Thursday 18 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 03, Critique of Bhikkhu Bodhi 01

It is extremely rare to see criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi: I am neither aware of a secular scholar nor a monastic one who has been a published critic of the man or his writing.  Bhikkhu Bodhi's work would benefit from criticism, the general public's understanding of his work (and of the ancient texts) would benefit from the same criticism, and the critics might help one-another through criticism.  It's a virtuous cycle, if every step is taken virtuously; it's a pointless cycle, if pursued viciously.

Bhikkhu Bodhi published an essay in 1976 that he would (by now) probably find some fault with himself.  If you've ever met B.B. (or if you have even read an interview with him) you will probably have noticed that he openly remarks on his own changing understanding of the literature as something that has progressed during the years of his (long) career.  He might be surprised to hear that anyone was still influenced by this particular essay: it appeared in a pamphlet that is hard to find outside of England, the long-defunct Pali Buddhist Review (formerly published out of Ilford, Essex, by its editor, Russell Webb).

I was amazed to have encountered a scholar who was strongly influenced by this particular article --and who treated it as a definitive discovery, that all subsequent work should conform to as a new standard of interpretation.  I was confronted with this because the scholar in question was more-or-less reproaching my work for failing to repeat B.B.'s 1976 conclusions verbatim (this is not, perhaps, all that Francis Bacon might have hoped for in the progress of inquiry, "[For] truth is contrary, and that time is like a river which carrieth down things…").

It is a hard thing to say how influential an essay might be within the confines of such a tiny discipline as Pali: indirectly, it may be that this particular 1976 article acquired a greater impetus from the corpus of B.B.'s later translations (I do not know if it is directly cited or referred back to in many of them, or in any of them).

The article contains many enthusiastic turns of phrase that establish nothing more than the author's sense of enthusiasm --and, frankly, there's nothing wrong with that.  However, it doesn't read like a guideline set down for future scholars to conform to.

On the first page of the essay we are told that, "The five aggregates of clinging (pañcupādānakkhandhā) present a complete epitome of dukkha, both extensively by way of range and intensively by way of essence."  Is that the thesis?

I can only imagine that if you asked B.B. about this tenet (now more than 30 years after it was written) he would be confused by the question.  In what sense, possibly, could we say that the five khandhas are an epitome of suffering "intensively by way of essence"?  Or, at least, how is anyone supposed to guess what this means on the first page of the essay?

By the time we reach the conclusion, we can see that the author has come to a kind of fervent crescendo:

"…it is only the ariyan disciple who has seen Nibbāna for himself with the eye of noble wisdom, who can understand through direct penetration this last meaning of dukkha.  For he alone has accessible to his vision a reality transcendent to the aggregates that are dukkha with which he can contrast them and see for himself that 'in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha.'" (p. 102)

Well… that cleared up any confusion about that matter…

No, wait… what were we talking about?  The definition of the word khandha?

In the lonesome study of dead languages, there is an infectuous mania for fine distinctions created between words, and this particular article appeals to that tendency.  B.B. himself remarks that the article may be seen as "…just one more instance of scholastic hair-splitting raising an unnecessary cloud of dust…" (p. 92) but he assures us that he will prove the importance of the case in due course.  I can imagine how the peculiar definitions set out in this article would captivate at least a few scholars (each of whom comprises a significant percentage of all the scholars in the field, because the total number is so small) --and, as always, the profile of the thing has to be seen in the context of the available alternatives (such as the less-than-inspiring definitions for the same terms offered by the PTS dictionary).

What is the definition of khandhā (that B.B. calls "the aggregates") offered by the essay?  First, it is presented as a paraphrase of the same definition that we can read out of the Pali canon for ourselves, on the essay's first page:

"The five clinging aggregates, in their assemblage, constitute sakkāya, the 'existing body' or empirical personality." (p. 91)

Although the wording is opaque, nobody would dispute this definition, and it was not an original suggestion in 1973.  The essay starts to become controversial in the very next sentence, much more convoluted than the last:

"Therefore, on the grounds that things, i.e., personality [NB: he is here using the term "personality" to include the physical body!] and dukkha, equal to the same thing, i.e. the five clinging aggregates, are equal to each other, the structural formula of the four truths is occasionally stated in terms of sakkāya rather than dukkha." (p. 91)

Even if you know all of the Pali terms in italics, this is extremely difficult prose to make sense of.

I don't point out this phrase to unduly criticize the author, but to draw attention to how ill-suited this type of article is to the worshipful attitude that I have seen foisted upon it by others.  B.B.'s writing here is not offering a definitive statement, nor a discovery; instead, it is hyperbolical, impressionistic, and… enthusiastic.  More important than any one problem with the article itself is the assumption that it could (or should) be treated as a definitive statement about anything --rather than merely appreciated as some informal thoughts, set down by a then-young monk, in a then-obscure journal.

The first controversy that the article engages in contrasts compound words formed with upādānakkhandha and those that lack the upādāna.

