09 August 2019

We Need to Talk About Utilitarianism

Although there is some debate in universities over different approaches to ethics, the fact is that those of us living in developed societies have been steeped in utilitarianism all our lives and this has been the case for generations. Utilitarian ideas have dominated the moral landscape since the late 19th Century. And utilitarianism was developed by the early liberals. Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy of socio-economic liberalism. Economic liberals believe that trade will maximise utility without any help and thus morality in the abstract. They just want to do business and remove barriers to doing business (and this tells us who they are). Social liberals believe that societies must intervene and take action to ensure maximised utility and tend to have a more concrete and pragmatic approach. Liberals are not interested in equality of outcome, although social liberals pursue equality of opportunity. Economic liberals are ready to abdicate all decisions to the marketplace and financial necessity (including problems like global warming).

When I set out to describe liberalism, I noted that in its time it was a radical and progressive response to centuries of unquestioned absolutist rule. Tyranny, not just over the body, but also over the mind. Thomas Hobbes was a 17th Century transitional figure in that he raised questions about when citizens owe allegiance to a king. Soon, however, John Locke was asserting that liberty was innate in a person and not something that a king or slaver could grant, they could only take it away. However, it is important to keep in mind that classical liberals were all willing to take liberty away from some classes of people. John Locke argued for enslaving prisoners of war and for the expropriation of land and resources from first nation Americans. J. S. Mill campaigned for women's suffrage, but also for continued British rule in India. Thomas Jefferson argued against slavery but personally owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life.

However flawed the early articulators may have been, the concept of individual liberty took hold and fired up revolutionary fervor in France and the USA. It also captured the imaginations of the British intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie created by the Industrial Revolution. This, in turn, led to the assertion of individual liberty as a social, moral, and legal principle. At first, this really only applied to the elite: women, for example, were initially excluded enmasse along with people of colour.  Indeed, the only group that were seen as capable of exercising liberty were landowners, the very people who (literally) enslaved and exploited everyone else. Gradually, a new breed of liberal emerged that wanted to universalise liberty and to use the apparatus of the state to help individuals achieve liberty where it had been denied to them. New or social liberalism happened earlier in the UK than in the USA where exclusionary classical liberalism was and is a much greater force.

The central irony, then, of classical liberalism was its espousal of individual liberty, while denying liberty to whole classes of people. The neoclassical liberals, the ones who espouse an extreme form of economic liberalism, have that same exclusionary mindset. They are not quite the same as libertarians whose attitude is every man for himself. Rather, the economic liberals seek to appropriate and consolidate wealth and power, which they rationalise with a combination of twisted Darwinism and utilitarianism.

Having pulled down the idols of absolutist rule by priests and kings, however, created a whole new set of problems. This essay is about the liberal response to this change and why liberalism goes about it all wrong.

The Better Angels Argument
There will be readers already wanting to argue, along the same lines as Steven Pinker, that liberalism has in fact been very successful: people have more prosperity, freedom, and peace than ever before. I've already made the point that there is liberalism and liberalism. Classical liberalism created a vast amount of wealth but distributed it very unevenly. They moved a predominantly agrarian workforce into urban/manufacturing jobs, and thence into service industries, but job security and working conditions peaked in the 1970s. Since then uncertainty has crept back into work in the richest countries. There has been a decline in overall poverty, but this is largely because the elite are  exporting jobs to poor countries and grooming the world's poor to be the consumers of tomorrow.

It is doubtful that consumerism really does improve anyone's life. The major long term cost of consumerism is climate and ecological breakdown. No matter the positive impact that modern economic liberalism has had, it is about to be wiped out by climate change. We are already seeing the rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, both droughts and floods. We really don't know what is going to happen as we continue to heat the earth's atmosphere, but we can safely say that it won't been good for the majority of humanity (or non-human species). We are also seeing a collapse in the flying (i.e. pollinating) insect population across Europe. Economic liberalism is not the better angel of our nature. In all likelihood it has killed us via pollution, extreme weather, sea-level rise, and mass extinction.

The ideas at the heart of liberalism, especially "reason" and "self-interest" have led us to existential crises of unimaginable scope and scale. In retrospect our behaviour has been irrational and suicidal.

Yes, of course, classical liberalism has promoted trade between nations making war less likely. Pinker is right about that. But the staggering cost of this is now apparent. Even in the short term, government has been captured by wealthy special interest groups. Based on research they helped to fund, oil companies are redesigning their offshore rigs to cope with massive sea level rise, while at the same time lobbying governments to prevent effective responses to climate change by undermining the credibility of that same science. Worse, we have been fooled this way before, by Big Tobacco, who took the same approach in the mid-20th Century. But also by Big Finance leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis. The "big lie" is a term coined by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925) to explain how Germany became Europe's whipping boy. Hitler's idea was developed as an active PR strategy by his PR advisor Joseph Goebbels. And now for Big Business, and politicians the big lie is part of their stock in trade.

It is social liberalism, rather than economic liberalism that has done more for expanding enfranchisement, reducing slavery, objecting to wars, and generally making people free. And which is (belatedly) coming around to trying to prevent and mitigate climate and ecological breakdown.

Political Divisions

Social and economic liberals are to some extent at odds over the role of the state in society. Economic liberals want to minimise the scope and power of the state to allow for business people to make unrestricted profits. Social liberals are willing to accept a larger scope for the state in order to give the poor a hand up (note this is not a hand out). It is this last point that distinguishes social liberals from socialists.

A social liberal wants the individual to prosper. They see that systems sometimes place barriers in the way of individuals and are willing to use the power of the state to level the playing field. Classic responses to systemic inequality are state funded and standardised education. But even education is tailored to finding a job and being a productive member of society. For liberals, the ideal is the self-made person, especially if they have come from humble beginnings. Someone who worked hard and overcame obstacles to become a success in material terms. It's no coincidence that the American Dream is couched in these terms.

Socialists, by contrast, do not see progress in terms of the progress of individuals. Progress is really only progress if everyone benefits equally. Socialists want not (only) equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome. They are more inclined to solve inequality by actively redistributing wealth towards the poor and using the state apparatus to inhibit wealth accumulation. The socialist ideal is more about making a contribution towards the flourishing of the nation, helping people who cannot help themselves.

Despite the ongoing use of the terms, modern politics is not about left-wing and right-wing any more. It is about the clash between economic (classical) liberals and social (new) liberals, i.e., between the right and the centre-right. Actual socialists are rare in Europe these days and absent in the USA. President Trump is centre-right in his economic policies (trade barriers to "protect" American workers are a classic social liberal policy). But he is strongly authoritarian, nationalistic, and racist, which is falsely attributed to the far right, but is in fact independent of the left/right access.

Utilitarianism encapsulates some of the ideals of liberalism, mostly classical/economic liberalism. It prioritises the individual and undervalues context, particularly the social nature of humanity. Utilitarianism was framed by the mercantile class and thus expresses the ideals of economic liberalism as though they are self-evident truths. Like liberalism, it was formulated by members of the educated elite who were (unconsciously) seeking justification for their behaviour on the world stage, i.e. brutal and rapacious empire.

How did we get to this point?

The Collapse of Idols

One of the most important roles of the ancient kings and prophets was as law givers and moral arbiters: The Code of Hammurabi, the Laws of Moses, the Dharma of Manu, the Annalects of Confucius, and dozens of others. And one of the recurring anxieties of history (down to the present) is that in the absence of obedience to such laws human beings would simply run amok. In the Western tradition this anxiety is manifested in Thomas Hobbes' highly influential book Leviathan. As I noted (On Liberty and Liberalism), Hobbes lived through a time of war and socio-political turmoil and as a result described the natural state of people as war. Hobbes' opinion that the life of man in the absence of a tyrant to rule over them was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". As a result he argued that only a strong authoritarian leader (the eponymous Leviathan) could impose order and civility on us.

Unfortunately, this view became quite widespread amongst Enlightenment intellectuals. They saw themselves as a uniquely civilised elite surrounded by a sea of barbarians (the rest of us). They probably read too much idealised Roman history and utopian fiction. They seem also to have been infected with a secular version of the "God's chosen people" myth. In particular, the classical liberals saw themselves as having risen above the hoi polloi. They saw themselves as establishing a new kind of rational social order, with themselves at the apex, that would displace the hereditary aristocracy and the Church.

However, they also saw themselves as facing exactly the same problems: how to protect the wealth and justify the power gained through exploitation; how to subdue and control the barbarians outside the gates and avoid the fate of the Roman Empire. The minds of the elite have been obsessed with this ever since. So on one hand they were wrestling with the problem of the collapse of traditional authority and on the other they were very much interested in taking over, exploiting, and expanding that authority. All they needed was some kind of justification that the masses would accept.

