncretic movements come along and combine various elements, including some from other religions, to create new sects. The situation is more complex because the traditional Indian sectarian factions do not always translate to other cultures. So the ancient Chinese, for example, perceived a relatively unified tradition coming from India (cherry picked by Indian and Central Asian monks), but they created their own indigenous factions that fractured along different lines than Indian Buddhism even while retaining some of the Indian sectarian jargon. 

When people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) countries (henceforth "weirdos") began to interact with Buddhism they also suffered from this problem of information overload. And like the Chinese and Tibetans they also had their own agendas, their own culture, history, and politics that shaped the way that they saw Buddhism and the way they used it. In order to make Buddhism manageable, weirdos did what other cultures have done. They sorted Buddhist ideas, attitudes, and practices into categories, using their own perceptions of some traditional categories overlaid with local ideas.

A particular obsession for weirdos is the myth of original Buddhism as a category. Original Buddhism includes some aspects of received Buddhism and excludes others based on WEIRD values as the main criteria (this is also called Buddhist Modernism). To some extent this preoccupation with "origins" and "original" emerges out of the Protestant movement. Protestantism was founded on a rejection of the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the day and an attempt to, as they saw it, return to a more authentic religious experience in line with "original" Christianity. In this case the Bible, as a record of the original Christianity, was the guarantor of authenticity. Contrarily they relied on the Bible in vernacular languages to convey this authenticity. On the other hand, this pre-occupation is one that many Buddhists through history have shared. Buddhists like to claim that their teachings reflect the original ideas of the putative founder of the religion, with accretions removed and distortions corrected. Many lineages were artificially constructed so as to suggest that innovations could be traced to the Buddha for example.

One of the criteria that weirdos bring to categorising Buddhism is class. I'm not entirely sure that I fully understand class, but these are some observations which draw on my attempts to understand the British class system over the last decade and a half. One of the themes that I will try to explore here is the way that concerns with class and authenticity overlap in WEIRD Buddhism.


European ideas about class are still decisive in understanding British culture. For centuries land owners and capitalists have demonised working people as lazy and immoral (see Mercantilism: Six Centuries of Vilifying the Poor). To combat these perceived failings, those in power have always organised matters so that the poor have to struggle to make ends meet. In a world where computers and mechanisation have increased productivity a thousand-fold, the pressure is always on the poor to work harder and for less wages, while the wealthy take an every greater share of the profits produced by labour. A recent New Economics Foundation report showed that only 61% of British workers have a secure job that pays a living wage, in the same week that our government hail the lowest post-crash unemployment figures. Wages are so low, at the low end, that many full-time workers require government handouts to make ends meet. In today's world there is no a priori reason why anyone should work hard, because we could all meet our basic needs with minimal effort. In order to justify everyone working hard, working hard has become an end in itself, become a virtue, almost a sacrament. Hard work purifies the poor and makes them worthy (in this worldview). To help rationalise working hard, we are also under constant pressure to participate in aspirational consumerism (including snobbery about products and brands). Since the 1970s this has focussed on using credit to buy what we do not need and cannot afford. Once in debt, one cannot stop working (see my account of debt and morality in Why Killing is Wrong).

The wealthy of Europe despise working class people despite the fact that their labour is still a primary source of wealth - they are like vegetarians who hate vegetables. A sort of general disdain is explicit everywhere in the British class system. In the class worldview, being poor is a sign of laziness and immorality; being rich is a sign of industriousness and virtuousness (despite all evidence to the contrary). And working people are generally poor, at least by comparison with the upper classes, because of the structure of the economy. The wealthy of Britain, aided by the middle-classes (as administrators and managers), systematically oppress the workers and try to ensure that work is oppressive. In the relatively liberal times of the post-WWII years, the distribution of wealth in the UK evened out to some extent (working people could afford to own their own home for example). Similarly pay and working conditions improved under the influence of labour unions for about a century, until the 1980s when the powers of unions were legislated away by a parliament determined to shift the balance of power back towards the idle rich. Since then trend is reversing so that pay and working conditions are being degraded, inequality is on the rise, and the wealthy are consolidating their grip on power. There is class war here already, it's just that it's not the proletariat who are waging it. (see for example my economics blog on the government's use of non-linear warfare techniques).

What I particular want to draw attention to here is that the first substantial European contacts with Buddhism were: some of the most important meetings happened amongst the elite of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, amongst the sons of wealthy industrialists and minor aristocracy, at a time when the poor had almost no rights: they could not vote; were subject to cruel punishments such as execution or transportation to Australia for relatively minor breaches of law; had lost access to common lands etc. By contrast, privately educated, privileged, wealthy young men, who saw themselves as exercising the natural right of their class to rule the world. (See particularly the Evolution and Empire section of my essay The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism) found roles as administrators in the Empire or as mid-level officers in the military forces that kept the Imperial thumb on the "natives". Some of the main characters are evoked in detail in Charles Allen's book The Buddha and the Sahibs. All credit to those men. They had the independence of mind, the confidence, and enough freedom from convention to go out and rediscover Indian Buddhism and the education to begin to decrypt what time had encrypted. But we need to see them in context: they saw their domination of India and of Europe as a natural consequence of their innate superiority. It was these men who set the template for the British engagement with Buddhism. Through them the idea of "original Buddhism" became a foundation myth of WEIRD Buddhism. The rediscovery of Indian Buddhism sparked off a series of attempts to rediscover what the original Buddhism, taught by the Buddha might have been like.

