Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Ordination of Women in Buddhism, Old Facts & New Fables

MacBeth vs. MacDuff.
One of the recurrent issues in my own writing is the misconception that "crazy theories" come from the fringes: on the contrary, in Buddhism, the craziest theories can (and often do) come from the pinnacle of prestige, influence and academic authority (sometimes from the centers of religious authority, too).  I dealt with this question generally in my (still-unpublished) lecture, "The Opposite of Buddhism", and I discussed a (stunning) particular example in my earlier work on the "standard misinterpretation" of the 12 links of "dependent origination".

English speakers often work from a false assumption that what is "central" is conservative and reasonable, and what is "fringe" is radical, original, creative, and more likely to be unreasonable.  That may be true of some areas of scholarship, but I can tell you (and I must warn you) that Buddhism isn't one of them.  There is plenty of craziness at the center of the halls of power (and there isn't much power in those halls).

Often enough, however, what academic publications provide is a certain style of obfuscation for just how crazy these theories may be.  In the case of my critique of a theory proposed by Bhikkhu Pāsādika, I honestly think that the theory was refuted simply by writing it out clearly; in other words, as soon as the obfuscation was removed, any reader could see for themselves just how far-fetched it really was.

Below is an alert that I sent out to colleagues several years ago (as an e-mail), about a genuinely crazy theory propounded on the origin of the ordination of women in Buddhism.  I'm not really offering a critique of it here, but simply (1) pointing out that the theory exists, (2) warning the reader about all of the obfuscation, and then (3) restating what the theory really is without that obfuscation.  As with Bhikkhu Pāsādika's theory about a "materialist conspiracy" re-writing portions of the canon, I think that this "feminist conspiracy" theory is (likewise) so far-fetched that nobody could really take it seriously.  However, none of these theories come from the fringes: this stuff is all being published from the pinnacle of power and privilege, with the imprimaturs of wealthy institutions stamped onto the flyleaves.

-----Begin quotation (May, 2010)-----
It would be difficult to imagine how anyone would know that an exciting new article was published by Hinuber in an obscure journal called ARIRIAB in 2007.

In fact, even if you did stumble upon the ARIRIAB website, you would not be able to guess that this article is available for download as part of ARIRIAB-11.PDF, as there's no list of authors, and the files are scanned images (i.e., not searchable as text).  Resultantly, this is a nearly-hidden gem, and I will be so gauche as to send out a fan-club letter alerting my colleagues to its existence:

Now, even if you see the article, and even if you start reading it,
you might well miss its hypothesis:

Hinuber "dramatizes" the article, by delaying the revelation of his
own thesis until the latest stage possible.  Although this approach has
its advantages, the main defect is that you get an easily readable
opening, followed by a lengthy digression into the details of K.R.
Norman's mis-translation of a single passage from the Vinaya in the
middle portion of the essay (and, I think, there's some joy taken in
Hinuber outdoing K.R. Norman in this respect) --alas, I think many
non-specialist readers will simply give up at this point.

However, in the last act of the drama, the article returns to subjects
of mainstream interest that deserve a broader audience than they
are likely to find (hidden away in the pages of ARIRIAB).  Partly by
sheer co-incidence (e.g., an unpublished thesis that I read some years
ago) I happened to be already familiar with most of the passages that
Hinuber draws together here, but (1) many readers will not be, and (2)
some readers will only be familiar with this stuff as re-phrased (and
indirectly alluded to) in the most evasive and obsequious terms

As suddenly as MacDuff declaring that he was born of no mortal woman,
the last act takes yet another dramatic turn (terminating in a
footnote) as Hinuber decides to take the further step of concluding
that the ordination of female Buddhist monks took place AFTER the
Buddha's death (whereas, formerly in the article, he had merely
suggested that it took place very late in the Buddha's life) --a
reasonably radical change in interpretation of familiar facts (and,
frankly, I wonder if Hinuber didn't add this just to startle his

The real value of this article, for the larger number of reasons, will be that it draws together the material on the status of women during the lifetime of the Buddha without the usual evasions of what the primary source texts actually say.  In one of the very last footnotes, Hinuber draws attention to the fact that, at a minimum, the women's ordination was neither equal to the men's, nor simultaneous with it --nor was the women's ordination merely a few years after the men's.

Additionally, for those who do not already know it, the middle portion of the argument (that will be difficult for non-specialists to follow) does demonstrate (with some new examples, and some old) just how fragmentary the Vinaya now is --and how many peculiar influences (from Jainism, at least) were able to creep in (both doctrinally and
linguistically) before the canon was closed.

While I am very pleased at my own sheer luck in discovering this
article, others will not be so lucky (and it would be even more
difficult to find if English were not my first language, etc.) --and
this reminds me of my long-ago proposed project to start some sort of
annual newsletter on new publications on/in Theravada Countries (so
that all scholars in related fields at least have a list, perhaps with
a few articles and illustrations to brighten it up).

-----End of quotation (May, 2010)-----

The replies I received from this notice (at the time) were very much along the lines of, "You can't possibly be serious!" --and I then had to reiterate that this is certainly not a theory that I support myself.

From my perspective, this theory that there were zero ordained female monks during the Buddha's lifetime, and that they were instead falsely added into the canon at a later date (as part of a "feminist conspiracy", so to speak) is completely crazy.  It would require an absurd series of assumptions, and would undermine the same textual sources that the theory relies on to support itself as (presumed) historical evidence.  Such an interpretation would be entirely created and sustained by a series of "self-fulfilling-prophecies" of the most absurd kind (discarding evidence of female monks existing during the lifetime of the Buddha, and grossly reinterpreting other evidence, etc.).  Nevertheless, this completely crazy theory passes the highest levels of peer review, receives the highest levels of institutional support, and is supposed to be taken very seriously, etc., etc., just as with so many examples from the 19th and 20th centuries.

