06 December 2021

"Authenticity" is Not a Useful Criterion

One of the complaints that we most often see in response to the Chinese origins thesis is that it sounds implausible, or as one senior Japanese academic recently said, it sounds "unnatural".

Underlying this attitude, I think, is the idea that the Chinese passively received Buddhism. They translated sutras into Chinese and never looked back. And this implies that authentic Chinese Buddhism cannot be wholly located in China. For example, even some Chinese Buddhists (at least amongst the elite monks of Chang'an and Luoyang) seem to have believed that authenticity was predicated on the ideas, attitudes, and practices coming from the West (meaning Greater India or Central Asia).

In reality however, many Chinese were not only literate but they were intellectuals, philosophers, historians, etc. Moreover, unlike Europeans, they were not yet slaves to technology. They made conscious decisions not to let technology take over their lives.

There is ample evidence that Chinese Buddhists began composing their own texts almost immediately. And why not? Indians had been doing so for some centuries, and continued to do so long after contact with China was established. We know, partly from Chinese translations, that Mahāyāna texts in particular were never finished. While there was life in Indian Buddhism, Buddhists constantly tinkered with their texts. The Prajñāpāramitā literature was no exception. Indeed one text in about 8000 lines was transformed into a series of much longer texts (ca 2 to 3 times more material was added in each case). And all continued to evolve over time.

I see no a priori reason why a Chinese person could not attain liberation and write about it. Or even imagine what it might be like and write about that. Or contribute a culturally appropriate version of the Pure Land, or any number of other possibilities.

Another common complaint is that there is no precedent for what we say happened to the Heart Sutra. In this vein one of the reviewers of my forthcoming articles has pointed me to two articles by (fellow Kiwi) Michael Radich.

Radich, Michael. "On the Sources, Style and Authorship of Chapters of the Synoptic Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra T 664 Ascribed to Paramārtha (Part1)." Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 17 (2014): 207-244.
———. "Tibetan Evidence for the Sources of Chapters of the Synoptic Suvarṇaprabhāsottama-sūtra T664 Ascribed to Paramārtha." Buddhist Studies Review 32 (2015): 245-270.

In these two papers, Radich explores the origins of four Chapters that were added to the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra (Suv or Golden Light Sutra). They are not found in the first translation but appear in the translation attributed to Paramārtha (now lost) and in a subsequent text that combines material from various sources, including Paramārtha's translation.

On examination, the added chapters appear to have been composed in China on the basis of existing Chinese translations.

As I read Radich this is not an example of the practice of chāo 抄 or extract-making despite being based on existing texts. Recall that the idea that the Heart Sutra is a chāo jīng 抄經 (digest text) is now fairly well established. Rather what seems to have happened with Suv is that someone, possibly Paramārtha, decided it needed something more and went about creating it in Chinese. Moreover, when the Tibetan sources are examined in detail, we find some supporting evidence for this conclusion.

This procedure is very much how Indian Buddhists composed their texts as well. The typical Buddhist text is modular: it is made from a combination of pre-existing elements, from lines and phrases to whole chapters. It was not uncommon for independently circulating smaller works to be absorbed into a larger work, e.g. the Avalokiteśvara chapter of the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra.

Another complaint is that there is very little evidence of Chinese texts being translated into Sanskrit. But it did happen. And one of the people most often associated with this is none other than Xuanzang. We can be fairly sure, for example, that Awakening Faith in Mahāyāna was a Chinese text, translated into Sanskrit, by Xuanzang.

By the mid-seventh century, i.e. around the time the Heart Sutra was composed, Chinese Buddhists were exposed to a number of co-existing literary traditions and cultures. At that time Chang'an was not only the largest city in the world but, because of the Silk Road, it was the most cosmopolitan. So the reception of Buddhism in China was vastly more complex than a simple interaction of Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism.

Chinese literary culture had been evolving for almost 2000 years by this time. And not only that but the fine arts were focussed on poetry and calligraphy. The idea that Chinese Buddhists would not compose their own texts looks less plausible to me than that they did. Of course they did.

Buddhism is not a revealed religion. Our texts are sacred but not sacrosanct. We change them when there is a need. And if all else fails we simply write new texts and we invent ways to authenticate them. A great deal can rest on the charisma of the individual.

Rather than thinking of Chinese Buddhism as a bodhi tree planted in the alluvial soils of the Yellow River, we should think of it as a recipe passed on through a series of friendly strangers who each adapted it to their local ingredients and tastes, to create a new dish with the same name. Culinary examples abound: pizza as served by places like Pizza Hut or Dominos is only loosely (theoretically even) connected to the traditional dish enjoyed by working people in Naples. Which is fine. It's not like I am or want to be Neapolitan. I happen to like grilled cheese on toast with a dash of tomato sauce. If I want pineapple with that, it's nobody's business but mine. To say that I can't call it pizza or that my cheese on toast is somehow inauthentic would be to miss the point. It's not like anyone calls humans and chimps inauthentic because they evolved to be different from their last common ancestor.

I recently happened to read about an idea attributed to Derek Parfit recently, although he apparently attributed it back to Buddhism. Which is this: continuity not identity over time is what matters. This is quite similar to my conclusion after reflecting on the Ship of Theseus conundrum. Identity (i.e. sameness) over time doesn't really exist because we change. But change does not preclude continuity.

If this is true, then it suggests that we have missed the point about the evolution of Buddhist texts in China, but also we have missed something important about the notion of authenticity in China.

I think we can say that for a Chinese person to consider a non-Chinese text authentic was actually a stretch. Keep in mind that some Chinese continued to see Buddhism as a foreign barbarian religion well beyond the time of Xuanzang. Authenticity in China was complex. Authentic Buddhist texts did have to have a connection with India, but it also required that the ideas be expressed in elegant Chinese. Once translated, the Indian manuscripts were seldom if ever consulted again. Initially, of course, there were no manuscripts since texts arrived in the memories of monks. But by the Tang, 100s or even 1000s of Indic and Central Asian (mostly Iranic) manuscripts were physically present in China. Few if any of them survive.

Chinese translators often consulted earlier translations when preparing new ones. But there is little evidence of going back to the source languages. Proficiency in Sanskrit was exceedingly rare then (and now).

In view of the dynamics of Chinese literary culture, it should not be surprising that Chinese Buddhists created their own texts. The argument about authenticity really gets us nowhere. The Heart Sutra is a Chinese text. We cannot reasonable say that it is not authentic simply because it was composed in Chinese. Even the fact that it is almost universally misunderstood, doesn't make that misunderstanding less authentic: on the contrary since the misunderstanding is virtually canonical, it is the correct reading that is viewed as inauthentic (sigh). People believed what they wanted to believe. That is interesting in and of itself. Asking open questions allows us to explore these beliefs and their implications. Asking binary questions about authenticity/inauthenticity tends to collapse any line of investigation.


29 November 2021

Notes on Nonduality

Today I'm typing up notes on duality and nonduality.

In Buddhist circles we tend to talk a lot about mind/body dualism. But this is a fairly new subject, introduced by Descartes. I think in the ancient world we have to think more in terms of a matter-spirit duality. And in this view body is animated matter, literally matter than has had life breathed into it. We call this kind of philosophy vitalism.

Words for the vital force that makes a living thing living across cultures tend to mean "breath" (including prāṇa, qi, spirit, animate, psyche, etc). The vital force across the ancient world, then, is breath, not mind.

This is yet another case of having to be careful not to project our modern worldview backwards in time. Mind/body was not a thing for early Buddhists, at least not a metaphysical thing. On the other hand they made an epistemic distinction between suffering that is mainly physical (kāyika) and mainly mental (cetasika). We too make this kind of distinction. A stubbed toe and a broken heart both involve real suffering, but they clearly have different sources. But this is an epistemic distinction, since it is entirely reliant on different sources of knowledge. 

 A while back I suggested that we never find the cognitive metaphor "mind is a container" in Buddhist texts. That is to say, Buddhists don't seem to have considered that thoughts happen "in the mind" or that the mind is a kind of "theatre of experience". Rather thoughts are the mind. Not too long ago I was writing about the fact that there is no word corresponding to the category of "emotion". Early Buddhists had many words for emotions, but they did not class them separately from thoughts, feelings, valence, or memories. I also noted that for early Buddhists memories were not entities. There is no noun that corresponds to "a memory" despite the fact that Sanskrit has multiple verbs that can mean remembering. We tend to use a Freudian concept of "a memory". These Freudian entities have a will of their own. We can try to repress a memory, but then it subconsciously affects our behaviour.