Popular Buddhism

How WEIRD Buddhists
imagine themselves
Class, colonialism, and the original Buddhism myth gave rise to fault-lines in Buddhism from the WEIRD point of view. Original Buddhism was sharply distinguished from what we can call "popular Buddhism". Popular Buddhism is the Buddhism practised by the despised classes, i.e. working people and the poor generally. And in Asia this meant not simply workers and labourers, but foreign and dark-skinned workers. The history of racism in British culture at home and as a feature of British Imperialism is complex. It would be foolish to characterise it in simplistic and one-sided terms. But racism has certainly been a feature of British identity and to some extent it remains a marginal feature. Racism is still prevalent in pockets. In Victorian times, and until quite recently, ordinary working people in Buddhist countries were almost inevitably characterised in classist and racist terms as child-like, irrational, superstitious, foolish, and credulous. Forms of Buddhism practised by such people could hardly be taken seriously by the weirdos. When it comes to Buddhism this attitude has not really changed. If the masters of the poor in these countries were at least rich, they were also seen to participate in the same superstitions and to place themselves at the feet of monks. So they could not be taken seriously either.

Modern day Indian Buddhists
In contrast to the labouring people and their superstitious masters were the wealthy, largely indolent, and often corpulent monks, who had long since eliminated women from their ranks. At this point "forest" monks were completely invisible. Monasteries often controlled the land the workers laboured on and ordered the lives of the poor through "education". The first item of education for every lay person being how to treat monks with respect. Clearly these monks had a lot more in common with the representatives of Empire than with their own subjects. They were wealthy, literate, and actually venerated by the people. If there was ever going to be a meeting of minds between Asian Buddhists and WEIRD ex-Christians then it was between monks and colonial administrators.

Before long, the idea that Theravāda monks were the true representatives of Buddhism in Europe was cemented. I think the dynamic was different in the USA. Americans got interested in Buddhism almost a century later, after the fall of the British Empire and at a time when the USA was emerging as a world superpower, along with the rise of the military-industrial complex. Buddhism caught on amongst the counter-culture which was looking for non-conformist role models and alternative visions (this is something of a theme in US history anyway).  Americans seem to find the Romantic figure of the Japanese Zen master attractive. The true individual, living in a militaristic state, but free of social conventions. Later "crazy" Tibetan gurus played into the same myth. Similarly the lay run Pure Land organisations struck a chord with American Protestantism, where in Europe it offended the hierarchical sensibilities.

Class and Popular Buddhism

So, in Europe the congenitally wealthy, university educated elite were the first intermediaries, interpreting Buddhism, and setting the agenda for engaging with Buddhism from the beginning and through the formative period of many WEIRD Buddhist organisations. In Britain, Buddhism is still largely the preserve of the middle-aged, aspirational, middle-classes and the academy. Popular Buddhism is still largely despised by mainstream Buddhist groups. There is a tendency to look down on those who does not conform to the "original Buddhism" myth. "Popular Buddhism" is a term of derision and dismissal. But popular Buddhism is by definition popular. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world practice some form of what we would call popular Buddhism, or to hone in on the problem from the WEIRD point-of-view, they are traditional lay Buddhists who do not meditate.

Within WEIRD approaches to Buddhism there are two broadly based camps: Rationalist and Romantic, both strongly affected by class attitudes. The original Rationalists and Romantics were both part of an educated elite. Rationalists embraced the Enlightenment and perhaps over-identified with it. Romanticism grew out of rejection of the excesses of rationalism. Contemporary Modernism  Buddhism is a mish-mash of these.

Rationalists disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of reason. Basing themselves on preconceptions that probably go back to ancient Greece, they misunderstood reason as an abstract, disembodied, purely logical process distinct from embodied processes like emotions. They marginalised emotion in their philosophy, and set in motion a number of dehumanising political and economic memes that we are still struggling with today - the most egregious being Free Market Capitalism (driven now by Game Theory).

In the Rationalist account of Buddhism, original Buddhism must have been rational because Rationalists identify with the rational elements in our own history. In this account traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they practice magic and superstition. They are also wrong to venerate monks who do not exemplify the values of the enlightenment, but are more like the Catholic priesthood that Martin Luther was rebelling against. Ironically, it's unlikely that the Iron Age Indians shared the Victorian misconceptions about reason. In this account the Buddha is a man with an ethical plan to make us all better people through enabling us to govern our emotions through logic. The person is inadvertently personified in the TV and film character of Commander Spock of the Starship Enterprise. A "man" who tries to live by logic alone, though he clearly fails and is constantly rediscovering his human side. 

In the Romantic account of Buddhism the Buddha was a mystic who discovered the true nature of reality (a Western preoccupation that has no parallel in early Buddhist thought) by breaking through the illusion of the world to the world beyond. The other world, the true world, is beyond rational thought, beyond comprehension and can only be experienced, it cannot be talked about. Sometimes it takes the form of realising an inner essence which is the world as well (a meme from the early Upaniṣads). In this account, traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they do not meditate and therefore can never experience the liberating mystical insight of the Buddha. Propitiating monks and spirits is all very well, but unless one has the mystical experience for oneself, one is just going through the emotions. Not meditating is a form of surrender to the mundane world, virtually a capitulation to Materialism. Ironically the Iron Age Indians certainly did not share the Romantic view of emotions. Romantics disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of emotion. They saw emotions as more authentic than reason and cultivating strong emotions as a way to be more authentic. Romantics tend to fall victim to the dualistic fallacy of the matter/spirit dichotomy - emotions being associated with spirit and reason with matter.

