Sunday 27 May 2012

Hô-ló Sin-gí 1 Fruit

In these two illustrations, you have 27 varieties of fruit set out in four languages.  You'll notice that Taiwanese Hokkien (Hô-ló) very rarely corresponds to the Pinyin (Pheng-im) --and the correspondences are often "foreign fruit" with recently-coined names.

In general, the Cambodian and Lao terms for fruit exist in an interesting web of loan-words that involves Malaysia directly, and, often enough, India and China indirectly.  Many of the English words now used for these fruits are simply anglicized Malay (e.g., mangosteen and rambutan).

Indigenous fruits tend to have significant dialect variations; foreign imports sometimes have a variety of new coinages (e.g., "Shampoo fruit" is the second name given in Lao for syzygium "rose apple", probably just a reference to the color, as shampoo is presumed to be pink in the region).

My Hô-ló transcription differs from the standard (POJ) in just one respect: I'm using the breve (˘) where the standard would have the difficult-to-compute vertical line above the vowel: păt-á vs. paˈt-á.

A few of the names on the list were filled-in by suggestions that I received from members of the Learning-Ho-Lo@Googlegroups --and my thanks go to them.

Friday 25 May 2012

Spoken Hokkien new textbook review

This is the first truly new textbook for teaching Taiwanese Hokkien (台語) to native speakers of English in a very long time.

Most of the materials available for this language (in English) are either directly or indirectly derivative of the work of Nicholas Cleaveland Bodman (whose career in Asian languages apparently started with deciphering Japanese naval code at Pearl Harbor in 1942).*  If you'd like to see a survey of the informal language resources now produced in Taiwan, there's a Youtube video providing an overview (in the most literal sense of the term), but you'll see that most of these are merely phrase-books (if they're produced for foreigners at all), or else children's books (that presume the child has grown up speaking Hokkien, to some extent, and has a parent reading the text aloud).

There has been remarkably little that's truly new since Bodman ("cold war" textbooks, some linked to the U.S. government, and other linked to Christian missionary groups); and, of course, one reason for this is the strange history of the suppression of the language itself (quoting Victor Mair, "Until the lifting of martial law on July 14, 1987, not only was it considered subversive to write in Taiwanese, one could be punished for compiling Taiwanese dictionaries and instructional materials, or even for speaking Taiwanese in public arenas such as schools, governmental bodies, the media, and so forth.").  So, if you're looking at textbooks to purchase online, you may be surprised to find that some of them are still sold with cassette tape.

So, anyone interested in learning or teaching the language will need a copy of this new book from Fang Meili for several obvious reasons:

 • It was produced specifically for teaching Hokkien to westerners, and presumes no prior knowledge of any other Chinese dialect, nor of Chinese written characters.
  (Don't believe me?  The methodology and rationale for the book are set out plainly enough in this PDF, 台灣語言在英國教學與發展情況.)

 • It uses POJ (Pe̍h-ōe-jī) throughout, and that's means that you'll actually be able to use it with the existing corpus of dictionaries for the language.  Be warned: some of the other textbooks (and phrase-books) available neither follow POJ nor any other systematic transcription standard.  When you're at "level zero" with the language, you will need to be able to find POJ entries in whatever dictionary you have (digital or otherwise).

 • The audio recordings are clear, high-quality, and provided on compact disc (which is what you'd expect for a book first produced in 2010).

What are the limitations of the textbook?
 • You will immediately be wondering "where's volume two"?  The book is only 167 pages long, and you can indeed tell that each chapter was adapted from an in-class lesson (as is explained in the appendix).  As such, it is introductory, but not compendious.  It is well-suited to classroom use, but it is not a reference book.  The total range of vocabulary covered is limited.

 • Within the limit of so many pages, it is understandable that the book does not include Chinese characters, but teaches the language exclusively in phonetics (POJ, aforementioned).  This is, however, a limitation (wait for volume two?).

To use an example (taken directly from Wikipedia) wherein a simple Min-nan phrase would not have a single character in common with "standard" Chinese expression:
     i cháu  kín (伊走未緊)
     tā pǎo bù kuài (他跑不快)
It is true that the characters used in Taiwanese also exist in a Chinese dictionary (i.e., 伊 exists in both languages) but the more important fact here (from the student's perspective) is that the two phrases both sound completely different, and also look completely different.

