30 September 2022

Some Issues of Pāli Chronology

The matter of which parts of the Pāli sutta-piṭaka are older is one that has a tragic past. The first scholar to look systematically at the issue was Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. As a student, Caroline A. Foley married her (much older) Pāli teacher, Thomas Rhys Davids and together the pair [pictured left] not only became the leading experts on Pāli, but also created a lasting organisation, The Pali Text Society (founded 1881), and made the Pāli suttas available to the masses, perhaps for the first time.

Caroline and Thomas had three children but their son Arthur was the apple of her eye. The Rhys Davids family archive (Cambridge University) contains no less than 262 letters from Arthur to his mother. Arthur is famous in his own right for being a highly decorated fighter pilot in WWI (one of the original "aces"). But he was tragically killed in action in 1917.

Caroline was heartbroken and, like many others of that time, she turned to spiritualism, seeking a sense of connection with Arthur. She was a very intelligent and successful woman and she did not start attending tawdry seances or consulting fraudulent "mediums". Rather, she took up the more private practice of "automatic writing". This involves taking both sides of a written conversation, but in a detached way that allows a stream of consciousness to flow. She filled many notebooks in this way and they are still held in the archives. This turn only intensified after the death of Thomas Rhys Davids in 1922.

This change in her circumstances forced Rhys Davids to confront the Buddhist view, which till then she had accepted, that there is no soul, nothing substantial that can pass from one life to the next. This would make spiritualism practically impossible. She began to comb through the suttas and eventually concluded that the Buddha had taught an ātman doctrine after all, but covertly, and thus she rescued spiritualism from Buddhism. Much to the disgust of her colleagues, I gather. But Rhys Davids was ambitious and talented, and her next move was to try to prove that the Buddha's ātman doctrine was older than the Buddhist anātman doctrine.

Rhys Davids invented the methods which we use to form conjectures regarding the relative dating of suttas. Still, as with so much else about early Buddhism, there is no external evidence with which we can corroborate or refute these conjectures. We do know that Pāli was a somewhat artificial language built on one or more Prakrit languages. Pāli was likely never anyone's first language, but was rather a "church language" that could be a lingua franca for Prakrit speakers. These days we might call it a "conlang".

We have to keep in mind that our evidence for Pāli in the ancient world is scarcely better than our evidence for the Buddha (which is nonexistent). The very oldest extant Pāli document is a small piece of gold foil from the sixth-century. The oldest complete Pāli Canon is no older than the 15th century. People say that the Pali canon was written down in the first century, but this is conjecture based on internal references in documents that post-date the suttas by several centuries. The whole history of Buddhism is based on such conjectures with little or no supporting evidence, or based on the naive use of religious documents for historical purposes. Scholars have, until recently, simply accepted the emic accounts of Buddhist history, adopted emic terminology and time periods, and generally been far too credulous with respect to tradition.

By way of contrast we have several very old physical manuscripts of Buddhist texts from Gandhāra that can be carbon-dated to the first or second century before the Common Era. These are, in fact, the oldest Buddhist documents of any kind. Moreover, a text like the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā is known to have been written by the end of the first century CE because, again, we have a carbon-dated manuscript on birch bark. This is about 400 years earlier than the first physical evidence of Pāli texts.


A few passages in Pāli contain evidence of case endings from a different Prakrit dialect than the one that mainly forms the basis of Pāli. For example, in Pāli the nominative form of the stem buddha is buddho. E.g. buddho dhammaṃ deseti "the Buddha teaches the Dhamma". In day-to-day use, the nominative singular is considered the most basic form of the verb. Traditional dictionaries, for example, use the nominative form. European dictionaries of Indic languages tend to use the "stem" form, a notional form that is rarely (if ever) encountered in practice that has no case information. The only place they regularly crop up is as the first member of a compound word.

In a few cases in Pāli we see a nominative form like buddhe. Same word, same case, different pronunciation. Think here about the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī: gate gate... scholars have long tried to shoehorn this into a Classical Sanskrit mould, but really it's Prakrit. "Gate" is not some convoluted feminine locative of the past participle gata or whatever. Rather gate is the nominative singular of gata, i.e. it's just the basic form of a word in practical use in that dialect.

In stories about relative dates, the stray occurrence of such forms as a nominative singular in -e is seen as evidence of antiquity. The idea here is that the case marker -e is archaic and older texts are more likely to have archaic forms.

Frankly, this makes no sense to me. Dialects are, generally speaking, regional. For example, people often remark on the Tibetan spelling of vajra, i.e. badzra. The substitution of /b/ for /v/ is normal for Eastern India. Tibetans got their Sanskrit terminology from Eastern India. The state of Bihar, for example, derives from the presence of many Buddhist vihara in the past. Indeed, we sometimes see this variation in Pāli: both byāpāda "malevolence" and (Skt vyāpāda). To the best of my knowledge, this substitution (or the similarly regional initial l/r substitution) are not seen as signs of antiquity.

We know, from the distribution of Asoka inscriptions, that eastern dialects of Prakrit prefered the -e ending. And the -e ending found in Pāli is sometimes called a "Magadhism" to reflect the usage in the language used in the Asoka inscriptions around Patna, the capital of Magadha. It's possible that what we call Māgadhī was the mother language of modern Bihari.

This is not to say that dialects did not change over time. Pāli is a Middle Indic language from a pre-classical form of Old Indic (not necessarily the same one as gave rise to Classical Sanskrit). If we accept the conjecture that Pāli was written down circa first century BCE, and that this fixed the forms at that point, though later editing is clearly evidenced, then we really have to wonder how an archaic form survived for several centuries. I can tell you that when you stumble across one of these forms in practice, it can be very confusing because buddhe is something in Pāli also. It is the locative singular (the locative is mainly used to indicate the location of the action of a verb in a sentence), e.g. buddho gahe dhammaṃ deseti "the Buddha taught Dhamma in the house". This is to say, that these odd case endings stand out; one stumbles over them. How does something like that survive in an oral literature for centuries when, every time one encounters it, one is struck by the cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, some Magadhisms are ubiquitous, such as the honorific bhante (vocative singular) or the term yebhuyyena "generally" which corresponds to Sanskrit yadbhūyasā. Following regular patterns of sound change, we expect the Pāli to be yad-bhūyena or yad-bhiyyena. Ye is Māgadhī for yad. And note also that we have some Sanskrit loanwords like brāhmaṇa for which we expect the Pāli to be bāmaṇa (see my discussion of this: A Pāli Pun).

Had we not been looking for evidence of chronology we might have concluded those texts that preserve so-called Magadhisms were preserved in a Māgadhī-speaking region where they recognised the forms. In other words, these Magadhisms in Pāli need not be evidence of change over time, they may reflect a text compiled in a different region. The presence of alternative case endings reflects contemporary regional differences in pronunciation. Not that this conjecture is any more solid than the change over time conjecture. Once again, we simply don't know. A chronological explanation is not the most obvious one to me and I think some kind of geographical explanation is probably better.


Another argument for the antiquity of some texts is that they are "less systematic" (with reference to the standardised Buddhism of modern Theravāda) and thus older. This is a form of the teleological fallacy. The idea here is that ideas become more sophisticated and more organised over time. The presumption here is also that the Pāli texts are otherwise homogeneous and forms a static backdrop against which change can be discerned. I would argue that Theravāda Buddhism, as we meet it in the twenty-first century, is a simplified, less sophisticated form of the pluralistic Buddhism we find in early Buddhist texts.

I once again refer readers to my chart of nidāna doctrines. Here we see a number of different lists with different sequences. We note many variants of the standard nidāna sequence with fewer members, notably what's missing is often the first two items: avidyā and saṃskāra. One of the main variants (DN 15) begins with nāmarūpa and vijñāna mutually conditioning each other.

Some of the texts use very different terminology. It is true that one of these is in the Suttanipāta (Sn 862-877) which experts say makes it old, based on the methods we are exploring now. But the sequence in DN 21 is just as odd. Moreover, it partially reverses the order of causality found in, say, MN 18. A more sophisticated variant of the standard 12 nidānas is also found in Suttanipāta (Sn 722-765) which in the standard view makes is later than most other nidāna texts.

The idea of using structural features like how "systematic" a doctrine is to determine relative age is starting to look quite doubtful. The logic of it does not account for which variations of the nidānas that we find here. Again, the standardisation on 12 nidānas, ignoring variants, is considerably less sophisticated than we see in Pāli. In order to interpret such differences in terms of chronology we have to presume that differences are caused by passing time (that is to say time passing is what causes variations to arise). But again, we could have chosen to see these as contemporary sectarian differences, for example. It's only when we ignore the obvious sectarianism in Pāli that we see anything like an "underlying unity".

Under this heading we may also discuss the fact that no one claims that the whole Suttanipāta is old. Only parts of it. And yet there is no evidence that the Suttanipāta circulated in fragments. It is true that a few parts of Suttanipāta turn up in other places. The Sela Sutta (Sn 3.7) is identical to MN 92, while the Vāseṭṭha Sutta (Sn 3.9) also occurs at MN 98. But this just tells us that the compiler of the Suttanipāta had access to the same sources as the compiler of the Majjhimanikāya.


I know little about meter, though I have dabbled in analysing Pāli meter from time to time. The argument in this case is that the use of certain metres in, say, Suttanipāta reflects antiquity. These are referred to by Roy Norman as "old metres". I've never been clear how anything can be considered a priori "old". We have no evidence of Buddhist literature before the written texts. We cannot judge the antiquity of a metre in a Buddhist text from the types of metres used in non-Buddhist texts. And I cannot think how else this chronological distinction could be made.

Metred verses are common enough in Pāli and some texts show a preference for one metrical scheme over another. But in a Buddhist context, what constitutes "old"? Old in comparison to what? We have nothing to base a chronology of metre on in a Buddhist context. We may be able to say that non-Buddhist texts show an evolution of the use of metres, but showing that the same evolution happened in Buddhist texts is not possible.


A number of suttas quote other suttas, sometimes verbatim, sometimes by name. An example I have encountered is the Channa Sutta (SN 22.90) in which Ānanda recalls hearing the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15) being preached. The Channa Sutta repeats the Kaccānagotta Sutta in its entirety. And this, so the argument goes, proves that the Channa Sutta presumes the prior existence of the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But does it? What if the Channa Sutta is the original context for this text and the Kaccānagotta Sutta is simply a cut-down version of the story?

This alternative possibility is given credence when we study the Pāli version alongside the Āgama version which exists in a Chinese translation (from a Prakrit other than Pāli) and a Sanskrit translation that more or less corresponds to the Chinese. In my (to date) unpublished study of the three versions side by side I note:

[The Pāli] as well has having an abbreviated opening, has no end. It just finishes abruptly, and this reinforces other hints that it is a somewhat fragmented memory of the text.

It is clear that the Pāli record of the Discourse to Kātyāyana is not the ur-text. It's a fragment, with a slightly different selection and arrangement of sentences than the Chinese or Sanskrit versions.


One of the most striking examples of interpolation I know of comes in the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (DN 16; DN II.141). In the middle of a discussion between Ānanda and the Buddha about the Buddha's funeral arrangements, we suddenly find Ānanda asking "How should we behave towards women?" (Kathaṃ mayaṃ, bhante, mātugāme paṭipajjāma). The word for "women" here is a colloquialism made from mātā "mother" (in the genitive case mātu) and gāma "village". The Buddha tells Ānanda to ignore them (adassanaṃ; literally "don't look"). After a few more lines of this misogyny, we go back to discussing the Buddha's funeral arrangements. The change of subject is quite disorientating.

In this one case, I agree that there is an obvious reason to consider the passage on how to behave towards women has been inserted into the text at some point after the text was initially composed. It was done so badly that we cannot help but be struck by the incompetence of the editor. Still, it was done early enough to be considered canonical. On the other hand, this interpolation does not occur in any other surviving version of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. So we can conjecture that it was a Theravādin monk who did the interpolating. The negative attitude towards women is typical of Theravāda monasticism.