Most Buddhists are exposed to both of these narratives and to some extent draw on both of them when they conceptualise Buddhism. The result is unsurprisingly confused. The Buddha was a man who transcended his humanity through mystical experiences. Out of these mystical experiences came a supremely rational, ethical teaching. One seeks to understand the nature of reality (by most definitions, an objective realm independent of experience) by paying attention to experience, though even in Buddhist psychology experience is inherently subjective. Buddhism must be rational, but not too rational. And mystical, but not too mystical. The true Buddhist experiences an abundance of certain emotions, but never the wrong kind. We seek a non-dual matter/spirit duality. The contradiction, it seems, is seldom apparent to believers.

The one thing that everyone is agreed on is that traditional Buddhists are doing it wrong and that the taint of popular Buddhism is to be avoided. WEIRD Buddhists (including so-called "secular "Buddhists) are still trying to eliminate all the pesky "popular" elements from Buddhism, to purify it and to refine away the dross from the ore of received tradition to expose the pure gold of original Buddhism. 


In the WEIRD world Buddhism is still largely the preserve of educated, middle-class, Baby-boomers. In fact religion generally is in decline as more and more people reject it, and generations of believers simply die out. Buddhism does continue to attract new converts within this atmosphere of rejection and distrust but in quite small numbers. Middle-class British people are aspirational, which generally conflicts with Buddhisms rejection of material aspiration. The middle-classes embrace the values and attitudes of the upper-classes and aspire to "rise up" to that level (metaphors of verticality are embedded in discussions of religion: see for example Metaphors and Materialism). Hence the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey. They are fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and can never get enough dramas set in the upper-classes. They reject the values and attitudes of the working-class.

Simon Evans on 
Stand Up for the Week.

The idea that the working classes might become aspirational is frightening because it is associated with Communism. At the very least labour unions in Britain were capable of causing havoc and holding the country to ransom to line their own pockets. The aspirations of the working classes must be deflected into triviality or at least into the desire to become middle-class. Where middle-class people have become slaves to their credit cards, working poor people have tended to suffer more from loan-sharks. And as educated, middle-class, right-wing comedian, Simon Evans, pointed out in 2013, "the poor are fat". The obesity epidemic is disproportionately prevalent amongst the poor. Evans is highlighting, tongue in cheek, that problems like obesity prevent the poor from changing their situation. The fact that the wealthy have promoted cheap food that is packed with sugar, salt, and fat because it is an easy way to make a profit (just like dealing crack is easy once you get people addicted). Then a paternalistic state tuts at the poor choices made by the poor and seeks to "nudge" them in the right direction while leaving the wealthy shit-food manufacturers to make an "honest" living. Similarly the onus is on addicts to stop smoking, rather than on tobacco companies to stop selling their toxic weed.

The theme of making Buddhism "accessible" to working class people is one that has been explored in the middle class media. For example Tricycle Magazine: "Making Buddhism accessible to working-class people." (1 Aug 2011). Google "working class Buddhism" and one sees a slew of such articles, (which also suggest that the class problem is just as prevalent in the USA). The fact is that most WEIRD Buddhist organisations not only do not cater for popular Buddhism, but we do not countenance popular Buddhism. We are not interested in popular religion. Our identity is partly bound up in being an elite. And like the elite in the British class system, we think that we are destined to rule the world (sort of). We like to think that we can save the human race from itself and that when humanity finally realises that we are the saviours, that they will thank us. We think, "If only they would follow our example", but frankly if our example was so amazing the world would be beating down our doors wanting to know our secret. The fact is that most of us are ordinary, at best, and do not inspire mass appeal. We simultaneously reject what is popular and wish that what we do value would become popular.

The fact is that most people don't want to devote time to individual religious exercises. They have families, peers, social obligations and favour communal activities that strengthen their sense of belonging - that why our churches are empty and our massive football stadiums are full on the weekend. We tell them that social obligations are a hindrance, because there are suttas that say so. We often fail to see that even monks have social obligations. Unless they already see these obligations as a hindrance, then people are unlikely to be receptive to our message. If they do see social obligations as a hindrance they're likely to be maladjusted to life and make poor practitioners. We Buddhists have not fully grasped, it seems, the social nature of the human being. Or we try to take the place of a social group - but still rejecting the "trivial" socialising that forms an effective human group. On one hand the general decline of religion tells us something important about what we might offer then as a religion. On the other hand what people want from religion (a social context, consolation for the unfairness of life and death, etc) we tend to look down on. It's no great surprise that Western Buddhism has not inspired mass conversion and that we barely number 1% of the population (including traditional Buddhists!). On the contrary, it's amazing that we have attracted so many people to our worldview.

A lot of my recent work has involved doing archaeology on Buddhist ideas and trying to show that major innovations are usually based on perceived deficiencies in the Buddhist tradition. For example I have tried to show how the problem of action at a temporal distance, that emerges from the internal conflict between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, proved deeply problematic for Buddhists. It gave rise to ideas like the Doctrine of Momentariness, the Sarva-asti Doctrine, and the Ālayavijñāna. One conclusion that emerges from this is that modern critiques and polemics are not necessarily simply misconceptions of a fundamentally sound and sensible tradition. On the contrary at various points in history the tradition of the day perceived the received tradition as unsound and nonsensible and set out to rectify the problem. So criticism per se is not necessarily problematic. And critics are not necessarily heretics - the most influential Buddhists have always been critics, not to say polemicists. 