Our familiar way of carving up the world does not easily map onto early Buddhist thought. Or Prajñāpāramitā thought for that matter.

In Chapter two of Sarah Mattice's book Exploring the Heart Sutra she looks at Chinese translation techniques. She gives a useful overview of the history of Chinese Buddhist translations touching on some of the famous figures of the past, but also some modern thinkers. Unusually, Mattice is trying to help us understand how a Chinese person might understand the text. A simple example of this is the translation of kōng 空. We are used to translating this from a sectarian Madhyamaka point of view. We say "It means 'emptiness'.". Mattice shows that in translating the Heart Sutra from Chinese, it makes more sense to read it as "emptying".

Now, my orientation to this material is still not that of a Chinese-speaker. I still find myself in the old paradigm of thinking about the Heart Sutra as a Sanskrit text. There is a rationale to support this. Because the Heart Sutra is largely (though of course not entirely) passages copied from a 5th century Chinese translation of an earlier Sanskrit text, with some editing by a 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk (probably Xuanzang). So when I translate the Heart Sutra I have in mind the Indic origins of the ideas. However, I have always wondered how a Chinese-speaker would relate to the text without any of this background in Sanskrit or Indic thought. And I think this is what Mattice shows us in Chp 2. She translates the text while mentally inhabiting the mind of a Chinese speaker in the ancient world.

That said, my main audience is living Buddhists. I'm trying to make sense of the text for living, largely Anglophone Buddhists. The ideas in the Heart Sutra are repackaged fragments of Indian Buddhism that I think are best made sense today in the light of the Sanskrit (or even Gāndhārī) Prajñāpāramitā literature. I suppose I must state the obvious and say that there are many possible ways to approach this text. And they lead to different approaches to conveying the ideas in English. Back in 1980, Paul Griffiths (who coined the term Buddhist Hybrid English) suggested that translation can be an inferior way of doing this. It might be better to compose a detailed study of the text.

For historians Mattice's translation highlights many important issues and problems related to the art of translation. But I would likely point practising Buddhists in another direction (in the direction I'm trying to go), without in any way wanting to diminish Mattice's achievement. 


Exploring the Heart Sutra.
Mattice, Sarah A.
Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021. 

23 November 2021


I'm writing up notes on the skandhas, which is a difficult task. I wrote four long essays on skandhas, comparing the two accounts found in Sue Hamilton's book and another from the same year by Tilmann Vetter. Both authors identified every occurrence of the skandhas in the Pāli suttas (though Vetter added references from the Vināya). As I was writing those essays I came to see some rather major problems with the approach they adopted. It was so disheartening that I stopped before covering viññāna.

Both Hamilton and Vetter placed too much emphasis on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79). This is perhaps understandable since it is the only sutta with anything like an explanation.
In the Khajjanīya Sutta we see a broken pattern of punning: each skandha is related back to an activity, usually a verb from the same root. So for example vedanā can be understood to do the action of vedayati "making known".

I didn't use rūpa as my example because the has pun gone wrong here. The word rūpa doesn't have a known verbal root. But the author of the Khajjanīya Sutta proposed that it is related to √rup "harm, destroy". The 3rd person singular indicative is ruppati. In Aṣṭa we find the same pericope, but rather than ruppati, we find rūpayati.

The verb rūpayati is one of those words that narrow-minded pedants love to hate, i.e. a denominative verb. The sutta apparently meant to say "it is called appearance (rūpa) because it appears (rūpayati)". And this pun was mixed up in Pāli destroying the connection.
Not only does the Khajjanīya Sutta get rūpa wrong, the idea that vedanā does the action of vedayati is suspect. Because Buddhists don't use this word in anything like it's etymological sense. Vedanā means something like, "the positive and negative hedonic qualities of sensory experience" (sukha-dukkha-asukhamadukkha). This is not what vedayati denotes or connotes. This meaning has been imposed on the word by Buddhists, it doesn't emerge from the etymology.
This also creates a translation problem. We see translators arguing over whether to use "feelings" or "sensations". But neither of these English words conveys "the positive and negative hedonic qualities of sensory experience".
Interestingly neuroscientists do use this concept of the "the positive and negative hedonic qualities of sensory experience", which they refer to as valance. This has yet to find it's way into popular usage.

The longer I went on working through these two secondary works and reading the primary texts they cited, the less convincing I found both accounts.

Sense can be made of the skandhas. Religious friends of mine have no problem doing skandha meditations. The approach they take is very similar to both the satipaṭṭhāna method and the mahābhūta or four/six element meditations. One settles in, then examines one's experience for a dhammabhūta, or dhātu from the list and works through the list.
The basic Buddhist approaches to meditation are found in the 37 Bodhipakkhiyādhammā. That is to say, the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna), the four right efforts (sammappadhānā), four powers (iddhipādā), five faculties (indriya), five strengths (bala), seven factors of awakening (bojjhanga).

Mahāyāna texts extend this list. Notably Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā uses an extended list to make a point that is vital to understanding the Heart Sutra. In Chapter 16 (of Conze's translation, i.e. Kimura I-2, 75 ff), we get more answers to the question asked at the beginning of the previous chapter, i.e. "Bhagavan, what is the great-vehicle of the great enlightened ones" (katamad bhagavan bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya mahāyānam? Kimura PvsP1-2: 58).

The answer, here, is that the Mahāyāna is precisely the extended list of Bodhipakkhiyādhammā, but with a twist. Each step is spelled out entirely normatively, ... but then qualified at the end by "and that by the yoga of nonapprehension" (taccānupalambhayogena). In other words there are no new practices involved, but one does the same practices as everyone else in the spirit of nonapprehension.
Now, Matt Orsborn has shown that this term anupalmabhyogena in the Large Sutra was translated by Kumārajīva as yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故. And we find this Chinese phrase in the Xīn jīng, after the negated lists in the core section. And this gives us two important pieces of information.
1. anupalambhayogena qualifies the preceding list of negations. That is to say that the core section of the Heart Sutra says "In the absence of sensory experience... there is no form... through the yoga of nonapprehension." And this is clearly not a metaphysical statement but an epistemic or phenomenological one.

2. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra has an unexpected aprāptitvāt at this point. And this can only be an incorrect translation of the Chinese term (slam dunk proof that the Heart Sutra is Chinese). This error could easily be made by a naive translator since the immediately preceding word is wú dé 無得, i.e. aprāpti "nonattainment". The translator saw the same term in the next (five character) word and assumed it meant the same thing. They didn't notice that Kumārajīva was using suǒdé 所得 to translate words from upa√labh (i.e. upalabhate "to apprehend", upalambha "apprehension").
There is clearly both a great deal of unexplored continuity here as well as some underplayed points of difference. But we can at least understand that Guānyīn is doing a skandha meditation in the Heart Sutra, i.e. an analytic meditation which resolves sensory experience into constituents to reveal the nature of experience as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and insubstantial (the opposite of the Vedic trio of "being, consciousness, and bliss" or saccidānada).
Moreover, Guānyīn is doing it Mahāyāna-style, i.e. using the yoga of nonapprehension. Many of us have now noticed that we have instruction for something that looks exactly like what we'd expect of this type of meditation in the Cūlasuññata Sutta (MN 121). This is not an analytic approach, but uses concentration techniques--primarily inattention to the senses (amanasikāra)--to cause sensory experience to become attenuated and then vanish, leaving the meditator in the the state of absence of sensory experience (suññatāvihāra). If this is not precisely anupalambhyoga, then it must be something very like it.
What Pañc seems to be saying is that anupalambhayogena is the key idea here. This seems not to be reflected in Aṣṭasāhasrikā where the term is used much less frequently, even though the sentiment it engenders is everywhere in the use of epistemic verbs like finding (vindate), perceiving (samanupaśyati), and apprehending (upalabhate) applied (negatively) to dharmas. It is axiomatic that in the state of absence of sensory experience, there are no dharmas arising or ceasing. And in Prajñāpāramitā, at least, this absence is not reified (I argue that it is reified by Nāgārjuna).

So even the analytical meditations of earlier Buddhism become, in the Prajñāpāramitā milieu, ways of bringing sensory experience to a halt and finding oneself in the state of absence [of sensory experience]. One cannot think at all in that state, let alone thinking in analytic terms, but the process of getting to absence does involve paying attention to what is currently present (asuññā) or absent (suññā).