The New Idols

One of the products of the early successes of the Enlightenment was hubris. Natural philosophers or scientists as they came to be known, promoted the idea that the universe was a gigantic complex mechanism and that everything could be understood. At this point they did not know that the visible stars are part of a galaxy, or that it was one of approximately two trillion such galaxies, or that all the galaxies are flying apart at an accelerating rate. They were only just starting to get clues that matter could be divided and subdivided into very much smaller units.

The mechanistic universe followed predictable patterns and was governed by simple laws: F=ma, V=IR, 2H2+O2→2H2O and so on. French philosopher Auguste Comte envisaged an anthropocentric hierarchy of such laws. Physical laws would govern matter at the lowest scale and give rise to chemistry. Chemical laws would govern biology. Biological laws would govern the functions of minds, and laws of the mind would govern how societies function. This idea was taken up and developed by none other than J. S. Mill, hero of Liberalism and also one of the first generation of Emergentists. Mill was the first to describe matter as having emergent properties.

The idea here is that the world is governed by natural laws. And the key feature of such laws is that they don't require human intervention; they are universal, impersonal, and follow logical patterns that can be apprehended through the use of reason. Anyone can discover the natural laws for themselves, though in the myth only the elite had the required education and intelligence (women were still excluded from the elite). These laws became the new idols, and those who could discover them the new priests. The Copernican revolution was accompanied by a social revolution.

Many of the natural laws we take for granted were discovered by the classical liberals and their friends. The individual who could discern the law was at the heart of this new idolatry; he was Nietzsche's übermensch. Various threads of modernist thought exploited the new emerging dynamic giving rise to some new archetypes, or at least new manifestations of the what Nietzsche called Apollonian and Dionysian archetype. Most obviously "the scientist" discerns laws through observing nature and applying reason and logic; and "the artist" lives in contact with nature and discerns deeper truths through paying attention to their own subjectivity and through self-expression. Even the protestant plays the game, observing a personal relationship with god and allowing that to guide their actions. Of course, Luthor predates Hobbes by about 150 years, but arguably the loosening of the mental shackles imposed by the Catholic Church opened the way to other changes that loosened the shackles imposed by kings; and thus to the deposing of both.

We are not all as pessimistic as Hobbes. Still, being social animals, humans intuit that their lives must be governed by someone and many believe that they could be that person. Replacing the all powerful law givers with the idea of natural laws was a genuine breakthrough. Potentially, it shifted the power and authority to an abstract, but still natural, third party outside the group. In the early days, it seemed that natural laws would resolve all of our differences and conflicts. Heady stuff.

Of course this was hubris and it did not pan out as the Enlightenment figures hoped it would. There are limits to knowledge, some of which may turn out to be absolute. And the natural laws that might govern our lives, the social analogues of the formulas of physics and chemistry never really emerged. The increasing complexity inherent in the hierarchy of sciences meant that the Enlightenment project floundered and was eventually rejigged into modern science with its emphasis on uncertainty, and statistics, and our ongoing failure to understand quantum mechanics or to reconcile QM with relativity. The early promise of materialism faltered and it fell by the wayside.

What did happen was a swindle: the ideology of liberalism was passed off as a natural law.

With the classical liberal ideas of the individual (i.e. the individual, wealthy, educated, white man) as the chosen one of the new order and their individual liberty (from the oppression of the masses) as the sine qua non, came the emergence of a new form of morality, i.e., the Utilitarianism of J. S. Mill and Adam Smith. The pursuit of happiness was enshrined in the US constitution as a fundamental right, though it took some time until they abolish slavery and longer still to enfranchise women and the descendents of former slaves. Utilitarianism is framed in universal terms, but its founders still saw humanity in Hobbesian terms (i.e., in need of a good tyrant). In particular, the expansion of European imperialism shifted the narrative from a God-given right to rule over man and beast towards naturalistic arguments about survival of the fittest and the lack of fitness of some people to rule over themselves.

Rational Self-interest

If you hold individual liberty to be an inalienable right and also that there are almost no justifications for infringing that right (as did Locke and Mill), then there is really only one viable moral arbiter: each individual must decide for themselves how to behave. This is protestantism reductio ad absurdum. But when human nature is vicious, aggressive, and acquisitive something ought to stand in the way of one human simply killing another and taking their stuff.

The early liberals believed that men, and more especially educated white men like themselves, were in a position to rise above (Hobbesian) human nature through the use of reason and become their own moral arbiters. They partly did this by sending boys to private schools where education in the classics combined with beatings, humiliation, and peer pressure either shaped them into members of the elite or broke them. This is still the preferred route for the children of the elite, though methods have changed somewhat. Private school boys (and now girls) subtly learn that they are better than the masses and destined to be a limb of the modern polypod Leviathan, i.e., the State. Heads of the UK state are once again old Etonians as they were before social liberalism opened the door to common people like Margaret Thatcher.

As we have seen, the early liberals adhered to a view of reason as:
"a specific conscious mental process by which we apply logic to problems and arrive at knowledge of the truth, which then guides our decisions." (We Need to Talk About Reason)
If a citizen could be persuaded by reasoned arguments to follow some basically civilising prohibitions on barbaric behaviour (like murder and stealing), then there was really no need for anyone else to get involved. Lawful citizens ought to be free to go about their lawful business (the word "business" in this cliche is no accident). But this reveals another problem created by the destruction of the pre-modern idols. In religion there is a point to being obedient, i.e., salvation. If salvation is off the table, what is the motivation for being lawful?

In moving away from the lists of banned or taboo actions typical of religious morality, utilitarian liberals had a problem. What was the point of behaving yourself? Their fixation on the individual strictly limited the possible answers to this question. In the end, the best they could come up with was the lame idea that being good led to happiness.
“Happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge of all human conduct” (J. S. Mill. Utilitarianism, X: 237).

For any individual, a moral life will consist of maximising happy outcomes; while for a society, morality becomes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is known as the greatest happiness principle. It is just as banal as it sounds. I'm sure most people think happiness is important, even if we do not agree that it is the "sole end" of human action. The founding fathers of America placed the pursuit of happiness alongside life and liberty as fundamental rights that all men have. But what exactly is happiness? In general, and against the grain of millennia of religious thinking, utilitarians argued that happiness is pleasure.

You know you are in the twilight zone when people who argue that humans are rational and make rational decisions at the same time argue that the sole end of human activity is an emotion and that the promotion of an emotion is the test of whether our rational decisions have been a success.

Any fan of Star Trek (original series) can see this contradiction in the character of Commander Spock, who consistently denies having any emotions although, because he is half human, he sometimes does display emotions to his acute embarrassment. The obvious question is raised from time to time. Why does Spock show preferences at all? It is, he claims, because it is logical. But what kind of logic is he talking about? Deductive? Inductive? Abductive? How can these guide us to, say, a moral decision? Doesn't it all depend on what we believe in the first place. And as Michael Taft says, "a belief is an emotion about an idea." Of course the TV show plays on the contradictions in Spock. His colleagues are constantly catching him out expressing and relying on emotions and teasing him about it. At which point he always becomes visibly annoyed. Another emotion. Later Star Trek writers took the idea of an emotionless man ever further in the form of Commander Data (who was more obviously crippled by his lack of emotions). But let us return to the main theme of utilitarianism.

Jeremy Bentham stated the happiness = pleasure argument quite crudely but, starting with J. S. Mill, utilitarians have refined the idea. Mill, for example, argued that mere quantity of pleasure it stimulated could not account for the goodness of an action. Indeed, Bentham's theory sounds like a justification of hedonism rather than a moral doctrine. Mill introduced a dimension of the quality of pleasure, arguing that some pleasures are better than others. In a sense Mill was just reflecting the elitism of his day which allowed the refined hedonism of the ruling classes, but frowned on and repressed the simple pleasures of the working classes. This class discrimination persists in the UK despite the muddling of the classes. Middle class British people, especially, like to mock both the elite and the workers. They are our satirists, though they often seem to target (other) celebrities rather than politicians. They are educated enough to understand the exercise of power, but excluded from wielding it, and contemptuous of those who are compelled by it (including themselves).

In the manner of philosophers, some responded that if there is a distinction in the quality of the pleasure then it implies something other than pleasure is involved: some being for this other thing (whatever it was) and some being against it. And so on. Philosophers are trained to argue without any sense of needing to make a contribution to knowledge: the ultimate liberal art.

A central plank in the economic theory associated with classical liberalism, especially associated with Adam Smith and his interpreters, is that "markets" create an invisible hand that steers the economy. The market here is an abstraction from market places. The idea of the market is attractive because it is presented in the form of a natural law; one that can order our lives for us, maximising utility and thus happiness. Markets also ensure fairness (which is why Alan Greenspan was reluctant to prosecute white collar criminals in the finance industry).

Smith's idea of the market is based on a crude understanding of supply and demand, where supply and demand is presented as a "law" (it really is not a "law"). In this view humans only make rational, self-interested decisions; humans are motivated to maximise their utility (i.e. pleasure) through their participation in the economic system. In the myth of supply and demand, a producer responds to demand by making more or less of their product. The market informs the producer about the level of demand via the price that people are willing to pay. And knowing the price of a commodity is tacitly equated to sufficient knowledge to operate in the marketplace rationally. When the cost of production exceeds the price people are willing to pay, production will fall. None of which is true!