On the other hand, the sharing of passages between texts is so common as to constitute a major feature of Pāli texts. Suttas have a kind of modular structure with a framework of common tropes and expressions (aka pericopes). Shared stock passages are the norm.

Compare the Pāli, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts of the Kaccānagotta Sutta, for example. They are all closely related, but in some cases whole phrases are present or missing in one. And this in a very short text. Quotations in Mahāyāna texts make it seem that the core of this text is a statement against applying the duality of existence/nonexistence (astitā/nāstitā) to the world (loka). The framing details of this important statement vary considerable. Notably the nidāna is different in all three, and the name of the main protagonist also takes three different, though closely related, forms, i.e. P. Kaccāna, Skt. Sandhākātyāyana, C. Shāntuó Jiāzhānyán 𨅖陀迦旃延. Moreover, Sandhākātyāyana is almost certainly a mistake for Saddhā Kātyāyana, which means something like "Faithful youth of the Kātya clan."


Having briefly surveyed the main kinds of evidence that are used to try to establish a relative chronology within the Pāli suttas, I find that, except in the case of obvious interpolations, I can always think of a plausible alternative reading that does not result in any chronological speculation. That which is presented as evidence of chronology could just as well be evidence of regionalism or sectarianism.

The idea that we can discern any systematic chronology within Pāli suttas seems quite fanciful. It certainly appeals to Buddhist theologians, but it's a house of cards. The foundations are essentially religious beliefs that are not open to discussion. The most striking of these is the religious conviction that the Buddha was a real person. This is axiomatic, for example, for bhikkhus Sujato and Brahmali who have put a great deal of effort into arguments for the "authenticity" of the Pāli canon. But their definition of authenticity is itself incoherent. In their accounts of authenticity they assume that both the Buddha and Ānanda were real people who were just as described in the literature. There are no external criteria because there is no external evidence. Thus the whole rests on religious commitments rather than historical facts or events.

Moreover, the kind of relative chronology that is produced by these speculations offers little in the way of explanatory power. It is self-contained with very few exceptions, the most notable being that the cities in which the stories are largely set are real cities, although none of the characters in the stories can be considered historical characters.

As someone who likes to state clear conclusions, I sympathise with the historians who scrabble around trying to put things in chronological order. But the very aim of the project—to produce a chronology—determines what kind of outcome we get, i.e. a chronology. Other explanations for the same facts are never even considered as far as I can see. And despite all the efforts that go into this project we still cannot explain anything of importance using this artificially constructed chronology. This is partly because the relative chronology is not anchored to history at any point. Again, the lack of external evidence of any kind is telling.

As far as I can see the only "real" thing in the Pāli suttas are the cities. The stories are set in cities that we know from archaeology. I've walked among the ruins of Sāvatthī, for example. One can see it on Google Maps. The evidence that comes from analysing religious texts is something else again. And this may be part of the problem. Historians of Buddhism seem to forget that Buddhist texts are religious texts. And I'm not the only one pointing out the problems with this.


23 September 2022

Just How "Crazy" is the Heart Sutra?

I recently read Karl Brunnhölzl’s absurdist article “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever” in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar (September 29, 2017). I composed this response and sent it off to the magazine asking that they consider printing it, but they did not respond at all (Unlike Brunnhölzl, I have no caché in the world of North American celebrity Buddhism).

Brunnhölzl adequately covers the basic ground as established by D. T. Suzuki and Edward Conze, and even cites Sangharakshita, the founder of the Order I was ordained in. However, based on 10 years of forensic research and fourteen published articles on the Heart Sutra, I thoroughly disagree with Brunnhölzl (and Sangharakshita) over what the Heart Sutra is about or how it was intended to work.

Brunnhölzl begins by stating:

“One thing we can safely say about the Heart Sutra is that it is completely crazy. If we read it, it does not make any sense.”

He goes on in this vein for quite some time. Why do people say things like this about the Heart Sutra? We know, from Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilisation, that “crazy” is an ambivalent term in Europe and her colonies, especially since the 19th century Romantic/Idealist movement in Europe (and the parallel of Transcendentalism in the USA). In the romanticized view, the madman often stumbles on the truth precisely because they lack rational faculties. In reality, being crazy is an entirely unromantic catastrophe. Madness is a terrible affliction and people who are insane are inevitably the most unhappy people of all. We should really stop trying to make it sexy.

By asserting the "craziness" of the Heart Sutra, Brunnhölzl can be seen to both acknowledge that the Heart Sutra is confusing for most readers and to celebrate that ongoing confusion as a positive. Like many Buddhists who tell us that we cannot possibly understand the Heart Sutra, he then goes on to tell us (without a hint of irony) exactly how to understand the Heart Sutra. And he does so without apparent confusion on his part. Conze was a master of this old rhetorical trick of intimating that he was a Master of secret knowledge that we was willing to share with us. 

When I read the text closely and across canonical languages, however, I arrive at a very different conclusion. For a start, there are several mistakes in the Sanskrit text, as edited by Conze. I have outlined these errors in my published articles and shown how to resolve them and have recently submitted some revised editions to a peer-reviewed journal (fingers crossed). There are also several ancient mistakes in the Chinese text. These were detailed by Matthew Orsborn aka Huifeng (2014). And when we deal with all these textual errors the whole business of paradox and contradiction simply disappears. There are no contradictions in the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is not "crazy", not even a tiny bit. Then again, nor is it a text for beginners. It has a context and that context can take some years of study to understand. And I've had to do that without a teacher. 

At any time since Conze published his edition in 1948, the mistakes he made could have been repaired. Illustrious scholars (including Brunnhölzl), deeply versed in Buddhist canonical languages and doctrines, have read the text and simply overlooked all of these problems. It appears that when one expects nonsense in a text, one is unable to distinguish between simple grammatical errors and genuine mysticism. Readers should keep in mind that all modern translations are based on faulty recensions of the text. If something doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably a mistake.

The “crazy” approach of asserting that all contradictions are true (A is not-A) was very much an aspect of D.T. Suzuki’s approach to Zen Buddhism and was taken up enthusiastically by Edward Conze. Conze had already arrived at similar conclusions while he was a grad student. His dissertation on Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction was published in 1932, but subsequently burned with other Marxist tracts by the Nazis (meaning that Conze's doctoral-level academic qualification was incomplete). Both men’s views on this were shaped by their reading of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā (incongruously) known as the Diamond Sutra. In 2006, Paul Harrison showed that Suzuki and Conze had misread the Vajracchedikā. The apparent contradictions they saw there are based on a misunderstanding of the Sanskrit grammar (which does not occur in the Tibetan translations). Richard H. Jones has independently confirmed this in his work. Rather, the Vajracchedikā takes what is generally called a “nominalist” approach of asserting that abstractions are not entities, they are ideas about entities. Just because we have a name for an idea, does not make it a thing. 

There are no contradictions in the Heart Sutra and no contradictions in the Diamond Sutra. There are only contradictions in the minds of Buddhists who cannot adequately parse a Sanskrit text.

Another problem highlighted by both Jones and Huifeng is the tendency to read Prajñāpāramitā through a Madhyamaka filter or, worse, as unadorned Madhyamaka. Although there is a old Buddhist tradition of doing so, it is wholly unjustified and distorts the message of the texts. We need to be clear that Prajñāpāramitā is neither Madhyamaka nor proto-Madhyamaka. I suspect, but cannot yet prove that Madhyamaka had begun to influence Prajñāpāramitā by the time the Large Texts (in 18k, 25k, and 100k lines) began to be produced. 

As Sue Hamilton has said of early Buddhism, it was not concerned with whether or not something exists, nor with what something is or is not. Rather, early Buddhists were concerned with experience and the cessation of experience. Commenting on his repaired text of the Heart Sutra, Huifeng (2014) argued that it suggested the necessity of an epistemic approach to the Heart Sutra. In my recent article (2022) on Prajñāpāramitā and cessation, I started to outline what such an epistemic approach would look like. Here I will précis that approach (at the risk of oversimplification).

Since Jan Nattier’s (1992) landmark article we have known that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese text. This result has been independently verified by Huifeng (2014) and by me (see esp Attwood 2021). Huifeng (2014) showed that where the Sanskrit Heart Sutra text reads aprāptitvād, the Chinese text has a jargon term—yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故—coined by Kumārajīva specifically to translate anupalambhayogena “by means of practising nonapprehension”. This discovery has some major implications. For one thing, this fact can only be explained as a translation error going from Chinese to Sanskrit, not the other way around. The term anupalambhayogena is frequently used in the Large Prajñāpāramitā Text to qualify statements. So, for example, in Chapter 16 of Conze’s Large Text translation (p. 153 ff.) we see this term being used to qualify answers to the question “What is Mahāyāna?” It turns out to be the thirty-seven bodhipakṣa-dharma, but with this qualification, i.e. “by practising nonapprehension” (tac cānupalambhayogena). Note that Conze mistranslates this term as “without a basis” about half the time. 

The essence of Prajñāpāramitā practice, in this view, is nonapprehension (anupalambha). Huifeng, Anālayo, and I all independently realised that this must relate to the Pāli Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121) which describes a meditation practice in which one withdraws attention from sensory experience causing it to stop arising and ultimately leaving the meditator in a state called suññatāvihāra "dwelling in absence [of sensory experience]. In parallel texts from the Chinese Āgama translations, this is referred to as kōng sānmèi 空三昧 (Skt śūnyatā-samādhi) (Choong 1999).

Let us look more closely at what one of the “crazier” passages says. This part of the text begins “In absence” (Ch. kōng zhōng 空中; Skt. śūnyatāyām). That is to say, in the samādhi of absence. In my view, this refers to a person who is meditating and has undergone the cessation of sensory experience (saṃjñā-vedayita-nirodha) and now dwells in the absence (śūnyatā) of sensory experience. In that state, no dharmas can arise because the conditions for their arising are absent. In standard dependent-arising doctrine, the absence of the condition prevents the consequent state from occurring. What follows is a list of lists, in which each member of the lists is negated. What no one realised until Huifeng (2014) was that there is a second qualification that comes immediately afterwards. As noted above, Huifeng shows that the lists are followed by this word, yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 and this means “by practising nonapprehension” (anupalambhayogena) rather than the usual “from a state of non-attainment" (aprāptitvāt). This tells us how the interlocutor arrived in the state in which one or more of the necessary conditions for the arising of sensory experience, usually attention, is absent.

Now, if I am in this state, then by definition there is no sensory experience. The existence of this state is confirmed by numerous accounts of meditation and now by neuroscientific studies. In this state, the skandhas, as the apparatus of sensory experience (c.f. Sue Hamilton 2000), have stopped functioning. The content of experience is minimal or absent. All of the categories of Buddhism are absent for anyone who is in that state. The text does not say that sensory experiences don’t exist, let alone that objects don’t exist. The whole rhetoric of existence and non-existence is irrelevant, as Elder Subhūti tells Elder Śāriputra in Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā.

In other words, this is not, as popularly supposed, a statement that “form doesn’t exist” or a repudiation of the basic categories of Buddhist analysis. Instead, this is a straightforward statement about what it is like for sensory experience to stop, and why this state is the acme of Buddhism. It boils down to this: in the absence of sensory experience there is no sensory experience. This is so not crazy that it seems positively boring.