In contrasting the 21st century to the 19th: change is an objective fact, but "progress" is merely an ideology.

It is has never been the case that "the center" had a monopoly on virtue, nor that "the fringes" had a monopoly on crazy theories.  There's a great scarcity of virtue all around, and there's a great deal of corruption, nepotism, incompetence, and sheer stupidity at "the center" everywhere I've been (and I've been almost everywhere).

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Recently Asked Questions 02

The t-shirt is actually for a rock band, not the religion…
[Question:] Do you have any recommendations for translations of the Sutta Pitaka?

[Answer:] Sadly and sincerely, my answer is no.  The translations that now exist (in English) only offer you a range of options varying from "professional fraud" to "pious fraud" (and some are a mixture of the two).

One of the few books that I do suggest people seek out and read is Richard Gombrich's first major publication, "Precept and Practice"; sadly, I can't really make this endorsement without mentioning that (by contrast) I don't recommend Gombrich's more recent work.  His later books are both badly misleading and badly misled.  I do actually like Gombrich as a person (and as a personality), but the only book of his that I can endorse is that first one, written when he still identified himself as an Anthropologist.

Incidentally, Gombrich was quite friendly and encouraging toward me for some time, until the moment that he saw that I'd written a single word of criticism against his published work.  After that, I never heard another word from him again.  Sadly, while Gombrich has invoked the philosophy of Karl Popper many times, he has been unable to practice his own precepts in this regard.

Why do I provide this answer in reply to a request for a translation of the Sutta Pitaka?  Well, if you read Gombrich's first book ("Precept and Practice") you don't get primary sources, but you do get to see an anthropological sketch of the religion in its cultural context, with contrasting statements about the philosophy set down in the ancient texts, and the reality of Buddhism in this world today.  Right now, if you can't read Pali, this is probably the best that you can do.  Anthropology doesn't have all the answers, but it has some of the right questions; by contrast, "Buddhist studies" is in a defensive, hyper-conformist state, and nobody can even ask the important questions (let alone discover new answers).

Buddhism in English is simply not at the same stage that (e.g.) the philosophy of Lucretius achieved (thanks to the work of hundreds of scholars, over hundreds of years, with massive institutional support).  You can't read about it in a reliable translation.  You can't just buy the t-shirt and put on the necklace.  The work simply hasn't been done to make it easy for you.  The fact that people like me find it impossible to do more of that work (and don't have institutional support anywhere: neither in Thailand nor in Taiwan, etc.) means that it won't happen in this generation.

Sorry, but that's the answer to your question.

Buddhist Philosophy 08, Dissent from the Top

Suppose someone formed their opinion of Buddhism based solely on the articles on this blog (a scenario only slightly stranger than meeting someone whose opinion of Buddhism is based entirely on Kung-Fu movies… and yet much less common).  The question might then be asked, "Given all of this supernatural material in the canon (that you complain about other western interpreters selectively ignoring, etc.), why does anyone think of these texts as records of specific historical events at all?"

In a roundabout way, questions of that kind do reach me.  I received an utterly unexpected response from an established, PhD-wielding, career academic (specialized in Buddhism) who felt that my work supported his own conclusion that the Pali canon contained no description of the Buddha as an historical figure at all, nor (in his opinion) did the texts depict him as a human being.  This was both astounding and hilarious, as I then had to provide this professor with a link to one of my prior articles in reply: I had already written "The Buddha was Bald" to discuss the descriptions that we have in the Pali canon that do indeed make the Buddha seem like a normal human being (with nothing supernatural about his appearance, etc.).  I have never heard back from that professor again (the Socratic method is dead, apparently).

The question of whether the the Buddha is described as natural, supernatural, or alternating between the two, is a fairly narrow issue; we have a broader problem in questioning his status as an historical figure (in any of the texts, or in accordance with any possible archaeological evidence, etc.).  Even so, the latter question is still narrower than the universal problem of why anyone regards any of the ancient texts as "real historical evidence" (as opposed to religious fables), and why other texts in the same canon are disregarded (as mere fables).  In effect, modern interpreters end up selectively disregarding some texts, while insisting on the importance of others.

One of the great ghosts haunting "popular philology" is the criterion of embarrassment.  This is not a technical concept: its origin is in a book that sold in airport lobbies, and it was neither narrowly defined by academics nor by religious authorities.  If you look around the internet for debates employing the term, you'll find that they both demonstrate a diversity of (implicit) definitions of what it means, and you'll also see that the authors (often enough) debate amongst themselves the problem of how exactly this criterion should be used.

Given that the term is legitimately contestable in its meaning, it is easier for me to give an example of how it applies to Buddhist studies than to define it.  Mahā-Moggallāna was one of two monks who were expected to inherit the leadership of Buddhism (as a then-new religion) at the time of the Buddha's death; this didn't happen.  Despite the fact that both of these monks were younger than the Buddha, they both pre-deceased him; and Mahā-Moggallāna was reportedly murdered.

Modern icons depicting Moggallāna & Sāriputta (source).

The texts concerning Mahā-Moggallāna are full of the magical and the supernatural, and the events surrounding his death are further embellished upon in the commentaries.  Modern readers tend to regard the death of Mahā-Moggallāna as an historical fact, even if they regard all of the stories told about it as mythology.  How is that possible?  If your only evidence is myth, why would you suppose that you have evidence of anything other than mythology?