This sort of asymmetry is worth knowing about relatively early in the student's education, partly because so many native Chinese speakers will insists that the opposite is true.  People will tell you every day that the difference between the languages is "merely phonetic"; just a few days ago a Chinese librarian insisted to me that the two languages are written identically in Chinese characters.  The simple sentence above shows that this isn't true, or that it is true only in some abstract sense (cf. anything written on about language-ideology, e.g. Victor Mair's comments, "The myth about a nation of Chinese speaking a single language made up of countless 'dialects' with only negligible differences of 'accent' continues to root itself ever more deeply in the global consciousness, plaguing common sense and scientific observation all the while.").  Perhaps this could be compared to someone saying that German and English are written identically, and merely spoken differently: every word in [the German phrase] wie geht es dir corresponds directly to an English word (and yet this correspondence is still completely incomprehensible if you don't already have a solid understanding of both English and German).
 • The book is published in Europe --and that really is a limitation!  One of the reasons why I'm posting this brief review to the internet is that the textbook seems to be nearly unknown at present (and I assume that it is very hard to find a copy in Taiwan).  Whatever prestige SOAS may have as a publisher, they're really lousy as a book-maker: they put zero effort into transforming the author's manuscript into a book worth buying.

It has a plain, white cover, and plain MS-Word page-layout throughout the interior (with a plain white audio CD, too).  I put a flower next to the book in that photograph to provide some color (thus, you can tell that the photo isn't in black and white).  The book contains zero illustrations (cf. Comenius, the "inventor" of the illustrated vocabulary).  In terms of the quality of the paper and binding, let's face it: books published in Europe are now of much lower quality than books produced in Taiwan.  This is, perhaps, especially true of textbooks and non-fiction.

I was also very disappointed with SOAS's own online bookstore, in addition to the disappointing printing/production of the book.  Although it is more expensive to order the same book from Amazon, I can only say that you take your chances with a badly-managed and poorly-working system if you purchase directly from SOAS.  If you try reporting your problems to the SOAS bookstore, guess what?  The e-mail address doesn't work, and there's no other way to get in touch with them.

If you're expecting the book to arrive with a postage stamp from England, you'll be disappointed: it comes from some anonymous digital print shop in Germany.  The reality is that SOAS outsourced the production and shipping of this book to Germany (at the lowest possible quality), and they really have no executive control over the process.  It really seems that the publisher takes no pride or care in producing the book at all, and the results are sloppy (please note that I am not blaming the author for this at all).  Authors of language textbooks should seriously consider publishing with anyone else instead of SOAS (this is not the first disappointment I've had with their language materials); like many publishers in Europe's 21st century, they now compare very poorly to the Asian alternatives (including even alternatives printed in India).

In sum:
 • Everyone needs to get a copy of the book, because it's the first truly new thing of its kind in a very long time.
 • I'm looking forward to the sequel (volume 2?) as soon as possible.
 • I'm hoping that both this book and the sequel can be re-published in Taiwan, where they would probably be able to produce the same book at a much higher quality for the same price, and where they would probably be better at international distribution as well.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Translate Your Own Ashokan Inscription

Another illustration that speaks for itself: two excerpts from the inscriptions of Ashoka* with just enough educational material provided on the right-hand side (as "hints for translation") that you should be able to translate it for yourself.

* [Yes, it's more properly written as Aśoka, but really we should all be calling him King Piyadasi, if we're reading the inscriptions for ourselves, right?]

Although this provides you with a tiny vocabulary to work with, even this small sample is enough to illustrate (once again) that the inscriptions are neither in Pali nor in Sanskrit… and yet the language is close enough to Pali that you can normally guess the meaning if you're accustomed to reading the canonical language.