Another famously “crazy” passage comes a little earlier and equates kōng 空 (śūnyatā) with 色 (rūpa). We usually see this translated as “form is emptiness” and so on. Some translators and scholars persist in mistranslating rūpa as “matter” but this is an egregious mistake. In Sanskrit, rūpa means “outward appearance; visage”; it never connotes substance or matter. In Buddhist terms, rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear. We don’t hear the sound of a conch by cramming the shell into our ear canal. Sounds waves emanate from the object and stimulate our hearing sense at a distance. Buddhists intuited that something similar happened with sight, but they didn’t understand the physics of light well enough to just say, “Light reflected from the object hits the eye”. Rather they intuited that something (which they referred to as rūpa “appearance”) was given off by an object and it was this that crossed the distance between object and subject and hit the eye causing a visual experience. This understanding is reflected in the Chinese choice of 色 to translate rūpa. In Medieval Chinese, 色 meant “outward appearance” and in modern Chinese, it means “colour”. Most scholars try to say that rūpa-skandha must be something other than rūpa. Hamilton (2000) opts to refer to it as "body". In my view this must be incorrect. It is rather that rūpa, the appearance of a visual percept is here a metonym for all sensory appearances. (I've explained this recently in a blogpost: Notes on Translating the Skandhas (16 September 2022). 

To understand this passage, we have to dig. We know for example, that the Large Text is an expansion of the Small or 8000 Line Text. Incidentally, the small/large (xiǎo 小/ 大) distinction was invented by Kumārajīva in the fifth century. Although the Large Text contains a lot of new material, we can often identify the corresponding passages in the Small Text. When we do this for the phrase rūpaṃ śūnyatā, we don’t immediately find anything. This is because in the Small Text the phrase is rūpaṃ māyā, i.e. “appearance is an illusion”. This statement does not exist in a vacuum, it occurs throughout Buddhist literature often in the form of a simile: rūpaṃ māyopamaṃ “appearance is like an illusion”. In his book, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism, Choong Mun-Keat (1999) has noted many instances of the word śūnyatā being shoehorned into Buddhist texts which didn’t originally include it. This reflects, I think, the growing influence of Madhyamaka and appears to have affected the Large Text much more than the Small.

The appearance of a sensory experience can be likened to an illusion, i.e. the illusion that is sensory experience. This is in no way paradoxical or contradictory. It certainly does not involve holding contradictory statements to be true. It is not at all crazy. Indeed, the idea that sensory experience is a kind of “illusion” is rather banal these days. We know that experience and reality are governed by different rules. Just because we represent the world to ourselves based on sensory experience, does not mean that the objective world is not real or nonexistent.

The Heart Sutra is demonstrably not “crazy”. The idea that it is or was “crazy” is rooted in misunderstanding the text and its practical context (especially the śūnyatā-samādhi). This is not to say that Buddhists are not fascinated by paradox, because evidently they are. Historically, however, contradiction played no role at all in Buddhist thought before Nāgārjuna. As Huifeng (2016) argues, the association of Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka is not a given. The two earliest known Heart Sutra commentaries, from the late seventh century, both eschew the Madhyamaka connection in favour of a Yogācāra-inspired interpretation. To be fair, the Yogācāra reading is only marginally more coherent. It still stuffs the Heart Sutra in a box that it was not made to fit.

It is not until we begin to read Prajñāpāramitā as Prajñāpāramitā, i.e. until we pay attention to both text and context, that we begin to glimpse what the author(s) wanted us to see. Buddhists have long practised the techniques for bringing sensory experience to a halt. This is an aspect of early Buddhism, with hints that it might predate Buddhism (c.f. Anālayo 2022). And it means we need to step back from Madhyamaka metaphysics and consider Huifeng’s suggestion that we read the text more as epistemology than metaphysics. I find that Buddhism makes a great deal more sense when I take this approach. That is to say, I now read everything in Buddhist texts as being principally concerned with experience and the cessation of experience and I don't have to deal with any contradictions or paradoxes. The craziness is adventitious, not inherent. That is to say, it is projected onto the text, it does not emerge from the contents of the text. Contradiction plays no role in Prajñāpāramitā despite the central role it has in the thought of D. T. Suzuki and Conze 

In this sense, Karl Brunnhölzl was right; studying the Heart Sutra did change my life. Not because "the Heart Sutra is crazy" but because I discovered that the Heart Sutra is not crazy. The Heart Sutra began to make a lot more sense when I dropped all the "crazy" nonsense and the unsupported metaphysical speculation and began to read it as being concerned with experience. Moreover, by applying this hermeneutic across the board, I was finally able to reconcile being a faith-type Buddhist with my love of science. Epistemic Buddhism does not encroach on the subject matter of science (i.e. ontology) leaving almost no room for conflict, whereas metaphysical Buddhism (which purports to inform us on the nature of reality) is almost a complete bust.


Further Reading

Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation. Windhorse Publications.

——. 2021. “Being Mindful of What is Absent.” Mindfulness 13: 1671-1678.

Attwood, J. (2021) “The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese and Sanskrit Texts.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44: 13–52.

——. (2022). “The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy.” International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture 32(1):111-148.

Brunnhölzl, Karl. (2017) “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever”. Lion’s Roar September 29, 2017. https://www.lionsroar.com/the-heart-sutra-will-change-you-forever/

Choong, Mun-keat. (1999). The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism. 2nd. Ed. Motilal Banarsidass.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Harrison, Paul. (2006) “Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra.” In Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III), 133-159. Hermes Publishing, Oslo.

Huifeng. (2014). “Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: Non-attainment, Apprehension, and Mental Hanging in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 6: 72-105.

——. (2016). Old School Emptiness: Hermeneutics, Criticism, and Tradition in the Narrative of Śūnyatā. Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Fo Guang Shan. Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

Jones, Richard H. (2012). The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and Other Perfection of Wisdom Texts. New York: Jackson Square Books.

Nattier, Jan. (1992). “The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15 (2) 153-223

16 September 2022

Notes on Translating the Skandhas

I dislike it when translators adopt idiosyncratic translations, since they tend to dislocate us from the source text and the general body of translations. That said, I find some standard translations of Buddhist technical terms incomprehensible, even after almost thirty years of being Buddhist. To date I've only published a full-length article on one such term: vedanā. The vedanā article in Contemporary Buddhism (Attwood 2018) introduced the idea of "Humpty Dumpty linguistics" to Buddhist Studies (though with nods to Lewis Carroll, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others who first described these cases). Most linguists in our field are fully committed to the semantic paradigm in which meaning is inherent in morphemes.

If we take this approach with vedanā however, we learn that the word comes from the causative root √ved "cause to know", from √vid "to know, understand, learn, be acquainted with, etc". The -ana suffix is used for actions nouns, that is nouns that name actions. So vedana means something like "that which causes knowledge", or as Monier-Williams defines it: "announcing, proclaiming, making known". As with a number of other Buddhist technical terms, the word is then used in the feminine gender vedanā, presumably to mark it as a technical term (as far as I know, this feature of the Buddhist lexicon has yet to be studied).

To be clear, a noun in Sanskrit cannot change its gender except when it is the second member of an adjectival compound, in which case it takes the case, gender, and number of the noun (or pronoun) it describes. Only adjectives routinely change their gender. Thus the existence of a form like vedanā is hard to explain using etymology and semantics. Wittgenstein pointed out:

“For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Wittgenstein 1967, section 43)

This passage is often condensed into "meaning is use", which is not a bad rule of thumb despite the impression compared to what he actually said. Vedanā is a case in point. Buddhists use it to mean "the positive and negative hedonic responses to the appearance (rūpa) of sensory experiences." And this is completely unrelated to its etymology. Translators have long argued whether these hedonic responses constitute "feelings" or "sensations", but really they are neither, they are hedonic responses, i.e. the judgement that something experienced is pleasant or unpleasant. Neuroscience has a term for this, i.e. valence. "Valence" is itself and example of Humpty Dumpty linguistics. The etymological sense is "strength, strong, etc"; from which we might take it to refer to "that which stands out". The use here also seems to draw on the chemistry sense of "capacity to form combinations": atoms that gain valence electrons are "electronegative" and those that lose them are "electropositive". And the amount of electro-positivity or -negativity is called the atom's "valency". Terms like "ferrous" and "ferric" for iron compounds reflect the different valencies of iron atoms. Incidentally, what do you call a load of Fe2+ ions in a circle? A ferrous wheel. (About all I remember from 2nd year inorganic chemistry). 

In what follows, I take a pragmatic approach, informed by my epistemic reading of Buddhists texts generally, and argue for a new approach to translating the skandhas. I pay attention both to pragmatic and prosodic factors rather than merely relying on semantics and the etymological fallacy. 

Conze’s translation of skandha as “heap” makes no sense, even as a metaphor, though it does seem to have some roots in later Buddhism. I have never found the standard translation—“aggregate”—helpful either. An aggregate (singular) is a loose collection of similar parts with no structure. One skandha is not an aggregate, and all together simply cannot be "the aggregates" (plural). In other words, the usual translations are incoherent. Conze was a great one for saying that logic had no place in Prajñāpāramitā, an attitude he developed at least ten years before he learned Sanskrit, as a graduate student in Germany ca 1928-1932. But he was wrong about logic generally, wrong about the role of logic in Buddhism, and wrong about the presence of logic-defying contradictions in Prajñāpāramitā texts. Rather, Mr Conze simply misunderstood the texts.

I've dug into both the etymology and use of skandha previously (e.g., Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics 2013) and concluded that the main reference is to "branching", though this is debatable, it suits my purposes very well. In 2021, I did a series of essays on the khandhas in Pāli according to Sue Hamilton (2000) and Tilmann Vetter (2000), the two most extensive surveys of the idea of the skandhas in Pāli, summed up here: Skandha 2021; individual essays begin here: Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Intro and Rūpa (2020).

Sue Hamilton (2000) refers to the skandhas as the “apparatus of experience”, which I think is a useful way of thinking about them. However, a detailed comparison of Hamilton (2000) and Vetter (2000),revealed one main weakness in both accounts: both place entirely too much emphasis on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) which turns out to be misleading.

rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear

Rūpa cannot mean “matter” for example, though it is frequently translated that way. Nor, contra both Hamilton and Vetter, can it mean “body”. Rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear. That is to say, rūpa does not refer to substance, it refers to outward appearance, to how things appear. In the Khajjanīya Sutta, rūpa is glossed as related to ruppati “it destroys” but I discovered a passage in Sanskrit that suggests this is simply a mistake. The noun rūpa is completely unrelated to the verbal root √rup “destroy, harm”. In a similar passage in Aṣṭa, the verb is rūpayati which is a denominative verb (e.g. like the verb medalling “to receive a medal”). Rūpa means “appearance” and rūpayati means “to appear”. And rūpa-skandha is a metonym for the general appearance of any sensory experience in the sensorium. That is to say rūpa reflects coming into sensory contact with an object: light hitting the eye, sound waves hitting the ear, chemicals wafting into the nose, etc. This is what kicks off sensory experience according to early Buddhist texts.

Our immediate response is hedonic, we enjoy the appearance or we don’t. Traditionally, as I said above, vedanā is the positive or negative hedonic response to sensory experience. Although it is less well known that some of the preferred translations, this concept actually corresponds very closely to what neuroscientists, such as Lisa Feldman-Barrett (2017) calls "valence". Valence means precisely the positive and negative hedonic response to sensory experience.

Saṃjñā is typically translated as "perception", but we can already see that this cannot be right. We must already have perceived an object in order to experience it, and in vedanā we are already experiencing it. In ordinary Sanskrit, saṃjñā is used in the sense of "designation" or "name". One of the main senses of the word is “to acknowledge or recognise” something. What we recognise at this point is the experience itself. This is where we discern the sui generis characteristics of the experience and put a name to the experience. Sui generis is more or less identical with the Sanskrit term svabhāva, at least as used in early Buddhist and Abhidharma literature. It was Nāgārjuna who introduced the idea that svabhāva means autopoietic, i.e. self-creating, the (faintly ridiculous) idea that something can be a condition for its own existence. Nāgārjuna insists that for something to be real, it must have svabhāva qua autopoiesis. Since nothing has or can have svabhāva in this sense, nothing is real. And hence many Buddhists (rightly) saw Madhyamaka as nihilistic.