By the mid 1970s (at the latest) mathematicians had shown that supply and demand was not, and could not be, lawful in that simplistic sense. Supply and demand, even on the micro scale, does not work (the reasons for this are spelled out in detail in Steve Keen's book Debunking Economics). What is worse, in order to fit this micro idea to the macro economy, i.e. the economy of a state considered as a whole, economists have had to make a series of assumptions, each of which assumes that the previous assumption is true. A macro economy typically consists of thousands if not millions of producers and products, multiple levels of suppliers, and millions of consumers, and none of it following the idealised supply and demand law. In order to make the equations of macro-economics work, the economist assumes that an economy consists of one producer selling one product directly to one consumer.

Philosophy is Bunk

Let's cut short all this frivolous philosophising and call bullshit on utilitarianism. It might still dominate our society, but utilitarianism is not true. Not only have Buddhists been saying so for 2500 odd years but the Positive Psychology movement have confirmed it though empiricism: the pursuit of pleasure does not lead to happiness. And it is not hard to see why.

If I have one digestive biscuit with a cup of tea that is pleasant. A second biscuit may still be pleasurable, but if I keep eating at some point the same combination of texture and sweetness becomes unpleasant, no matter how much tea I wash it down with. It is quite possible to make oneself sick from eating too many biscuits: pleasure turns to nausea. Any addict will tell you that as you become accustomed to a certain level of stimulation it normalises. To get pleasure from it, you either need more of it or the same amount more often. As many experimental psychologists have attested, we rapidly become habituated to pleasurable sensations so that there is a diminishing return from the simple minded pursuit of pleasure. Even the more sophisticated hierarchies of pleasures are bunk.

But more than this, there is the existential truth that every experience ends, and usually quite quickly, because it is dependent on attention, and attention wanders. No matter how much you enjoy an orgasm, it is short lived and soon over and you are back to casting about for some other source of pleasure. The cessation of pleasure itself is unpleasant. If pleasure is happiness then no one can ever be truly happy.

It is difficult for a proponent of self-interest to formulate any coherent moral doctrine since morality is about how we treat other people. Anyone who treats other people only according to their own best interests would in practice be regarded as monstrous rather than moral. Societies very often shun selfish people. Morality is relational or it is meaningless. Even consequentialist or virtue ethics have to define what counts as good/bad in relation to some standard and that standard has to be relational.

Morality is Relational
Fortunately, we don't have to waste too much time on utilitarianism: the pursuit of pleasure makes us unhappy and the pursuit of self-interest makes both us and other people unhappy. At this point we could ask two questions: Firstly, is there a better definition of happiness that could rescue utilitarianism? Secondly, is there a better basis for morality. Ultimately, the answers these questions are "no" and "yes", but I think it's interesting to dwell on the first question a little and here Buddhism has a small contribution to make.

What makes us happy?

Assuming that a human being has food, water, and shelter, what makes us happy is the company of other humans (and some domesticated animals). This is far and away the most important facet of wellbeing. We are social animals and we are happy when we are securely embedded in our social group. In general, our well-being is promoted by sublimating our own needs to serve the group.

Primate social groups are not utopian, and especially they are not a socialist utopia. Primate groups are all hierarchical and all primate groups are violent compared to human groups. They are held together by empathy and a keen sense of reciprocity (including the fear of violent retribution), but there are also some individuals who are well liked, who form coalitions to dominate the group although usually in a narrow sense. An alpha male chimp has primacy when it comes to mating with receptive females, but not in much else. He's also expected to lead the charge against leopards, get involved in all intra-group conflicts (on the side of the weaker party), and has to spend much more of his time grooming other chimps than any member of the group.

Violence also plays a part in primate social hierarchies. Having members of the group who are big enough, strong enough, and aggressive enough to protect the group from predators like leopards, and who defend the territory in which they feed against neighbouring groups, requires social mechanisms to manage that capacity when it is not needed. And thus Frans de Waal has observed older male chimps intervening to prevent conflicts between others, defusing tension through physical contact and grooming. When things do get out of hand, the alpha male is often the one consoling the injured party and reintegrating them into the group. In Bonobos, females play the same role. Conflict cannot simply go on occuring because it breaks down the bonds that hold the group together and undermines the fitness of the group to survive.

So on one level what makes us happy is to be part of a healthy social group. Of course we are also individuals with individual goals. The anonymity afforded by living in groups of tens of thousands and even millions, gives us much more scope for individuality than living in a traditional village of ca. 150 people. We only share minimal mutual obligations with strangers and even if our actions are scrutinised there may be few consequences for transgressive behaviour compared to a more traditional small-scale setting. However, there is another answer to this question that we should consider.

Ego Dissolution

I cannot speak to this from personal experience, but there is a load of anecdote and an increasing amount of actual evidence that the experience of ego-dissolution opens up the possibility of a much deeper sense of satisfaction and well-being. Indian meditation techniques have been inducing ego-dissolution for millennia, as has the use of psychedelic drugs. Importantly, ego-dissolution is often accompanied by a greater sense of interconnectedness. It can be experienced, for example, as a weakening of the boundaries between one's body and the outside world; or as a sense of oneness; or of merging into a totality. How it is interpreted is partly determined by one's cultural conditioning.

Transcending the sense of being an individual seems to be a more satisfying state. Self-interest cannot have much meaning for someone who does not organise their experience around a sense of self.

There is an argument, still largely doctrinal, that it is the ego which seeks to take ownership of experience that causes unhappiness. Even a temporary experience of ego-dissolution opens up the possibility of being in the world without the grasping after experience that causes dissatisfaction. Ordinary experiences, not even pleasurable experiences, become more satisfying and effortlessly so.

However, it is doubtful whether ego dissolution is a realistic possibility for the general populace. The people having this shift in perception have always been a tiny minority.

The Angels of Our Nature

A new approach emerges from evolutionary perspectives on the ethology of social animals. I have written several long essays on this subject, beginning with The Evolution of Morality. This view argues that what we call morality is an emergent feature of the way social mammals, particularly social primates, live.

As Frans de Waal has noted, we share the same body plan and have all the same internal organs, including the endocrine system, as other mammals, so it would be weird if we did not experience the same emotions. Importantly, we seem to have at least two characteristics in common with other social mammals: the ability to experience empathy and a sense of reciprocity.

Empathy operates on many levels, the most basic of which is emotional contagion. When a monkey sees an approaching predators and gives a warning cry, the sound of the cry stimulates fear in the whole colony and sets them all in motion away from the threat. But at its most sophisticated level empathy allows us to use observations of the facial expressions, posture, and gestures of other group members to internally model—and thus experience—the internal states of other individuals. We do this with individuals that we interact with, but we can also understand interactions between other pairs or groups of individuals. We not only know the disposition of a given individual, but we know how they feel about different members of the group. This is vital for the functioning of the social group.

Reciprocity is the application of this ability to know the minds of the rest of our group to keeping track of the contributions the group have all made to each other. The levels of mutual grooming between individuals are important to chimps for example. If everyone sees Steve and Dave grooming each other a lot, then we can safely assume that the two of them will stick together in a fight. So if I want to pick a fight with Steve, I need to wait until Dave is otherwise engaged. But equally, if I'm angling to be alpha, then I know that if I groom one of the pair, the other might also join my coalition.

In my account of the evolutionary origins of morality, I argued that, far from being selfish, social mammals must err on the side of generosity. We can think of reciprocity as a network of feedback loops. I share with you and you share with me; I withhold from you and you withhold from me. If there is no bias towards generosity the second, negative feedback loop would quickly reduce cooperation to zero, whereas social mammals are highly prosocial and highly cooperative.

What's more, we also know from primate ethology and from anthropology that societies often punish selfishness. Jared Diamond recounts the story of a fisherman who one day decided that he wasn't going to share his catch. Not only did the community respond very negatively, he got a reputation for being stingy and this continued to affect him for a long time afterwards. Reputation with respect to meeting mutual obligations within a social group is very important. After all, we evolved to be prosocial in order to better survive.

This approach to morality comes under the heading deontology: it concerns right, duties, and obligations. Sometimes deontology is caricatured as "rule following", but this is an over-simplification. We can still think of morality in terms of consequences (as the utilitarians did) but we understand that desirable and undesirable consequences are relative to our mutual obligations. Similarly, this does not prevent us from seeing morality as a matter of virtues, as long as we understand a virtue is defined in terms of mutual obligations. Generosity is a common virtue, for example, and it is a virtue because it plays a vital role in creating and maintaining mutual obligations.