So we not only have to try to understand skandhas generally (which is difficult because of the lack of clear sources), and we have to try to understand them in the highly changeable Indian Prajñāpāramitā milieu spanning several centuries, and we have to try to understand what they meant in Tang China. I can cover the first two, but a proper Sinologist needs to look into the last one (maybe they already have?)

There is so much basic research left to do that it is embarrassing. But it is not being done. One reason is that Conze poisoned the well and his acolytes accept the view that "water is poison". Another is that no one is allowed to say anything new about Buddhism in academia these days. But anyone could have done what we have done to date to repair this mischief. We're still taking the low-hanging fruit left by the School of Highly Irrational Interpretations of Texts. 

17 September 2021

Hostility To Change In Buddhist Studies (And Elsewhere).

There is a story in Adam Becker's book What Is Real? part of which he admits might be apocryphal, but which nevertheless accurately conveys the social dynamic in physics in the 1950s. It is true that in 1952, Max Dresden gave a lecture on the work of David Bohm to an audience of physics luminaries at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. Dresden himself would have been happy to ignore Bohm, but his students pestered him to read Bohm's paper outlining an alternative approach to quantum mechanics. Bohm's idea is that the quantum world is literally particles and waves combined: with the particle carrying the physical properties and the wave guiding the motion of the particle (the idea is also known as a pilot wave theory). The interesting thing about this, as Becker relates, is that "Bohm's theory was mathematically equivalent to 'normal' quantum physics" (90).

What Bohm showed was that the Schrödinger equation was consistent with at least two different and mutually exclusive descriptions of physical reality. But there can be only one reality. Other descriptions of physical realities consistent with the Schrödinger equation soon followed, but Bohm's was the first alternative to emerge. The Copenhagen supremacy was dead at that point. But it has not been replaced in university textbooks because, despite many alternative proposals, none of them is known to be the right one. In the absence of a good model, students are taught the bad one that is most familiar.

Bohm had previously done highly regarded work at Princeton. In 1952, Bohm was out of the mainstream and living in exile in Brazil because of problems with the US State Dept arising from his left-wing politics (it was the McCarthy era). Dresden finished his presentation (including the maths) and the floor was opened to questions. He was expecting some push back from the audience about this but was unprepared for the wave of vitriol that washed over him. As Becker recounts it:

"One person called Bohm a 'public nuisance'. Another called him a traitor, still another said he was a Trotskyite. As for Bohm's ideas, they were dismissed as mere 'juvenile deviationism', and several people implied that Dresden himself was at fault as a physicist to have take Bohm seriously. Finally, Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Institute spoke up.... "if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him." (90, My emphasis)
"if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him."—Oppenheimer (allegedly)

In his 1980 book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm suggested that "the scientific way of thinking is stereotypically stubborn" (3). Another physicist, Max Planck, lent credence to this supposition when, frustrated with the lack of progress in quantum theory he quipped "science proceeds one funeral at a time". This turns out to be a paraphrase of something more subtle that he wrote in his 1949 "Scientific Autobiography":

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. . . . An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth." (1950: 33, 97)

Of course, to be fair to physics, Planck's ideas were widely accepted by the time he wrote this and many of them bear his name, e.g. Planck's constant. Still, Planck and Bohm were not alone in thinking this way. A decade later, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn wrote:

"Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change… " (90).

I take the message here to be that only people not invested in the status quo are flexible enough to change it. And we can note that it is intuitively the case not only in science, but in every aspect of life. The use of "men" to mean "people" is a paradigm that has changed in my lifetime because a generation of women forced us to rethink gender. And rightly so. Science is no longer dominated by men by virtue of their gender roles in society. Women make excellent scientists and scholars.

Speaking of women in science, Professor Katalin Karikó, has recently been reported in a UK newspaper as saying

“If so many people who are in a certain field would come together in a room and forget their names, their egos, their titles, and just think, they would come up with so many solutions for so many things, but all these titles and whatever get in the way,” (emphasis added)

Karikó, now a senior vice-president for RNA protein replacement therapies at BioNTech in Germany, "endured decades of scepticism over her work and was demoted and finally kicked out of her lab while developing the technology that made the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines possible" (my emphasis).

Interestingly Karikó says that the adversarial competitiveness disappeared when she moved from academia to industry, where all that counts is an efficacious product. Still, if academic science proceeds one funeral at the time, industrial science makes progress only on what is profitable for shareholders.

I cite these examples to show that intellectual discourse can be and frequently is reluctant to change, and that even at the heart of academic physics, politics play a role. There is a general resistance to new ideas whoever proposes them and however they do it, even in the hardest of "hard sciences". However, and this is especially true in Buddhist Studies, this is not a healthy scepticism so much as it is dogmatism and/or egotism. When our title, job, role in society, and our very identity are bound up with a particular story, we don't want to know that the story is inaccurate. This is hardly rocket science. Economists call this the sunk cost fallacy. This is when we stay to the end of a bad movie because the tickets were expensive and we want to "get our money's worth". Sometimes known as throwing good money after bad.

But it is not just resistance to the innovative. There is another, darker aspect to the Buddhist Studies culture. Quite a number of Buddhists Studies academics are mean. I have some public examples to discuss, but I also have many comments sent to me in private and in confidence that confirm this. Many people tell me I'm better off out of it.


Meanness is endemic in Buddhist Studies. And it mainly seems to involve men being egotistical and treating Buddhist Studies as a zero-sum game. Charles Prebish observed that when he was an early career academic:

“I was convinced that Buddhist Studies, as it was developing in North America, was misguided. In the first place, most of the role models for this blooming discipline: Edward Conze, Leon Hurvitz, Alex Wayman, and a few others, were amongst the meanest individuals in academe [sic]... they seemed to take real delight in humiliating students rather than encouraging them.” (Prebish 2019, cited in Attwood 2020).

Despite a few difficult encounters over the years, I took this to be relatively contained in the past, but in 2020 two women in Buddhist Studies posted a video chat posted to YouTube, titled It's Not Rigor, It's hazing. In the discussion they related how different male colleagues had deliberately humiliated them at separate public events. I found the link via Twitter account and it is interesting to see that several other women has similar experiences. For example, Stephanie Balkwill tweeted: "What got me was that every[one] else saw it that way at the time and did nothing, continuing to work with the person. I have subsequently learned that this behavior is habitual by him and evidently everybody knows it.";

Note, this is not online trolling, This is in real life, in person, in public, in your face trolling. As I say, I have many examples of this that I can't use without breaking confidences. Watching this video made me rethink some other encounters I'd had.

It's notable that neither woman in the video named names. Nor does anyone name names in public. Even though it's an open secret and "everybody knows it", nobody talks about it in the open. I presume this is because the bullies are still in their academic posts, still on hiring and promotion committees, still the editors of journals. If you want a career in academia, you can't join the #metoo movement. Power is the ability to silence your victims. I'm not saying Dan Lusthaus is Harvey Weinstein, but he does bully with impunity.

Anecdotally, I hear that a lot of early career scholars are abandoning traditional Buddhist Studies centred on philology, and are being attracted to other disciplines. Women especially seem to be branching out into Women's Studies, Gender Studies, and Queer Studies, although applying the ideas and practices of these other disciplines to studying Buddhism. They often study contemporary Buddhism, thereby avoiding any confrontation with the traditional angry male philologist. Choosing to be based in another field entirely, seemingly, provides a more conducive and supportive environment for doing research.

I want to make it clear that within Buddhist Studies my experience has been mixed. I am grateful to a number of generous peers and mentors who have enabled me to publish around 20 articles on various topics in various scholarly journals. There are many good people in this field; people who are happy to hear from a serious outsider asking for advice or for a copy of an article. I try to thank them in notes, but I doubt I've conveyed just how much help and assistance and encouragement I've received over the years.

Nonetheless, in early Sept 2021, Dan Lusthaus was busy trying to publicly humiliate me because we disagreed over an interpretation of some facts regarding mantra and dhāraṇī. Here is his last comment on this issue:

"Yes, we've all come to understand that your supporting evidence is your own theories, not the actual texts and what they say. And when the texts indicate something other than what fits your theory, you misread them."

NOTE: 5 Nov, Silk has deleted the discussion in which this comment was made. I'm not sure it can ever be recovered. The comment above was copied and pasted in early Sept 2021. 