Saṃskāra is a borrowed word and we get a sense of how Buddhists used it from looking at the original context. In Brahmanical religions, saṃskāra denotes a rite of passage: birth, death, marriage, first born son, etc. During such rites, the priests carry out specific ritual actions (karman). Thus a saṃskāra is "an occasion for performing karma". And this is why we say that samskāra is linked to volitions and explained by various types of cetanā "intention".

Finally, the one thing that vijñāna absolutely cannot mean is “consciousness” since there is no parallel concept in Buddhism because Buddhists resisted reifying sensory experience. Rather I take vijñāna to suggest that we discern the sensory experience as related to an object. This is the final stage in the objectification of experience. Something appears in our sensorium, we have a hedonic response, we recognise the experience and put a name to it, our hedonic responses drive karmic actions (those that contribute to rebirth), and finally we identify the object itself.


The skandhas, then, refer to a process of objectification of experience. This is how Iron Age Buddhists thought that humans processed sensory experience. The word itself probably means something like "branch" and the pañca skandhāḥ are "the five branches of experience". Individually the branches refer to

  • Rūpa = appearance
  • Vedanā = valence
  • Saṃjñā = recognition [of the experience]
  • Saṃskāra = volition, i.e. an opportunity for karma
  • Vijñāna = discrimination of the object one is perceiving.

And this account is far more coherent than any other I have come across. Moreover, properly contextualised by the absence of sensory experience it helps to explain Buddhist approaches to meditation and insight. This helps explain, for example, why withdrawing attention from sensory experience leads to an altered mental state in which we do not objectify experience.

As scholars and Buddhists both, we have to keep in mind that this is an Iron Age account of human perception. We live more than twenty centuries after it was current and we know a great deal more about this process now.

That said, the framework retains some usefulness for Buddhists as a framework for reflecting on the nature of sensory experience. By identifying such aspects in experience and noting that experience all has the same nature: i.e. experience is ephemeral, compared to the absence of experience it is unsatisfactory, and within experience, no entity (no thing) is to be found.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I have to insist that the absence of sense experience in samādhi is essential for contextualising Buddhist ideas. Moreover it is the metaphysically reticent accounts of this that are crucial: samādhi tells us nothing about reality, except that it allows for sapient beings to cut themselves off from sensory experience, ride out the effects of sensory deprivations, and arrive at a state of absence, cessation, extinction, etc. Without this perspective we are bound to come to the wrong conclusions about what Buddhists were getting at.

Of course a good deal of modern Buddhism completely lacks this perspective. Theravādins, for example, completely gave up on awakening, despite preserving instructions for how to attain it. They eventually abandoned meditation in favour of dry analysis of mental states. Traditions of awakening continued to exist in Mahāyāna Buddhist milieus however. Absence was still cultivated and still occurred in some meditators leading to traditions of "non-dual awareness".



Attwood, J. (2018). "Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass." Contemporary Buddhism, 18(3): 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959

Wittgenstein, L. 1967. Philosophical Investigations (3rd Ed). Basil Blackwell, 1986.

09 September 2022

On the Historicity of the Buddha in the Absence of Historical Evidence

I recently posted an appreciation of David Drewes' recent IABS conference presentation on the historicity of the Buddha to a Triratna Buddhist Order forum and got bushwhacked by a couple of traditionalists who both have PhDs. Let me tell you that PhD-level trolling is something else entirely and it did my head in for a while. Worse, Drewes (whom I admire greatly) was targeted by these doctors for ad hominem slurs based on strawman arguments, and I was tarred with the same brush. The insult du jour is "positivist": which is what they call anyone who asks for evidence for an assertion that we all know is not supported by any evidence. It was one of the most spectacular examples of patriarchal white male gatekeeping I've seen in a while.

One of the things I noted was that arguments for the historicity of the Buddha take much the same form as arguments for the existence of God. I could see that one of the good doctors was in favour of the ontological argument, for example. I thought it might be interesting to see how these arguments work. But let me begin by stating the problem.

The figure of the Buddha is ubiquitous in the Pāli suttas. We may glean all kinds of information about him from reading the Pāli suttas and their counterparts in Gāndhārī and translations into Sanskrit and Chinese. What we cannot do is definitely link the Buddha with any historical event or fact. There is no archaeology of the Buddha, for example. There are no contemporary coins or artworks that feature his image or symbol. There are no inscriptions or texts. There are no mentions of the Buddha or even early Buddhism in the texts of other (non-Buddhist) communities. Moreover, it turns out that no figure from the Pāli suttas, including the kings, can be linked to any historical evidence. The kings named in Pāli do not appear, for example, in the old Purānic lists of kings that do include Asoka. Worse, there are two different biographies of the Buddha in the Pāli suttas that disagree about substantive details. 

And this is a problem for academic historians. That is, it is a problem for those whose job is to produce and teach objective accounts of history if there is no objective evidence to draw on. If there is no evidence from which to construct an objective narrative, academic historians are bound to say nothing or to mark anything they do say as speculation. Academic historians are not barred from speculation, but they cannot treat speculation as a form of knowledge. When we speculate that the Buddha was a real person this does not imply that we know this. Rather, if speculation is all we have, then we don't know. And if someone makes a claim to knowledge, this begs the question: How does that person know?

So at present, academic historians in Buddhist Studies have a problem in that they are tacitly taking speculation as knowledge. This is not necessarily a problem for anyone else. Religieux tell stories about the Buddha for reasons other than composing and teaching objective history. We tell stories to inspire, edify, affirm, and indoctrinate the audience with the views of our religion. The historicity of the Buddha is not generally speaking a problem for religious believers, because they simply believe without objective evidence. Like every other religious person on the planet believes what they believe.

The best we can do with objective history of the beginnings of Buddhism is locate the stories in cities that we do know existed. I have wandered through the ruins of Sāvatthī and Rājagaha, for example. They were real cities. And archaeology tells us that these city states began to emerge around seventh century BCE. We know what kind of pottery they made and we can contrast it with the contemporary pottery of the Brahmins living in Punjab. This tells us something about the cultures involved but not about any individual in those cultures.

That is to say, it is not that we lack any contemporary archaeological evidence. In fact, we have a good deal of evidence, it's just that it does not mention or even indirectly refer to the Buddha in any way. It is as though the cities are real but the people in the stories are not. It's easy to imagine why a storyteller might adopt this device of setting mythic stories in real places. In a feudal age where kings had absolute authority, it would not do to portray them in a poor light because they might just kill you (entirely legally). Moreover, by the time of Asoka, because of the rising power of monarchs, the Buddhist community had become dependent on royal patronage in addition to the support of wealthy merchants.

The first historical person in Indian history is Asoka. We can link Asoka to any number of historical facts and figures: inscriptions, art, architecture, mentions in foreign literature, and links with kings of bactria who dates are well attested. Either of Charles Allen's (popular history) books The Buddha and the Sahibs or Ashoka contain good outlines of this evidence and how it was discovered (the two books overlap substantially in content).

By contrast the stories about the Buddha all have a strongly religious character. They almost always include some supernatural element, a feature that intensifies in texts from later periods. A figure whose main features include supernatural powers is difficult to locate in an objective historical narrative, since objectively there are no supernatural powers. Objectivity is not neutral. No objective history includes accounts of supernatural powers because such powers are a product of the religious imagination.

Though most people believe that the Buddha existed, Drewes argues that academic historians are bound to use a higher evidential bar, and all things considered the Buddha does not meet that bar. As a result Drewes argues that academic historians should not continue to speak of the Buddha as an historical person. He is a figure of myth and legend.

Drewes is specific about who his target audience is: it is academic historians. It is not Buddhists per se, except where they are also academic historians, which is quite often in Buddhist Studies. So having established this, let's look at how Buddhists argue for the historicity of the Buddha, using a framework I've cribbed from a popular philosophy book (i.e. 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know by Ben Dupré).

The Teleological Argument (or Argument from Design)

In this approach, the theologian argues that the "beauty, order, complexity, and apparent purpose" observed in the world cannot have come about by chance. Some mind or intelligent force had to shape things to make them so perfect. And in our case that intelligent force was the Buddha.

In 1802, the theologian William Paley used the phrase "the divine watchmaker" to reflect a mechanistic view of this argument. It was this that gave Richard Dawkins the idea of referring to evolution by natural selection as "the blind watchmaker". But any view of evolution with a "watchmaker" in it is teleological. There is no watchmaker. The "watch" makes and remakes itself in this case, by evolving according to patterns that seem to be properties of the universe.

Applied to the Pāli suttas we see this argument at various levels of sophistication. The most brute form of this is "The Pāli suttas exist, therefore the Buddha exists". A more sophisticated version says that the stories are too complex, too connected by an "underlying unity", too realistic, for the Buddha not to have been an historical person.

As one of my doctorate-holding detractors said, "Why go to all that trouble if the Buddha wasn't real?" This simply begs the question, "Why do religions create and transmit religious stories at all?" This is not a hard question to answer.

We use stories, images, and symbols because people relate more strongly to stories with people in them. They also relate strongly to what Justin L Barrett (2004) calls minimally counterintuitive elements, like animals playing the parts of people or supernatural powers. Indeed, research cited by Barrett seems to show that embedding one's message in a story with minimally counterintuitive elements makes it more memorable. So a Buddha with supernatural powers occupies our minds more strongly that a Buddha without them. Just as a talking wolf is what makes the story of Little Red Riding-Hood so memorable and so useful as a warning against naïveté.

We tell stories, including religious stories, to communicate values, attitudes, and ideas. And we use storytelling devices to reinforce the message. We think of the narrative arc or structure, characterisation, world-building, and so on. The best stories combine the best of each element. There is no doubt, for example, that the Buddha we meet in Pāli is a compelling character, even if the prose is generally turgid and repetitive. The settings of the stories do a good job of world building. And so on.

The problem is that no evidence exists outside of the stories that supports the idea of an historical Buddha. Which may be fine for believers, but we are considering the position of the academic historian.

We might ask, for example, if can we imagine this body of literature emerging and taking the form that it does, in the absence of a human founder of Buddhism. And I have no problem at all imagining this. However, I cannot conclude from this that I know that the Buddha did not exist. On the contrary, I am admitting my ignorance: I don't know if the Buddha was an actual person or not. And this is my official position on the matter unless and until more evidence emerges. 

Still, if I don't know then, unless you have better evidence than I have access to, then you don't know either. And if you have new evidence then, as an academic historian you are bound to publish it in order to be taken seriously. As of today (9 Sept 2022) no such evidence has been published. Academic historians do not know if the Buddha was a real person. No one knows. 

A body of literature was surely shaped by some human mind or minds. But it need not have been the Buddha. Humans have been telling mythic stories for as long as we have had language, which is likely in the order of 200,000 years (On the antiquity of human mythology see Witzel 2012). But the early Buddhist texts are very pluralistic and are clearly shaped by more than one mind. Below I will discuss the hidden (in plain sight) pluralism of dependent arising. Now let us looks at some of the main arguments that theologians have tried for the existence of God and how Buddhists use similar arguments. 

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument in its simplest form is that "Nothing can come from nothing". Everything is caused by something other than itself (autopoiesis is just as forbidden for European intellectuals as it was for Nāgārjuna).

This is a form of argument that we see a lot in Buddhism because of our emphasis on phenomena having necessary conditions. The logic follows from the Buddhist axiom that "things arise in dependence on conditions". The trick is what we mean by "things". There is no doubt that the majority of contemporary Buddhists mean "everything" by this, indeed "every possible thing". For modern Buddhists, dependent arising is their theory of everything. As Evitar Shulman has said, there is no reason to believe that early Buddhists intended this explanation to go further than mental activity or that they saw it as a theory of everything. Many historians of Buddhist ideas now believe that the received interpretation came along substantially later. What we see in the early texts is not this metaphysical speculation, but a rather smaller epistemic claim: all mental phenomena arise in dependence on conditions. And the main condition is attention. Withdraw attention and sensory experience ceases. And then life starts to get interesting.

One form of this argument—everything happens for a reason—is known as the teleological fallacy.