One might even argue that this view is also consistent with a particularist account of morality - i.e. one in which there are no moral rules and we take each situation as it comes. It is true of this deontological approach to morality that rules may not be easy to articulate or apply because our commitment to mutual obligation can vary from group member to group member. We tend to have one set of rules for family and another for more distant group members. In other primate groups, familial relations are also important, though like us one or other sex will often leave home at sexual maturity and join another community (male chimps and female bonobos).

Cities and Megacities

As I have already observed, the limitation of this account of morality as evolved and based on mutual obligation is that the bulk of human now live in urban settings in which we are surrounded by, and mainly interact with, strangers with who we may have little or no sense of mutual obligation. According to Robin Dunbar's research on social groups and neocortex-to-brain volume ratios there is a physical limit to how many relationships of mutual obligation we can keep track of. Chimps live in groups of 30 - 50 while, other things being equal, humans tend to live in groups of around 150. But we also form looser arrangements with ca 500, 1500, 5000, and so on.

In a group of up to 150 we have a pretty good idea of the overall structure of mutual obligations amongst the group: we know who are friends or enemies or lovers; who is related to whom and how; we know who to ask for help; and we know who is where in the social hierarchy. And so on. Beyond this we begin to take membership on trust. We rely more on external emblems of membership such as personal adornment; this allows us to expand our circle of trust that an individual will be likely to meet their obligation to us.

If I am from the large tribe who paint their faces with red ochre and I meet a stranger whose face is painted with red ochre I can assume that they will be likely to interpret mutual obligations in the same way that I do. I don't have to worry too much about a false flag operation, because we kill any outsider who attempts to adopt our emblems and we have subtle ways of assuring ourselves of the authenticity of membership (shibboleths). Mutual membership of a large tribe means we will probably speak the same language and have the same worldview. I can trust this person and make agreements with them with some assurance that they won't break the agreement. This is still a relatively small world. 

Beyond this, when dealing with strangers we don't automatically have a relationship of mutual obligations. One of the main functions of governments (of all stripes) is the enforcement of contracts between strangers. And this brings us back to the need for laws that govern our behaviour. We need laws to government behaviour but not because Hobbes was right and our natural state is war. Rather, we may say that, in social primates, mutual obligation is only strongly experienced within one's  social group at the 150 layer. 

In a modern state ,we grow up understanding that we have a mutual obligation to the state. We obey laws and pay our taxes and, in return, the state attempts to create an environment that is safe and stable, and the state provides certain services. Importantly, the state seeks to balance the rights and duties of players who have differing amounts of power to prevent the exploitation of the weak (this is the classic alpha-primate role): So the state legislates the rights and duties of buyer and seller, landlord and tenant, employer and employee, and so on. Each state may have a different take on these rights and duties and they may change over time, but the role is the same. 

Philosophers like to use the fact that laws and conventions vary in different societies and states to argue against seeing morality in a unified way. Arguments for moral relativism are not tenable when we look at the structure and function of laws. Yes, to some extent laws are arbitrary and changeable, but they always serve the same functions within the society. It is a classic case of emergent properties in which the higher level (human society) is constrained by not determined by the lower level (primate ethology). By analogy, just because there are many different types of boat, does not mean that boats don't float. 

However, we may say that, under utilitarianism as an expression of economic liberalism and mercantilism, the rights of the rich and powerful tend to be protected ahead of the poor and vulnerable. I am still sometimes shocked at the difference in presumptions in New Zealand where I grew up, and in the United Kingdom where I live. The presumption in favour of landlords and employers, for example, is much stronger in the UK. Although to be fair, under the influence of neoliberalism this balance shifted in my time in New Zealand as well.

One of the features of the modern world is that morality is linked to socio-economic status in the minds of the ruling classes. To be wealthy is held to indicate superior moral qualities and, on the contrary, to be poor or without work is to be considered morally inferior. These days accepting state assistance when out of work requires that one almost becomes a ward of the state. The state undertakes to oversee your redemption in the form of returning to productive work. And to do this it uses a mixture of rewards, punishments, and psychological "nudges", including a barrage of press releases from government departments on the moral qualities of those individuals who accept state help. This is social liberalism in operation: paternalistically trying to make you into an ideal individual. 


Utilitarianism is ubiquitous as a moral theory across the English-speaking world. And yet the assumptions behind it are demonstrably false, the goals of it known to be unreachable, and the methods it proposes do not lead to the stated goals. Utilitarianism was supposedly the Enlightenment rationalism contribution to moral theory but it turns out to be completely irrational.

It's not that at some point people abandoned irrational religion and dedicated their lives to rational pursuits. As we've seen, the classical notion of reason that the moral theorising of Bentham, Mill, and Smith was based on was a fantasy. Many intellectuals did abandon religion, and atheism is now the standard position for English speaking intelligentsia, but there is nothing rational about the beliefs that they now profess with respect to morality. This is nowhere more apparent than in a BBC radio 4 programme called The Moral Maze in which the same group of opinionated neoclassical liberal intellectuals argue with invited guests about the "morality" of some situation. Moral principles are never articulated, but utilitarianism is assumed through out. The panellists adopt a position of superiority to their (often expert) guests and devise arguments against everything that is said. No wonder morality becomes a maze for the rest of us.


One problem is that not all social rules are moral rules. As Sangharakshita pointed out many years ago, for example, most of the rules in the Theravāda Vinaya have no moral significance at all and are merely a matter of etiquette. In her book, Watching the English, anthropologist, Kate Fox, described the complex rules for queuing to buy a drink in an English pub. These are significantly different from queuing in other contexts. Generally speaking the English take queuing very seriously so doing it wrong can result in verbally expressed disapproval. Such mutually agreed rules of conduct—etiquette—both help to establish reasonable expectations and to identify strangers. One of the reasons we may be stressed by immigrants is that they don't--they have not internalised our etiquette (as an immigrant I still struggle with this and cause stress for the locals, sometimes with a certain amount of delight on my part).

Why do we separate out moral rules and etiquette? Well, largely because of religion. Moral rules are those which relate to soteriology. Since atheists have abandoned the notion of soteriology, why have we not abandoned discussion of morals? Why do some decisions have moral connotations and others not. Why, for example, does editing a child's genome using the CRISPR/Cas9 technology seem to be a moral issue, but using food to calm a child down (leading to obesity and the attendant health problems) not seem to be? One is a matter of public debate and the other a matter of personal choice. Again I think answers to such questions can be found in primate ethology. There seem to be rules of human conduct that are non-arbitrary and ubiquitous across human groups (such as killing a member of the group) some that are arbitrary and vary with limit. And I think the deciding factor is the effect on the overall health of the group.


The question, then, is whether there is any alternative to the moral maze created by treating liberalism in its various forms as a natural law and to utilitarianism as one expression of this. Or does this inevitably lead to objectionable moral relativism? I've hinted that I believe that primate ethology and a structuralist approach offer us some relief. In this view, despite the plethora of human societies each with its own rules, we can see the purpose of having such rules as being shared at some level of structure. As long as the rules accomplish the deeper purpose of binding the group and enabling cooperation it does not matter what form those rules take at a higher level of organisation. Indeed, to some extent the forms that human societies take are constrained by our underlying membership of the set of social primates. And these constraints have some objective basis, i.e. empathy and reciprocity. 

In my next essay in this "We need to talk about" series, I'm going to revisit this whole topic from the point of view of objective morality. It is often said that science cannot tell us how to behave, but I think this is now self-evidently inaccurate. Science, particularly the kind of Darwinian evolution articulated by Lynn Margulis, has been very influential on how I see morality, as has the primate ethology of Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal. Science disproves the validity of utilitarianism as a good basis for morality. Evolution and ethology have opened up a whole new way of thinking about what morality is, how we evolved to be moral, and what forms morality can or should take in human societies at different levels of organisation (as well as informing us as to the nature of those levels).


See also: Cooperation with high status individuals may increase one's own status https://phys.org/news/2019-08-cooperation-high-status-individuals.html

"The finding that status depends on cooperation provides insight into why human societies, particularly small-scale societies like the Tsimane, are relatively egalitarian compared to other primates," says von Rueden, joint lead author of the study. "Humans allocate status based on the benefits we can provide to others, often more than on the costs we can inflict. This is in part because humans evolved greater interdependence, relying on each other for learning skills, producing food, engaging in mutual defense and raising offspring."

26 July 2019

Inscription of the Prajñāpāramitā Epithets

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. On 17 July, 2019, I discovered by chance that the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Cambridge University) library had a copy of Buddhist Stone Sutras in China (Vol.1) edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose (2014). One of the inscriptions is a fragment of the Prajñāpāramitā epithets passage as a separate text, dated before 561. One can also see the information on the website Buddhist Stone Sutras in China.

This should interest anyone who studies the Heart Sutra because it shows that a version of the epithets was circulating separately by the mid 6th Century (about 100 years before the Heart Sutra was composed). 

