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. 

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