Reasons are ideas or propositions evinced by humans to explain their actions in terms of internal states such as motivations, desires, etc or external circumstances such as peer pressure, coercion, etc. As Mercier and Sperber (2016) have argued, reasons qua explanations of actions, are entirely post-hoc. Careful study of reasons and reasoning shows that our decisions are mainly driven by unconscious inferences, and then consciously justified only in retrospect. And reasons are subject to all the usual biases and fallacies. For example, we tend to settle on the first plausible reason that comes into our mind (anchoring bias). We tend seek confirmation of our stated reason, rejecting any counterfactual information (confirmation bias). And so on.

Outside of human and animal behaviour it is not even true to say that everything that happens can be traced to a cause. Causation is tricky, especially after David Hume (1711–1776), who pointed out that we never observe causation per se, we only ever observe sequences of events. "Causation" seems to be a structure that we impose on experience to make sense of it rather than a feature of reality. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) developed this idea by showing that metaphysics generally are imposed on experience by us, rather than emerging from within experience.

Against this is our everyday experience of causing things to happen by desiring them to happen. As John Searle (1932– ) is fond of saying "I think about my arm going up, and the damn thing goes up" (always accompanied by the appropriate action). That is the archetype of causation for human beings. Although philosophers often prefer to discuss causation in the abstract, I think this is both a red herring and an intellectual cul de sac. That said, our experience of causing things doesn't generalise to a theory of causation. Physical processes don't involve an agent having a desire. A rock rolling down a hill follows the applicable physical laws, but it has no agency. It cannot chose not to roll down hill, for example. A rock rolling down a hill is simply following inherent patterns of the evolution of matter and energy over time. There is, at the very least, an epistemic distinction between agent driven change and non-agentive change. They follow different patterns that we are pretty good at distinguishing. 

Moreover where we have been able to identify non-agentive patterns of change, which were known as Laws by nineteenth century natural philosophers, they don't include the concept of causation. When we examine classical laws of motion or laws of thermodynamics, for example, there is no term that indicates "causation". When we see a classical law like F=ma we assume or intuit that the force causes the acceleration, but this is not the case. Rather it tells us how to calculate the magnitude and direction of the force having observed an accelerating mass. It does not tell us anything about causation. Forces do affect how matter behaves, but the idea of causation is just that, an idea. An idea we project onto the situation, when it fact it only exists in our minds. 

The cosmological argument for the Buddha goes like this. The Pāli suttas exist, therefore they must have had a cause. For Buddhists that cause is assumed to be the Buddha. Since the Pāli suttas exist, the Buddha must have caused them existed. According to this view, if Buddhism is not the product of the Buddha, then it is incoherent. One has to be careful here, because there is much about the Pāli literature than is incoherent. One will not find a coherent theory of karma and rebirth, for example. One will find numerous contradictions in the stories. And so on. 

There is a further fallacy about the Pāli suttas that contributes to this and other arguments for the Buddha, which is often phrased in terms of "underlying unity". In this view, observers claim to see a uniformity of expression and thought that the suttas must have been conceived by a single mind. That mind was the Buddha's mind, even if the Buddha is not accurately portrayed in the stories. Without the idea of the Buddha, many people apparently struggle to make sense of Buddhism (the many beloved characters of fictional literature notwithstanding). 

The absence of evidence often forces those who try the cosmological argument to retreat into a god-of-the-gaps approach. Since the Buddha cannot be found in the evidence, he must exist in the absence of evidence. This stymies any discussion since insisting on the absence of evidence does not refute a god-of-the-gaps argument, because it relies on the absence of evidence. And it becomes rather like trying to have a discussion about anything with a Mādhyamika: pointless.

Aesthetic Arguments

Some Buddhists argue that they don't give a focaccia about history, it just feels right to believe in the Buddha. Or it just "makes sense", i.e. they find it intuitive. This is often followed by a denunciation of reason, reasoning, intellect, or anything other than aesthetic judgement when considering the historicity of the Buddha. The obvious intellectual influence here is Romanticism, i.e. sensibility over sense. Although the English Romantic movement itself was short-lived, the impact on English intellectuals is still profound. In Triratna, for example, Romanticism is sometimes equated with Buddhism without qualification. For those who take this approach, the poems of English Romantic poems appear to have the same status as Pāli suttas. I'm definitely not on board with this. Romanticism is an ideology and the English Romantic poets were a bunch of feckless aristocrats out of the heads on drugs half the time.  

Since the evidence for the Buddha is inconclusive, at best, some Buddhist adopt a version of Pascal's wager: all things considered it is best to act as if the Buddha was a real person, because if we are right then we are right and it's all good, but if we are wrong there is still the consolation of acting correctly according to Buddhist norms (which Buddhists hold to be the highest form of morality). The Buddhist argues that it is better to be a Buddhist than not to be. Funny that. 

Drewes, however, was talking about academic historians doing academic historiography. As historians we are bound to take the evidence seriously. In the absence of evidence we may speculate, but this has to be sharply distinguished from a claim to knowledge. If we are speculating, then we don't know. As an academic historian, one has to be able to say "We don't know". And in the case of the Buddha, we really just do not know.


Positivism is a particularly rigid idea about what constitutes evidence, usually in relation to the empirical sciences. Positivists are rigidly empirical about evidence: if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist.

The false claim put forward by the two doctors was that Drewes and I were excluding valid evidence on ideological (i.e. positivist) grounds. The evidence we are excluding from objective history is the Pāli suttas themselves. And we are excluding them in particular ways. I have no doubt, for example, that the Pāli suttas reflect the culture in which they were written. 

This is completely uncontroversial in the case of the Pāli commentaries. For example, the commentaries construct elaborate family trees for the Buddha and other characters linked to him. But these family trees exhibit a preference for marriage patterns that only exist (in India) amongst Dravidians and their neighbours in Sri Lanka. We see, for example, an emphasis on cross-cousin marriage. A cross-cousin is a first cousin from your parent's sibling of the other gender. So, a Sri Lankan boy might be married to his father's sister's daughter, or to his mother's brother's daughter. Either way, first cousin marriage was considered incest in North India and it is presently illegal to marry a first cousin in India. By contrast in Sri Lanka first cousin marriages are normal, a custom absorbed from Dravidian India, and presently legal. So when the commentaries composed in Sri Lanka make cross-cousin marriage a feature of the Buddha's family, we know that this reflects Sri Lankan culture not the Buddha's culture. 

Those who assert that the Buddha is an historical person ought to be prepared to say how they know. But when you ask them this open, perfectly valid, and not at all positivist question, those who assert the existence of the Buddha respond with one or other of the theological arguments outlined above. But none of those arguments holds water for academic historians.

It should be noted that nowhere in mainstream academia, except perhaps in Christian Studies, does any academic accept these arguments applied to the existence of God. And no Buddhist has ever defended these arguments for God, even when they use exactly the same form of argument for the existence of the Buddha. There are differences, of course, since the Buddha can't be held responsible for the problem of evil, for example, despite being routinely referred to "omniscient" (sarvajñā "all knowing") in later texts. Nor is the Buddha is implicated in the creation of the universe either, though Buddhists still insist on a cyclic universe in blatant contradiction of the facts. We live in a universe that, as far as we know, was created once, and only once, and will exist forever. But still the forms of argument are recognisable.

The supposedly "authentic" texts routinely describe the Buddha in supernatural terms. He reads minds, he converses with gods, he goes to and from the god-realms, he flies, he does miracles, his tongue can cover his face, and so on. These magical elements of his character are only magnified as time goes on. The Buddha of the later hagiographies is far more magical and supernatural than in earlier stories. The plethora of Buddhas that replace Gautama, beginning with Akṣobhya and Amitābha, are almost completely magical and hardly human at all. They exist in other universes and cross the barriers to rescue us (from ourselves) if we only have faith and chant their name. I still have no idea where Bhaisājya Buddha ("the medicine Buddha) comes from or how he works. We have moved well away from Buddhism qua "philosophy", "moral system", or any other bowdlerised European way of talking about it.

As part of their denunciation of Drewes and I, one of the PhDs accused us of being positivist, and I want to circle back to this assertion.

What Kind of Historian am I?

I find it hard to credit that anyone would call me a positivist, though this is not the first time. I mean, just look at how I handle evidence in my history articles. We have to be quite flexible in many cases. I know for example that the Fangshan stele was commissioned on 13 March 661 because an inscribed colophon says so. The positivist might ask what evidence we have to support this date? I mean, the scribe could have been lying, right? We don't know the date of the Fangshan stele except when we assume that the scribe wasn't lying. The positivist would not accept this, but with some caution, I do. Because there are times when it is reasonable to trust the evidence, even as an academic historian. 

My approach is roughly speaking Bayesian. I look at all the possibilities based on what I currently know and give each a probability. All possibilities have a non-zero probability. Then I see what more I can learn and use what I've learned to reassess the probabilities. I don't do this formally. I don't, for example, assign numerical values for the probabilities. I weigh them up quite intuitively, though I'm usually more conscious of deciding which factors I consider salient to the question. I try to adopt the most likely position, but with a mind open to and actively seeking further evidence.

If we are dating the Heart Sutra then we know, for example, that the commonly cited date of 609 CE for the copying of the Hōryūji manuscript is objectively false. This date first appears in a Japanese book published in the 1800s. And it is widely acknowledged amongst academic historians that the book lacks credibility. Moreover, it contradicts more weighty evidence. The script and writing appear to be consistent with the 9th or 10th centuries. 

Also I have suggested that the Heart Sutra was composed after 654 CE, based on the assumption that Xīn jīng copied the dhāraṇī from Tuóluóní jí jīng 《陀羅尼集經》 (T 901). This text was translated by Atikūṭa in ca. 654 CE. It didn't arrive in China until ca 651 CE. Since the Xīn jīng has apparently copied the dhāraṇī in Chinese rather than Sanskrit we may conjecture that it was composed after 654 CE. I don't know this. But I think it is the most likely scenario given the evidence. It is of a piece with better established facts that I have discussed in my publications. No positivist would give this the time of day. 

Based on the present state of our knowledge, the Heart Sutra simply could not have existed in 609 CE and the Hōryūji manuscript itself is highly unlikely to be from that date.

Now this evidence is vague and my conclusions provisional. I'm proposing what seems like the most likely scenario, given the evidence. Where the evidence is vague or ambiguous discussion may ensue about which is the better interpretation of it. And in these circumstances we may expect historians to wade in and express opinions, but not to express their opinions as a kind of knowledge. The only escape from (typically ego-driven) opposition of opinion is to find and write about new evidence. Which is what I have been doing to the Heart Sutra for 10 years now. 

There is little point arguing about the existence of the Buddha until new evidence arrives. We've seen all the theological arguments for interpreting the texts as being the product of one person, but most academic historians find this far-fetched at best.

And so on. No one who took the time to read my historical scholarship could rightly accuse me of being a positivist. I'm far more flexible than that. I do try to be clear about how confident I am about various claims to knowledge, and in each case I have published the extensive arguments for what I take to be the case. Unlike some of my interlocutors, I don't make unsubstantiated claims in my published work and I do raise many still unanswered questions. I may indulge in more speculation informally, but the argument here is about academic historiography and, given that, I'd prefer to be judged on my publications in academic journals than on work completed under less rigorous conditions.

If you are going to accuse me of intellectual bad faith then you had better have a bit more on your side than not liking me or not liking my conclusions. You better not be promoting religious claptrap on the side. 

Objectivity is Not Neutral.

Modern academic historians, even the non-positivists, strive towards more objective accounts of history. At the same time we still argue about what "objective" means. I take it to mean that which is the same for all observers. Even then, seeing the objective requires clearing away the subjective, which we do by comparing notes (which is why scholarship is necessarily a dialogue).