The Epithets: Quick Recap

In my article ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra (2017) I expanded on a footnote in Jan Nattier's landmark article (1992). Footnote 54a was inserted at the last minute after the article had been typeset, in the days when typesetting meant adding numbers to footnotes manually. Nattier stopped the presses because her colleague Nobuyoshi Yamabe had written to her pointing out that a number of passages in Chinese Prajñāpāramitā texts closely parallel the epithets in the Heart Sutra. Nattier cites these with transliterations and translations and adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe.

In Epithets I took up the task of systematically identifying and studying these passages in both Sanskrit and Chinese Prajñāpātamitā texts. Since the passage occurs in the Shorter and Longer texts, and we have multiple recensions and translations this amounts to a fair few references. In finding and tabulating all of the references, I found that there were, in fact, just two: Passage One and Passage Two that recurred across the whole literature, always in the same chapter, though different recensions and versions number the chapters differently). In Kumārajīva's Large Sutra  translation the passages occur in Chapter 34 (= Chp 28 of Conze's translation, p.236 ff.). Minor differences in the two passages suggested that Passage Two was the likely source of the epithets in the Heart Sutra.

I also noticed that mantra was a mistranslation of what had originally been vidyā. The mistranslation seemed to revolve are around the use of 明呪 and/or 呪  to translate vidyā. In standard Middle Chinese, 呪 means "incantation" and in Buddhist contexts was frequently employed to translate dhāraṇī and later, mantra. Even so, in the mid 7th Century, the most obvious translation back into Sanskrit ought to have been dhāraṇī. Mantra was a very new concept at the time, with the first Tantric trained Buddhist, Atikūṭa, arriving in Chang'an only in 651. That the (Sanskrit) translator opted for Mantra is a tantalising hint about them, though not enough to draw hard conclusions from. There is no mantra in connection with any of the Sanskrit source texts. 

In any case, I showed that the passage in the Heart Sutra was originally found in Kumārajīva's translations of the Large Sutra and that the version in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a calque of the Chinese. The extant Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts phrase it very differently, as we can see when the key versions of the passage are placed alongside each other.And the Chinese texts are very similar. This is consistent with other passages copied from the Large Sutra and as predicted by Nattier's Chinese origins thesis. (You don't need to read these languages - just look at the patterns). 
Pañc:  mahavidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā | (Gilgit 146v)
KJ. T.223:  般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪。(8.286b28-c7:)
Xz T.220:  如是般若波羅蜜多是大神呪、是大明呪,是無上呪,是無等等呪,是一切呪王 (7.156.a17-22)
T.250:  故知般若波羅蜜  是大明呪,無上明呪,無等等明呪, (8.847c24-25)
T.251:  故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, (8.848c18-19)
Hṛd:  tasmāj jñātavyaṃ prajñāpramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro 'nuttaramantro 'samasamamantraḥ | (Conze 1967)
Note again that 呪 and 咒 are simple graphical variants with no difference in meaning or pronunciation. From these passages alone we can deduce that the passage in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra can only be a calque of T.251, in which Kumārajīva's basic text has been altered in  number of ways to be more like, but not identical to Xuanzang's text, including the switch from 明呪 to 呪, reading 明呪 as two characters, and addition of the epithet 神呪. Note that the CBETA punctuation is inconsistent.

The Shandong Inscription

The inscription published in the book by Wang and Ledderose is partial, but it holds enough clues to allow us to reconstruct the full inscription. The inscription was identified by Nobuyuki Takuma (2003) as being from the Small Perfection of Insight Sutra translated by Kumārajīva et. al. ca. 408 CE, i.e. the 《小品般若經》Xiǎopǐn bōrě jīng (T.227). Incidentally, Matthew Orsborn recently published an annotated translation of the first juan (about 2½ chapters) of this text.

The whole site has since been studied from an art history perspective by Ha Jungmin, whose PhD dissertation on the subject is available online courtesy of Duke University.

Entry on the Buddhist Stone Sutras in China website.


Mt. Sili 司里山 (Sīlì Shān) is one of many sites in Shandong Province (山東省) that feature Buddhist inscriptions and carving (Coordinates 36.011185, 116.124008)  The mountain was originally called Mt. Jiliang 脊梁山 (Mt. Backbone) or Mt. Liliang 立梁山 (Mt. Upright Ridge).

Mt. Sili is located between Lake Dongping (东平湖) 4km to the east and the Yellow River, which flows north about 6.3 km to the west. The peak is about 110 above the plain. On the peak is a large outcrop of rock in two parts (referred to as "boulders" in the art history literature).

The Inscription

The sutra texts are thought to have been engraved during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE) only to be destroyed when Buddhist figures were carved over them in the 11th Century. The south face of the eastern boulder is dominated by a seated Buddha that is 11 m in height (Ha 2016). 

After Wang and Ledderose (2014: 421)

A rubbing made of the remaining part of the inscription was taken in 1998. It gives us about 20 characters (with several partial characters).

Wang and Ledderose (2014: 424)

The rubbing now resides in the Shandong Stone Carving Art Museum in Jinan. The source text was identified by Takuma (2003) as being from Chapter 3 of the Xiǎopǐn by Kumārajīva. Below is the text laid out as it must have been (following Wang and Ledderose 2014: 422) with the surviving characters (some of which are partially obscured) in black and other characters in grey. Note the order here is standard Chinese: start at top right, work down.
三 呪 十 過 佛 羅 羅 羅 白
菩 得 方 去 言 蜜 蜜 蜜 佛
十 提 阿 現 諸 如 是 是 是 言
善 憍 耨 在 佛 是 無 無 大
道 尸 多 諸 未 如 等 上 明 尊
出 迦 羅 佛 來 是 等 呪 呪 般
現 因 三 亦 諸 憍 呪 般 般 若
於 是 藐 因 佛 尸 
[Indra, Lord of the Gods,] said this to the Buddha: "world honoured, the perfection of insight is great spell (vidyā), the perfection of insight is unsurpassed spell, is unequalled spell." The Buddha replied, "excellent, excellent, Kauśika... all past Buddhas... all future Buddhas... all present Buddhas of the ten directions, because of this spell, attain supreme perfect awakening. Kauśika, because of this spell, the tens modes of good action are now in the world..." (My translation)
This corresponds to Passage Two in Attwood (2017) which reinforces the conclusion that it was this passage, rather than Passage One that was copied into the Heart Sutra. And note that it conforms to the pattern of referring to the Buddhas of the three times that I note in Attwood (2018).

The Vedic god Indra plays a major role in early Buddhist tests as well as in the Prajñāpāramitā. In Buddhist texts Indra is typically referred to as "Śakra" in the 3rd person and "Kauśika" in the 2nd person. The expression 釋提桓因 corresponds to Śakro devānām indraḥ "Śakra, lord of the devas".

The text as it appears in the CBETA version of Taishō (T.227, Vol. 8) follows with the inscription text highlighted. We can see that the restored text is an abbreviation of the canonical text, where the redactor has mainly removed unnecessary repetition. However, leaving off the speaker at the beginning was a bit of a blunder.

543c04:三藐三菩提。 「憍尸迦!因是明呪,十善道出現於
We know that this is from the Xiǎopǐn because of the way the epithets are written.
T 224: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪
T 227: 般若波羅蜜是大明呪,般若波羅蜜是無上呪,般若波羅蜜是無等等呪
This configuration only appears in Passage Two of T 227. Note that 明呪 is abbreviated in the 2nd and 3rd epithets in the Xiǎopǐn. Kumārajīva was inconsistent in how he treated this passage in different places (unlike Xuanzang, who standardised it). In Passage One Kumārajīva translated 般若波羅蜜是大呪術、無上呪術。(Just two epithets and vidyā = 呪術). 

The different numbers of epithets may reflect differences in the source texts; however, three appears to be the standard configuration:

大明呪 = mahāvidyā
   無上明呪 = anuttarā vidyā 
   無等等明呪 = asamasamā vidyā

    The Date

    The sutra text is thought to date from the Northern Qi (550-577 CE) along with other carvings from that period at this site. There is no actual date on the epithets inscription. However, a votive carving of  Maitreya in a niche, about 20 cm in height, covers part of a nearby text and is clearly dated 561 CE. Thus the sutra carving here predates this and it is assumed that the sutra engravings are from the same period.

    The right top corner of Figure 5. Votive
    image and its inscription dated 561 CE
    The Northern Qi were one of several Chinese kingdoms at the time. The Qi were very open to Buddhism, but in 577 were conquered by the Northern Zhou who were hostile to Buddhism and persecuted Buddhists. A few years later the Zhou conquered South China and this led to the founding of a new pan-Chinese Sui Dynasty in 581. The Sui lasted only until 618, when the Tang Dynasty was founded by the Li family. The Tang continued till 907. The Heart Sutra was composed during the early Tang, between 656 and 661.