Sadly, the minor differences between the inscriptions and the canonical language have provided the soil for a hundred baseless theories to bloom forth.  The minor differences in spelling discovered in the comparison of one inscription to another has likewise inspired grand speculations and provided a pretext for various ideologies to advance their agendas.  Someone could put together a book surveying all the historical misconceptions and nationalist myths inspired by (the modern re-discovery of) Ashoka's inscriptions; they certainly span the world at least from England to Cambodia (with both India and Burma in-between).

My own small contribution to this field of study (at the intersection of propaganda and philology) is under the heading of "the Modern Myth of Suvaṇṇabūmi" (the former link is plain text, in English only; you could instead download the PDF, embellished with photographs and Cambodian translation  កម្ពុជាមិនមែនជាខេត្តរបស់ថៃនោះទេៈ រឿងប្រឌិតទំនើបរបស់ពាក្យសុវណ្ណភូមិ ).

Tuesday 22 May 2012

A new system for transliterating Khmer

The very idea of "a new system" has a bad name these days (perhaps because the people who propose them tend to be stuck on the notion of newness as the primary purpose of invention, or else because they pursue systematization as an end in itself).  So, instead, I'm calling this "a modest proposal" for transliterating Khmer (into Romanized phonetics).  Hopefully, the notion of a modest proposal doesn't have such negative connotations.

I'm not offering a lengthy explanation of the advantages of the system, because the main advantage of the system is that it can be understood easily enough without much explanation.

If you're already fluent in Cambodian, you should be able to figure out the correspondence just by comparing the poem in Khmer (top-left) to the transcription (top-right).  If your first language is English, but you already have had the (frustrating) experience of using the inconsistent mix of phonetic symbols found in Khmer-English dictionaries and textbooks, you should find this system relatively easy to guess at.

The system isn't perfect, and it isn't intended to be perfect: it's intended to offer a flexible solution that can easily be used with pen-on-paper to take notes (for students learning Khmer at any level).

It does also have the advantage of a one-to-one correspondence with I.P.A. symbols (more on that later) but we should be wary about pursuing that correspondence too far in the name of perfection: with increasing accuracy of phonetic notation, you have decreasing flexibility for the student and increasing confusion for the native speaker.

If we transcribe Khmer with a high level of phonetic accuracy, you would have very different spellings for different dialects, and even for different accents found within Phnom Penh.  The same is true of English within the city of London, England: if we spelled English more accurately (noting the sound more perfectly) we would spell words very differently for people living in different neighborhoods of London.

If you don't think this is a problem for Cambodian, try comparing the work of Judith Jacob to the work of Huffman and Proum.   They both use I.P.A. symbols in a mutually-incompatible way, partly because of differences in their analyses of the language, but partly also because of differences in the dialect (or idiolect) of the speakers they treated as standard.

Now try comparing both of the above to the more recent work of J.M. Filippi.  If you actually did all of this comparative reading (in a systematic way) you would probably have invented your own transcription system for Khmer by now.

I think there are many students informally creating their own "halfway measures" in the process of learning the language, trying to note down Khmer phonetics in the absence of a practicable standard.  I remember being shocked at the hand-written notes taken by two different foreigners in Phnom Penh, that used a mix of different symbols from different dictionaries (with mutually-incompatible phonemic assumptions).

Returning to the illustration that introduces my own "modest proposal": the phonetic values of the symbols are as simple and self-evident as possible, while giving priority to the ease of rendering them with a pen.

For anyone who already has some knowledge of both Khmer and the Latin alphabet (as used for English, French, etc.), it should be fairly easy to figure out the entire system just by reading the single (short) poem in the top half of the illustration above.

The phonetic values of the symbols are systematic. I don't just mean that they correspond systematically to the I.P.A. symbols; rather, I mean that there's a systematic relationship internal to this ("new") set of symbols.

As you can see from the chart below the poem, there is a systematic relationship between ą and ǫ (one is "open a", and the other is "open o"; thus, without any complex linguistic explanation, it is very easy for a student to catch on to the logic of why ę is different from é, just by studying a few examples).  The "hook below" (forming ǫ from o) thus has a consistent, logical meaning; likewise, the "forte mark above" (forming é from e) has a consistent meaning (so it is easy to remember how á is different from ą, because it follows the same pattern as the other vowel-markings).