11 December 2015

Pāḷi Ur-Text: Some Recent Observations by Alex Wynne

Dr Alexander Wynne
(Online pics are rare)
These are some notes from a talk by Alex Wynne given at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, along with some of my own comments. Wynne is currently Academic Head of the Dhammachai Tipiṭaka Project, at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, preparing a critical edition of the Pali canon.Wynne makes a number of interesting points that were news to me.

Wynne has been working as part of a team in Thailand since 2012, working on a critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon. In fact this will be the first ever critical edition of the Pali texts. A critical edition is more than simply another "version", but attempts to use existing manuscripts to reconstruct the original manuscript that all current copies were copied from. And

Those who dabble in Pāḷi might wonder why such a thing is needed. After all we have two widely available editions: the Pali Text Society (PTS) and the Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana (6th Council) Burmese Ed. (1954-56), available as the Vipassana Research Institute CD/Online and as part of the Digital Pāḷi Reader (a plug in for Mozilla Firefox). The trouble is that while the Burmese Ed. compares with other editions but mainly used Burmese manuscripts. Neither the Burmese nor the PTS made extensive use of the Pāḷi manuscript tradition. The PTS Ed. is based on only a handful of manuscripts.Both made critical decisions, but did not tell us what they were.It turns out that from Sri Lanka, through Burma and across to Thailand (and places in-between) there are hundreds of manuscripts of the Pāḷi Canon that have largely been ignored when editing the Pāḷi Canon. The Dhammachai deals with five regional traditions of Pāḷi: Sinhalese, Burmese, Khom (Laos, Cambodia aka Khmer), Mon (Western Thailand), Tham (Laos, Northern Thailand).

These manuscripts are mainly written by scratching the surface of a prepared talipot palm leaf and rubbing ink into the scratches. The verb for writing in pāḷi, lipi is a loan word from Old Persian (via Sanskrit) from a verb meaning "to scratch". The scripts used are all related and derive from South India variants of Brahmī. Most of these palm leaf manuscripts are no older than the 18th century and are copies of copies over many generations. As such they are of varying quality. The oldest Pāḷi manuscript is from Burma. It was scratched into gold leaf and dates from around the 4th - 6th century (see Stargardt 1990 and below)

To produce a critical edition from manuscripts, one typically selects the best manuscript and uses it as the basis for the Ed., noting and repairing obvious errors (such as scribal misspellings, omissions and additions) and noting any variants amongst other manuscripts. To date there is no fully featured critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon. However, when there are 100's of manuscripts, one must be more selective. The project selects the 20 best manuscripts and uses them for the critical edition. This still requires that every one of the hundreds of manuscripts must be read and compared, but it eases the burden on the editor in the final stages. Some progress is being made. A first volume of the Dīghanikāya is finished and the rest of the Nikāya will be finished soon. The entire Canon will take a decades to complete. From what Wynne says many of the manuscripts have been digitised and will be made available online, along with the edition itself. This will be a great boon to serious Pāḷi studies.

One of the vicious tendencies of editors is to silently emend their text. Changes are often desirable, but all changes should be noted. As we will see below, this is because errors can supply us with a good deal of information. In the case of Pāḷi manuscripts there has been a tendency to correct the Pāḷi with Pāninian Sanskrit in mind, to regularise the forms. But Pāḷi, as a Middle-Indic language has a lot more flexibility regards certain aspects of grammar and there is no a priori reason to "correct" manuscripts that might reflect the nature of the imperfect language. The critical edition is making every effort to preserve the Middle-Indic features of the manuscript tradition. Sanskritisation is less obvious in manuscripts from Thailand compared with Burma and Sri Lanka where the Indian Sanskrit traditions were more influential.

The aim of the project is to reproduce the text that Buddhaghosa had in ca 5th Century. We know what Pāḷi looked like at this time from inscriptions all over South East Asia. Wynne says that trying to recreate the "original text" would be difficult, partly because we don't know what the language of that time looked like. Wynne mentions that Lance Cousins had distinguished between Classical Pāḷi (roughly what Buddhaghosa used) and Old Pāḷi which is the language of the discourses before being written down.

One benefit of scribal errors is that they become markers for the philologist interested in the provenance of manuscripts and relationships amongst them. A scribal error is a spelling error, which may include one or many wrong akṣaras (roughly "letters"), a diacritic added or left off, or changed word order. Scribes sometimes omit words, lines and even whole leaves. If a single manuscript has a mistake that none of the others share, then that mistake is just a localised problem caused by a particular scribe. If two manuscripts share exactly the same error in then the chances are that the scribes who produced them have both been copying a source manuscript which contains that error.

Gold Pali Manuscript ca 4th Century.
See Stargardt (1990)
Apart from being error prone, traditional manuscript copying practices are very conservative and there is a great reluctance to correct the texts. This is presumably related to their religious nature, but in any case it leaves a trail. One of the most interesting stories the scribal errors tell is that manuscripts copied in South-East Asia did not come from the same source as manuscripts in Sri Lanka. We can take this to mean that the Pāḷi texts in SE Asia were originally from Mainland India rather than Sri Lanka. Also the gold Pāḷi manuscript found in Burma and dated to the 4th Century is in an Indian Brahmī script rather than a Sri Lanka script, according to Harry Falk (See Stargardt 1990). Indeed at this point Wynne says a curious thing. There is no solid evidence for the Sri Lankan Theravāda outside of Sri Lanka, i.e. no explicit reference to them in any text or inscription, until the 11th Century CE. had I attended the lecture, I would like to have asked him to expand on this point.