Although that may sound obscure (because it is), it is a subject I've written about before (in a critique of Gombrich's view of the matter… not yet published) and also one that I delivered a lecture on at S.O.A.S. (memorably, at the end, Prof. Kate Crosby's question from the floor was, "So, how exactly would you define the word upādāna?").  However, I don't think there's anything exciting to say about upādāna as a word: the fact that a foreign word is difficult to translate with a single term in English doesn't entail that there is anything profound about the difficulty.

Language asymmetry as such is meaningless: the fact that English may lack a neat equivalent for something tells us nothing about the author's intent in the original language that we're translating --and it doesn't move the problem into the province of philosophy.

B.B.'s article is dramatized throughout by the insistence that the "personality" and suffering are "equal to the same thing".  This comes out again in the conclusions (already quoted) and is returned to repeatedly throughout.

In the essay's second controversy (that almost forms an essay within an essay) B.B. wrestles with the admitted fact that a monk who has attained nirvana still has this "personality" defined as "the five aggregates"… and yet, by definition, does not have the suffering… whereas B.B. insists that this very suffering is the same thing as the "personality" and its constituents.  This is a bit of an ouroboros, whereby one controversy creates the other, and, perhaps, one consumes the other as well.
["Ouroboros", a word worth only 11 points in Scrabble]

As I've noted in square brackets, B.B. uses "personality" very strangely to mean both the body and the mind (we might say "person" rather than "personality", hm?).  This claim is cited to just one source, "M. 44", apparently meaning the 44th sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (and not page 44 of vol. 1 thereof), i.e., the Cūḷa-vedalla-suttanta (PTS MN vol. 1, p. 299, BJT p. 702; note that the first part of the title, cūla, is also writ culla, and  may be spelled one way or another in any given edition).

I genuinely have no idea why B.B. cited this source at this point of his argument.  Aside from the fact that the Pali word sakkāya does appear prominently, I don't see any particular connection to the point he's trying to make, nor do I even know what part of his convoluted sentence is supposed to be supported by any given paragraph of the ancient dialogue cited.  If his claim is, specifically, that "the structural formula of the four truths is occasionally stated in terms of sakkāya", he really has not demonstrated this claim (and "M. 44" doesn't make this argument for him); further, if the text cited is supposed to support the equation that sakkāya is dukkha… well, that isn't demonstrated here, either.  Conversely, I'm unclear as to what the latter claim would really mean if taken seriously.

To say that the physical body "is" suffering can't be called surprising in a Buddhist context, although most people would only accept the claim as a kind of poetic hyperbole.  Conversely, would anyone seriously suggest that the substance of the body is composed of suffering and nothing else?  If so, this is contradicted by even the same text B.B. has cited ("M. 44") along with all of the passages on the four material elements composing the body.  With or without poetic hyperbole, B.B. proceeds to insist that "…the five aggregates of clinging… are, as we see, dukkha, and it is just dukkha and the cessation of dukkha that the Buddha teaches."

It happens that I disagree with this approach, but I think that very few people would be willing to read through the details of the disagreement at any length.

Throughout the canon, it is very clear that the substance of things (earth, water, etc.) is something quite separate from the notions that we have about them; and, thus, the tangible reality of the physical elements is something quite separate from the illusion of the soul, and also from the doctrine that there is no soul.  Earth, air, fire and water are something apart from the subjective experience of suffering, and apart from the doctrines that (hopefully) liberate people from that suffering.  This is covered with tremendous repetition (but not much explanation) in the Mūlapariyāya-suttanta, where, significantly, we find our perception of the earth element treated in exactly the same way (verbatim) that the Buddha treats our perception of the gods and even nirvana. [The Mūlapariyāya is the first suttanta of the MN, and thus starts on page 1, regardless of the edition you may be using.]  When we die, the earth composing the corpse returns to the earth-element, the water returns to the water-element, and so on. ("Cātummahābhūtiko ayaŋ puriso yadā kālaŋ karoti, paṭhavī paṭhavikāyaŋ anupeti anupagacchati…", Sāmaññaphala-suttanta, DN, PTS vol. 1, p. 55–56)  This is fairly common-sense stuff, relative to anything found in any ancient philosophy in any dead language; it is similar, in broad brush-strokes, to various Greek philosophers; this type of basic assumption has only becomes contentious (in retrospect) because of the contrast to later developments in Mahayana Buddhism that have formed some modern expectations of what ancient Buddhism is supposed to be.

To cite just one other source on this matter, in brief: "Na kho kassapa, paṭhavīdhātu saddhammaŋ antaradhāpeti, na āpodhātu…". (Saddhammapatirūpaka-suttanta, SN, BJT vol. 2, p. 340)  The physical elements don't cause the decline of the dhamma with the passage of time; it isn't the physical elements that erode these impalpable doctrines, but rather "idiots" (or "vain fools", moghapurisā) that cause their decline.  Although that's hardly a breathtaking revelation, it does reflect the underlying assumption that (contrary to some modern expectations) the Buddha of the Pali canon discussed his ideas as impalpable things discrete from the physical reality that they offered an analysis of: they're untouched (in the passage of years) by earth, air, wind and fire.  In this context, it seems to me just as misleading to say that the body itself "is" suffering as it is to say that the body "is" the soul or that it "is" oneself; on the contrary, each of these contentions would be a doctrine about the body.  Even if true, inasmuch as suffering is a truth about the body, it is (ipso facto) not the body.