Well, there is this dubious thing called the criterion of embarrassment: in general, modern readers suppose that the untimely death of both of the monks who had been appointed to inherit authority was a subject of "embarrassment" (in the peculiar sense that it required further explanation and justification).  Even if the myths are largely fiction, modern readers tend to suppose that the reason for creating the myth was real: the supposition is that a story needed to be invented to "explain away" an inconvenient fact.  However, this whole attitude remains one of supposition.

Many people who don't use the term "criterion of embarrassment" nevertheless share in this basic attitude toward textual evidence (and many people complain that the word "embarrassment" itself is poorly suited to the meaning of the phrase, and is an unwanted distraction, etc.).  The point here isn't that ancient Buddhists were embarrassed by the death of Mahā-Moggallāna itself; rather, the assumption is that modern readers can infer that the invention of the myth served as a type of compensation for a real historical event (and that we can further infer what that real event was that the authors are compensating for).  It all seems so obvious and yet it is really very dubious.

Was Mahā-Moggallāna really murdered by Jains?  If we have a myth stating that he was, couldn't this text reflect tensions between the two religions (Buddhism vs. Jainism) at the time of the myth's authorship, rather than recording a prior historical event?  Can we really "selectively disregard" supernatural elements of a story (that would tend to categorize it as myth) simply because there are other elements that seem (to us, with modern eyes) to indirectly reflect real events?

Could it be, conversely, that these myths cover over something completely different that we can't guess at from the mere supposition that something is concealed?  Human nature being what it is, we might say, at least hypothetically, that there could have been a power-struggle to determine who inherited the control of the religion around the time of the Buddha's death.  As such, it could be that the myth isn't concealing the "inconvenient fact" of Mahā-Moggallāna's death, but, instead that the "convenient fact" of death itself was the myth.

If we started from the skeptical assumption that Mahā-Moggallāna might not have been dead prior to the Buddha, we would then interpret the written myths as offering an explanation of his absence (i.e., exclusion) from power thereafter.  That would be wholly speculative; however, the problem with the criterion of embarrassment is that every theory it supports is wholly speculative.

Monks on pilgrimage (in 2010) to Moggallāna's hometown.

We cannot reduce the degree of speculation even if we employ Occam's razor: there is absolutely no reason why the simplest available explanation for the invention of a myth would be more true than a convoluted one.

Unlike the pure sciences (or even the medical sciences), neither mythology nor history are susceptible to Occam's famous principle: the simplest explanation for why Napoleon went to war with Russia may be utterly false (his real reasons may have been extremely convoluted, etc.) and the simplest explanation for various myths that have been made up about the ensuing war may also be false (propaganda isn't counted as one of the pure sciences).  Given that we're looking at an uncertain mix of mythology and history, "the principle of parsimony" is doubly misleading.

Unlike the laws of physics, we're investigating a story that intentionally conceals something: the motives of the authors may be complex, and we don't even know to what extent they regarded themselves as writing fact, fiction, or a mixture of the two.  In the 21st century, if we were to speculate as to the inspiration for a particular song's lyrics, the simplest explanation has no reason to be more true than a convoluted one.  In looking for historical facts that may be masked within a work of art, simplicity need not correlate to accuracy (although simplicity may make our analysis seem more logical, our conclusions are not any less speculative for that reason).

Returning to the question that opened the essay: why does anyone regard any of this stuff as historical evidence of anything at all?  Well, as a broad aesthetic tendency, I think that most of us (i.e., modern readers) really do share in the mentality of the criterion of embarrassment, and the canonical texts offer us various critical and self-critical remarks about the (imperfect) development of early Buddhism that seem all-too-easy to believe in.  It isn't the case that all of the monks in the canon are paragons of virtue; instead, we have many acrimonious dialogues preserved in which the monks disagree about philosophy, or, sometimes, accuse one-another of ethical lapses and moral misconduct.  There is no real reason why we should regard a story about a bad monk as more historically real than a story about a good monk; however, we should be aware of this tendency of thought that elects to do precisely that.  We tend to treat texts as factual if they contain criticism, self-criticism, conflict, and explanations for what seem to be "inconvenient facts"; we tend to regard the absence of these things (in an otherwise grandiose narrative) as mythical.

If the canon described everyone as levitating and radiating magical beams all the time, etc., nobody today would believe any of it, nobody would really be interested in it, and the whole canon would probably be thought of as quite boring, in contrast to the human drama of other ancient sources, such as the myth of Heracles.  However, the canon does preserve very down-to-earth reflections on the state of the religion, alongside the supernatural narratives (and sometimes mixed in with them indifferently).  This is the sense in which Buddhism is (frankly) more interesting than the myth of Heracles: the religion was intensely aware of its own corruption from the outset, and it was intensely concerned about the misunderstanding of its own philosophy even within its first group of core followers.  The canon preserves a record of many of those concerns (debates, complaints, remonstrations, etc.) --although these are not separate from the mythological material in the texts themselves, and they definitely do not comprise an "earlier stratum" whereby anyone could/should disregard the mythological material as "later strata".  More fundamentally, we should admit to ourselves that we have no clear "criterion" as to what may be called a myth anyway (nor of how/why anything would be separated out as a non-myth); instead, readers just operate on the basis of their own sentiment, and something like the criterion of embarrassment.