By the way, if this is true, what does it say about the many Buddhist Studies academics who have read my articles and recommended them for publication and published them? When you pick up shit to fling at someone else, you end up with shit on your hands, Dan.

Although Lusthaus may well sincerely believe his mean-spirited remark, it is clearly is false. My friends in academia not only assure me of this, but they also say that this bad behaviour is typical for Lusthaus (sound familiar?). I am playing the game of scholarship to the best of my ability and I have published ten articles on the Heart Sutra in scholarly journals offering expert peer-review. Each article has persuaded an editor and at least one reviewer (supposedly an expert in the field) that the article should be read by other academics and considered on its merits. I have no leverage over these people and they have no obligation to publish my work if it is substandard, and they are not shy about saying so, especially in anonymous reviews. And of course, many anonymous reviews are extremely mean.

It's hard to say what Lusthaus gets from being mean to me. Lusthaus has tried to bully me several times in the past. I've encountered him a few times over 25 years, mostly in the annals of the listserv Buddha-L which he now runs. I've seen him do this to numerous other people. The fact that Lusthaus is a bully is widely known in the field. Because of this, one friend in academia urged me, privately, to "not take him seriously". In my experience ignoring bullies does not stop the bullying. And having someone go out of their way to try to publicly humiliate you is tiresome and counterproductive, even if everyone knows he's a bully.

I can sort of understand some academics circling the wagons to exclude me—a self-taught amateur—but the same people have been doing this to Jan Nattier—a consummate professional scholar and educator—for thirty years. Nattier's 1992 proposal that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is a new paradigm and casts doubt on much that has been said about this and other Prajñāpāramitā texts. Moreover the close reading of the text that follows in Huifeng (2014) and in my many articles, shows that Nattier was exactly right and that we really do need a new paradigm for understanding the Heart Sutra and for Prajñāpāramitā.

Lusthaus published some comments in 2003 that he asserted undermined Nattier's thesis but I showed that Lusthaus was merely deducing his axioms. This is the process by which a series of logical deductions will eventually reproduce your starting assumptions as valid conclusions. When we assume that the Heart Sutra was composed in Sanskrit, i.e. if this proposition is treated as axiomatic, and then apply deductive reasoning to the early Chinese commentaries, after a few deductive steps, we can conclude that the Heart Sutra was composed in Sanskrit and it looks like the conclusion is inferred only from reading the commentaries. In fact, the deduction doesn't come from the commentaries, it comes from the axiom itself. All deductive reasoning is subject to this limitation. I refuted Lusthaus's assertions in print in my Pacific World article: "The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest", showing that his reading of the text and his logic were flawed. So maybe he's still mad about this. I've known other male Buddhist Studies academics hold a grudge in this same way.

I certainly have many limitations, as a scholar and as a person. I'm keenly aware of this. But I carefully try to work within my limits and one or two friendly academics read every article before I submit them. Every statement I've made is the result of a careful analysis, checked and rechecked by me and several other knowledgeable people. It's backed by textual evidence and by previous scholarship (where possible). Not only is everything I have said in my articles testable, but it's clear what kind of evidence would refute it. No one has presented that kind of evidence yet. As soon as they do, I will certainly change my tune. Unfortunately, arguing can be trumped by shunning... "if we cannot disprove Jayarava, then we must agree to ignore him."

As a scholar with no formal "training" (see the video mentioned above for comments on this term) there is nothing special or clever about what I do. I see myself as feasting on the ample low-hanging fruits that others have ignored. Mostly, I'm just stating the obvious in ridiculous amounts of detail. One of my best articles (Epithets 2017) was a more organised and complete version of one of Jan Nattier's footnotes which explores some ideas proposed by Yamabe Nobuyoshi (1992 fn 54a). I checked with Nattier and Yamabe before publishing this refinement of their idea. And I'm happy to be doing this scut work. Honestly, I'm honoured to be tidying up after Jan Nattier, she is an inspiration to me. I never set out to change the world. I only set out to read the Heart Sutra. It's not my fault if the existing scholarship has missed the blindingly obvious. I'm just the messenger. I was as surprised as everyone else that no one had seen what I see. Now I can't unsee it and I have been attempting to communicate it. Ten articles later, there are still low hanging fruit that no one can see because they refuse to acknowledge that fruit even exist. Ironically, the deliberate withholding of attention is central to understanding Prajñāpāramitā (my interpretation of Huifeng 2014).

This meanness and use of public humiliation is not new to me. Indeed this has been a feature of my life. People use coercion and manipulation in attempts to control or negate other people all the time. It's a kind of sickness for a social primate, but in my experience (across cultures) this is the norm in life. Buddhism does not escape it (as we have learned to our great cost in the West) and Buddhist studies is mired in it. Bullying and shunning are commonplace.

Studying the Heart Sutra

I never even wanted to study the Heart Sutra. I'm still not that interested in it. But I had the opportunity to audit Sanskrit classes at Cambridge University with Vincenzo Vergiani and Eivind Kahrs (who was appointed to K. R. Norman's post when he retired). This was before Cambridge University finally killed off Indology and ancient Indian languages. I read Sanskrit in 2012 because they no longer offered Pāli and everyone told me (rightly) that knowing Sanskrit would improve my Pāli. As well as many textbook passages, I read stories from the Hitopadeśa, most of the Sānkhyakārikā, verses from the Mahābhārata, and passages from the Vākyapadya. I just wanted to read a Sanskrit Buddhist text, but I fully intended to keep my focus on Pāli.

What drew me into studying the Heart Sutra was the mistake I found in the first sentence of Conze's Sanskrit text: a transitive verb treated as intransitive, a noun in the wrong case, and a misplaced colon. The simple addition of an anusvāra (धाधां) and omission of anusvāra is the most common scribal error in these manuscripts. At least two of the extended text manuscripts have the noun in the correct case (making it the object of the transitive verb). A difficult nonsense sentence is transformed into a relatively straightforward three clause sentence. Lacking confidence back then, it took me 10,000 words to describe this problem and propose a solution (Attwood 2015). I covered all the bases, with help from Jonathan Silk and Jan Nattier on the Tibetan texts.

This initial insight was not dependent on Chinese origins or Nattier's work in general. It was all about Sanskrit grammar. No one else had seen this error in a text first published by Conze in 1946, revised in 1948, 1967, and translated numerous times. It's 2021 now, and long overdue for academia to wake up and think about this and my other grammatical points (Attwood 2018a, 2020a). Whether they agree with me over Chinese origins or not, these are basic questions of Sanskrit grammar.

I naively thought that if I published this small discovery (which I did in 2015) that academics and Buddhists alike would be like, "Oh yeah, now that you point it out...". I thought perhaps some might go as far as citing my discovery. However, in the intervening six years, not one single academic has discussed my article let alone adopted my suggested correction. The whole article was recently summarily dismissed in a footnote by senior Japanese scholar Saitō Akira (2021), in favour of the defective reading that makes no sense in Sanskrit.

Buddhist Studies academics have long preferred the defective version of the Heart Sutra and loudly praised Conze for his "meticulous scholarship" in producing a defective edition, a lousy translation, and a harebrained mystical interpretation. This preference for familiar confusion over unfamiliar clarity is inconsistent with objectivity, the primary defining characteristic of scholarship. Objectivity, as Carl R. Trueman has said, is not neutral. Objectivity shows that all answers are not equal and some are wrong. Reality is a particular way, at least on scales relevant to the human sensorium, and not any other way. Objectivity is as much as part of philology, history, and philosophy as it is of science.

How can I make sense of this refusal to even consider the possibility of change?

Belief Is An Emotion About An Idea.

It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterfactual evidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true. Reed Berkowitz, discussing the similarities between QAnon and live action role-playing games, cites an article by Kaplan et al (2016).*

"Strongly held beliefs are literally a part of us. As such, attacks on core beliefs are treated very much as attacks on us, even as strongly as a physical attack." Berkowitz (2020)
* For a popular account of Kaplan et al's research see Resnick (2017) "A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone's political beliefs".

Kaplan (2016) notes that, presented with "counterevidence" (i.e. counterfactual evidence), "people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information." New information can create cognitive dissonance.