Now as well as the Pāli texts we have a few smaller collections of texts in Chinese, and a selection of texts in Sanskrit translation and Gāndhārī. In many cases it is possible to compare the Chinese versions with the Pāḷi and there is now a steady stream of article which do just this (including one by yours truly). Wynne recounts that Anālayo, a German scholar/monk who has been at the forefront of this comparative effort, pointed out a scribal error in Pāḷi. At the beginning of the Brahmajāla Sutta (§1.5-6; PTS DN i.4 Walshe 1995: 68) there is statement about disparaging the three jewels. At §1.5 The Buddha exhorts the monks that if the Three Jewels are disparaged they should not become angry or resentful because this would be a hindrance. After all the monks can recognise true from false, and if they hear something false they should just say "this is false" (etaṃ abhūtaṃ). Now, at §1.6 is a mirror passage dealing with someone praising the Three Jewels and the monks not getting carried away with pleasure. The section in which the Buddha asks the monks if they can tell true from false in the case of praise is missing in Pāli. So while the mirror each other in every other respect, §1.5 and §1.6 are different in this, and it looks like a scribal omission (rather than an oral error).

What is really interesting is that this error exists in all known Pāḷi manuscripts from all over the world, but that the mirror passage is present in the Chinese (T21 I.264.b13). Wynne draws the obvious conclusion which is that all known Pāḷi manuscripts come from a common source. At some point there must have been one written source -- an ur-text -- from which all the surviving manuscripts are generational copies.

I would sound a note of caution here. Not all manuscripts survive. The talipot palm leaf is not a long lived medium in the tropics. It is subject to insect and microbial attacks of various kinds. That all surviving manuscripts can be traced to a single source text it does not mean that manuscripts which did not belong to this lineage did not once exist. There is always the possibility of the Black Swan Effect - it only takes one manuscript which does not have this shared error for the ur-text theory to fall down. Of course the writing down of the Canon probably did create a choke point in it's history. Previous to the first written text the situation would have been quite complex with different groups of monks preserving different collections and versions of the texts. Creating a written version required many editorial decisions which probably resulted in considerable lose of information. The fact of the differences in the Chinese collections suggests that a separate by related written edition was extensively edited in the North-West. On the other hand the Pāḷi collections were all edited with Sanskrit in mind in medieval times. It is also entirely possible that a Chinese scribe has "fixed" the text by filling in the gap.

A project of this kind takes a huge amount of time, resources, and organisation. It does not happen very often and once completed it is likely to become the definitive version of the Pāli Canon for generations to come. A great many of the differences will be minor, but there is also the possibility of major discoveries. It shows that as far as Buddhist texts goes, when one is studying an existing translation one is very far removed from the original text. We may never really know what the original texts looked like, since the Edition being produced is aiming to have a text such as Buddhaghosa might have read in the 5th century rather than an earlier era.

It's not related to the topic of Pāḷi texts, but in looking for pictures of Wynne I got drawn into look at the venue for the project: Wat Phra Dhammakaya. This is a newish monastery, founded in the 1970s on the basis of a new dispensation, and regularly attracts tens and hundreds of thousands of followers to activities. They teach that the Buddha equated nibbāna with attā (i.e. ātman), and that the goal of a Buddhist is to find their "true self" or dhammakāya (See Laohavanich 2012). Now this kind of thinking is quite well known to anyone interested in Indian religions - it is the view of the early Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāraṇyaka. Such eternalistic thinking is explicitly criticised in any number of Buddhist discourses, though bares more than a passing resemblance to the eternalistic Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine. But not only are they explicitly teaching wrong-view as right-view, but the leader, Phra Dhammachayo, has been embroiled in a number of financial scandals (See e.g. Bangkok Post 30 Oct 2015). The organisation can afford to finance such a large and costly project as a critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon because they received billions of Baht in donations from their followers, though some of this money is allegedly being embezzled by the leader. I suspect that in years to come the project will be tainted by this association. Even the involvement of a bonafide scholar like Alex Wynne is not going to save the new edition from suspicion that it is aimed at furthering the idiosyncratic aims of the frankly weird Dhammakāya Movement.



Fernquest, Jon (2015) Phra Dhammachayo faces theft, money laundering charges.Bangkok Post, 30 Oct 2015.

Laohavanich, Mano Mettanando. (2012) Esoteric Teaching of Wat Phra Dhammakāya. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 19, 483-513. 

Stargardt, Janice (1990). The Ancient Pyu of Burma: Early Pyu cities in a man-made landscape (illustrated ed.). PACSEA. https://www.academia.edu/7784094/The_Pyu_Civilisation_of_Myanmar_and_the_city_of_Sri_Ksetra

04 December 2015

Why Killing is Wrong

One of my friends recently shared this picture on Facebook, the comment, "Why indeed?" The subject came up again a few days later with this Robert Fisk article about Syria in The Independent newspaper pointing out that our Prime Minster is openly lying in order to bolster the case for killing more people in the Middle East. The accompanying picture shows a protester holding a placard with the same text.

Having read George Lakoff (See Moral Metaphors) and Mark Johnson and thought about the psychology of religious belief, the answer to the question seemed obvious to me. I started typing an explanation of the process. That answer became this essay. The fact is that all nations sanction killing under special certain circumstances, so to say that "killing people is wrong" is an oversimplification. The placard is actually a bit misleading and a bit naive. The laws we follow do not make killing a blanket offence. In some cases we can, like our British Prime Minister, apparently be proud of killing or having commissioned the killing. This does raise the question of the morality of killing. My approach to this question will be to look at how morality works, the underlying concepts and metaphors that form the mechanism of moral decision making, and to show how they apply to the subject of killing.

