Friday, 5 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 01, The Happy Criminal

In the year 2000, Bhikkhu Pāsādika published two re-interpretations of a passage of the Theravāda Buddhist canon: his own and (as a footnote) a dissenting opinion sent to him by Richard Gombrich.

The article is dense, brief, and yet somewhat scattered: even if English is your first language, it might be daunting to read through if you don't already have many years of experience dealing with the mix of abbreviated references, untranslated Pali terms, and quotations taken out of context, that (regrettably) dominates the genre.

Although I'm familiar with the style, and even with the personalities being quoted, I have no idea what Pāsādika means to insinuate when he quotes Mrs. Rhys-Davids (p. 150) as having, "…asked emphatically: 'Where in these pages is Gotama?'"  I wonder why it has remained fashionable to provide this kind of quotation with no clear connection to the author's thesis.  Perhaps the point is to give us the impression that this is some tremendously difficult task, that others have failed to grasp.  Pāsādika repeatedly informs us that the problem he is about to solve has never been addressed by any other scholar or translator before (p. 147 & 154).

What is the problem?

Well… that is debatable.

Pāsādika tells us that the following passage is problematic, although he doesn't tell us precisely why.  Although the clarifications in square brackets are my own additions, I am here quoting the same translation that Pāsādika provides, which is by (the unreliable) F.L. Woodward of Tasmania:

"[Secondly, we have the hypothetical case of a man who,] given to sensual pleasures, seeks wealth by unlawful means, with violence, is blameworthy in two respects, praiseworthy in one respect.  In what two respects is he blameworthy?  Seeking wealth by unlawful means and violence, he is first to blame for that.  Secondly, in so seeking wealth he shares it not [i.e., does not share it with others] nor does meritorious deeds, that is the second respect.  And what is the one respect in which he is praiseworthy?  In getting ease and pleasure for himself.  In this respect he is praiseworthy."
(p. 149)

Pāsādika does not discuss why he thinks this passage is "problematic" at any great length: apparently, we are all supposed to share the assumption that it would be deeply troubling if the Buddha had actually said that a criminal "getting ease and pleasure for himself" is "praiseworthy".

Would that really be a problem?

Regardless of whether or not it is, Pāsādika endeavors to find a solution: he finds a Chinese text from the Ā Hán [阿含] literature (generally called "the Āgamas" in English) that corresponds to the same narrative, but that does not contain the same supposed "difficulty".  He then decides that the Chinese version (or perhaps "recension") of the story is preferable to the Pali.

This leads to the faltering conclusion that: "A comparison between the two versions suggests that with this particular example — a generalization, all the same is absolutely unwarrantable — the original Āgama text might have represented an older version than that of the Pāli canon." (p. 152)

Occam's razor is getting dull here: we are expected to turn the chronology of the world upside down, but only for this particular example, with no broader generalization being "warrantable".

The Chinese version of the text is later than any of the Indian versions.  For suttanta [經] texts in general, the Chinese will be based on a source later than the Pali (that ended up being canonized in Sri Lanka, and preserved there to this day) with a significant role for translators and redactors reinventing the source before it even reached China.  Then, once they arrived in China, the texts were transformed again (from some form of Pali, Prakrit or Sanskrit) into pictographs, a task that entailed considerable imagination, creative license and human fallibility.  Pāsādika knows all of this, he understands this, and he realizes that he is asking us to imagine that gravity reverses course for a moment, as we watch water flowing uphill, in this exceptional instance.

Why would this particular example justify so much special pleading from an author who agrees with the general principle of the Pali canon preserving a more ancient text than the Chinese translations (that we now call "the Āgamas")?

His claim is that "The Pāli text much more clearly betrays the hands of later redactors than the Chinese Āgama version…" (p. 152).

Conversely, there is a footnote (p. 149, no. 5) offering a much simpler explanation that, perhaps, Occam's razor would favor (even if it were untrue).  Richard Gombrich wrote in to suggest to Pāsādika that the content of the Pali text does not require any correction if we are simply willing to read the "problematic" passage with a sense of irony.  Thus, a complex, anachronistic, philological puzzle is here trumped and discarded with the simple suggestion that the original text could be correct --but have a bit of literary verve to it.