These symbols are especially good at rendering sounds that are "foreign to foreigners".  Look at the first word on line five (in both Khmer and transliteration: រឿង = Rÿüŋ).  If you were to find this word in five different Khmer-English dictionaries, you would find five different (awkward) attempts to render the sound into English letters.  If you then consulted the dicionaries' explanations as to how these vowels are pronounced, you'd be even more confused.  The I.P.A. symbols, meanwhile, are very difficult for anyone to interpret who isn't a linguist (and, even worse, they aren't very clear or useful in their application to Khmer).

In I.P.A., Rÿüŋ becomes Rɨɘŋ.  If you try writing them both down quickly with a pen, you'll see what I mean about the impracticality of the I.P.A. symbols: it is very easy for ɨ to look like a lower-case t, and it is hard for anyone to rapidly draw ɘ/ə/e without making mistakes.

Unlike many other systems, this one is actually practical for use with pen and ink.  By contrast, it is impossible to write (in cursive script) the symbols that the I.P.A. chart relies upon (bottom-right of the illustration).  The I.P.A. symbols also rely on the eye differentiating too many symbols that look extremely similar.

On the I.P.A. chart, you've basically got the letter e upside down, backwards, etc. etc., and there is no systematic relationship between them in learning Khmer (e.g., you can't guess how a relates to ɑ by comparing them to how ϵ relates to ϶; but, in the system I'm now modestly proposing, these are á vs. ą and é vs. ę; this is both easier to remember, and has a logic to it that is suited to the contrasts internally necessary for the language).

As I've hinted at before, if you have five different Cambodians say this word out loud, you will not get the exact same vowel sound all five times; however, each speaker will (probably) be consistent in their pronunciation of the cluster -ÿü- in different contexts.  This is another reason to shift away from the direct use of I.P.A. symbols when you don't want to use full phonetic notation: in travelling around Cambodia, you need to be able to think, "Oh, that's the way they pronounce rÿüŋ here"; ultimately, symbols like ÿ just indicate a category (of allophones), and not an entirely specific sound.

Is this system systematic enough?  Is it specific enough?  How much is enough?  Frankly, the answer may be a matter of taste.

If you look at the first line of the poem, you'll see the symbol ː in the middle of the last word, ˀąnláːy.  This symbol is used to explicitly mark a long vowel where it is important, but I don't mark every vowel as long or short with this symbol.  This is, by the way, the standard I.P.A. method of marking long vowels, and it has the awkward name of "the triangular colon" (obviously, in hand-writing, everyone just puts down two dots).  Sometimes, in Khmer, it is important to distinguish a long vowel from a short vowel (as in my former example of ស្លាប់ = sláˑp, not sláːp) but it is only important in a minority of words.  Cambodian also has vowels that can be of variable duration, without changing the meaning of the word.  I don't mark any of the vowels as "especially long" in the first four words of the poem (Préy Véŋ viel véŋ = ព្រៃវែងវាលវែង) because what is really important for the student to know is the type of vowel sound in these words (é is not the same as ę) but it would be possible for someone to add more detail (such as distinguishing véŋ from véːŋ) --adding many more dots and markings to the page (and thus making the system more complicated, but also more accurate).

This discussion (kept as brief as possible) has been completely devoted to vowel sounds.  Why?  Because Cambodian has huge difficulties in transliterating vowel sounds, but almost no problems with transcribing consonant sounds.  The one innovation that the reader will see (on lines two and three of the poem in the illustration) is a distinction between ch and cʜ, to help clear up confusion between the different consonants in Khmer that bear this sound.  Despite the fact that I'm a Pali scholar, I actually don't think it's useful to insert further markings to indicate the correspondence to the Pali and Sanskrit alphabet (you'll notice at the end of line six I have láęy, but the corresponding Khmer "l" is Pali retroflex-l, writ with a dot below, as , looking rather too much like an exclamation point).