Returning to the question of who inherited power at the time of the Buddha's death, I would look very briefly at the example of Mahā-Kassapa.  Whereas the two monks appointed to inherit power did not do so (reportedly due to their untimely demise), Kassapa was the man who actually did take over control of the religion.  Was he appointed to do so from the Buddha's death-bed?  No, reportedly, he wasn't present.  However, as the myth goes (in the MPNS), the fact that he was intended to take over the leadership was indicated magically by the fact that the wood stacked up for the Buddha's funeral-pyre refused to burn until Mahā-Kassapa arrived to attend the funeral.  No, I'm not making this up.  The question is, who did, and why?

Mahā-Kassapa statue rediscovered in 2011.

Yes, theoretically, it is possible that this is an actual historical event, but I don't think that anyone alive today interprets the text in this manner (not even the most pious of monks, and I've met many).  Conversely, if the point of the myth were to legitimate the power of Mahā-Kassapa, the question deserves to be asked: why didn't someone simply fabricate a decision on the part of the Buddha (on his death-bed) saying that Kassapa should take over control of the religion?

It may also be noted that the wood on the pyre does not speak with its own voice: another important monk, Anuruddha, offers the explanation that the gods were preventing the fire from alighting until Kassapa could arrive.  Again, it is tempting to imagine that this myth preserves Anuruddha's support for Mahā-Kassapa inheriting power, and that it is indirectly depicting the fact that Anuruddha wanted to delay the funeral proceedings until Kassapa and his supporters could arrive to advocate for his leadership.  However, we don't know this: it is speculation of the crudest kind.

The inscription from the shattered statue.

Mahā-Kassapa isn't even mentioned in the text (the MPNS) until after the Buddha's death; he enters the narrative with the description of his absence, explained in reference to this issue of the funeral-pyre remaining mysteriously flame-retardant.

Conversely, Sāriputta, one of the two monks who definitely was appointed to inherit power, is mentioned in the same text as speaking to the Buddha shortly prior to the Buddha's death --yet more than 3 months before, apparently (when the Buddha is still in Nalanda).  So, incongruously, we have the Buddha praising the wisdom of Sāriputta as part of the Buddha's death-narrative, and then Sāriputta simply disappears from the story, with no mention of the fact that he was supposed to take over the leadership, nor any statements of the Buddha's disappointment that this wouldn't happen.  Sāriputta isn't mentioned again (neither as alive nor dead nor dying), nor is he present at the funeral, nor is his absence at the funeral mentioned as significant.  Meanwhile, Mahā-Moggallāna isn't mentioned even once in the whole story, although he was the other man appointed to inherit the leadership, and he allegedly died subsequent to Sāriputta, but still prior to the Buddha.

In terms of the chronology, wasn't Sāriputta supposed to be dead all along?  In retrospect, we are supposed to believe that both Sāriputta and Mahā-Moggallāna died just a few months before the Buddha's own funeral, and that news of this shocking turn of events reached the Buddha, and yet their deaths aren't mentioned within the same text.  If all of those deaths transpired in such rapid succession within the last three months of the Buddha's life, why would there be absolutely no mention of such an important drama in the midst of the very myth that details the last three months of the Buddha's life?

These were the two "chief disciples", who were supposed to be in command after the Buddha's death; are we expected to imagine that their own deaths are simply omitted as unimportant from this narrative?

It seems almost irresistible to imagine that we can unravel what the myth means, and also what it conceals.  The truth is that we can't.  We don't know whether or not it was written to conceal anything, and we can never verify what it is concealing in particular.

If these myths were written to serve a simple political purpose, Mahā-Kassapa would instead be mentioned in the Buddha's final orations, and he would be unambiguously named as the intended successor throughout the canon (but he isn't).  Instead, the canon preserves an incongruous and ambiguous situation at the time of the Buddha's death, despite the mythological and grandiose tropes that are built into the narrative.  Nobody who studies the Pali canon as a whole could have the sense that Mahā-Kassapa's accession was obvious or uncontroversial.  We're left with fragments of many strange controversies, and that inescapable feeling that we're looking at an imperfect record of real historical events, even though we're only looking at myths that we suppose to very indirectly reflect those events.

Thai patrons re-sacralize the fragment in India (2012).

Within the Pali canon, Mahā-Kassapa emerges as a very interesting and very human character (who deserves to be written about at greater length than I would do here).  Mahā-Kassapa offers us some of the most striking examples of "dissent from the top" within the canon: he complains very directly about what he perceives to be wrong and corrupt within the religion.  This, also, tugs at our sense of the criterion of embarrassment: although we really have no evidence at all, the nature of the complaints themselves just seem so human, and so believable, that we easily take them as indirect evidence of something actual.

One of the most interesting complaints offered to the Buddha was in the Saddhammapatirūpaka-suttanta (SN, PTS vol. 2, p. 223–4) where Mahā-Kassapa laments the decline of the religion, still within the lifetime of its founder (see the Pali text displayed in the first illustration).  In the past, he complains, the number of rules was few, but the number of monks who became properly trained was many; now, by contrast, there are many rules, but few of the monks are really becoming accomplished in the training.  This is dissent from the top: one of the foremost monks (and the one who eventually took over the leadership of the religion) is complaining that the rules don't work.  Buddhism is a religion built on rules: the complaint against the (prolix) monastic code from one of its foremost proponents is significant.  The fact that the canon preserves dissent of this kind (mixed in with supernatural narratives and all the rest of it) is even more significant.

This is a religion that preserved dissent as part of its bible (including some of the reasons that would-be converts stated for rejecting the teaching of the Buddha, the words of ex-monks who formerly accepted but later rejected the teaching, as well as the arguments of rival philosophers who criticized the Buddha).  As in the case of Mahā-Kassapa, we even have evidence of dissent from the top.