One of the reasons history is so often about famous people and battles, about dates and numbers is that the objectivity of these can be confirmed with reference to multiple sources. Ancient history presents increasing problems as we go back in time because evidence simply no longer exists. Ancient written records, especially religious tracts are, generally speaking, highly unreliable historical sources, as any number of academic historians have said and continue to say.

These days the only people producing tracts with titles like "The authenticity of the Pāli Suttas" are Theravādin bhikkhus and their academic allies. I once upset Sujato by referring to him, in passing, as a Theravāda apologist, though this was some years before he and Brahmali published the apologetic tract just mentioned. Bhikkhus submit to the Vinaya (an Iron Age code of monastic etiquette) and notably take a life-long vow to refrain from all sexual activity. No one who is attempting to live such a vow can be objective about the circumstances in which the vow makes sense. Because, for most of us, monastic chastity makes no sense and has been demonstrably harmful. Yes? Having strong, lifelong commitments, that in turn shape one's role and status in one's community and beyond, makes it hard to be objective. Because if being objective disproves some basis on which your commitment is based, then you are in real danger of losing that role and that status.

An historical Buddha seems intuitive to a Buddhist who has spent decades talking about the Buddha as a special kind of person (a magical person, though perhaps not quite a god). Of course, the familiar seems intuitive to the person immersed in it. What always seems counter-intuitive is the new and novel. The sensibilities of Buddhists, therefore, have to be eliminated from consideration of academic history. We fully expect Buddhists to believe in the Buddha, but that belief is not evidence for the Buddha anymore than Christian faith is evidence for the existence of God.

The Buddhist anxiety about issues of legitimacy and authenticity seems quite universal. We see it in the earliest texts in which Buddhism is apparently a heterodox view that has to be carefully distinguished from other contemporary forms of religious asceticism. Buddhists were also at pains to insist that Buddhist methods were distinct from those of other religions, though there is some evidence to suggest that Buddhists inherited existing meditation techniques and modified them precisely to make such a distinction. Hence the complex position that we see in Pāli suttas on the respective jhāna and āyatana meditations and the weird combination of them both in some places.

The much vaunted "underlying unity" is clearly a figment of the imagination. And if you want a demonstration then I suggest looking into the various formulations of the nidānas. Here is the diagram I made when I was studying them:

I count seven distinct formulations of the nidānas, sometimes using completely different terminology. The underlying unity here seems to be "one thing leads to another" and I doubt even the most ardent Buddhist theologian would claim that this idea was profound or only found in Buddhism. Back in 2011, I did a blog on many historical examples of the idea that everything changes. A completely ubiquitous idea across cultures that owes nothing to Buddhism. It's just that Buddhists also noticed this thing that everyone notices eventually (getting older makes this a lot more clear).

And this is the norm. What we see in Pāli suttas is an unevenly imposed uniformity that barely hides a pluralistic past in which Buddhists believed a much broader range than can be accounted for in traditionalist approaches, including the modern Theravāda.


As I was thinking about this and scanning the historical literature I came across some academic accounts of why arguments are inherently adversarial. The problem according to Howes and Hundleby (2021), is that beliefs are not something we choose. Beliefs are involuntary. And this means, that whenever a believer enters into an argument they risk a belief-changing event and this makes for a certain kind of vulnerability.

This is interesting, because if true, it explains why Buddhists tend to be so vicious in debate (and my goodness Buddhists can be extremely vicious if their beliefs are challenged). Just being in a debate, they risk losing their faith and they fight as if that would be the end of the world. For example, a Theravāda bhikkhu with both institutional and ecclesiastical titles and privileges could lose both if they stopped believing. Even for a rank and file Buddhist, loss of faith might result in social isolation and loss of status. For a social primate these are very high stakes indeed.

By inadvertently starting an argument about the historicity of the Buddha with true believers (PhD's notwithstanding) I accidentally triggered that sense of vulnerability that all religieux have. 



Barrett, Justin L. (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Drewes, David. (2017). "The Idea of the Historical Buddha". JIABS 40: 1-25.DOI: 10.2143/JIABS.40.0.3269003

——. (2022). "The Buddha and the Buddhism That Never Was". XIXth Congress of IABS, Seoul, August 2022.

Howes, M., and Hundleby, C. (2021). "Adversarial Argument, Belief Change, and Vulnerability." Topoi 40, 859–872. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-021-09769-8

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

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

02 September 2022

Some Notes on Cessation and Prajñāpāramitā

My thirteenth article on the Heart Sutra has been published. 

(2022) "The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy" International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 32(1):111-148. IJBTC Website. [free download]. Academia.edu

In this article I directly address the philosophy of Prajñāpāramitā as it occurs in Prajñāpāramitā texts for the first time (for me, and probably for you too). I'm not the first to attempt to explain Prajñāpāramitā, by any means. That said, these days I'm operating in an entirely different paradigm to scholars like Edward Conze or Linnart Mäll, or religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I never did fully accept the metaphysical speculations that surround this genre, which always sounded screwy to me, but now I know there is a better alternative. As usual, I rely a great deal on pioneering work by Sue Hamilton, Jan Nattier, and Matthew Orsborn (aka Huifeng).

Hamilton (2000) explores an epistemic reading of early Buddhism, notably the khandhas. She shows that it is far more coherent to think of the Buddha as being concerned with experience rather than with reality. Indeed, there is no Pāli word that corresponds with our concept "reality" and few, if any, texts that discuss reality or the nature of reality. What the Pāli suttas mainly discuss, amidst all the myth and miracles, is sensory experience and, in particular, the cessation of experience during meditation. That sensory experience can cease without loss of consciousness is the key discovery that sets Indian religion and philosophy apart. A great deal of Indian religion seems to me to be bound up with the implications of this discovery.

Nattier (1992) showed that the text was composed in Chinese, and both Huifeng and I have independently confirmed this by showing that the patterns she observed in the core passage can be seen throughout the Heart Sutra. Huifeng (2014) was the first to notice certain mistakes in the Sanskrit text that have contributed to our misreading of the Chinese Xīn jīng «心經». He noted, at the time, that the corrected text points to the need for an epistemic reading if the Heart Sutra. In 2015, I published the first of a series of articles pointing out long-standing, but unrelated, mistakes in Conze's critical edition of the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Between us, we ought to have created enough doubt to suggest the need for a reappraisal of Prajñāpāramitā philosophy. 

This essay is a kind of supplement to the published article, with more background information. I begin with some history.

Some History

At around the time that city states were emerging on the central Gaṅgā Valley floodplains, new religions , or Dharmas, were emerging in the region: theistic Brahmanism, Sāṃkhya, Jainism, Ajivaka-ism and, of course, Buddhism. And these appear against a backdrop of local animistic religions from which Buddhism  got yakkhas, tree-spirits, and other non-human (amanussa) beings. Archaeologists tell us the new cities begin to appear in the sixth century BCE. The cities are mainly kingdoms and several of them are characterised by imperialism and military conquest. The Moriya dynasty of Rājagaha and Paṭaliputta went on to spawn a subcontinent spanning empire in the third century BCE. Of the ancient cities from that time, only Varanasi (Pāli: Kāsī) has been continuously occupied.

Incidentally, although it is de rigueur to give historic names in Sanskrit, the practice is incoherent. Almost no one outside of the Punjab spoke Sanskrit at that time. The other thing that emerged at this time were the Middle Indic (or Prakrit) languages, the everyday speech of people in those regions was not the Old Indic saṃskṛtabhāṣya recorded by Pāṇini. The new vernacular languages probably don't derive directly from the language of the Brahmins, either, since that was only one form of Old Indic and preserved only within a hermetic community of Brahmins. In particular, there can be no suggestion that Lāja Piyadasi, aka King Asoka, ever spoke or used Sanskrit in any way. It is anachronistic to refer to him in Sanskrit as Aśoka (or Ashoka).

I have speculated (Attwood 2012), based some informal comments by Michael Witzel, that one catalyst for the social transformation that resulted in city and Prakrits emerge was the arrival of small groups of people (including the Vajji, Mallas, Kāmālas, and Sakkas) who initially migrated into India from Persia (bringing with them some Persian ideas and customs, a few of which were incorporated into Buddhism). After a dry spell, they moved into the interior, avoiding the Brahmin territories to the north, and settled on the margins of the emerging city states in the Gaṇgā Valley, where they took up the patterns of life that we see depicted in Pāli stories.

We have little reliable evidence for this period, but it seems likely, from texts like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, that meditation in the sense of withdrawing attention from sensory experience was discovered by a group of migrant Brahmins living around the city of Kosala who were experimenting with visualising rituals, rather than acting them out (sometimes called the "interiorisation of ritual").

However it happened, the early hagiographies of the Buddha show him learning how to meditate from non-Buddhist teachers whose attainment of the āyatana states are consistent with attention-withdrawal being their main technique and who are distinguished only by how far they got with it. Buddhists, especially the Theravāda sect, were at pains to show the Buddha breaking away from his early teachers and finding his own technique, which we now refer to as jhāna (Skt dhyāna). But there are also suttas in Pāli, notably the Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121), that show Buddhists still doing the older style of meditation in which one withdraws attention and reflects on the absence of sensory experience that results from this. The persistence of this thread in Buddhism in the Buddhist canon is all the more interesting when we consider that it went against the flow of Buddhist orthodoxy, which at that time was rapidly moving towards focus on Vinaya and Abhidharma. In this sense we can think of Prajñāpāramitā as an innovative literary form emerging from a conservative community of meditators. 

Learning to withdraw attention from sensory experience can be fascinating. Not least because it is functionally identical to sensory deprivation and has the same side effects, i.e. visual, aural, and somatic hallucinations. Experienced meditation teachers tell us that the weird sensations, lights, and even sounds that we encounter in our minds when we first learn to meditate are not significant. However, as sensory deprivation intensifies we may have more vivid hallucinations with a hyperreal quality that very often are judged to be significant. We tend to call these types of hallucinations "visions" and attribute a heightened meaning to them. Many meditators feel that their "visions" have revealed an ineffable truth about the universe to them. As yet there seem to be no scientific studies of the role that sensory deprivation and consequent hallucinations play in Buddhist meditation (I've dropped hints with some of the leading neuroscientists via Twitter: look up people like Karin Matko, Heleen Slagter, Thomas Metzinger, Ruben Laukkonen, etc).

Ancient texts like the Cūḷasuññatā Sutta tell us that beyond all this foam of ephemeral sensory experience there is a state (variously deeper or higher depending on preferred cognitive metaphors) in which all sensory experience has ceased (nirodha), is extinguished (nirvāṇa), or absent (śūnya). I speculate that after emerging amongst Brahmins in the Kosala region, these techniques were taken up by all the religions of Second Urbanisation India. People of those various religions were all practicing attention withdrawal but (then as now) interpreting the results differently according to their own doctrines. 

The Buddhist explanation of the absence and presence of sensory experience became the dependent arising doctrine, which some Buddhists sought to make a theory of everything. In this view, sensory experience arises dependent on the presence of conditions (imasmin sati idaṃ hoti), one of the main conditions being "attention" (manasikāra). In manasikāra, the kāra refers to "a maker" and manasi is manas "mind" in the locative case. In English we naturally want to read this as "in the mind", but I'm a little doubtful about whether ancient Buddhists had the cognitive metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER (see The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor 27 Jul 2012). In translation the locative typically becomes the prepositions "in, on, at, etc," but we can also read it as "with reference to". So manasikāra would be "a maker with respect to the mind". It is apparent that in some contexts words like manas, citta, and vijñāna were seen as interchangeable; while in other contexts they have distinct technical meanings. We typically take this context to be temporal, with technical terms emerging relatively "later" than undifferentiated forms. But this is a presupposition and as far as I know there is no evidence external to the texts that could corroborate this. Such differences need not be temporal at all. They might be sectarian, for example, or geographical. We really don't know. 