    Inscriptions of this kind are very common in China and, although there are some studies in Chinese, precious little of it has been available in English since Sinologists tend to be fluent in Chinese. Additionally, as with studies of the Fangchang inscriptions, the work is being done within the field of art history and not many Buddhists routinely keep up with this field. The silo mentality creates barriers to progress. Still the documentation in this series of books by Harrassowitz is welcome (other titles). The outsized format allows for large photographs. I'd be even more stoked if Buddhism Studies had not died out in Cambridge and there was some hope of seeing the other books in the series.

    The key thing about this inscription for scholars of the Heart Sutra, is that it shows that the epithets passage was circulating as an independent text by the middle of the 6th Century. Which helps to make sense of the incorporation of the passage in the Heart Sutra. That the inscription is taken from T.227 rather than T.223 (or T1509) does weaken the connection a little, but the differences are minor. The areas seems to have been associated with Prajñāpāramitā studies. 

    Despite the recent thesis by Ha Jungmin, we still don't really know much about the context of this site, since her focus is on other sites nearby. We do know that texts were carved and then later carved over with images. This suggests a change of emphasis, perhaps.

    Citing Robert F. Campany (1991: 28-72),  Ha (2016) explains,
    "the Perfection of Wisdom carvings at the Mt. Hongding and Mt. Sili sites were most likely regarded as talismans with magical powers that would ensure the enlightenment of Buddhahood to its creators."

    Vajrasamādhi Sūtra

    The other note that is contained in the commentary of Wang and Ledderose is that this same passage occurs in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra 《金剛三昧經》(T 273), a text that was composed in Chinese language, in Korea in about 685 CE. The history of it is outlined by Robert Buswell (1989).

    The epithets in the Vajrasamādhi Sūtra go
    當知是法即是摩訶般若波羅蜜,是大神呪、是大明呪、是無上呪、是無等等呪。(T 9.371b12-14)
    "It should be known that this Dharma is only the great perfection of great insight, which is a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell." 

    This is the version from the Heart Sutra (T.251) with the extra epithet, 大神呪. We know that the Heart Sutra was in existence by 661 CE. Although this does not tell us about the formation of the Heart Sutra, it does tell us that re-using sections of Buddhists texts was an ongoing process.

    We should never discount the role that serendipity plays in research nor that of physically browsing through libraries. I have unparalleled access to information from my desktop but there is no substitute for just walking around and picking up interesting books.



    Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). "‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155/180

    Attwood, Jayarava. (2018). "The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 15: 9-27.

    Buswell, Robert E. (1989), The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea: The 'Vajrasamadhi-Sutra', a Buddhist Apocryphon. Princeton University Press.

    Campany, Robert F. (1991) "Notes on the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sutra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14/1: 28–72.

    Ha, Jungmin (2016) Shaping Religious and Cultural Aspiration: Engraved Sutras in Southwestern Shandong Province from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE), China. PhD. Dissertation. Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Duke University. https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/12216/Ha_duke_0066D_13425.pdf

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

    Takuma, Nobuyuki 田熊信之 (2003). “Hokuchō Magai Kokukyō to Andōichi” 北朝摩崖刻經と安道壹, Gakuen 學苑 749: 131-158.

    Wang, Yongbo and Ledderose, Lothar. (2014) Buddhist Stone Sutras in China. (Vol.1) Shandong Sheng  = Shandong Province. edited by Wang Yongbo and Lothar Ledderose.Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz; Hangzhou : China Academy of Art Press, 2014.

    Notes: 17 Aug 2019

    The epithets are also found in the (Fó shuō) Guānfó sānmèi hǎi jīng 佛說觀佛三昧海經 (T 643). . According to my own research, the Guanfo sanmei hai jing (GSHJ) is very likely a Chinese apocryphal text. The GSHJ must have existed in the Chinese cultural area by the first half of the 5th century (see p. 425 of the attached paper). (Yamabe email 17 Aug 2019)

    Yamabe, N. (2006). "Could Turfan be the Birthplace of Visualization Sūtras?" In Tulufanxueyanjiu
    yanjiu, Dierjie Tulufanxue Guoji Xueshu Yantaohui lunwenji, ed. Xinjiang
    Tulufan Diqu Wenwuju, (419-430), Shangai: Shangai Cishu Chubanshe. 

    05 July 2019

    Svāhā in The Heart Sutra Dhāraṇī

    Jan Nattier showed that the Xīnjīng (T.251) is the original Heart Sutra. All my work on the text confirms this essential observation. It was composed as a digest text (抄經 chāo-jīng) in the period 645-661 CE. Given this, we expect the Chinese version of the text to be consistent with few variations. This is largely true except that the witnesses to the Xīnjīng contain a few character substitutions and other minor variants. Weirdly, the authoritative version of the Chinese Canon, the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō, has the least likely reading (and not the one that millions of people chant everyday). In this essay I will focus on a particular transliterated Sanskrit word in the dhāraṇī, i.e. svāhā. I will say a little about the Sanskrit word, but the main focus of this essay will be the plethora of Chinese forms of this word in the earliest witnesses to the text.


    The earliest commentaries are ambivalent about the dhāraṇī. In fact, Kūijī (T.1710) declines to comment on it. Woncheuk (T.1711) takes an oblique approach. He notes that the words of the dhāraṇī cannot be translated without losing their magical powers (鬼神). Then he notes that the dhāraṇī contains Buddhist Sanskrit words that can, in fact, be translated and translates them. For example: 揭諦言度度 "gate means: go beyond, go beyond" (33.551c21). The character 度 is used by Kumārajīva (and in the Heart Sutra) to translate samatikramati "go beyond, transcend" and related verbs. Another example is 後莎婆呵此云速疾。"Lastly, svāhā: it means quickly (速疾)" (551c24). This definition is echoed by 法藏 Fǎcáng in his commentary (T.1712).

    This turns out to be the standard approach for the dhāraṇī. The words that can be discerned and translated become the basis of various poetic riffs on one's beliefs about Buddhism. Each word becomes a cipher from which one can unpack Buddhist doctrines. The metaphor of crossing a river for transcendence is one of the most popular approaches to unpacking the word gate.

    Note that svāhā does not mean "quickly". It is usually analysed as related to the past perfect form of a defective verb √ah, the only surviving form of which is the 3rd person past perfect āha "was said". The first literary occurence of svāhā is in the Yajurveda where it is used to "activate" offerings. An offering to, say, Agni would be made while chanting, angaye svāhā "For Agni. It was well said". The expression has the same illocutionary force as amen in Christian prayers or hitting the <enter> key for computer programming. Svāhā is two syllables and just two akṣara (or characters) in Indian scripts, e.g. स्वा हा. Here  स्व (sva) uses the combining form of (sa) with (va), but the result is one akṣara. Note that the vowel a is inherent in the written akṣara, though for final consonants it can be deleted using the virāma, so that final -s is स्.  The long vowels are indicated by the extra vertical stroke.

    Also note that dhāraṇī were probably created in Prakrit or at best Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. The -e ending in a context that strongly implies the nominative case points us to this conclusion.

    Such poetic attempts at exegesis of the dhāraṇī have an ad hoc feel to them and seldom match up with other attempts. More so than with other aspects of the Heart Sutra, the dhāraṇī presents challenges to the would be exegete. We've some some way since D T Suzuki wrote:
    Dhāraṇī is a study by itself. In India where all kinds of what may be termed abnormalities in religious symbology are profusely thriving, Dhāraṇī has also attained a high degree of development..." - D T Suzuki. The lankavatara Sutra. p.223, n.1.
    However, I'm not sure we have yet found a positive way to understand the role of magic in Buddhism. Indeed, we seem to be in denial about the place of magic in pre-modern Buddhism, partly, no doubt, because of the outrageous suggestion that Buddhism is a "rational religion". In 2013, I blogged about dhāraṇī in general and about Ariel Glucklich's approach to magic (Why is there a Dhāraṇī in the Heart Sūtra?18 October 2013), which I think is quite a useful way of thinking about it. However, Glucklich remains quite unknown in Buddhism Studies, as far as I can tell, and no one seems to study Buddhist magic, though Jeffrey Kotyk and Bill Mak do study Buddhist astrology.

    I've previously blogged about why I call the Heart Sutra spell a dhāraṇī rather than a mantra (Heart Sutra Mantra. 30 August 2013) and published a refined version of the argument in 2017 (‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra), and about the -e ending. Because my thesis on this has not caught on, I want to quickly rehearse the argument that the "mantra" is a dhāraṇī before getting into transliterations of svāhā.

    vidyā → dhāraṇī → mantra

    The Chinese character 呪 (and the variant咒) means "incantation, spell, curse" and was adapted for a Buddhist context, where it meant dhāraṇī for a time, and then, when mantras were introduced to China in the mid-late 7th Century, it was used again for mantra. And this led to some confusion; crucially, the Heart Sutra spell was called a mantra when, in fact, it is a dhāraṇī.