So, "is this stuff historical evidence of anything at all?"  In general, people answer that question in accordance with their own evaluation of human nature: although it is easy to imagine that a religion would invent myths to glorify itself, it simply seems difficult to imagine that they would invent myths to criticize themselves (within their own canon).  Conversely, there is absolutely no distinction between myth and historical fact within the texts (of "the core canon", as I choose to put it) and we need to be keenly aware of the subjective and emotional nature of the decisions we make in disregarding some texts as fictional, and in historicizing others.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Buddhism and the Leaders of Public Opinion

Charles Johnson, 2010 (OSU Library)
As I've said some disparaging things about Schopenhauer lately, I'll open this article with his dictum that increasing awareness increases suffering: his illustration of this is a child with a skinned knee, who continues playing, oblivious to the pain, until an adult happens to expresses concern or pity, drawing attention to the injury, resulting in the child suddenly crying, even if the injury had taken place hours before.  His observation was that suffering arose not from things themselves, but from our awareness of them; intelligence therefore magnifies suffering through our capacity to reflect on injuries, both real and imaginary.  Although the label of "pessimism" is applied to Schopenhauer in many strange ways, on this particular point it could be more meaningfully associated with his name: if the basic premise of philosophy is that we can think our way out of our problems, and that intelligence reduces our suffering, we could say that Schopenhauer offers us the opposite theory.

Charles Johnson (inconsistently cited as Charles R. Johnson) is an American writer of both fiction and non-fiction, who is probably somewhere on the list of the most influential people to convert to Buddhism in the last century.  It would be nice if I could be a fan of his work.  I can't.  I know too much.  Reading what he has to say about Buddhism makes me wince; I know what's wrong with it, and it's a scraped knee that (once discovered) I can't ignore.

Although I studiously avoid reading anything published in Shambhala Sun, their interview with C.J. happens to be the best thing I've ever read from that magazine.  Here's a short quotation from C.J., illustrating why it is so difficult for me to be "a fan" of him, or almost any of the mainstream Buddhist leaders of public opinion:

"In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King said that civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. I link King with Buddhism because his statements are very close to the idea of dependant [sic] origination. He talked beautifully about how the world we live in is one of mutuality in which we are all equally dependant [sic] on each other."

I suppose if I had read that quotation about 15 years ago, I wouldn't have known how deeply flawed it was; but now I do know, and it's impossible to ignore.  C.J. isn't just an author of fiction: he's also a journalist and essayist, who lectures about the importance of journalistic research, fact-checking, ethics and other procedures (see the video, below).  He both aspires to and (quite reasonably) preaches a higher standard of research and writing, but he doesn't apply those standards to his knowledge of his own religion.  Journalism doesn't set a very high standard, but even so: there's a difference between reporting on religion and simply making things up.  For anyone who has actually studied (so called) "Dependent Origination" in the Buddhist Canon (or in any of the canons!), this short quotation (above) is a dead giveaway.

Definition of "Dead Giveaway" (source).
We don't expect Richard Gere to know what he's talking about because he's Richard Gere.  We don't expect Metta World Peace to know what he's talking about because he's Metta World Peace.  Do we expect anyone to know what they're talking about, or does Buddhism remain in a sort of D.I.Y. cultural sub-basement, where anyone can pretty much invent anything like a revelation from a dream?  Buddhism isn't based on revelation: if you want a religion in which people are free to invent anything and call it "the will of god", you should convert to pretty much any religion other than Buddhism.

I'm aware that almost nobody has bothered to read the original source texts describing the 12 links / "Dependent Origination" formula (not even in English apparently) and that's why I've written my own lengthy articles on the subject in the past.  However, when you're looking at an erudite leader of public opinion like C.J., the question deserves to be asked: why?  Why shouldn't he know what he's talking about?  Conversely, why is it that I'm in the position of wincing in agony whenever a public statement is made on behalf of Buddhism?  Why are these statements so often made by westerners who are balefully ignorant of the doctrines that they seem to preach?

He's looking at you, Metta (source).
I continue to receive messages from people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the concept of textual authority itself (and I suppose that's why they're writing to me).  Well, if you want to be part of a religion that doesn't require reading, then Buddhism is pretty bad choice for you.  If you want to be part of a modern intellectual movement that doesn't require reading (and doesn't require respect for the philology and problems of translation) then even "secularized" Buddhism is a bad choice for you.

Buddhism presumes a lot of reading, a lot of recitation, and a lot of memorization; and, if you become a monk, it also presumes knowing and obeying the writ of a lot of rules.  Within that tradition, being a critic or "freethinker" doesn't require less reading than being a conformist, it requires even more: within Buddhism, if you want to challenge the authority of the texts (or of the social status quo), you can't do so on the basis of ignorance of those texts, but only by knowing quite a lot above and beyond the writ of those texts.  I would say that one example of this type of challenge (as part of a process of cultural change) is Taiwan's ongoing attempt to "reinterpret" the status of women in Buddhism (釋昭慧 and her 廢除八敬法運動).  The fact that this debate has drawn Mahayanists into invoking (and debating) Theravāda textual sources is itself a indicative sign that you can't get beyond the writ of the ancient text without first showing that you know and understand it very thoroughly.  Even for people trying to "abolish" a certain set of rules (as per this Taiwanese example), ignorance of the source text is not an option; there are even higher expectations of their scholarship (or "jurisprudence") precisely because they want to challenge the received opinion (and plain writ) of the original texts.

Who is going to take up that kind of challenge?  We have to challenge ourselves.  Conversely, people who don't want to do the work need to have the humility and discipline to admit that they haven't done the reading, and can only defer to the opinions of those who have.