A Digression on Causality and Proximity

I'm sometimes chided by orthodox Buddhists for saying that dependent arising implies the presence of the condition; a view on this that I notably share with Anālayo (2021). A prominent Theravāda scholar and journal editor once insisted that the formula only requires the existence of the condition. At the time, I was flummoxed by this but found it difficult to articulate why. 

In modern arguments about causality (which is more rigorous than mere conditionality) physical proximity (or locality) is required for causation. Causation or action at a distance is a deeply problematic idea. Where we see apparent action at a distance, such as magnetic attraction, we always find some intervening medium (the electromagnetic field) or an alternative explanation (gravity is not a force, but an effect of the geometry of spacetime). Most modern scientists and philosophers would question whether any action at a distance is possible on the macro-scale that Buddhism deal with. There is an exception for nanoscale at which is seems that locality may be up for grabs. Causation, as far as any Iron Age Buddhist could have understood it, at a minimum requires the cause to be in the same physical location as that which it acts on, or immediately physically proximate to it. This is not only a logical necessity, but is also implied by the grammar of the Pāli formula of dependent arising. 

So, I can now more confidently insist that the dependent arising formula states that a condition must be present for an effect to arise. It's existence is insufficient if, for example, the condition existed on the other side of the planet at the bottom of the ocean, then there is no possibility of it causing an effect here in my house. 

From Experience to Reality

Causality is a tricky topic (especially if we are trying to understand an Iron Age worldview), but it is easy compared to "reality".  The word is used so vaguely and ambiguously that sometimes it hardly seems to mean anything. Defining "reality" is next to impossible without invoking some other metaphysical quality. For example, we might say that reality is that which exists. But what does it mean to exist? Philosophers are still arguing about this one.

In my view, to be "real" is to have some observable quality that is, or some qualities that are, independent of any particular observer or their beliefs.  It is entirely possible that some real things cannot ever be observed by us. About such things we know nothing and at this stage we likely never will. Many things that might be observed have not been. Think of bacteria which existed for billions of years, but were first observed in the eighteenth century.  

For those aspects of reality that are apparent, all observers agree on some ontologically objective facts. For example, gravity on earth is experienced as an acceleration of 9.8 ± 0.03 m/s2 towards the centre of the planet, and everyone who measures it accurately gets a value in that range. Variations can be explained by the inherent measurement error, and the thickness and density of the earth's crust at the point of measurement (the oblate-spheroid shape of the planetis a factor in this). Gravity is not a matter of opinion. It is not produced by each person individually. Gravity is a fact that transcends the observer. How we explain the universality of gravity depends on the context. 

Those who argue that the material world is an illusion or is generated by the mind, have no interest in explaining a phenomenon such as gravity. It's just part of the "illusion". Illusion and related words are often bandied about in this context. We often see clickbait headlines like "Reality is an illusion" or "self is an illusion". But this is not a form of explanation: it does not help us to understand the concepts involved. Even if something is actually an illusion—like "the dress"—simply calling it an illusion leaves open all the important questions. 

That said, gravity certainly does not behave like an illusion, it behaves like a "brute fact". Anyone who seriously doubts this could try jumping off a tall building while fervently imagining that they can fly to test their belief (Darwin Awards await). 

Some Buddhists are surprised to discover I distinguish experience from reality. They wonder if they not one and the same thing (i.e. they are Idealists). The reasoning is usually along the lines of "mind creates reality". This is a misconception. If mind did create reality, then there would be no reason for everyone to imagine gravity being 9.81 ± 0.03 m/s2. There would be nothing to prevent me from inventing gravity at 5.6 ± 0.3 m/s2. or any arbitrary figure. In the absence of an objective world, what could possibly account for the uniformity and universality of gravity? I've yet to see any convincing explanation of this from an Idealist. 

NB the standard figure for gravity is often given with greater precision that the measurement error allows. The standard figure is 9.80665 m/s2 but the variation due to error is on the order of two significant figures (0.03 m/s2), so the standard figure cannot have a precision greater than that, i.e. 9.81 m/s2.

Gravity is just one of many universal quantities that we know of. Others include the mass of a proton, the charge of an electron, and the speed of light in a vacuum. Explaining these from an Idealistic worldview is difficult at best. Universality seems to requires something extrinsic to the observer  in order to impose standardisation but how to achieve this in a nonmaterial, idealistic worldview? An objective universe, independent of observers, is far and away the simplest and most elegant solution to shared knowledge and universal constants. Over the last 450 years, scientists have described our universe to an exquisite level of detail, often to 10 or 12 decimal places, so that in terms of our everyday world, we now completely understand the processes involved. On this see these blog posts by Sean Carroll. 

The gaps in our understanding of the universe as a whole are huge, but they are at the extremes. The physics of human scales of mass, length, and energy are fully comprehended by the atomic theory of matter and forces. Buddhist idealism is forced to sweep 450 years of science under the carpet and pretend that it is inconsequential compared to what Buddhists say they learn in meditation about the nature of reality. 

Early Buddhists didn't explicitly say, but they did imply that they accept the existence of an objective world. An objective world is not a problem for early Buddhist doctrine, or for Prajñāpāramitā, because the focus is on sensory experience and what happens to our minds when we withdraw attention from sensory experience. The nature of the objective world is, at best, secondary to questions about the nature of experience and the meaning and significance of the complete cessation of sensory experience. As long as the nature of reality allows for sensory experience and cessation it doesn't matter what we believe about it. Especially in Iron Age India when it seemed plausible to take nirvāṇa as an analogue of death, so that by attaining the former, we bring the latter to an end. Once rebirth caught on, the end of it became the avowed goal of all known Iron Age Indian religions. 

Still, getting from objectively real to objective reality is a much bigger step than most people realise.

From Reality to Myth

My approach to abstract concepts like "reality" is broadly speaking nominalist. In this view, reality is the abstract notion that all real things have something in common that qualifies them as real. This common quality then retrospectively authenticates a phenomena as "real". On a nominalist reading, however, abstractions themselves are not real. Abstractions are ideas that we have about experience. Abstracting a perceived commonality and then retrospectively using that abstraction to define what is "real" is a method that produces nonsense. I noted above that it's very difficult to define reality from first principles. Part of the problem is that "reality" is an abstraction; an idea. And this allows that different people can define reality differently depending on their idea. This also means that a phenomenological account of "reality" is no help: what kind of phenomena is an idea? Ideas are subjective phenomena. So how can a subjective phenomena be used to define something objective? 

A further problem we routinely face in Buddhism is that many Buddhists believe in a magical reality over and above "mundane reality". In other words, many Buddhists are openly dualistic about this world (ayaṃ loko) and the world beyond (paraṃ loko). This is typical of all religions that emphasise "life after death". Many Buddhists insist that there is a more real world, or a real world juxtaposed with the world of illusions reflected by sensory experience, waiting for us after death, be it nirvāṇa or a buddhakṣetra. The world of experience is, at best, a poor reflection of a "spiritual" (read "magical") reality beyond. For example, my bête noire, Edward Conze openly argued for a magical [his word] reality existed over and above physical reality. Moreover, he apparently believed this for many years before he ever encountered a Sanskrit text. He managed to shoehorn this view into a Marxist analysis of Aristotle long before he shoehorned it into Prajñāpāramitā. 

There is an obvious attraction in the idea of a "world beyond"; a world that has none of the flaws of our world; a world that is not broken, cruel, and merciless; a world in which all of our desires are fulfilled, and so on. One need not labour the point since a better afterlife is the essence of what all religions promise followers. Although it is notable that some early Buddhists stated that their intention was "the end of the world" (lokassa anto). 

It's not until the Pure Land texts that we see this idea of a magical reality beyond the "mundane" world begin to take hold in Buddhism. Before this there were better and and worse rebirths, but all rebirth was problematic. Rebirth in a "heaven" (devaloka) only prolongs the inevitable and has no soteriological value. Indeed, some Buddhists say that liberation is only possible from the human realm (manussaloka).

Because there can only be one Buddha at a time (by Buddhists' own definition) and Gautama disappeared from our world when he died. Gautama brought rebirth to an end and his post-mortem status was officially "indeterminate" (avyākṛta). But this was apparently interpreted in some quarters as Gautama abandoning us to our fate. In response to this Buddhists invented alternative universes where living Buddhas could still be found who were willing to "save" us. These Buddhas effectively live forever and would rescue any faithful devotee from saṃsāra. At first this centred around the Buddha Akṣobhya and his buddhafield Abhirati, but he was soon eclipsed by Amitābha who lives in Sukhāvati and is much less demanding: a single act of recalling his name (nāmānusmṛti) is enough to draw his attention and he comes to our universe to collect us after death so that we are reborn in Sukhāvati and from there attain liberation from rebirth. The two sutras that describe this are both called the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. They seem to have appeared around the same time as Prajñāpāramitā literature and have proved to be amongst the most influential texts in Buddhist history. It's likely that theistic Pure Land followers are the majority of all Buddhists worldwide. 

Such stories are mythological. That is to say, these stories reflect the values of some Buddhists at some point in time and space, expressed in symbolic, often anthropomorphic, terms. The stories don't reflect actual events. Myths are not objective histories to inform us about the past. As noted, Buddhist myths reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the idea that Gautama simply left us behind when he ended his own stream of rebirths. A really good person, they reasoned, would have stuck around to give us a helping hand: who could look at the world and not conclude that it desperately needs help? Not me. The Buddha was supposed to be the epitome of good. 

A little later a related idea emerges, i.e. the idea of a pluralistic Buddha who at one level seemed to be a human man, but the mortal man was merely a material manifestation of a timeless, immaterial, undying principle of awakening. The issue of the Buddha's apparently short lifespan is tackled in this way in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra (aka the Golden Light Sutra). These are religious myths, but Buddhists the world over either believe that they are objectively true or behave as if they describe reality. Again, this is theism, turning the Buddha into a god.

At around the same time as these myths were emerging and taking Buddhism in innovative directions, some Buddhists, notably one known as Nāgārjuna, began to assert that the absence of sensory experience is reality. This is the essence of Madhyamaka metaphysics, for example. We often see this stated as "emptiness is reality" as though this means something, although I think it does not. Mādhyamikas also say things like "dharmas don't exist", although whether or not Nāgārjuna said this or even implied it is moot. The problem here is that although there is a state in which all sensory experiences cease, asserting that this state is reality is problematic since it lumps all phenomena into the "not real" category, which is completely absurd and creates paradoxes. In short, reifying the absence of experience following gets us nowhere. But some Buddhists still value the contradictions and paradoxes that this stance throws up. They seem to find the existence of paradox as confirmation that they are on the right track whereas I would say that a paradox either reflects our ignorance or a mistake. In the case of Prajñāpāramitā it is both: we were naively ignorant of the context and misled by the lies of Edward Conze (et al) to believe that paradox was normal when, in point of fact, paradox and contradiction play no role in Buddhism until substantially later. 

Not Doing Metaphysics

Talk of grand abstractions like truth, reality, and existence all comes under the heading of metaphysics. Anyone who gives an opinion on "reality", let alone the "nature of reality" is ipso facto doing metaphysics. Hence, I do not believe Mādhyamikas when they claim not to be doing metaphysics but assert that they understand or have experienced the nature of reality. 

Humans are constantly trying to discern the reality that lays behind or beyond sensory experience because we all know that our eyes can be deceived. In modern terms, the world we experience is a virtual model created by the brain (as demonstrated, for example, by phantom limb syndrome or the Capgras delusion). The better our model of the world is, the better our chances of survival and procreation. Most of us are not naive realists. We do understand that reality and experience are not identical and we strive to minimise the differences or errors. When we foreground this in our thinking we may become more reticent about drawing conclusions about reality based on unusual experiences. 