The one symbol that may surprise some people is the use of a small circle for the schwa sound (shown in the middle of the chart, corresponding to I.P.A. ə).  This is because Khmer frequently has a very short schwa (I.P.A. , even harder to write than ə).  I have seen this sound noted just with an apostrophe, perhaps because Khmer speakers often omit it, or pronounce it almost like a pause between other sounds.  The small circle proposed here is less confusing (when later reading your own hand-writing) than an apostrophe, and, you'll note, I still use a full-size schwa (ə) for the rare situations in which this vowel sound can be heard in full with some duration and emphasis (e.g., I wrote line 8 as "Préy ˀəy…").

I did use this system myself for several years.  (How many years?  Well, my comparative study of Cambodian phonetics and romanization dates back at least 10 years, and there are still some resources on the internet that I uploaded during that period).

A new system doesn't need to be perfect: it simply needs to offer some advantages over the ones that were used before.

What are my expectations for this system of transliteration?  It seems reasonable to assume that it would never be used by more than five people --although it might be extremely useful to all five of them.

Conversely, there are some positive examples of new transcription systems that have come into use simply through people posting them onto the internet, and allowing flexibility for anyone to use them however they see fit (i.e., unlike a government-enforced spelling standard).

For Taiwanese (a.k.a. Hoklo) a new system was proposed simply on a website and then came to be used in providing sub-titles to karaoke songs on Youtube.  Why did this happen?  Well, people needed a way to write the phonetics of the language that could work well enough on the internet, and they didn't find it in the dictionaries.

Currently, the universe of Cambodian youtube videos is dominated by informal Romanization that's neither accurate nor consistent (see the lyric sheets that accompany almost any Khmer song online).  Partly because the Cambodian internet is dominated by overseas Khmer who really do need phonetic transcription (because they're born and raised in Long Beach or Paris, as the case may be) there is a real need for a standard that is "good enough" --but much more practical than full I.P.A. notation.

My own modest proposal can be simpified further, simply by omitting anything the reader finds annoying (I'm guessing that most Khmer would not bother to note the glottal stop [ˀ] at the start of ˀąnláːy, nor the long vowel [ː] toward the end of it).

So, I've set out a simple grid of symbols, that anyone can use or ignore as they please: that's the modest proposal.  However, the one thing I'm not modest about is that this new system is less of a mess than the other systems that I've seen in use in Phnom Penh, from the classrooms to the street-signs.  Phonetic notation for classroom use has driven the development of the other standards aforementioned (J.M. Filippi uses a confusing hybrid of I.P.A. symbols, but it is probably the best textbook currently available, despite whatever flaws it may have) --but the only way to make a system that lasts is to invent a system that native speakers themselves adopt.  In the 21st century, whatever people prefer to use on Youtube videos probably will come to define the written language (no matter how I may choose to transliterate this poem).

Sunday 20 May 2012

Pali Revival and Survival in Cambodia

(1) This is a short notice on some of the things that make the comparative study of Pali and Cambodian so rewarding, and also a few reflections as to why it is now so rare.

(2) Take a look at the illustration.  This is a nanoscale study of just two lines of Pali that equate to three lines of Cambodian text in translation.  Several different language asymmetries arise from this comparison.

Some obvious asymmetries are set out in the table forming the bottom half of the illustration --and these can be seen by someone understanding no language except English.

In some cases, the Khmer-script spelling is identical in the Pali and the (verncaular) Cambodian, but with a wildly different pronunciation:
 • [Pali] paṇḍita ☛ បណ្ឌិត ☛ [Khmer] bąndüt
In other cases, you have the conflation of multiple Pali words in one verncaular Khmer spelling, as is noted with:
 • [Pali] bāla & vāla ☛ ពាល ☛ [Khmer] piel

Some of the other asymmetries require some knowledge of the languages involved to detect.

You might notice that Khmer ស្លាប់ does indeed have the vowel marker for long ā after the first two consonants, but, nevertheless, it is quite necessary for this to be Romanized with a short aˑ (explicitly marked as sláˑp; the symbol after the á [ˑ] is the I.P.A. standard for indicating a short vowel, bearing the awkward technical name of "the triangular half-colon").

Thus, orthographically, we have ស+ល+ ា= ស្លា, but phonetically, we have s+l+áˑ=sláˑ (because sláˑp≠sláːp, they're two different words in contemporary Khmer).  A few specialists may complain that I'm not digressing into the mark that appears above the "p" in Khmer script (ប់ at the end of ស្លាប់) but my reason (for failing to do so) is simply that this would be a digression.