I sympathize with reformers like 釋昭慧, and I sympathize with self-made intellectuals like Charles Johnson, too, who are drawn to Buddhism for their own set of reasons, but never really get to grips with what Buddhism "is".  However, it is physically painful for me to read C.J.'s opinions: they're both misled and misleading.  In our culture, we have no equivalent to 釋昭慧; the leaders of public opinion are guys like Richard Gere and Metta World Peace.  They make C.J. seem profound by contrast.

[C.J.'s comments on journalism are at the end of part 6 and the start of part 7 of this video-set; click here to jump to the precise moment.]

Monday, 3 December 2012

Gaps on the Map (more on "the silence of the internet")

Although I'm glad that anyone read the article at all, I think that my former point was missed about looking at the (imperfect) map of the internet as "an indirect indication of real cultural change".

Looking at a map made in Japan in 1604, the difference in detail between one part of the world and another is telling: while Southeast Asia was a navigable distance from Japan (and there were permanent Japanese settlements in Southeast Asia in 1604), it's nevertheless very hard to make sense of the vague mess surrounding 緬甸 (Myanmar/Burma).  Meanwhile, the coastlines of the Caribbean are very clearly delineated, and are easily recognizable based on what we would expect to see on a 21st century map.  In 1604, the Caribbean was the focus of a great deal of the world's attention: it was where the "fast money" was being made in the slave trade and the sugar industry.  You can see, by contrast, that nobody was making much money in the vague jumble of rivers and mountains surrounding 緬甸 and 安南 --although it would have been much easier for the Japanese to map out the coastline of Southeast Asia.

The level of detail, care and the awareness of what is being depicted indirectly reflects the cultural and economic importance assigned to these places at that time.  Of course, this particular map is an interesting example, because it was made in Japan, but also reflects Japan's reliance (in 1604) on European sources of information (a European "worldview" in a very literal sense).  There's nothing inevitable about that dependency: in 1604, there were Japanese mercenaries in the employ of the King of Thailand (as good a source of information as Herodotus ever had) but the Japanese evidently did not have much interest in that view of the world.

What do we really learn from the declining significance of Buddhism in different online forums?  I've suggested that it is an indirect reflection of something significant, even if we can't be precise about what the decline in interest really is.  The point of  my former article was not that Yahoo groups is of unique importance, nor that the Google Ngram statistic is "a perfect map" of cultural change.  Conversely, why would we ignore them, as indicators of a change of some kind?

Note, for example, that from 1968 to 2008, the cultural currency of "vegetarian" was in decline [click here for figure 1]… but, by contrast, "vegan" was increasing in usage during the same period [click here for figure 2]… I think that is an interesting indication of something.  It certainly isn't a perfect map, but it indicates what people are paying attention to (and publishing books about).  Annoyingly, by the way, words are tracked separately with and without capitalization, setting "Vegans" against "vegans" [click here for figure 3].

Well, here's the menacing chart showing the decline in interest in "theravada" from 1968 to 2008 [click here for figure 4].  You need to compare this to the separate chart for "Theravada" with a capital "T" [click here for figure 5].

These are the annoyances of relying on computer-automated research: believe it or not, the decline in interest in "Communism" (with a capital "C") was more rapid than the decline in interest in "communism" (lower-case) [click here for figure 6].  Again, this is an indirect indication of something: perhaps critics of Communism are more likely to leave the word without a capital letter and apologists are more likely to keep the capital letter, and perhaps people just stopped capitalizing the letter after some point at which it had become overly familiar as a noun.  One strange factoid spins out of this: 1974 was the first year that the lower-case spelling was more common than the capitalized form.

The Google Ngram system also separately tracks the most correct spelling Theravāda (with the second a marked as ā) but the number of uses of this spelling recorded is so infinitesimally small that we have no choice but to ignore it.

Are these charts completely meaningless?  No, I don't think so.  Generally, what we can see is that by 2008 the level of interest in Theravāda Buddhism was only slightly higher than it was in 1968; it briefly reached higher levels of interest for some of the years in-between, and then declined.

By contrast, it will be no surprise to anyone that there was a sudden increase in publications using the word "Islam" in the year 2001 [click here for figure 6].  Even before 2001, you may notice, the numbers for "Islam" are exponentially higher than "Theravada", and were increasingly higher than "Buddhism" over time.

In earlier blogicles, I've pointed out that Buddhism is much less popular than people seem to presume in (1) the U.S.A., (2) Canada, and even in (3) Taiwan.  I've also pointed out that statistics of this kind can sometimes (4) just be misleading junk.

At present, there is no easy or obvious assumption that Buddhism is "growing" or "flourishing".  Everywhere that I've done research in-the-field, the religion is shrinking; moreover, interest in the religion is declining faster than the brick-and-mortar institutions.  Buddhism certainly isn't flourishing in Cambodia, nor in Laos, nor in any part of China I've known.  The facile assumption that Buddhism would rapidly grow in the West has proven to be false, and, meanwhile, the religion is really struggling to survive in many of its homelands.  Although they're very imperfect maps of human activity, I do think that indications such as Google Ngram (and declining Buddhist blogging, etc.) reflect these changes.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 05

• Vocabulari de la llengua catalana + xinesa + anglesa + francesa, part 05
• 第05詞彙—加泰羅尼亞語+中文+法語+英語
• 第05词汇—加泰罗尼亚语+中文+法语+英语
• Catalan + Chinese + French + English Vocabulary Part 05
• Vocabulaire Langue Catalane + Chinoise + Français + Anglais Partie 05

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 07, No Soul, Not Selfless Persons

The Buddha's teaching that there is no soul has absolutely nothing to do with our modern (English) sense of the word "selflessness"; although there are other teachings related to generosity, caring for the sick and poor, and so on, the "no soul" doctrine does not even mean that an ideal Buddhist (like Queen Mallikā, below) would care about others more than herself/himself.  As you're about to see, it isn't a doctrine of self-sacrifice, nor of self-abasement.