When someone makes an assertion about reality or has an opinion on what is real, it is always legitimate to ask "How do you know?". Doing this we find that Buddhists place high value and significance on experiences in meditation. Some of these experiences have all the hallmarks of hallucinations caused by the brain's response to sensory deprivation. In the end, the one thing that makes all the difference is the  fact that sensory experience can cease, though I still hesitate to call this "an experience". Along the way we lose our sense of our body, our sense of self, and our sense of a world "out there". In the end, when all sensory experience has stopped and we are still alive and aware, we find ourselves in an contentless but nonetheless hyperreal state that begs to be assigned meaning and significance. The cessation of the sense of self, for example, is often seen as evidence of the nonexistence of self. 

However, "I don't see it" and "It doesn't exist" are very much not the same thing. 

The mystic says that the experience of, say, selflessness, is sufficient to establish that our "self" is not real. This is a metaphysical conclusion. But it's also solipsistic (i.e. egocentric). One of my most striking memories of timelessness in meditation was on a long retreat. I was deeply concentrated and sat on after the bell rang for the conclusion of the session. While I was there not noticing the passing of time, the other retreatants prepared, cooked, and served a meal. That took time; about one hour in fact. Time that I didn't notice passing. The obvious conclusion here is not "time is not real" or "time doesn't exist", but that I was unaware of time passing for about an hour while everyone around me had a pretty normal experience of time. This is an epistemic conclusion. It lacks the panache and glamour of metaphysics, it doesn't cast me as the hero of the story, but it's more intellectually honest. 

The weight of evidence is that most of these kinds of metaphysical conclusions that appeal to Buddhists are factually wrong. What other conclusion might someone who has experienced, say, the cessation of their self come to? I like to use the example of Gary Weber who reports that he has no sense of self. I find Weber very credible, so I believe him when he says that he doesn't experience much if any sense  of self. And yet, wildly contrary to Buddhist doctrine, he takes this to mean that everything that happens is predetermined and events unfold without any influence from us whatever. He will tell you that we don't really make decisions, we are just carried along falsely believing that our desires cause our actions, when in fact it's all just a fixed set of events playing out as they were always going to. Clearly this is a very different metaphysical conclusion than your average Buddhist would arrive at based on experiences that seem to be exactly the same

An alternative explanation that occurs to me is that the apparently selfless might conclude that selfing, the activities of the self, is now going on unconsciously. This would help explain why a person with "no self" is able to carry on a conversation for example, as Gary Weber obviously does. A conversation is a complex social interaction in which each participant has to keep track of who said what to whom, and whose turn it is to talk. It seems to me that this would be impossible without some sense of self/other dichotomy. If someone who has no sense of self is conversing normally, we might want to conclude that their selfing was now unconscious. Unconscious selfing presents fewer problems than conscious selfing, because the role of self-centeredness is reduced. Moreover it is considerably less problematic than the view that no self exists, even in people who sincerely believe that they are experiencing themselves as a self from moment to moment. 

In Triratna we often talk about this in psychological terms, particularly in terms of the subject/object duality "breaking down". Many, perhaps most, of us take this to mean that the subject/object duality is not real. The corollary, that the absence of a subject/object duality is reality, follows but all the same caveats apply to us as to others. Just because we can experience the subject/object duality breaking down, does not mean that it is not real or that it doesn't exist. And so on. 

The Alternative: An Epistemic Approach

Reality is a complex subject. And the relationship of experience to reality is not clear either in Buddhism or in some modern accounts of mind. 

The mind-body problem is one of the most famous philosophical conundrums. My own view is that the dichotomy is not really one of mind and body but is, more fundamentally, a matter-spirit dichotomy. That is, I take the distinction to have deeper roots in our basic ideas about the material world and another world of invisible life-force often associated with the afterlife. This is a prominent topic in my book Karma and Rebirth Reconsidered and in a range of blog posts. My sense is that while most scientists  now eschew the grosser forms of matter-spirit dualism (since they don't believe in "spirit"), the average person still has a profoundly dualistic outlook. Almost everyone I know believes in an afterlife for example, and this necessitates some ontological dualism. 

In epistemic terms the subject/object duality is real since we get information about subjectivity and objectivity through completely different sensory modalities: introspection and extrospection. One way of thinking about meditation is that it shuts down extrospection and leaves us in a purely subjective state. If we mistake this purely subjective state for objective reality, then we may be tempted into the conclusion that "mind makes reality", but this requires that we give no value whatever to objectivity. And this seems a perverse way of thinking about it. 

Dualisms are deeply embedded in how humans conceptualise the world. And when we take the distinctions to be metaphysical, as we do in matter-spirit dualisms, we find ourselves in tricky territory. What usually happens is that having divided the world into two, we dismiss one part (usually matter) as unreal. Materialism, as John Searle pointed out, is a dualism in which proponents divide the world into material and non-material halves and declare the non-material to be unreal. This manoeuvre has consequences. If the mind is non-material, then the materialist is left with no explanation of it except to argue that it is an illusion. 

An epistemic approach to this problem rapidly finds purchase and leverage over this particular dualism. As I say, there is an obvious epistemic distinction between how we get information about the world and how we get information about ourselves. We have a range of external senses that inform us about the world in particular modalities: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. This information allows us to construct virtual models of the world that are efficient for navigating the world. We have a different set of senses for the internal states of our body, many of which are not available to introspection or conscious control (e.g. blood sugar levels). Notably our mindthoughts, feelings, emotions, etcis an important source of information about our own internal states. 

There is some crossover, as when we gain information about our body by looking at it. But generally speaking there is a clear epistemic distinction between "in here" and "out there". Just as there is an epistemic distinction between, say, seeing light reflected from an object and hearing the physical vibrations that it makes. To my knowledge, and despite the phrase "seeing is believing", no one has ever argued that seeing is real and hearing is unreal, or vice versa. We acknowledge that both occur, that they are different modes of sensing, and give us different information. And we can always ask another person, "Did you see/hear that?" and compare notes. Problems emerge when we jump to metaphysical conclusions based on epistemic differences without first establishing whether there is some metaphysical basis for the differences. 

As far as anyone can tell, there is no mind/body dualism in the sense that they are different substances. But that said, we do have an undeniable experience of an epistemic difference between mind and body. We gain knowledge of each in different ways. One cannot introspect an external object for example. Nor can one use empathy to project the emotional disposition of a non-sentient object. When I put my cup down I don't wonder how the table will feel about it. There is no way for the table to support sentience let alone forming an opinion. 

At this point, Buddhist cite mystical experiences as evidence for their conclusions. The problem with mystical experiences, is that they are interpreted differently according to one's preferences. I have already cited the example of Gary Weber, the Advaita Vedantin. But there are also Christian mystics, for example who interpret what seem like the same experiences as evidence for the existence of God. 


Everyone is trying to make sense of their world. Some go about it more systematically than others. The less systematic our approach, the more likely that errors and infelicities will creep into our worldview. Early Buddhists systematically explored mental states that occur in the process of withdrawing attention from sensory experience. The results are practices that we call "meditation", a word that goes back to an Indo-European root *med and (rather appropriately) means "take appropriate measures". Early Buddhists did not systematically investigate anything else. They showed no interest in "reality" or the "nature" of reality, except insofar as it pertained to karma and rebirth, which they accepted a priori as true. 

Here we see the disadvantage of religious modes of thinking. Religieux begin reasoning from a metaphysical commitment; a belief. And recall Michael Taft's aphorism: belief is an emotion about an idea. From the belief, religieux look for evidence that is consistent with that belief and hold it up as confirmation of the belief. At the same time they overlook, ignore, or dispose of any counterfactual information. 

Religious metaphysics are not motivated by a search for the truth. Religieux invariably believe they already know the truth. This applies to Buddhists as much as any other religion. We start from certainty and then inquire as to how reality confirms our assumptions. A procedure known as confirmation bias

Buddhist metaphysics, of which there are several, are fine except that they disagree in every possible way with physics. Buddhists who are aware of this fact (and appalled by it) will often invoke Eugene Wigner's version of Niels Bohr's interpretation of the Schrödinger equation, i.e. "consciousness collapses the wavefunction". Back in the real world, physicists universally agree that Wigner was talking bollocks, and most of them have abandoned Copenhagen (though they continue to teach it to undergraduates). Buddhists seldom, if ever, come out in defence of other valid interpretations of the Schrödinger equation. We see no Buddhist essays arguing that, for example, Bohmian mechanics (aka pilot-wave theory) reflects the Buddha's insight. Buddhists are attracted to the deprecated Copenhagen interpretation because purely by confirmation bias. There really is no connection between the Iron Age observations of Buddhists about how their minds work and the twentieth century observations about how matter changes  over time on the nanoscale. 

That said, like other physicists, Bohm himself later went into the business of speculative metaphysics. It is a quirk of many physicist that they start to believe that they really do understand everything. There are any number of books of unscientific (but influential) nonsense from people like Eugene Wigner, Linus Pauling (Vitamin C), and including Bohm himself, and even the Venerable Albert Einstein. 

When I began to adopt an epistemic approach to Buddhism, I realised that I no longer had any conflicts with my education in the physical sciences (I majored in chemistry). 

Buddhist metaphysics as reflected in various texts across time have no advantages over any other religious metaphysics. The Buddhist worldview is always stated in such a way as to allow for the supernatural (or what I sometimes call "the unnatural"): karma, rebirth, gods, demons, spirits, heavens, hells, ESP, etc. At best these views approach the sophistication of Descartes, accepting a dualistic world in order to preserve a place for non-natural entities, forces, locations, and events. Buddhism provides us with nothing approaching the physical laws of nineteenth century science. No equivalent to, say, the universal principle of conservation of momentum.  Which is hardly surprising given that most Buddhists think the real world is "an illusion" and that a "spiritual" Reality is to be found in purely subjective mental states. Why would this approach produce any insights into the real? 

While religious Buddhists have an ongoing battle with the real, in that it clearly does not conform to Buddhist orthodoxy, I no longer have this problem. I no longer feel any tension between my scientific outlook and my Buddhist vocation based on working with my mind. They are two distinct provinces of knowledge, at least for the time being. 

Why does this matter? I think religion in Europe (and her colonies), generally, is struggling with two tendencies: the tendency towards fundamentalism and the tendency towards rationalism. The former stymies all intellectual progress, while the latter sees no value in religion. We've all watched secular mindfulness rapidly become very much more popular than religious Buddhism. We've seen many emotive arguments against practising mindfulness outside of the metaphysical commitments held by most Buddhists. How much worse will it be when we begin to see secular training in attention withdrawal (if it does not already exist) and a secular "enlightenment". That could easily eclipse European Buddhism, though my sense is that Asian Buddhism is more insulated from this kind of discourse.

Central to my faith in 2022 is this credo: I believe that sensory experience can cease without loss of basic awareness. I believe this knowledge was discovered in ancient India and became the basis for a number of religions. 

Although the result is described as "contentless awareness" those who undergo this can remember what it was like and are usually eager to offer an interpretation. To date religious explanations have dominated the field. Nascent academic attempts to characterise and categorise such phenomena are fascinating, but still lack coherence. While I mainly write for a Buddhist audience, I kind of hope that some academic will also notice my epistemic approach and see how it disentangles religious sentiments from the difficult work of identifying and characterising what is real. 

In this sense, then, I think enlightenment, awakening, liberation, purification, or whatever we call it, is a real phenomena. I feel fairly confident that I've met people who are "in that state" (tathā-gata, as we say in Pāli). And scientists are right now measuring the neural activity of people in a state of contentless awareness looking for, and finding, neural correlates of cessation and awakening. Where Buddhism and science part company is precisely where all religions breakdown, that is on the interpretation of experience, especially with respect to what experience tells us about "reality". 

Cessation is something we can systematically cultivate. The way to cultivate it is to minimise sensory experience, both in daily life and more radically in meditation. The goal of practice is a form of knowledge, not a form of existence. We call this knowledge prajñā or paragnosis, knowledge from beyond the cessation of sensory experience. Without the supernatural elements, with the view that the Buddha was talking about experience rather than reality, we can drop all the metaphysical speculation about what it all means, and arrive at a simpler, more coherent view of Buddhism, that has realistic goals for maximising human potential.  


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