(3) On the top half of the illustration, there are some asymmetries of other kinds.

There are two footnotes to the Khmer-script Pali (top-left, and reproduced in the Romanized Pali, top-right) indicating two (minor) differences between the Cambodian edition of the Pali text and the Sinhalese edition.

However, this isn't the only difference that emerges from comparative reading.  This entire poem in the D.N. (i.e., that these two lines were quoted from) is omitted from the early translation of T.W. Rhys-Davids (1881), based on Sinhalese manuscripts edited by Childers (JRAS 1875-6).  These verses are very similar to a few lines found in the K.N., Sutta-Nipāta, Sallasutta; the two passages may (or may not) share a single origin.

This, too, is an asymmetry that only becomes evident through comparison, and would lead to more comparative reading to see how consistently (or inconsistently) the poem appears with the remainder of the text in different versions preserved by different manuscript traditions.

(4) The asymmetries that arise purely from modern translation are less instructive, but do provide practice of a certain kind for the reader (if you are really reading all three languages concerned).

Does [Khmer] kháŋ-muk really render [Pali] parāyaṇa adequately in this context?  This type of question would arise with any translation of an ancient (dead) language into a modern vernacular, but it is a bit more intellectually stimulating in the Cambodian context (than in English, Chinese, etc.) because of the long historical interaction between the languages involved, and also because of the frequent reliance upon Pali loan-words in the Khmer rendering.  Frequently, these loan-words have shifted in meaning since they were first adopted from Pali (as happens so frequently with English borrowing from Latin and Greek).

For a student of the languages concerned, this type of problem is worth puzzling at primarily as a method of study: you end up memorizing fine distinctions in the (overlapping) range of meanings of all of the words concerned.  It isn't something that anyone should pursue as if it were paleontology: in undertaking this type of work, you wouldn't be in the position of digging up dinosaur bones.  Admittedly, it's closer to digging ditches simply to build up your strength (or as a competitive sport).

With philology and philosophy both, the process is the product: the reason to take on this type of work is to make yourself into a scholar.  There is rarely any other outcome or reward.

(5) I have never met anyone evaluating the Cambodian translations of Pali sources, nor (despite much asking) have I ever heard of anyone doing such work in the past.

The comparative study of controversial passages would allow us to evaluate the extent to which the Khmer translators exercised their independence, in contrast to (pre-existing) English, French and Thai translations.  To some extent, the distinctively Cambodian form of Buddhism would be declared in these differences, or least, Cambodian assumptions about the texts that were incompatible with the other translations might come to the fore.  Conversely, we definitely would also find evidence of the degree of diffidence of a bygone era of Cambodian scholar-monks, who were racing to catch up with European scholarship, and who certainly copied a great deal from the earlier precedents in Europe.  Some of them aspired to imitate the European sources, others to contradict them or outdo them; in looking back (and looking forward) it is not always easy to see who was pursuing which course.

The "new" translations (of Pali into Khmer) that I found in Phnom Penh were all minor rewordings of the old translation published (as the Cambodian canon) in the Buddhist Institute edition associated with the generation of Chuon Nath.

I formed this opinion through comparative reading of the most cursory kind (in this case, comparing Khmer to Khmer --not my forte).  In the new editions that I saw (generally closer to pamphlets than books) all of the changes seemed to be intended to avoid repetition, to achieve a more natural-sounding sentence, etc.; I didn't discover any examples (in my completely unscientific survey) that were substantively "new".  It remains interesting that such books are being published at all, and that they include the original Pali parallel to the Khmer translation.

(6) Another approach to interrogating these texts would be to start from a list of errors (i.e., that we already know to be wrong) originating in old European translations (by Rhys-Davids, etc.) to verify the extent to which the Khmer translation reproduces these errors (that could only have originated in English or French, as the case may be, and could not have arisen in Cambodian spontaneously).  A similar "test" could be run, in some cases, to check for Thai influence (and there was a great deal of Thai influence at that time, because the director of the Buddhist Institute was herself a scholar of Thai, and neither of Cambodian nor Pali, at the time of her appointment by the French to the position).