I'm not using my own translation here, but instead directly quoting the (freely-distributed) translation of Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna.

[Pali:] Sāvatthiyaŋ
[Uppalavanna:] The origin is in Sāvatthi.

[Pali:] Tena kho pana samayena rājā pasenadi kosalo mallikāya deviyā saddhiŋ uparipāsādavaragato hoti. Atha kho rājā pasenadi kosalo mallikaŋ deviŋ etadavoca: atthi nu kho te mallike ko cañño attanā piyataroti?
[Uppalavanna:] At that time king Pasenadi of Kosala was in the upper storey of [the] palace.  Then king Pasenadi of Koslala asked queen Mallika: "Mallika, is there anyone dear to you, more than your self?"

[Pali:] Natthi kho me mahārāja ko cañño attanā piyataro. Tuyhaŋ pana mahārāja atthañño koci attanā piyataroti? Mayhampi kho mallike natthañño koci attanā piyataroti.
[Uppalavanna:] "Great king, there is no one dear to me, more than my self. Is there anyone dear to you, more than your self?" [He replies:] "Mallika, to me too, there is no one, more dear than my self."

[Pali:] Atha kho rājā pasenadi kosalo pāsādā orohitvā yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami. Upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaŋ abhivādetvā ekamantaŋ nisīdi. Ekamantaŋ nisinno kho rājā pasenadi kosalo bhagavantaŋ etadavoca: idhāhaŋ bhante mallikāya deviyā saddhiŋ uparipāsādavaragato mallikaŋ deviŋ etadavocaŋ: "atthi nu kho te mallike ko cañño attanā piyataro"-ti. Evaŋ vutte bhante mallikādevī maŋ etadavoca: "natthi kho me mahārāja ko cañño attanā piyataro. Tuyhaŋ pana mahārāja atthañño koci attanā piyataro"ti. Evaŋ vuttāhaŋ bhante mallikaŋ deviŋ etadavocaŋ. "Mayhampi kho mallike natthañño koci attanā piyataro"ti.
[Uppalavanna:] Then king Pasenadi of Kosala descended from the upper storey of his palace approached the Blessed One [i.e., the Buddha], worshipped, sat on a side and said to the Blessed One: "Venerable sir, I was in the upper storey of the palace with queen Mallika, and I asked her, whether there was anyone dear to her more than her self and she said, great king, there is no one dear to me, more than my self and she aksed me, whether there was anyone dear to me, more than my self. I replied that to me too, there was no one, more dear than my self."

[Pali:] Atha kho bhagavā etamatthaŋ viditvā tāyaŋ velāyaŋ imaŋ gāthaŋ abhāsi:
[Uppalavanna:] Then the Blessed One knowing the deep meaning, said this stanza that moment.

[Pali:] Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci,
Evaŋ piyo puthu attā paresaŋ
Tasmā na hiŋse paraŋ attakāmoti.

[Uppalavanna:] "Searching through out [sic] the directions, someone,
More dear than the self could not be found anywhere
The self, in general is dear to all,
Therefore those who love the self should not hurt others."

[Source: SN Vol. 1, Kosala S. (#3), Bandhanavaggo (#1), Mallikāsuttanta (#8), PTS p. 75.]

The characters in the dialogue appear a few times in the core canon (and were apparently popular enough to be reinvented in later, post-canonical literature).  Mallikā appears in the scriptures as a paragon of Buddhist virtue, whereas her husband is more skeptical, more impious, and he continues to carry out animal sacrifices despite the injunctions of his wife's religion.

King Pasenadi ("artist's impression", from Wikipedia).
In another dialogue with this same royal couple, the husband scolds the wife for unthinkingly concurring with whatever the Buddha says; it's an all-too-human scene, still easy to imagine across the gap of more than two thousand years. (MN No. 87, Piyajātika-suttanta)

Those who have been reading my articles for some time may expect me to now discuss problems of translation, or to question the meanings of the particular words.  I'm not going to do that.  In this case, I'm simply going to point out that "the problem of interpretation" is that so many people have selectively disregarded canonical material of this kind entirely.  The best translation imaginable won't help anyone, if the evidence is overlooked, and I'm inclined to use someone else's translation whenever my audience is likely to be so shocked by the text as to accuse me of simply making it up.

This short passage from the canon will (admittedly) challenge many people's assumptions about what Buddhism "is" (or is supposed to be), and what "no soul" should mean.  I've already written long articles dealing with the fact that the Buddhist doctrine of the 12 links of "dependent origination" doesn't say what people pretend it says, and that "breathing meditation" isn't at all what people think it is.  Well, now you've got the shortest article possible warning you that the theory of "no soul" isn't what you've been taught to believe it is, either.

For many of my readers, the short quotation I've presented above may contradict sermons you've heard from a variety of modern masters, from a variety of traditions (Mahayana and Theravāda alike).  For others, it may recall passages that you're familiar with in the Dhammapada.