"Attacks on core beliefs are treated very much as attacks on us, even as strongly as a physical attack."
Berkowitz (2020)

This suggests that by presenting an alternative reading of the Heart Sutra Nattier generated negative emotions amongst those committed to a traditional reading, both conservative religieux and scholars alike. This religieux/scholar distinction is thin or absent in Buddhist Studies and in traditionally Buddhist countries, Buddhist Studies is completely dominated by religieux. Apparently no one sees the conflict of interests in this.

And it's not just that a Chinese Heart Sutra asks these men to change their minds. It goes a bit deeper than this. Because in confirming that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese digest text and the Sanskrit text a poor translation passed off as Indian, we are asking them to publicly admit they were wrong all this time. And this is a major challenge to their egos. Some people feel threatened by counterfactuals.

With respect to the Heart Sutra change is especially hard, heterodoxy is viewed especially negatively, and new information treated with heightened suspicion amongst the religieux in academic, simply because they are religieux in academia. The two conservatisms multiply. New information, even something as simple as a minor grammar correction, creates strong negative emotions in religieux (including academic religieux) because it conflicts with long held, cherished beliefs about the Heart Sutra, but also because it conflicts with the very identity of the religieux. Two strong emotional reactions combine into a perfect storm of denial and aggression. And this is expressed as intellectual incredulity and emotional hostility.

Some years ago, a chance meeting led me to look into the work of Hasok Chang, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. I was very struck by his inaugural lecture for example, and his book Is Water H20? which covers many of the same themes in more detail. One of Chang's main themes is that pluralism at certain stages of knowledge-seeking is an advantage. According to Chang's liberal view of science, having competing explanations strengthens science. His striking example is that the much maligned idea of phlogiston actually had more going for it than Lavoisier's idea based on transfer of oxygen to and from metals. Thanks to Lavoisier's relentless self-promotion we have to say that fluorine "oxidises" hydrogen when they react to form hydrogen fluoride, even though the reaction does not involve oxygen at all. A better generalisation is that electrons flow from hydrogen to fluorine. And phlogiston being a hypothetical fluid, would have provided a much better model for this process. But Lavoisier was more popular and persuasive than Priestly. Phlogiston was the Betamax of chemistry.


In my view Nattier (1992) is the single most important article ever published on the Heart Sutra. I still pore over it all the time. It's a tour de force of modern, secular, scholarship. A paradigm-slaying piece of writing. I find it exhilarating. And yet it has largely been ignored or, in Japan, subjected to disingenuous theological refutations and apologetics of the type: "The Heart Sutra cannot be Chinese because we believe it is Indian." Nattier opened the door to a completely new reading of the Heart Sutra as concerned with epistemology rather than metaphysics. Not my suggestion, by the way, but Huifeng's (aka Matthew Orsborn):

“It is our view that this shifts emphasis from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e. ‘there is no X’, to an epistemological stance. That is, when the bodhisattva is ‘in emptiness’, i.e. the contemplative meditation on the emptiness of phenomena, he is ‘engaged in the non-apprehension’ of these phenomena” (Huifeng 2014: 103).

We expect religieux to be sensitive to heterodoxy and to respond negatively to it, even to react violently. The sunk cost fallacy following huge investment of time and resources promoting orthodoxy virtually ensure this. Issues of belonging, identify, and status within a community are keenly felt by religieux and academics alike, and for the similar reasons. In Buddhist Studies a substantial proportion of the community are both academics and religieux. Even those academics who are not overtly religious, tend to be in love with Buddhism (and thus cannot see it objectively). If a scholar's first name is "Bhikkhu", then they are overwhelmingly likely to be a Theravāda apologist, though one of them got quite mad at me for saying so to his face a few years ago. Most academics are too canny to advertise their religious affiliations via the use a religious name in an academic context. It would be interesting to see some objective measure of how many Buddhist Studies academics think of themselves as "Buddhist". A good research project for someone studying contemporary Buddhist Studies. 

Meanness is, to some extent, just something we meet in everyday life and have to deal with. Including in our workplace, though usually work culture norms do put a lid on it: it's pretty unusual to see public humiliation these days as it's considered harassment. People are mean for all kinds of reasons, and these may not be obvious from the outside. Often it's a cry for help. We can offer people who behave meanly compassion on a good day, but being subject to their abuse does make it hard to think clearly or respond creatively in the moment. 

Still, while we can delve into the psychology of meeting counterfactual evidence and the negative emotional responses it generates, to explain the phenomenon, the bottom line is that trying to humiliate colleagues is not acceptable behaviour. It has likely aborted many promising careers in academia. My other idol, Sue Hamilton, for example, left academia and never looked back. Anecdote suggests many Buddhist Studies academics are decamping for greener pastures that offer a more collegial working environment and a coherent body of theory to work with.

Unchecked meanness makes for an unproductive environment. I'm sure it has contributed to driving people away from studying Prajñāpāramitā: a sub-field that everyone agrees is of central importance to understanding Buddhism, but in which almost no one works.

The academic field of Buddhist Studies needs to address this issue of senior academics publicly humiliating students and junior colleagues. But the problem that Buddhist Studies has no core set of values or theory remains. It's a field, but without a discipline. An Order without a rule. Senior academics have power but there are not enough checks and balances. And this is why abusive behaviour got established and continues to be a problem. And why the people who want to change it are fighting an uphill battle.

Quite honestly I'm tired of talking about the Heart Sutra. I'm just repeating myself now. I have a few loose ends to tie up and then I'm going to do something else. And chances are that my research will go on being suppressed by academia despite meeting all the criteria for serious consideration. Perhaps it is just too radical. Or perhaps I have to hope I outlive Lusthaus and co? Trouble is I'm fifty-five (old for a heretic) and not in great health, so that strategy lacks appeal. 

I have either made a good argument in my ten peer-reviewed articles on the Heart Sutra or I have not. I don't expect a Nobel Prize or an honorary doctorate (though I'd accept the latter). Rather, if I have then I deserve to be taken seriously, and if I have not then I have earned the right to see a proper refutation in print (not just a short footnote) and to have a right of reply.

However, before this basic level of respect is afforded to me, I'd like to see Jan Nattier get her dues. Nattier deserves to get the lion's share of the credit. She is my ādiguru and my work is almost entirely derived from hers (one or two minor points about Sanskrit grammar notwithstanding). I also think that Huifeng/Matthew Orsborn's contribution has been massively under appreciated. Give them the credit they are due, and what is due to me as a systematiser of their work, will fall into place. I'm relatively unimportant in this story. 

If you have not already, then please read Nattier (1992) and Huifeng (2014). Read them properly, slowly, read all of the notes, think about the method, follow the evidence. If you have a better explanation for the discrepancies between the passages copied from Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā and the versions found in the Hṛdaya then, by all means publish it. Prove us wrong, if you can



Becker, Adam. (2018). What Is Real? John Murray.

Berkowitz, Reed. (2020). "A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon: Playing with reality". Medium.com.

Chang, Hasok. (2010). "The Hidden History of Phlogiston: How Philosophical Failure Can Generate Historiographical Refinement." HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 16 (2), 47-79.

——. (2012). Is Water H20? Evidence, Realism, and Pluralism. Springer.

Kaplan, J., Gimbel, S. & Harris, S. (2016). "Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence." Nature: Scientific Reports 6, 39589. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39589

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Planck, Max. (1949). Scientific autobiography and Other Paper. Williams & Norgate.

Resnick, Brian. (2017). "A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone's political beliefs: Why we react to inconvenient truths as if they were personal insults." Vox. Updated Jan 23, 2017, 8:37am EST. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/12/28/14088992/brain-study-change-minds

NOTE: 25 October 2021. I found this:

Paré, D., Quirk, G.J. (2017). "When scientific paradigms lead to tunnel vision: lessons from the study of fear." npj: Science of Learning 2, 6  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-017-0007-4

Abstract ...Here we argue that while much data is consistent with the fear model of amygdala function, it has never been directly tested, in part due to overreliance on the fear conditioning task. In support of the fear model, amygdala neurons appear to signal threats and/or stimuli predictive of threats. However, recent studies in a natural threat setting show that amygdala activity does not correlate with threats, but simply with the movement of the rat, independent of valence. This was true for both natural threats as well as conditioned stimuli; indeed there was no evidence of threat signaling in amygdala neurons. Similar findings are emerging for prefrontal neurons that modulate the amygdala. These recent developments lead us to propose a new conceptualization of amygdala function whereby the amygdala inhibits behavioral engagement...

15 August 2021

The Dogma: On Not Taking Nāgārjuna Seriously (Seriously!)