The whole of the Mūlapariyāya invites us to question how we see things, how we know things, and how we see ourselves "in" them (of them, with them), or think of ourselves as having them and being them; however, these perceptions and doctrines are not the things themselves.

In generating what I've called the essay's second controversy, B.B. very usefully points out that even someone who has attained nirvana is "also composed of the five clinging aggregates" (see the pali quoted in the illustration, Sīla Suttanta, SN, BJT vol. 3, p. 294; PTS vol. 3, p. 168; this is quoted by B.B. on p. 94).  Well, if we use the word "clinging" to indicate something that is overcome by nirvana, it doesn't make sense to use "clinging aggregate" to translate something that comprises the "personality" of a fully-enlightened monk, does it?

B.B. wrestles with this issue for several pages.  With a great deal of struggle amidst nearly tautological terms, he eventually comes to the conclusion that, "…there is no contradiction between the designation of the arahat as five clinging aggregates and the recogition of his freedom from clinging…". (p. 98)  There is a contradiction, but, from my perspective, it is an ouroboros that is entirely created by B.B.'s own analysis and choice of English terms.

Is this really the problem we should be solving, or should we instead try to offer a translation of the (so-called) "clinging aggregates" that makes sense in the various contexts that B.B. compares?

I don't ask these questions in a hostile manner: there's a terrible dearth of debate amongst the small number of people who read these texts.  Buddhism is a religion built on a compendium of debates: we cannot regard debate about these texts as something external to Buddhism.  The debate itself is Buddhism (and, in a sense, it always was, i.e., even during the composition of the canon itself).
[Debatable?  A manuscript from the U.S. Library of Congress]

I don't think that Bodhi's essay establishes any definitive new finding about the meaning of the words that he's musing on (upādāna and khandhā) --but I also don't think the paper really attempts to do anything more than muse on these issues.  I do think that this paper has been influential (perhaps via B.B.'s later work) in spreading a generalized sense that there is some kind of profound mystery about the relationship between upādāna and khandhā.

I do not believe this myself: words that are difficult to translate are not (for that reason) indicative of any profound mystery.  In this case, we have a fairly simple concept that has become trickier to translate when it appears as part of a (long) compound word.

The real conclusion that we should draw from this (convoluted and involuted) essay of B.B.'s is that "clinging aggregates" (upādānakkhandhā) is a terrible translation that nobody can make sense out of (or, at least, not without extensive knowledge of the Pali sources being approximated by the English).  As it happens, I also dislike Gombrich's translation of the same term (upādānakkhandhā) as "the five heaps of burning fuel" --but that's a matter for another essay.

The rather pointed incomprehensibility of B.B.'s translation gives the whole controversy about upādāna a veneer of profundity, and adds a sense of urgency to the explanation (ending with the fervent conclusion, already quoted, about the nature of suffering… and existence in general, I suppose).

I have met many people who convince themselves (after many years of reading this type of material) that the broken sentence fragments and strange jargon have some "higher purpose" --and that anyone who doubts this should be reviled as an unbeliever (who fails to understand the presumably-profound reasons as to why the translator used such abstruse terms).  There is no "higher purpose": the purpose of language is to communicate.  The incoherent use of language is a failure, not a philosophical statement.

I understand why it is that so many people uncritically accept the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi as authoritative: as with any kind of trust, the delegation of decision-making is easier than thinking for oneself.  If B.B. says it makes sense, many people will be willing to squint at the text and pretend that it makes sense (and some will not be willing to admit to themselves that they cannot make sense of this stuff, as that would be a humiliating admission of inadequacy).

When I meet people who regard the English translations this way, I can sometimes get them to pause and engage in a bit of Socratic dialogue on these matters.  When my interlocutors play along, it is soon clear that these hallowed turns of phrase don't make sense to them at all --that is, not even to the people who believe in them.

Does anyone believe in "clinging aggregates"?  In my experience, the answer is yes, although nobody can make sense of this stuff.  Neither the original texts nor the translations benefit from a lack of critical thought; however, in this instance, the English is much harder to understand than the Pali.

We're not really talking about ineffable mysteries here, although B.B.'s essay would give you that impression.  These are practical problems of translation that cannot be solved if we don't take the first step of admitting that the English text we're already looking at does not make sense.  You can look up each of the English words in the dictionary in turn (aggregate… clinging… etc.) and you can consider all the rules of English syntax and grammar as they apply to the sentence, and it still won't make sense.  The English leaves a set of blanks that can only be filled in by knowing the Pali.  For any pair of languages, that is the definition of a bad translation.

A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
Bhikkhu Bodhi.  1976.  "Aggregates and Clinging Aggregates".  Pali Buddhist Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 91–102.