(7) The lack of any long-term interest in developing scholarship (or even reading comprehension) amongst the donors and the beneficiaries alike has been a recurrent feature of the failed revival of the last ten years.

Manuscript projects, publishing projects, libraries and even universities are predominantly thought of in terms of construction.  The shortage is presumed to be a number of concrete rooms and parking spaces; whereas, in fact, the shortage is of scholars, and of advanced literacy in any of the languages concerned (Khmer, English and Pali).

Libraries have been built, along with monasteries and universities too.  Books have been reprinted, distributed, and now accumulate layers of dust in the same concrete rooms that the donors rushed to provide for a revival that was presumed --but that did not ensue.

I recall a dialogue with the publisher for a (donor-driven) project that was typesetting the entire Pali canon anew (in Khmer script, and with Khmer translation alongside the Pali).  This was under the direction of someone who apparently was fluent in none of the languages concerned (neither Khmer nor Pali) and the actual typing was being done by people who (at most) had some understanding of the Khmer (but some, I suspect, were more familiar with Chinese than Khmer).  Many of these positions (of decisive influence over the project) are determined by fundraising, or else direct donations (in plain English: money).  Of course, the standard for Khmer spelling has actually changed since the original text that they will be copying from, so the matter is not so mechanical as it might seem, even in working from Khmer to Khmer.  New decisions would have to be made (even in such spelling conventions) even if there were no impulse to innovation whatsoever.

Unlike the illustration you've just seen (examining only two lines of Pali) the source text in that project would neither be examined in contrast to the Sinhalese edition, nor to any other; the translation will neither be contrasted to the English, nor any other.  The questions of asymmetry internal to the Khmer edition also will not be puzzled at.  At best, the typists won't introduce too many new errors into the text (as typing a language that you have no comprehension of is much more difficult than typing one that you do: I have no idea how they will "proof-read" the Pali, but my assumption is that it will be approximate at best).

There were zero scholars of any kind involved in scrutinizing the text; worse, there were neither scholars nor students simply learning from it, as the undertaking unfolded.

The process of reading and revising such a text is a tremendous opportunity to learn, even if no improvements are made.  The participation of a number of aspiring scholars in such a project could have created an entire generation of people with reading comprehension of Pali.  The same is true of scribal projects: copying manuscripts need not be a mechanical or meaningless process, but can involve quite a lot of thinking, of exactly the type shown in my two-line example illustrated.

The positive effects of philology can be much more durable than a concrete shack in the tropics.  The "real estate" is thought of as a more tangible and durable outcome of donor intervention; however, in the tropics, the buildings and bookshelves do not last nearly so long as Europeans might imagine.  The donors feel assured that their money isn't being wasted if they can see the outcomes; however, there is nothing easier to fake than the quality of construction itself, unless the donors are truly scrutinizing the concrete as it gets poured.

The result of the example I've just mentioned will probably be an edition full of errors, but, more importantly, it will be a lost opportunity to really produce the next generation of scholars (as the race to compile the canon, and its coeval dictionay, in Chuon Nath's time did before).

Copying out the Pali canon is not a process comparable to setting up a concrete monument (although it is most definitely thought of as equivalent).  The most valuable product is not the printed page, but the scholars capable of scrutinizing the page --and that is exactly what Cambodia is lacking (and what Canada is lacking also, for that matter).

(8) The conditions are not unique to Cambodia: I received a detailed verbal detailed account (from one of the monks present) of the process of typing out one of Thailand's official canons.

The incompetence of the typists was ensured because the job was granted to donors, on the basis of donations.  When a typewritten page was complete, it would be handed to the one monk considered competent to proof-read it.  This monk (who was extremely elderly, with failing vision) would then circle the errors.  The page would then be handed back to the same (Pali-illiterate) typists, who would produce another page, with a different set of errors, at the same rate.

All of the crucial stages were handled by people who both (i) had zero competence in Pali, but, worse, (ii) who had zero long-term interest in developing competence in Pali.  Making mistakes is inevitable; the problem is that the people who have been given the opportunity to make those mistakes are not interested in learning from them.  In this way, a donor-driven project can institutionalize incompetence.