    The section of the epithets was originally something like this 6th Century Sanskrit text:
    mahāvidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā (Gilgit Ms 146v: 12-13)
    Kumārajīva translated:
    世尊!般若波羅蜜是大明呪、無上明呪、無等等明呪。(T223, 8.286b28)
    Bhagavan, perfection of insight is a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, an unequalled spell.
    Note that vidyā is translated as 明呪. However, 200 years later, Xuanzang translates vidyā as 呪 and treats 明呪 as two separate words:
    如是般若波羅蜜多是大神呪、是大明呪,是無上呪,是無等等呪,是一切呪王 (T220-ii, 7.156.a17-22: fasc. 429)
    Comparing the original and the two translations...
    anuttarā vidyā無上明呪無上呪
    asamasamā vidyā無等等明呪無等等呪

    Xuanzang is famous for the accuracy of his translations, but here he has done us a disservice. Curiously, he adds two epithets of prajñāpāramitā that have no Sanskrit counterpart. Firstly, 神呪 is probably a synonym of 明呪 (vidyā). And secondly, 一切呪王, would probably correspond to sarvavidyārājñī "queen of all the spells", but this term is not found in Sanskrit in this context.

    In any case, the trend of treating 明呪 as two words, combined with the influence of Tantra, led to 呪 being translated into English as mantra. In 1863, twenty years before the appearance of a Sanskrit Heart Sutra in England, Rev. Samuel Beal was the first to translate the Heart Sutra into English. He translated 呪 as dhāraṇī, suggesting that his local informants and the Tang Dynasty commentary he was using both supported this reading.

    When translating a word like 呪 we have to pay careful attention to the context and especially the era in which the character was used, but also the context in which the source was composed. In this context it means dhāraṇī. In the major Prajñāpāramitā sūtras dhāraṇī is not a magic spell, but the ongoing effects of the insight (see Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation. 1 December 2017). Later, in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, it also refers to the Arapacana acrostic. And later still (by some centuries), it came to be associated with apotropaic magic spells consisting of standalone words, repeated and reiterated with different prefixes, and finished with svāhā. These are related in intention to the Pāli paritta texts.

    A mantra is ideally situated in the context of a Tantric ritual (with abhiṣekha, mudrā, and maṇḍala) and performs a function within that ritual (On the importance of context for tantra see Abe 1999). The function may be invoking a deity, or a quality (such as peace śānti), or one the magic rites of pacification (śāntikakarman), subjection (vaśyakarman), prospering (puṣṭikarman), or destruction (raudrakarman). A mantra usually begins and ends with magical symbols called bījākṣara or "seed syllables" such as hūṃ, hrīḥ, or dhīḥ; beginning always with the bījākṣara oṃ (not auṃ which is exclusively used in Hindu contexts).

    There are, of course, hybrid forms, such as the Tārā mantra oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā which has features of both dhāraṇī and mantra, but it comes from a distinctive Tantric context and performs the function of recollecting the name of the deity (nāmānusmṛti) or recollection of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti) within the context of a sādhana or ritual including mantra, mudrā, and maṇḍala (speech, body, and mind).

    The Heart Sutra is clearly not a Tantric text, though it was adopted as such and included into various sādhana during the Pala Era in India (8th – 12th Centuries). Oṃ was often added to the dhāraṇī in such contexts. In the case of the Xīnjīng we are not yet in the Tantric realm, though as we will see the dhāraṇī comes from a source translated by one of the first Tantrikas to arrive in China.

    The Xīnjīng Dhāraṇī

    The text of the section that includes the dhāraṇī as it appears in the printed Taishō Edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka is:
    Gù shuō bōrěbōluómìduō” zhòu Jí shuō zhòu yuē
    Therefore recite the Prajñāpāramitā dhāraṇī, that is to say the dhāraṇī that says:
    揭帝 揭帝 般羅揭帝 般羅僧揭帝 菩提 僧莎訶
    jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí sēng shāhē
    gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

    Note that Taishō does not punctuate the dhāraṇī but there are spaces between the words. Anyone familiar with this text will be struck by the last three characters. This is not what people who chant the Heart Sutra chant. What they chant is 薩婆訶 sà pó hē. A note in the Taishō tells us that in the Song, Yuan and Ming versions of the Tripiṭaka the dhāraṇī does end 薩婆訶 sà pó hē. We can now also say that the Fangshan Stele ends with 莎婆訶:
    揭諦 揭諦 般羅揭諦 般羅僧揭諦 菩提 莎婆訶 (my transcription)
    jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí shāpóhē
    I hope to publish an English language study of the Fangshan Stele very soon (2019). There is one other character variation in the Fangshan inscription dhāraṇī, i.e. 諦 for 帝, but the sound and tone are the same. This romanization sà pó hē  for svāhā makes good sense because the two sounds sà pó are intended to represent the consonant cluster svā. This is a standard technique when transliterating Sanskrit using Chinese characters.And the sounds would have been closer in medieval Chinese or Middle Chinese (MC).

    A whole Sanskrit Heart Sutra  is preserved in the Tripiṭaka as a Chinese transliteration (T.256. See The Other Heart Sutra). This text is now attributed to Amoghavajra and dated to the early 8th Century. We also have a manuscript of the same text, from the 8th Century, which has some minor variations. It was preserved at Dunhuang and is now held in the British library (manuscript no. Or.8210/S.5648). Note that this text is accompanied by a Chinese text, but the dhāraṇī is not translated. The dhāraṇī in T 256 is quite different from the standard Xīnjīng (T 251):
    誐諦 誐諦  播囉誐諦 播囉僧誐諦 冒地 娑嚩賀 
    édì édì bōluō'édì bōluōsēng'édì màode suōmóhè
    In T.256, svāhā is represented by 娑嚩賀 suō mó hè. Along with the first two characters is the annotation 二合引 "two characters together, long vowel) and with the last is 引 "long vowel". The Pinyin romanization looks off and we need to know that the Middle Chinese was something like sa-ba ha, where saba together represent svā. And this was a very common way of rendering svāhā in Tantric texts (see Jeffrey Kotyk's blog Reconstructing Sanskrit Mantras from Chinese).

    Of the two commentaries composed by Xuanzang's associates, Woncheuk's text has 莎婆呵 shā pó hē for svāhā (T. 1711. 33.551c10), while Kuījī's has 莎訶 shā hē (T. 1710. 33.542c8). Another early Tang dynasty commentary by 法藏 Fǎcáng (702 CE) has 薩婆訶 sà pó hē (T.1712. 33.555a6) which is the Fangshan/popular version.

    In which case what do we make of 僧莎訶 sēng shā hē as found in the Taishō version of T 251? It seems to me that the character 僧 occurs earlier in the dhāraṇī and could easily have been copied here by mistake (an "eye-skip" or haplography). Correcting this mistake would leave us with 莎訶 shā hē which might pass for a rendering of svāhā, which is what we find in Kuījī's text. More importantly, we also find this transcription in another text that we will meet shortly.

    To summarise, then, in the various early Witnesses of the Xīnjīng, svāhā in the dhāraṇī takes many forms (with Pinyin romanization).

    T.251僧莎訶sēng shā hē
    Popular薩婆訶sà pó hē
    Fangshan莎婆訶shā pó hē
    T.256娑嚩賀suō mó hè
    Woncheuk莎婆呵shā pó hē
    Kuījī莎訶shā hē

    I now want to introduce a text that was proposed by the late John McRae as a possible source of the dhāraṇī (1988: 107 n.10). [McRae was Jan Nattier's husband]  See Nattier 1992: 211 n 53 for other possible sources.


    The Indian bhikṣu, Atikūṭa, whose name we infer from the Chinese 瞿多 (Qú duō) or 阿地瞿多 (Ādìqúduō) was a contemporary of Xuánzàng. He arrived in Chang’an in 651 and was installed in 慈恩寺 Ci’en Monastery by the Emperor. This monastery is also closely associated with Xuánzàng, so it's quite possible that they knew each other. However, Xuanzang seems to have had little interest in the tantric side of Buddhism and was focussed on establishing his Fǎxiāng School (法相宗) of Yogācāra Buddhism.

    Atikūṭa translated a number of texts into Chinese, including some of the first Tantric texts (which had already started to arrive in China without the context of Tantric doctrines and practices (e.g. abhiṣekha, sādhana, mantra, mudrā, and maṇḍala). He may have conducted the first abhiṣekha ritual in China. In particular, we are interested in him because, in 654, he translated a text called the 《陀羅尼集經》 Dhāraṇīsamuccaya "Collection of Spells" (T 901). The text was translated at Huirisi 慧日寺 a monastery associated with the 三階教 "Teaching of Three Levels" movement that was proscribed in 600 CE, but favoured by Sui Wendi and later by Wu Zetian. In this text we find the very dhāraṇī that occurs in the Xīnjīng.