Although this is an appealing explanation, it is one that Gombrich did use too many times over the years: he has repeatedly dismissed texts as merely humorous or ironic when it suited him (and not merely isolated phrases, as in Pāsādika's case, but also lengthy expositions of Buddhist cosmology found in the core of the canon).  Both modes of explanation cannot be generalized into principles: can we selectively dismiss a text as ironic whenever we choose to do so?  Can we selectively choose to treat a Chinese text as more ancient (and "authentic") than a Pali text whenever it suits our preferred theory?

Nevertheless, we have water flowing downhill (rather than uphill) from Gombrich's perspective: "According to him, there is good reason to regard the supposedly 'dubious' passage as an authentic piece of the Buddha's irony. […] If one accepts this interpretation… [it] follows the general principle of text editing lectio difficilior prior [sic, potior?], 'it is the more difficult reading which is likely to be correct,' [and so] one might be prompted to look on the Chinese translations of the text in question as attempts to iron out what was felt to be an issue by means of new versions of the original text."

Although stated in a confusing way, the latter point is simple: the fact that the Chinese version of the text is "simpler" does not mean that it is more ancient, nor more authentic, nor more coherent, than the Pali.  It could just be a simplification.

Leaving the Latin terminology aside (lectio difficilior) we have to sympathize with the fact that the Chinese translations were merely the work of human hands, and, in fact, these texts had often passed through earlier rounds of human hands (rendering the same story from one Northern Indian language into another, before the texts reached China).

Simplicity is not a valid criterion of authenticity.  To be blunt: it doesn't matter if the French translation of (a particular passage of) Shakespeare makes more sense than the English.  The French is still merely a translation: possibly the translator took something unclear and clarified it in his own language, but, even so, nothing further can be inferred from that fact.  We cannot infer anything antecedent to the Pali (as it is now extant) from the Chinese --not even if we think (from our modern perspective) that the Chinese makes more sense.  We cannot infer anything about the original intention of Shakespeare as an author from the French translation --not even if the French makes more sense.

In this case, however, I reject the basic premise that the original Pali fails to make sense.

The Pali text is neither an ananchronistic corruption of the Chinese version, nor is it ironical.  It makes sense if it is read in its own context, and if we don't impose our own notions of what Buddhism is supposed to be onto it (but instead let the text tell us something, however minor, about what we should suppose Buddhism to be).

In the quotation from Woodward's translation, I clarified (in square brackets) that we were talking about the second of a series of hypothetical examples.  What was the first example?  It was a man who commits the same crimes and offences, but who does not enjoy his wealth.

At this stage of the sermon, we are directly comparing (1) a criminal who does not even enjoy his ill-gotten gains to (2) a man who does, at least, enjoy them --and this is merely the first pair of many contrasting examples.  Why would it be so surprising, in this context, to say that the happy criminal is better off than the unhappy one?  Why does Pāsādika imagine that it is impossible that the Buddha said such a thing?  Why does Pāsādika assert as a self-evident fact that, "The Pāli text much more clearly betrays the hands of later redactors"?

How can we even imagine the motivation of such "redactors", if Pāsādika's theory were valid?  Why would someone start with the Pali precursor to (what now exists as) the Chinese translation, and then decide to add this comment, specifically suggesting that a happy criminal is better off than a miserable one?  The comment makes sense as an incidental illustration (appearing in passing) but hardly seems like a separate thesis, inserted into the text by an author with intentions contrary to the (imaginary) original version.

In Pāsādika's view, this isn't an accidental corruption, so… if it is an intentional addition… what was the motivation for the fraud?

Pāsādika's assertion is that this "betrays the hands of" Materialists (p. 150, 152 & 154) --and these Materialists apparently were able to insert their views into the Pali version of the text more successfully than the Chinese version, for reasons unknown.  This theory doesn't just discard Occam's razor, but insinuates a conspiracy of a bizarre kind.  For the interpreter sitting at his desk, it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: wherever Pāsādika finds "Materialism" (however he defines it) he presumes that it is something that was later added to the Pali suttas, and that is contradictory to the original teaching of the Buddha.  He is then willing to confute the text, even in reliance on anachronistic methods that he admits are "absolutely unwarrantable" in general.