I wrote this for my Facebook group on Heart Sutra research. As I haven't posted anything here for a while I thought I'd repost it. 

In response to a post about the word tathatā, two people responded by rehearsing aspects of Madhyamaka dogma. I'm just going to call this the Dogma and people who promote the Dogma as Dogmatics. When people cite the Dogma they present it as a transcendent truth that brooks no contradiction, though it is also frequently (and unironically) presented as a series of contradictions.

I want to address anyone who takes the Dogma seriously by explaining why I don't take it or them seriously.

The Dogma is a body of religious rhetoric that emerges at a time when sectarian Buddhism was maturing. Mahāyāna Buddhism is still nascent, but exists as an uncoordinated series of reforms centering around the problem of the absent Buddha. Gautama sought his own liberation and left this world, leaving us to find our own way out. And later Buddhists found this narrative intolerable (even selfish), so they changed it in various ways, some of which are (in essence) what we now call Mahāyāna.

The foundation of Dogma is principally associated with Nāgārjuna who is believed to be a real person that lived near the beginning of the first millennium of the Common Era. But Dogma has been augmented numerous times by commentators (right up to the present). Most scholars now question the orientation of Nāgārjuna. For example, it is apparent that in composing the Dogma, Nāgārjuna was not re-interpreting Prajñāpāramitā. When he cites scripture, he cites Sanskrit translations of early Buddhist texts. Some have questioned whether he would have identified as Mahāyāna at all. But in proposing the Dogma, Nāgārjuna was making a clear break with early Buddhist rhetoric.

The Dogma makes a number of erroneous assumptions that lead it to dubious conclusions: 1. that dependent arising is a theory of everything; 2. that experience is reality; 3 that existence must be permanent; 4. the experience of emptiness is reality. So let's take each of these in turn.

1. Dependent Arising

As hinted at above, dependent arising was never intended to be a theory of everything. Early Buddhists set out to explain how experience arises. Simple observation shows us that the dynamics of objects are not the same as the dynamics of experience. This is implicit in early Buddhist texts.

Somewhere along the line Buddhists began to apply dependent arising to everything. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

I can easily imagine things that are physically impossible, that defy the laws of physics. I can imagine flying, for example. Not possible in reality, possible in imagination. Because the contents of our minds don't behave like real things. They are like illusions.

If we make dependent arising a theory of everything then contradictions ensue. We end up saying that things don't really exist because they are dependent on other things. But think about it. Why would anyone say something like this? What is is about dependency that makes an object unreal. Is a rock any less solid because is was formed by a process? No.

2. Experience versus Reality

Early Buddhists appear to have understood that sensory experience was different from reality. The Dogma, by contrast, refuses to make this distinction. In the Dogma, experience is a lesser form of reality. But experience is not reality. Experience is experience. Experience is what happens when a sentient subject encounters an object. Experience is subjective, that is to say that its mode of existence is subjective.

A good way of talking about it is Thomas Metzinger's use of the term "virtual". We don't have a self, we have a virtual self model, generated by the brain. As a virtual rather than a real thing, our sense of self has qualities and characteristics associated with subjectivity. For example, how we see ourselves is affected by mood. Our virtual model can be disrupted by drugs which do not change "reality", they change the way the brain generates our virtual self model.

3. Existence

The Dogma has a perverse definition of "real". I understand that some people may want to undermine the Abhidharma approach by criticising the nature of categories of experience. The fact that such categories rely on the concept of svabhāva qua distinctive characteristic smacks of essentialism.

But there svabhāva is an epistemic term: it is how experience appears to us, not the thing in itself. Moreover, when we categorise dharmas, we are mainly concerned with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

It is useful, for example, to distinguish the ethical character of a thought. Was is motivated by greed? Or by generosity? And by "useful" here I mean soteriological. This distinction is important for anyone wanting to live an ethical life, and if you believe in liberation from rebirth in saṃsāra then it is an essential concept to understand.

In arguing against perceived (but in fact nonexistent) essentialism in Abhidharma, the Dogma changes the meaning of svabhāva so that it definitely is essentialist. Now it means the sole condition for the existence of an object. And it is trivial to show that this entity cannot be real, since nothing can be the sole condition for its own existence. Everything is more complex than that.

So how does this trivialism take on such gravitas in the Dogma? It's partly because people who adopt the Dogma attribute their own definition of svabhāva to other people (who almost certainly never did held that view and definitely do not now). Having created the strawman, they triumphantly burn it down. But so what? No one believes it anyway.

4. Emptiness is reality.

The final point is that, in the Dogma, it is assumed that the absence of sensory experience is reality. And this is the heart of the matter. It is this assumption that leads to all of the others.

We all know, either first or second hand, that the cessation of sense experience without the loss of awareness is a profound and potentially life-changing experience. And it's fairly obvious that the techniques to bring experience to a halt were in widespread use in the Ganges valley by the time of the second urbanisation, from about the 6th Century BCE onwards. The new cities attracted Brahmin immigration from the West, too, which is another story.

We should not be too harsh on this point. The assertion--that lack of experience is reality--is one that is common in Indian religious thought. The cessation of sense experience was taken to be reality by Brahmins, Jaina, and Sāṃkhyakas as well as Bauddhikas.

But here's the thing. The cessation of experience is simply the cessation of experience, it is not reality. And this can be seen in how different religions interpret it as Brahman, ātman, puruṣa, jīva, pudgalaadvaitaśūnyatā, etc.


Perhaps the problem is the preternatural clarity of mind that accompanies cessation; the purity of a mind without content, is hyperreal. The very vividness of the state makes it seem more real than reality. Certainly it can be more attractive than reality. Because in that state all ones desires and discontents cease along with other kinds of thought.

Still, the conclusion that reality is the absence of sense experience is fundamental to the Dogma. And it allows Dogmatics a peculiar form of rhetoric which I sum up this way: everything the Dogmatic says is true, while everything the non-Dogmatic says is an illusion, a conceptual proliferation.

I've dealt with this rhetoric for more than 25 years now. At first it worked as expected on me. When I tried to ask certain types of questions that seemed natural to me, a Dogmatic would simply shut down the conversation by pointing out that my questions were based on conventional reality or illusions. The truth is the Dogma and anything else is simply and self-evidently false.

The choice with Dogmatics is either to accept the Dogma or be dismissed as a deluded pṛthagjāna.

However, I reject the framing of the discussion in Dogmatic terms. I see no reason to believe that the cessation of sense experience gives one insights into the nature of reality. One cannot know more by closing off all sources of knowledge about the thing one wishes to know, one can only know less.

I grant that one may discover something about the way that our minds create our virtual models of body, self, and world. And how we use these virtual models to navigate our way through a complex and ever-changing world, especially the social world. The social world deserves a much greater prominence in our thinking about Buddhism. But this is all the province of epistemology. And the result, in Buddhism, is always some kind of knowledge: an epistemic inquiry resulting in epistemic insights.

I'm not arguing within the Dogma framework because it is both false and perverse. Nāgārjuna is not someone I revere at all. I count him the worst philosopher in history, precisely because he does not examine his own assumptions, even when the result is nonsense or contradiction.

The biggest problem with the Dogma is that Dogmatics hold it to be a self-evident truth that not only resists external criticisms, but resists all criticism. It is Holy Writ that can never be challenged. Like Richard Feynman, I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned. But the thing is that we can answer many seemingly intractable questions if we only give up Dogma. Dogma is the greatest impediment. It is an extreme view, a wrong view.

The resolution of this issue is simply to make a distinction between metaphysics and epistemology and allow that Buddhism is principally concerned with the latter. Our conclusions about what we know, especially what we know about the cessation of sense experience, can be interpreted as metaphysics, but they need not be.

Religious dogmas now pose the greatest threat to the long-term survival of Buddhism. On the other hand, secular interest in "awareness without content" is now the subject of scientific scrutiny and is already beginning to escape from the religious chains in which it has been bound. Like the preliminary practices we put under the heading of "mindfulness" the practices that culminate in what we call "emptiness" are on the verge of escaping into the secular world. And that is something to celebrate.

Note: I've added a new tab at the top of the page where I'm going to keep a running bibliography of works that I think are relevant to the topic of secular emptiness. 