The Dhammapada is one of the few texts that is still widely read, and, notably, "the self" is certainly not used as a dirty word in its verses; on the contrary (just as in the suttanta I've quoted above) we find that a positive value assigned to the self is taught to be reciprocal with the compassion that we're supposed to have for others as, e.g., in the opening of the 10th chapter, the Daṇḍavagga.  There's a similar sentiment throughout the 12th chapter (the Attavaggo) where Nārada's translation has a somewhat amusing footnote to clarify that the positive sense of "the self" described here should be understood as only meaning the body, personality, and mind, "or life flux" (i.e., not the soul, as there is no soul, etc.).  The same Pali word is used in these positive references to the "self" [atta] that is used elsewhere to fulminate against the existence of the soul.  For those of you who have been reading the Dhammapada for many years, this may be a teaching about "the self" that you've had in plain sight, but never considered in reference to "no soul"; they're two sides of the same doctrine.
In both the Mallikā-suttanta (above) and in the Dhammapada, the positive value attributed to the self is the basis for having compassion for others; this is (frankly) the exact opposite of Schopenhauer's (all-too-influential) insistence that we have compassion despite the self (by "piercing the illusion of the individual self", etc.).  Regrettably, these ideas from 19th century Germany have been more influential than the ancient Buddhist texts in establishing modern assumptions of what Buddhism is supposed to be.

To trump one 19th century German philosopher with another, plenty of people reading the suttanta quoted above would think that it had more in common with the philosophy of Max Stirner than it does with Buddhism.  Stirner taught that compassion didn't arise from conflating oneself with others, nor from regarding the self as unreal (illusory, etc.), nor from unifying people in some shared abstraction (be it religious or secular), but instead from accepting one's own "egoism" and appreciating the depth of one's own alienness from others.  As you may have guessed, this was less popular than Schopenhauer's transcendental approach to the subject of compassion; in the century that followed, it was also less popular than Stirner's self-appointed nemesis, Karl Marx (who, at the time of Stirner's death, reviled him as the man who wanted to lead all of Europe into a madhouse with his philosophy… an insult that, in retrospect, seems to have been more apt for Marx's Communism).  Although Schopenhauer became a powerful, distorting influence on Buddhist studies, there were at least a few western Buddhists who were instead devotees of Max Stirner (including, notably, Alexandra David-Néel).

I realize that this discussion will be upsetting for many Buddhists who have been hearing the exact opposite of what the scriptures actually say (about "no self" as "selflessness") over and over again for decades.  Please don't attack me for being the one to draw attention to the text here: I didn't write the canon, I'm merely reading it.

Based on the evidence of the texts themselves, some of these doctrines were unpopular in ancient India as well.  The other sutta briefly mentioned above (the Piyajātika-suttanta) uses the same word for the beloved (piya, translated with the comparative suffix as "more dear", above) to argue that misery arises from regarding others as beloved (with attachment to one's own family providing most of the examples).  It is interesting that negative reactions to these sermons have been recorded in the canon at all, given that the Buddhist canon is, understandably, pro-Buddhist in its bias; but the authors evidently thought that the reasons some laypeople and monks stated for rejecting the Buddha's teaching were also important to record.  Part of what makes texts like the Piyajātika-suttanta so interesting is that they also show that certain aspects of the Buddha's teaching were shocking to his contemporaries, and that his new religion was rejected outright by some who could have otherwise have been his followers.  Even in ancient India, many of these ideas were "a hard sell"; they weren't what a popular audience wanted to hear.

Unlike Schopenhauer, Stirner, Marx, or even Socrates, the Buddha's teaching does involve rejecting your own family, including both family obligations and ties of affection; it includes the rejection of both wealth and caste status (be it high or low) in a culture that cared intensely about both, from the cradle to the grave.

As is fairly well known in Buddhist studies, the religion's challenge to "filial piety" caused a thousand years of controversy in China, where even shaving your head was considered an offense against your ancestors when Buddhism arrived and started seeking converts.

Many modern attempts to reconcile Buddhism with "family values" aren't any more sophisticated than China's struggle of more than a thousand years ago: Buddhism really is an eremitic philosophy, and it really does argue against "family values", and argues for the renunciation of family, caste and clan interests, to take instead a lonely road to a lonesome death.  That philosophy was hard to sell in ancient India, and in medieval China, and it's still hard to sell today.  In general, the modern doctrine of "selflessness" (interpreting "no soul" as meaning some kind of generosity) is instead bound to some notion of being a good person, while retaining all of your family status and wealth (or even increasing it).

The positive value of the self (in the context of the Buddha preaching compassion for others, on the basis of the value one ascribes to oneself) is one important aspect of the doctrinal definition of Buddhism.  I'm not presenting my opinion on the matter here, and I'm not discussing a matter of opinion: it is a matter of what the canon plainly says.  Perhaps it is because westerners are seeking the esoteric in Buddhist ethics that they're frustrated by the simplicity of what the Buddha actually says on these matters.

As we're speaking of compassion, I would invite my readers to imagine (with some compassion) how strange it must be for me to be alive in the 21st century, as one of the only men who can read Pali for himself, and as one of an even smaller number who is willing to let the texts speak for themselves.  Unfortunately, I'm aware that my contemporaries are more likely to attack me (with no compassion) for having dared to point this out.  Should any religion be so uncomfortable with the bare facts of what its own canon (and its own philosophy) states so plainly?

[Addendum, Dec. 13th, 2012: a colleague wrote in to inform me that Steven Collins offers his own opinion on the same Pali text (quoted above) on page 72 of his book Selfless Persons.  Given the title of my article, there may be some confusion on this point: please note that my own article was not written as a rebuttal to Collins.  I had not read the book in question at the time of authorship, and I have not read it now; however, I infer from my colleague that there is some interesting contrast to be made between myself and Collins on this point.]