"So the conclusion can be drawn that the smack of Materialist thought in [the passage being discussed] is certainly due to later editorial interpolation." (p. 152)

Is this Pāsādika's conclusion, based on the evidence, or is it really the sole source of evidence for the controversy?  If the passage is not imagined to be an insertion from a (rival) philosophical school of Materialism, what possible controversy could arise about it, and of what possible significance would the contrast to the Chinese version be?

Although I have no reason to think that Pāsādika has any animus or agenda other than the ones he states in his own paper, it is a regrettable fact that his essay fits into the broad pattern of exaggerating the precedence of the Chinese Ā Hán [阿含] literature.  In my lifetime, what I have seen, again and again, is the reluctance of wealthy, fair-skinned Asians to accept the notion that really important texts were preserved by poverty-stricken Asians with brown skin: the strongest bigotry imaginable prevents a Japanese scholar from looking upon Sri Lanka without "looking down" at them.  Within Asia, there is a reciprocal relationship between racism and economic inequality: wealth is the rationale for racism, but the advantages of the wealthy are also explained as a result of racial superiority.

[WW2 Propaganda, source:]

For the Taiwanese, nationalism has more to do with the cult of the written character (and the ancientness of their extant literature) than it does with racism in the simplest sense.  However, racism in that simple sense remains an important aspect of how the Taiwanese regard Sri Lanka, Myanmar/Burma, or any other Theravāda nation, along with the distant memory of Japan's short-lived empire in Southeast Asia.
[WW2 Propaganda, source:]

I have no reason to think that Pāsādika supports any of these tendencies, but the sad fact is that these little articles become footholds for the delusion that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans don't need the Pali canon, and that the Pali canon has nothing to teach them.  It is profoundly reassuring to the East Asian ego to imagine that they have preserved the Ā Hán [阿含] literature in their own tradition, and that this renders the whole corpus of Pali texts moot, or a matter of minor footnotes in history.

Chinese scholars will proudly (and sometimes angrily) insist that these Ā Hán [阿含] texts are more ancient than any particular manuscript preserved in India, and will invoke the short studies by Bhikkhu Anālayo as (supposedly) proving that the Chinese canon is more ancient, more coherent, more intact, and more important than anything that can be found in this third-world language that nobody has ever heard of (i.e., Pali).  I understand why this is comforting to a world-view predicated on the cultural preeminence of Chinese written characters (i.e., a view not limited to China) --however, this is not merely bigoted, but also utterly false.

China, Japan and Korea have a great deal to learn from the Pali canon (and from the cultures and languages of people who happen to have brown skin, and to live in countries generally devastated by war, and struggling with higher levels of poverty, etc.).

I write about this aspect partly because I'm aware that nobody else is willing to do so, but also partly because it is a normal part of my life, and has been a recurring issue for me (for more than 10 years).  I received comments along these lines even from the Taiwanese academics who wrote the peer-reviews for my essays, and I've had people shout this stuff to my face.  This would be something like Christians desperately trying to prove that Hebrew and Aramaic are of no special significance to the study of the Bible; while that kind of anachronistic premise may be impossible to take seriously, it seems to me that many Chinese scholars take this game very, very seriously.

I don't know what Anālayo's opinion is (given his own position in the midst of this), but he must be aware of what the cultural (and even racial) significance of his work is by now.  Extremely minor textual controversies are celebrated if they suggest that the Ā Hán [阿含] texts will allow "us" (i.e., this generation) to disregard the Pali canon.  Even if authors like Anālayo do not mean to say that one source trumps the other, his work is being read (or perhaps even "exploited") in this way.

[A Bibliography of just one entry:]
Bhikkhu Pāsādika (a.k.a. Eckhard Bangert).  2000.  "A Hermeneutical Problem in SN 42,12…", J.I.A.B.S. issue 23/1, 2000 (available online).