    Here is the relevant section, laid out horizontally, but preserving the lines in Taishō, Vol 18, p.807, register b, then arranged more naturally, followed by my very literal translation.
    [19] 般若大心陀羅尼第十六呪曰。
    [20] 跢姪他(一)揭帝揭帝(二)波羅揭帝(三)波囉僧揭
    [21] 帝(四)菩提(五)莎訶(六)
    [22] 是大心呪。用大心印。作諸壇處一切通用。
    [23] 般若小心陀羅尼呪曰。
    [24] 跢姪他(一)揭帝揭帝(二)波囉民(彌忍反)揭帝(三)波
    [25] 囉若(若冶反)他(四)莎訶(五)
    We can usefully arrange this into connected passages. I'm not sure that the numbers add anything, but let's leave them in for now.
    呪曰。跢姪他 (一) 揭帝揭帝 (二) 波羅揭帝 (三) 波囉僧揭帝 (四) 菩提 (五) 莎訶 (六)
    跢姪他 (一) 揭帝揭帝 (二) 波囉民 (彌忍反) 揭帝 (三) 波 囉若 (若冶反) 他 (四) 莎訶(五)
    Spell of the great mind of insight. (prajñā-mahāhṛdaya-dhāraṇī). (16th)
    The dhārāṇī says: tadyathā (1) gate gate (2) pāragate (3) pārasaṃgate (4) bodhi (5) svāhā (6)
    This is the spell of great heart. Employ the gesture of great heart. Make many magic circles empowering all on the same basis.
    Spell of the great mind of insight. (prajñā-cūla-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī).The dhāraṇī says: tadyathā (1) gate gate (2) pāramī (彌忍反) gate (3) paraya (若冶反) tā (4) svāhā (5)
    Use the mudra of the lesser mind on the same basis.

    Our focus has been on the Chinese rendering of svāhā. I noted that the canonical Heart Sutra has the problematic phrase: 僧莎訶 sēng shā hē. Now, in the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya we see that Atikūṭa transcribes svāhā as 莎訶, just as Kuījī's text does.

    Note also that if the dhārāṇī comes from the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya then it may have lent its name to the Xīnjīng. It is called 般若大心陀羅尼  Bōrě-dàxīn-tuóluóní = Prajñā-mahā-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī.


    The obvious question is, did Atikūṭa copy this dhāraṇī from the Heart Sutra or did the "author" of the Heart Sutra borrow from the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya? The Dhāraṇīsamuccaya does associate the dhāraṇī with a minimal context, in that it is associated with a mudrā and empowerment (adhiṣṭhāna).
    Employ the mahāhṛdaya-mudrā. Make many maṇḍalas empowering (adhiṣṭhāna) all on the same basis.
    The language used here suggests a tantric context, though, at best, it is partial. Looking at the Heart Sūtra we usually presume that the epithets section is what contextualises the dhārāṇī. As discussed above, I have shown that this is not the case and the epithets are not a reference to the dhāraṇī, which stands alone (decontextualised) in the Heart Sutra. This leads me towards seeing the Dhāraṇī-samuccaya as the immediate source of the dhāraṇī (though as a samuccaya or "anthology", it cannot be the original source).

    One thing to note is that the early Tang appears, from looking at the character changes here, to be a time of phonetic change. For example, Kumārajīva has 般若波羅蜜 (MC banya baramit) allowing the final consonant of 蜜 to carry the sound of , whereas Xuanzang opts for 般若波羅蜜多 (banya bara mitda) suggesting that the final consonant is on its way out already. It is completely absent in Mandarin: 蜜 mì.

    If we accept the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya as the source then we can make fairly straight-forward stemma diagram by looking for single character additions or substitutions. Note that this diagram indicates sequence rather than chronology. I will discuss chronology below.

    ↙                 ↘
    Woncheuk         popular 
    莎婆呵             薩婆訶  

    This gives us a neat explanation of the variant readings. The Dhāraṇīsamuccaya transcription 莎訶 shāhē (MC saha) is transmitted directly to the text used in Kuījī's commentary. At some point a scribe makes a (haplographic) mistake, adding an extraneous character from earlier in the dhāraṇī giving us 僧莎訶 sēngshāhē (MC seung saha). This version must circulate and is adopted as the preferred reading in the Taishō, but the editors note other editions consulted have the popular transcription. It's not the weirdest thing in the Taishō, but given how popular the text is and which version is chanted, one wonders why they adopted the defective reading for their main text.

    The Fangshan Stele, the oldest dated Heart Sutra (661 CE), has a three character transcription of svāhā, i.e. 莎婆訶 shāpóhē (MC sabaha). This was created by inserting 婆 (ba) between 莎 and 訶, to better represent svā. As noted, using two characters to represent Sanskrit conjuncts is common. 

    Woncheuk's text alters the final character: 訶 → 呵.  i.e. 莎婆呵 shāpóhē (MC sabaga or sabaxa). Again, this change may have been inspired by changes in Middle Chinese pronunciation.  The pronunciation of 呵 was probably already moving towards the modern pronunciation of . On the other hand, the initial 莎, which I conjectured was changed for the same reasons, remains in this version. We know that different regions experience different sound changes and different rates of change, so perhaps some of that is reflected here.

    The popular version of the Heart Sutra is created from the Fangshan version by substituting the initial character 莎 → 薩. This may be because the pronunciation of 莎 was moving from sa towards the modern shā and was starting to sound wrong. 

    Amoghavajra also wanted a three character transcription to better capture the consonant cluster svā and opts for 娑嚩賀 suō mó hè, which is an entirely new transcription.

    It would be interesting to see where the other character variations showed the same pattern (I may do some more on this).


    If we accept this explanation of the variants then we can narrow the window during which the Heart Sutra was composed to 654 – 661 CE. The terminus post quem is now defined by the translation of the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya in 654 and terminus ante quem is still the date on the Fangshan Stele, 13 March 661.

    These dates are at least not inconsistent with the earliest literary reference to the Xīnjīng. As I wrote a year ago:
    On the 5th day, 12th Month of Yǒnghuī 6 (永徽六年十二月五日) i.e., 6 January, 656, Xuánzàng sent a letter to the emperor celebrating the birth of a new prince the month before. He wrote in a letter: "I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case." (輒敢進金字《般若心經》一卷并函 T 50.272b.12). This piece of information is quite a big deal because this is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra with a precise date that I know of. It is five years before the earliest physical evidence (661 CE) and definitely before Xuánzàng began translating Prajñāpāramitā texts in ernest (660 CE). (Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography)
    The Taishō edition has added punctuation here, and it's quite likely before they got hold of it, the text read 金字般若心經, i.e. "gold-lettered Prajñā-hṛdaya-sūtra". The Biography by Huili and Yancong records Xuanzang translating a text called 金剛般若經 (i.e. Vajracchedikā Sūtra) for Taizong around the time he died (T 2053. 50.259a13-a28). And I note the graphical similarity to the name of the text we have just been discussing, i.e. 金字般若心經. Indeed, in the previous essay on my blog, I noted that in Chinese, vajra is translated as 金剛 (jīngāng), i.e. "gold hard" (not that gold is particularly hard).

    This might not be such an issue, except that we know that the Xīnjīng was a synthetic construction and that the Sanskrit text is a Chinese forgery. Thus, what appears to be a "gold-lettered Heart Sutra" could conceivably have originally been a reference to the Vajracchedikā.

    This sequence is, of course, conjectural. Occam's razor gets us to the most likely answer, not the truth. And we have to be careful about drawing further inferences. For example, we may think it likely that the Xīnjīng evolved in this way because each step only requires a single character change.

    僧莎訶 ← 莎訶 → 莎婆訶 → 莎婆呵 &  薩婆訶

    In addition, we associate the texts with various people or objects, e.g. Kuījī, Woncheuk, and the Fangshan Stele. We would be mistaken, however, to infer that Kuījī was commenting before the Fangshan Stele. The only inference we can draw is that the text he was commenting on predated the Fangshan Stele. Similarly, the fact that Woncheuk was commenting on a later iteration is not an indication of even the relative chronology of the commentaries.


    A forensic comparison of the Heart Sutra continues to unexpectedly throw up interesting and previously unknown data points which contribute to our understanding of the history of the text. Imagine what is lurking in our texts waiting to be discovered! 

    I think we can tentatively say that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is the likely source of the dhāraṇī. The fact that assuming this helps to explain the variant transcriptions of svāhā by linking them through single character changes is significant. A lot more painstaking work will be required to see if other variant readings. But if it's true, then we can say that the Heart Sutra was composed 654 – 661 CE.

    At this point we have a sequence of development, but not an absolute chronology. 



    Abé, Ryūichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

    Glucklich, Ariel. (1997). The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

    McRae, John R. (1988). "Ch'an Commentaries on the Heart Sûtra: Preliminary Inferences on the Permutation of Chinese Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 2: 87-115. Online: http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=19327107


    17.8.2019. 僧莎訶 is only found in T251 and a later text T 849 (a tantric text related to the Mahāvairocana cycle of texts). 
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