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. 

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