04 June 2021

Naturalism and Unnaturalism

Something I read recently prompted me to think about whether I would call myself an atheist. I have probably referred to myself as an atheist in the past. Buddhism is widely considered to be an atheistic religion in that while many Buddhists treat buddhas as gods, few of us believe that god to be a creator or controller. Despite growing scepticism about the traditional claims of Buddhism, I still think of myself as "religious" in the sense of living committed to a set of rules. I sometimes say that I am religious but not spiritual. See my series of essays on "spiritual".

Theism is essentially the idea that everything depends on God, however God is conceived. Thinking about this it seemed strange for me to even have a position on such things because they are completely irrelevant to my worldview. I see the value of being aware of some of the history of the influence of the various churches in shaping the modern world, modernism being largely an organised rebellion against church claims to authenticity and authority. But theism is not relevant to me in any other way. The scientific study of religion shows that it is not what it claims to be. Which is not to say that religion is bad, just that we have to get below the surface of the claims made by priests and to look at the sociology and neuroscience of religion in order to get at the truth about religion. 

It seems to me now that it would be silly for me to define my worldview in terms of things I don't believe in. Because, of all the possible things that humans believe, the vast majority of them are not things I believe. I don't believe in unicorns, fairies, Santa, utopias, and so on. But I don't claim to be an aunicornist. The label "atheist" does not inform a reader directly as to what my values and beliefs are. If I am going to state my beliefs, why would I do it with respect to a minor religious cult that has never had any appeal for me. So what am I, if not an atheist. I would say that I am a naturalist.


Naturalism comes in many varieties and, indeed, encourages pluralism. Naturalism has its starting point in the natural world, the world that we experience and interact with as humans. The world that we perceive through our senses, but also the world of which we are wholly a part. The physical world, but also the world of human culture. There may be other worlds or other non-experiential aspects of this world, but we cannot know them. And we need say nothing more, except that our explanations of what we can experience have no gaps that suggest the need for other worlds. 

Naturalism as a metaphysics is based on and informed by a particular approach to knowledge. We observe the world, notice regularities and try to infer what such regularities connote. We can use the conclusions of these inferences to make predictions about what we will experience next and then test this. And this works surprisingly well for understanding the physical world. Different approaches must be taken to understand human culture because it is a much higher order of complexity than physical objects. For example, reductionism seldom makes for an interesting approach to human affairs. 

Within the realm of science, predictions will have a degree of accuracy and precision that we compare with what we see. If the accuracy and precision reaches a threshold then we say that prediction was accurate and precise. That threshold may be formal, such as a statistic measure such as 5σ or 99% confidence, but for lay people it may just be informal and heuristic. Scientists ideally accompany every measurement with an indication of measurement error, and measure of accuracy and precision. So we might say the Higgs Boson has a mass 125.10 ± 0.14 GeV to a 5σ confidence level. The error is due to our measurements, not to nature. 

We take results more seriously if someone has measured them by some other means and reached a similar or better level of accuracy and precision. Sometimes the confirmation or "comparing notes" part is left out of the naturalist epistemology, but it is essential. We generally call this approach to knowledge empiricism, although strictly speaking empiricism is the idea that all knowledge comes from sensory experience. Modern empiricism is a collective and collaborative enterprise that influences all other approaches to knowledge. 

We can also study the "humanities", i.e. the forms and products of human cultures, from how human societies function, to behavioural norms, to how we make and appreciate art. All this is still part of the natural world. Where weather is a complex system comprised of simple parts, a human society is a complex arrangement of complex parts. Historians, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer are less interested in universal laws, but focus on a single event and try to understand it in context.  Still, as Carl R Trueman has subsequently observed, "objectivity is not neutral or unbiased" (2010: 27ff). Objectivity by its very nature excludes the majority of explanations.

In recent years the division between science and humanities has thinned, but there is an incorrigible tendency to see them as incompatible. My layered approach to reality is set out in a three part essay.  I argued that each layer adds structure and organisation to the previous, creating new complex entities with emergent properties. This is not the same as simply changing scale, since life is an offshoot from the middle of the scale of mass, length, and energy of the universe. Whether or not life exists elsewhere, it exists here and any theory of reality that does not include life or human culture in all its complexities is useless. So, for example, the idea that a unification of general relativity and quantum field theory would become a theory of everything is simply nonsense. Physics is useless when it comes to describing human behaviour. I accept that physics certainly provides limits to what is possible. Interestingly, in phrasing it this way I have stumbled on a principle of constructor theory as enunciated by David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto. Physics limits what life can be like, but it does not determine what life actually is or what creatures evolve into being. It does not because of emergent properties at higher levels of organisation, piled on top of each other, that are not predicted by the lower level theories. Nothing about either relativity or quantum theory suggests that sapient beings will emerge to discover these explanations. And it's not that they are vague on this subject, rather there is nothing about those theories that predicts sentience or sapience as a possibility. They can be applied retroactively, but not with any great explanatory power. Determinism does not necessarily survive emergence. 

For a naturalist, then, the natural world is what can be inferred to exist and what can be known. Naturalism argues that if something exists and can be known it is part of the natural world. We can also say that if something doesn't exist it cannot be known. If something cannot be known, then we can say nothing definite about it. Our best route to knowledge is allowing observation to guide theory, principally by comparing notes on close observations of the natural world, keeping in mind that all acts of explanation are also acts of interpretation (simply because of the our human apparatus). 

Accurate and precise knowledge of the natural world has transformed human lives beyond measure, for better or worse. There are, of course, ethical and moral questions raised by naturalism. For example, it has given us tools that can be used for good or ill. A bulldozer can be used to quickly prepare a building site for the building of homes or it can be used to level areas of essential rainforest (sometimes these are the same action). But the work that one person can do with a bulldozer is thousands of times more than one person prior to the invention of high carbon steel and internal combustion engines. Technology magnifies human abilities, without similarly transforming human aesthetics or ethics. How we interpret events has become even more important because of this magnification. And how we interpret events has also become subject to empiricist scrutiny (much more so than when Gadamer was writing). 

For naturalists, then, the focus is the natural world. Anything other than the natural world is unnatural. To believe in some unnatural agent, entity, or realm is a form of unnaturalism, and one who accepts unnaturalism is an unnaturalist. Thus, for me the question is not, "What is an atheist?", rather it is "What is an unnaturalist?"


Unnaturalism is a neologism of mine. It is the flipside of naturalism. As I use it, unnaturalism is a broad term that takes in disbelief in the natural world per se, such as Indian beliefs that the world is māyā "an illusion", as well as a range beliefs about unnatural agents, entities, or forces that exist beyond the scope of the natural world (and thus beyond the scope of the naturalist epistemology). 

Unnaturalists often assert that unnatural agents are able to interact with the natural world, but this is a contradiction in terms. If agents interact with the natural world then, ipso facto, they must be part of the natural world and thus bound by the patterns of behaviour that we see in the natural world. Or else we have to rewrite our explanations to include them and there seems no necessity to do this.

Unnaturalism seems to begin with animism, which, for example, appears to be ubiquitous amongst hunter-gatherers (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016). This is the view that the natural world is full of sentient agents, seen and unseen who interact with the natural world, but exist outside of it. A modern form of animism is panpsychism in which all matter is, in some inexplicable way, "conscious". Belief in life-after-death is a common unnaturalist belief and with ancestor worship is found in about 80% of hunter-gatherers. At the other end of the spectrum are large organised religions based on sets of unnatural beliefs, notably an omnipotent, omniscient god. I will look more closely at theism and deism in the next section. 

Some terminological issues crop up. For example, some unnaturalists refer to their beliefs as "supernatural" suggesting something above the natural world, "metaphysical" suggesting something beyond the natural world, or "paranormal" suggesting a reality alongside the natural world. In my view, all these separate terms can be dismissed as hair-splitting since they all involve rejecting the naturalistic account of the world. They are therefore better categorised simply as unnaturalism, unnatural views asserting unnatural agents, entities, forces, etc. 

By definition, anything unnatural is beyond the scope of naturalism: we cannot interact with or know an unnatural world and it cannot interact with us. This does not exclude the possibility of unnatural phenomena, but it does exclude the possibility of experiencing them or gaining knowledge of them.  There are epistemic limits, and the knowable is ipso facto the natural and vice versa. Normally we need not bother with the unnatural because we cannot know anything about it. However, unnaturalists claim to have unnatural knowledge. If we press the unnaturalist for evidence they must demure because evidence implies the natural world. 