Debt and Balance.

The rationale behind the prohibition on killing is related to the underlying metaphors involved in our concept of justice. Ancient law codes tend to enshrine the principles: So we get the infamous passage of the Bible which lays out the penalties for personal injury, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot". The rule occurs in a number of places: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. The last adds, "show no pity". With regard to killing there are several other passages which legislate for a penalty of death: e.g. Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35:16, and 35:30. The Old Testament - the law book of a small tribe of wandering desert dwellers - seems to be in no doubt that killing a killer is precisely the right thing to do. It is also quite happy to recommend the killing of enemies to the point of inflicting genocide on them. Contracts and debts were so important in Vedic society that they had a special god, Mitra, to oversee them.

The idea appears to be that fear of the consequences will prevent the transgression in the first place. Though of course we know that people are pretty hopeless at thinking through the consequences of their actions in most cases. Even if they were good at it, actions always have unintended and unforeseen consequences. We also know that extreme punishments do not prevent crime, else Saudi Arabia would not be about to behead a group of its citizens.

The Biblical laws, such a huge influence on our own ideas of justice, can be understood in terms of obligations and debts (See Lakoff 1995). So what is the rationale? My understanding is that transgression metaphorically creates a debt, or at least is treated as though it creates a debt. And an important principle in most societies is that debts must be paid. In a society in which transgression invokes punishment in the form of inflicting injury on the transgressor, they will most likely try to hide their transgression and avoid paying the debt. The Biblical law code enshrines the idea that the easiest way to collect on the debt is to repay the debtor in kind: injure the injurer, kill the killer.

We also see justice in terms of a moral balance. A transgression such as murder is believed to create an imbalance in favour of the transgressor. Punishment removes any benefit the transgressor might accrue, it clears the debt and restores balance. We punish criminals so that they may "pay their debt to society". We also anthropomorphise justice as a woman carrying a set of weighing scales - the association of a just world with scales dates from ancient Egyptian times at least.

Our basic model of a just world involves the metaphors: TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT and DEBTS ARE WEIGHTS. The Jains see actions as causing the accumulation of dust that weighs down the soul and prevents it from achieving liberation. Metaphors of debt and balance go together well. A good accountant "balances" the books, by which we do not mean they perform a kind of physical juggling act, but that they equalise the credits and debits. As Mr Micawber says in David Copperfield,
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen, and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery."
Killing also places a burden on those who seek justice for the killing in the form of grief and the effort required to extract payment for the debt. The person who has been killed had potential - to live, to breed, to work, etc. That potential can now never be realised. So although killing the killer pays the debt (which is why it is not wrong in this logic), there is some debt that is unpayable. And because killing creates an unpayable debt we see it as particularly heinous. The metaphor TRANSGRESSION IS DEBT seems to go both ways, so that also some are also transgressions. An unpayable debt is a moral outrage. This is why sometimes, "hanging is too good for them."

Of course none of this algebra of morality is conscious. It's a black box, unconscious process that produces conscious conclusions associated with strong emotions that indicate to us that the thoughts we have in response are both salient and important, and thus we are highly motivated to act on them. The insight only emerges from a close analysis of the language used in talking about a just world.

The Politics of Morality and the Morality of Politics.

Beyond the basic insight that morality is an accounting exercise, there are two basic attitudes to debts that roughly correspond to the political divisions called left/right or progressive/conservative. For a conservative, paying back debts is especially important to their self-view and may over-ride other considerations. Thus in response to killing, many conservatives may be in favour of capital punishment, and going to war against enemies. Many progressives accept that moral debts can never be paid in full and live with this. It was progressives who introduced reform into the justice system, arguing, for example, for the need to rehabilitate criminals rather than simply punishing them. Progressives argue for humane treatment of prisoners and alternative forms of justice. All this with a view to creating a broader harmony. Just two days ago a conservative British government, aided by conservatives of the left (!), voted to extent the protracted war that we have been fighting in the Middle East for 14 years. The progressives of the left and right have been against the war from the beginning arguing that the second gulf war was illegal. Conservatives believe that bombs going off in Europe constitutes a debt that must be paid in kind. Never mind the fact that Europe started the war. or that Britain has accrued massive debts in that part of the world since 1915. Self-deception is an important aspect of morality, particularly amongst those who wield power.

In a progressive society we have come to accept that the Biblical injunction is too brutal. We have moved on from the simple equation in which the punishment for murder is execution, at least as far as our own citizens are concerned. When a judge passes sentence on a convicted criminal what they do is weigh the seriousness of the crime and consult the law to see what is considered to balance out that crime by the government of the day. Governments are able to adjust this balance. But it does mean that justice might look different for different classes of people: if two people, one an unemployed person and one a professional of some sort are convicted of theft, the two punishments may look different. The first may get a heavy fine and some sort of community service. The second may well lose their career, all their future earning potential as a professional and thus just being convicted is already a heavy blow to them and this is taken into account. Some argue that the punishment ought not to take into account these other factors. One of the things about justice is that the truism "justice must be seen to be done" is still important. 