Part of the problem here is the teleological fallacy, i.e. the fallacy that everything happens for a reason. For a naive person this seems a reasonable heuristic and compatible with commonsense views on causation. Causation is tricky since Hume pointed out that it's really just a regular sequence of events; where one thing regularly precedes another we say it "caused" it. In this view, causation is metaphysical,  that is to say we don't see a separate event that we can label "causation". Discussions of causation tend to refer to billiard balls colliding and other such mechanistic ideas: we see one ball strike another and both travel off in new directions. Can we say that one ball causes the other to move? Formulations of laws of motion do not include anything that might indicate causation. We can describe two balls colliding, for example, using conservation of momentum but . My view is that our understanding of causation comes from our early experience of gaining control of our bodies. We will things to happen, like willing our hand to grasp an object, and after a while that starts to happen. The model for causation is the connection of the desire for something to happen followed by that very thing happening. As John Searle is fond of saying, "I will my arm to go up, and the damn thing goes up." (I think he says this in every lecture of his on YouTube). 

Even if we get a grasp on causation, a cause is not a reason, though the two terms are easy to confuse precisely because our internal model for causation is that of desire making our limbs move. The classical view of reasons is that they are explanations of causes. The teleological fallacy can be restated as: the reason something happens is because something causes it. But this assumes that all sequences of events are regular and that nothing novel ever happens. And of course new and one-off things happen all the time. Even so, in the classical view, reasons are still ideas about why things happen. The classical view sees reasons as prior to actions. 

But then, as naturalists, we have too look at the evidence and it turns out that reason isn't like this (See Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber. The Enigma of Reason). It turns out that experiments show that reasons are generated post hoc to rationalise decisions made by unconscious inferential processes. So it turns out that the classical view of reason is another result of unnaturalism, i.e. the result of thinking about reasoning in the abstract instead of observing reasoning in practice. And here we can see the importance of interpretation in explanations of history. If reasons are post hoc then our accounts of history in terms of the psychological motivations of individuals are likely to be inaccurate. Reasons don't drive behaviour at all. In fact, behaviour drives reasons. 

So when someone who is open to unnatural beliefs comes to understand that the universe has a beginning they may infer that the universe has a cause and they frame in terms of some agent causing the universe to begin for some reason. Even if we eliminate the overtly unnatural elements, we are still left with the possibility that something caused the universe to come into existence. With the present state of our knowledge that cause is unnatural and we cannot know anything about it. This epistemic limit is open to exploitation by unnaturalists; they may claim to know, through unnatural means, about that cause. An unnaturalist may ignore the epistemic limit, adopt the teleological fallacy, and infer that the universe came into being for a reason  and further that if there is a reason, that there must be an agent that is not part of the natural world (since the natural world for them is that which was created). Now we have an unnatural agent with superpowers creating the universe for reasons, though these reasons are typically held to be unfathomable because in practice we cannot discern any unnatural agents. And this brings us to the most visible form of unnaturalism: belief in a creator god. 

Theism as a form of Unnaturalism

Unnaturalism has a much longer history than naturalism. For most of human history most people have been unnaturalists. Unnatural ideas like animism, disembodied minds, or post-mortem existence have seemed plausible to most human beings who ever lived. Since the emergence of naturalism these kinds of ideas have been marked out by terms such as metaphysical, supernatural, or paranormal. 

Theism begins to emerge with the Zoroastrian religion, the first of the monotheisms. The dates of Zoroaster are disputed, but are generally in the range 1200-800 BCE. I have argued, for example, that aspects of Zoroastrianism may have influenced the development of Buddhism. So theism is relatively new in human evolution, but relatively old in human history. 

We can usefully contrast theism with deism. In deism, God made the world, set it in motion, but is no longer involved in the world. Some Jews take this approach, concluding that God was more involved in the world during the infancy of humanity, but now as a mature species, how we live is up to us. An increasingly common form of deism is that the idea that God was responsible for the initial conditions of the universe and the big bang that set things running, but after that God just let things play out as they will. This kind of God is also called otiose or "uninvolved". And note that this idea of setting the initial conditions and allowing them to evolve according to dynamical laws of motion is the main paradigm of physics. However, this paradigm fails to account for many phenomena, notably living organisms, prompting David Deutch and Chiara Marletto to pursue constructor theory which promises to construe physics in exact terms as counterfactuals: what is possible at any given time and what is not. 

The retreat to deism allows some Christians to reconcile with science using a God of the gaps argument, since science cannot tell us the reason for the initial conditions of the universe. When we consider the fine tuning problem, why the universe is conducive to life at all, it seems that the epistemic gap in which deists locate God is increasingly small. The physical parameters of our universe are fine-tuned to allow life to exist. Tiny variations of physical constants like the charge of the electron would make life impossible. Even if God was the first cause, he had little or no choice about how to make the universe. In other words, God had no free will when it came to creation of a universe in which sapient creatures would be capable of thinking about God. And what is the point of worshipping a God who was last active 13.8 billion years ago and who had no free will? There is no deist soteriology; the universe is what it is and there is nothing god can do to change it.

Note that I am also not a deist. The neologism adeist has been used informally, e.g. Daniel Finke's blog post: I am an Agnostic Adeist and a Gnostic Atheist. Some Buddhists are deists in the sense that they talk about an ultimate reality or a ground of being. 

Theists, by contrast, believe in the ongoing active involvement of God. Unlike deism, theism makes testable predictions. Theists' claims about God entail that processes we expect to be random will sometimes not be random because God intervenes on behalf of his followers. Christians, we might argue, should be more lucky than others, suffer less from disease, accidents, and other misfortunes. No such bias in the universe has ever been detected. As a simple matter of fact, Christians don't get a smoother ride, but suffer every bit as much as everyone else. Indeed, lately some Christians have been arguing that they are treated unfairly, which suggests that not only is God not tipping the balance in their favour, He is tipping it against them. So theism looks to be false for this reason and many others. 

This is a corollary argument deriving from the problem of evil, i.e. the problem of why a loving creator would make a world plagued by so much misery and suffering. Charles Darwin was dissuaded from Christian theism by the existence of parasitic wasps:

"With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." -- Darwin Correspondence Project.

I have explored different accounts of why unnaturalism was so successful and persistent; see, for example, my two-part essay: Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part I and Part II.

Although human beings are fully encompassed by the set of natural things, our minds are not limited to thinking in terms of the natural world. We can imagine unicorns, for example. Not only this, but we can proliferate stories about unicorns, complete with imagery. Search for unicorn online and you will find millions of references, images, theories, stories, and so on. But none of this makes unicorns a real thing. We will never meet a unicorn in the natural world. For many people this distinction can easily be blurred, especially when it comes to God. But ideas about god such as theists embrace are not universal by any means:

"Ancestor spirits or high gods who are active in human affairs were absent in early humans, suggesting a deep history for the egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies." (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016) 


To sum up, then, atheism is a reaction to, and thus still defined in terms of, the Christian worldview. The term itself accepts the normative value of Christian ideas. Atheism is not-theism. To me, God is irrelevant, a trivial problem easily dismissed before getting on with the serious business of understanding the world. And it makes no sense to define my worldview with respect to something irrelevant and trivial. "Atheist" is a Christian label for non-Christians. 

Please don't call me an atheist. I'm a naturalist. And in my worldview theists are unnaturalists

Of course we can discuss unnaturalism, but it is pointless to do so on the terms of unnaturalists because their views are unnatural. The study of unnatural beliefs is part of anthropology and sociology and best undertaken from a naturalist view point. It is important to objectively understand unnaturalism through careful study because so many people have unnatural views and act upon them. We need to understand and appreciate how people behave under the influence of unnaturalism because unnaturalism is still widespread and influential. 

And, of course, theism is not the only variety of unnaturalism; I've mentioned also deism and animism, for example. By lumping various forms of unnaturalism together we are better able to generalise the ideas involved in unnaturalism. 



Deutsch, D. (2013). "Constructor theory". Synthese. 190 (18): 4331–4359. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1210/1210.7439.pdf

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975) Truth and Method. Bloomsbury Academic.

Marletto, C. (2015). "Life without design: Constructor theory is a new vision of physics, but it helps to answer a very old question: why is life possible at all?" Aeonhttps://aeon.co/essays/how-constructor-theory-solves-the-riddle-of-life

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

Peoples, H.C., Duda, P. & Marlowe, F.W. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27, 261–282. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Trueman, Carl R. 2010. Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

Related Posts with Thumbnails