The problem with this consequentialist view can be summarised in Mr Spock's famous Utilitarian catch-phrase: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As Mark Johnson (1987: 95) has pointed out this algebraic approach to justice, the "consequentialist" model of ethics, often sees the needs of the few sidelined completely. Spock's cliché does not take into account class and the historical attitudes of class. In a class system, as we have in the UK, some people weigh more than others in the moral balance. Particularly, the wealthy outweigh the poor. This is why the needs of the richest 1% dominate the needs of the 99% today: 1 billionaire outweighs 100 wage-slaves. Governments are increasingly members of the 1% and act to secure more for themselves and their peers, because they see their own needs as out-weighing the needs of the many.

In the UK we have an on-going crisis related to the precipitous drop in government revenue caused by the global financial crisis. The ideological response to this is to lower taxes for the wealthy (with the view to them using their retained wealth wisely) and cut services that are mainly used by the poor. The wealthy are seen by conservatives as morally worthy by mere virtue of being wealthy. Wealth is perceived as the reward of the just. Thus the wealthy are more weighty. This incidentally is also a step away from traditional Christian morality. Indeed it might be argued that those who feared that the collapse of Christianity would see the world slide into immorality, have seen their fears realised when it comes to the wealthy. It is assumed (by other wealthy people) that being morally worthy, the wealthy will use their wealth wisely. But they do not. They conspicuously consume with no higher purpose. They actively avoid paying into the community-chest through taxes, placing a higher burden on the poor. At the same time some of the wealthy seek the notoriety of public philanthropy instead of the anonymity of paying taxes. They give, but want adoration for doing what we all do. In this class based calculation, the poor are morally unworthy (by virtue of being poor) and thus cutting services that they use in order to lower the taxes on the wealthy is seen as a balanced policy by conservatives. They see this as fair. In this case the wealthy are few, but weighty. The poor are also few, but light. The majority in the middle only want their own wealth to remain stable and to be insulated from the risks of change. And in exchange for this they are willing to manage and administrate the empire of the wealthy.

We may have one person one vote, but when it comes to the policies actually enacted these are largely driven by the 1% and their perceived needs. Ironically, if we look at extreme political systems such as Stalinism or Maoism we also find a 1% who believe their needs outweigh the needs of the many and who organise their environment to ensure their needs, as they perceive them, are met at the expense of everyone else. The behaviour of the 1% may just be a constant in large scale societies. We certainly lack any effective narrative to counteract the current trend for the wealthy to get more wealthy at the expense of the poor. When they capture both the legislature and executive branches of government, we seem to lean back towards feudalism. Incidentally almost all businesses are run on feudal models of governance. And it is businessmen who have hijacked national governments.

More Calculations

When it comes to killing there is also a different weight attached to different people. There is a kind of algebra that we mentally perform. As well as the weights associated with class, we have different weights for different roles, for example, civilian, soldier, general, politician all have different weights. The UK and the USA apparently have no moral quandary using bombs to assassinate tribal leaders in Waziristan because they support our enemy, the Taliban. The Taliban are our enemy because they once offered succour to our other enemy, Al-Qaeda (even though it is now believed that the Taliban have severed all ties with Al-Qaeda). Ironically we once supported the proto-Taliban mujahideen in their fight against our other erstwhile enemy and sometime ally, Russia. So we are technically our own enemy now. If we kill twenty civilians to bomb one tribal leader, then our leaders calculate that justice is served, partly because they have decreed that no-one is a civilian in that part of the world . This may be true in the sense that they are all fighting for their land and resisting our illegal invasion and pathetic attempts to set up puppet governments. On the other hand gun-toting Americans suffering the latest mass-shooting ought to remember that the logic of their state is that armed individuals are enemy combatants, not civilians. What we don't do is target the leaders of the House of Saud who finance terrorism and Islamic State, and spread the extremist version of Islam that underpins terrorist ideology. In fact we do the opposite - we pay them huge bribes to buy our weaponry and support them with our military, even when they use the price of oil to hold us hostage. The algebra of this relationship is beyond my moral mathematics to solve.

With the modern study of societies and groups of people we can now see that behaviour is not simply the result of our own motivations and drives as the crude Freudian model suggests. How we behave is a product, sometimes wholly a product, of our environment. The people around us have a much stronger effect on us than we like to admit. Our myth is that we are all individuals, making our own decisions, determining our own fate. God gave us free will so we could misbehave (and what a mistake that turned out to be). The truth is that we're social animals and, for most of us, going along with the group is a survival strategy with tens of millions of years of successful history that is hard to argue against. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have shown that reasoning, that faculty we hold to be the highest virtue of the individual, doesn't even usually work in individuals. Across a wide range of tests and measures, individuals are hopeless at reasoning tasks, worse than random guessing. Reasoning seems to have evolved to help small groups make decisions and really only works in small groups. Of course for all these qualities and faculties there is a bell curve. A few individuals are naturally good at reasoning. Other's can learn to reason effectively as an individual. But even formal training is no guarantee of success. As Mercier and Sperber say, confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning, not a bug.

Morality or Justice have yet to catch up with these facts. The idea of freewill, and the interminable arguments over it, actually hampers progress in understanding human beings. Freewill is a legacy concept from Christianity, but also built into WEIRD notions of justice. But as we all know from experience none of us is completely free or completely constrained. At the very least we have obligations to our community that constrain our choices. In practice that community likely shapes most of our decisions. Many of the people in our prisons have mental illnesses or developmental problems that impair their ability to make good life choices, though short of a demonstrable inability to understand the consequences of one's actions, one still has to live with those choices. And being insane is no picnic even if we are free of societal expectations. However the notion of freewill continues to dominate the public debate, probably because it's what journalists understand or think we will understand. Social psychology is still almost inevitably trumped by that old fraud Freud.

The debt created by killing can be lessened or mitigated by circumstances. If I plan out killing someone that is weightier than if I kill on the spur of the moment. Killing on purpose is weightier than killing by accident. Killing because one was in fear of one's life, out of self-defence, may cancel out - the threat to your life may mean that the killing anticipates that debt. Killing when one is insane and unable to understand the consequences of one's action is not blameworthy in the eyes of the law, though many social conservatives consider that the insane should still be punished (for them a debt is a debt and must be paid). Killing in a war is to a person's credit - we celebrate our most efficient and effective killers. As I said, our British Prime Minister is quite proud of all the killing he is commissioning in the Middle East. David "Killer" Cameron seems to have a taste for ordering executions. 

However we are squeamish about mass killings. Fire bombing Dresden and killing tens of thousands of civilians (figures are disputed and were distorted at the time) was just about acceptable to the British, if not the Germans. Atomic bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians on the day and many more from cancer in the following generations is a more ambivalent subject. Some still claim it saved American lives and shortened the war and that this justified the use of atomics. This is yet another example of the utilitarian approach to ethics in which one weighs up consequences, it's just that in this case foreign lives are worth considerable less than domestic lives. A few hundred thousand Japanese  civilians are worth a lot less than say, ten thousand American soldiers. Others argue that the use of atomics was a "war crime" of the most heinous kind (because it created a massive unpayable debt).

This in-group/out-group distinction has always been important when it comes to killing. Prohibitions on killing seldom apply in the same way, or at all, to out-group people. Funnily enough we see the same behaviour in chimps. When the Gombe Stream group became too large a group of chimps split off and set up a range next door. The alpha male of the Gombe Stream Group, a large and unusually violent male (ironically) called Frodo by Jane Goodall, lead a series of raids on the splitters in which they were all killed. Human beings are not the only species that commit murder.

Every time, every single time, a government wants to justify killing its enemies it characterises them as inhuman. This makes it easier to justify killing them. And note that the present call to extend the illegal war in the Middle-East does portray the enemy as monsters who "must be stopped". And there is certainly some truth in this. European and US governments have created a number of monstrous dictators and organisations in the Middle East. But what about the states who arm and fund them? Are they not culpable also?

From Payback to Restoration and Redemption.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Christian myth connected with justice, is the redemption of sinners. Some members of society see criminals, even killers, as in need of redemption, rehabilitation. This goes beyond the simple idea of balancing out the crime with punishment. Part of the motivation here is that we acknowledge that our methods of punishment tend to produce more criminal behaviour: relative innocents who are sent to prison come out hardened by their intimate association with other criminals; many people commit crimes as a kind of career and prison does nothing to deter them. Punishment only seems to make the situation worse in the majority of cases. So there are lobby groups who try to get the government to implement rehabilitation programs, with limited success.

It is notable that since roughly 1971 the developed world's attitude to private debt has significantly shifted. Where pre-war the average person would have avoided going into debt, by the 1970s debt  in the form of credit cards and personal loans was being promoted to more or less every adult. We began to accumulate huge average levels of personal debt. At present household debt is roughly equal to the annual Gross Domestic Product of the nation and forecast to rise steeply. Business debt is much higher because banks are heavily indebted to each other, but non-finance sector business debt is also about equal to annual GDP. Currently private sector debt in the UK stands at about £6.5 trillion and GDP at £1.5 trillion. (See this chart). Given the applicable metaphors, this change in attitude to debt may have had a major impact on our ideas about morality, but I don't think this has been studied yet (I'd be very interested to know if it has). 

In recent times we have also developed more nuanced views about justice. For example we now distinguish between retributive justice and restorative justice. Both are still based on the balance metaphor, but employ different methods to achieve balance. Retributive justice, which I have so far focussed on, seeks to restore balance by inflicting suffering and humiliation on the one who has transgressed. Restorative justices aims to balance things out by forcing the transgressor to make a positive contribution to the victim and society. Whether this takes the form of community service, compensation payments, or reconciliation meetings, the aim is still to have the transgressor actively restore balance through their actions rather than being passive subjects of punishment. The underlying concepts and metaphors are the same.

As I have already mentioned, the whole system of identifying criminals and punishing them makes it virtually certain that people will always try to hide their misdeeds out of fear. Our idea of justice still largely consists of inflicting suffering and humiliation on wrong doers. We learn this as children - those who are caught breaking the rules are punished. So, don't get caught. We also Romanticise and idolise individuals who can break rules with impunity. In particular many of the "heroes" in our story telling are able to kill without consequence. Why would anyone come forward and confess to a crime knowing that they will suffer as a result? It is irrational to seek punishment. However, sometimes the guilt of committing the crime outweighs the fear of punishment. In this case we might say that guilt comes from an awareness of having created a debt and the knowledge that it must be paid. Guilt is the feeling we have when there is a moral imbalance. And it can override concerns for personal safety and make people confess to crimes even though they know that they are inviting injury on themselves. This must be coupled with a deep indoctrination that guilt requires punishment in order to restore the balance of a just world.

Last Words

So the slogan that sparked this essay has misconstrued the situation. Killing is not wrong per se. Some killing is emphatically right (in the eyes of the law). The problem is that unsanctioned killing creates a debt. The simplest way of repaying that debt is for the killer to die. That is why social conservatives want to kill killers. Not to show that killing is wrong, because it isn't always wrong, but to show that killing is a weighty debt and that all debts must be paid. Progressives see the conservatives here locked in combat with conservatives there and wonder where it will end.


Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html
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