In both instances, Cambodia and Thailand, the donors' money will be spent much like a construction project: the output will be measured in so many hours spent at so many typewriters, producing so many volumes in so many years, just like bricks going into a wall.  Measuring the number of people with reading comprehension of Pali at the start and at the end of the project might be a more important statistic.

(9) The post-war context of Cambodia allows rumors of revival to arise without any basis in fact.  The implicit contrast to the Khmer Rouge makes even a rotting facade seem like a revival --and, indeed, many of the facades created 20 years ago are now rotting rather badly.

There are others who can (and should) write articles about it, but, during the years that I visited Cambodia, it seemed that I witnessed the last spark of life depart from Phnom Penh's Buddhist Institute.  The director there admitted to me openly (during our first meeting) that they had already been blacklisted by many of the donor agencies, and that I should not even mention the name of the institute in my own applications for funding, i.e., even if my plan was to actually base the project in their offices, and co-operate with them.  No such co-operation eventuated, and, on the contrary, in the succeeding years, I was an occasional witness to the skilled staff disappearing (amidst rumors I won't repeat here), the foreign-funded projects disappeared, and, finally, the books disappeared out of the offices.  I am not even insinuating that the books were stolen, however, the office pertaining to Pali had a shelf full of reference materials at one stage, and, the last time I was there, all of the books had disappeared from the same room (perhaps simply because they weren't being used).

Even the very modest manuscript project funded by the EFEO (at Wat Unnalom) has finally folded up its table and closed its doors (firing its last few staff, as of the news that reached me most recently).  The reason I was given for this was simply a lack of money; however, it is more often the case that the money is weighed against throughput and output (in other words, it is rare to encounter a question of money that is not related to a question of value).

When I met with the Japanese charity responsible for reprinting the Khmer-Pali canon (with the Buddhist Institute's name on it), I was astounded to hear them declaim that they had absolutely no interest in Pali, nor in Cambodian Buddhism generally.  They considered themselves "development professionals", who were burdened with these Buddhist publishing projects because their donors (in Japan) forced them to take on the burden, against the interests of the organization, in their opinion.  I wouldn't have guessed this if I hadn't heard it from the executives of the charity directly; however, this example reflects how arbitrarily responsibility is both arrogated by and discarded by those who have their logos stamped on the title pages of Pali texts.

Is this simply donor disinterest, or is it a longer-term pattern of (i) donor-driven development, followed by (ii) donor disappointment and (iii) donor flight?

I both read about and verbally heard about a foreign-funded project for female monks that received no support from the local community (and, indeed, I don't think the monks were even cultivating the support or respect of their parishioners).  When the foreign funding stopped, the project collapsed with some acrimony.  Some people reported this to me as a great injustice; however, from the donor's perspective, the point of the project was not to create a situation of perpetual dependency, but instead to establish some basis for a (viable) community-based project in future.  The final phase of every project must be self-reliance, and that self-reliance must entail the end of foreign funding.

From the donor's perspective, poverty and war are not exceptional, they're the norm: if you have the liberty of donating money to any cause, anywhere in the world, you would need very palpable proof that your money was not being wasted to sink money into anything more scholarly than a sack of rice in Cambodia.  There are plenty of people who could use that sack of rice.

It isn't an easy thing for monks (of any gender) to earn the respect of laypeople, and, in this case (that I am leaving unnamed) the foreign money (and "haughty" sense of entitlement among the monastics) could have prevented the very development of grassroots support that it was supposed to encourage.  The perception of arrogance is a very weighty matter in Cambodian culture, and very difficult to translate in full for outsiders.  Memorably, while I was in Phnom Penh, there was a case reported in the newspaper of an old woman in robes arrived at one of the major temples from the countryside seeking sanctuary; she responded to the arrogance of the refusal she received (from a younger, male monk) by attempting suicide on the spot, at the gates of the same temple.  The degrees of respect and disrespect expressed between one monastic and another, as well as between monastics and laypeople, are deadly serious matters in Cambodia; at the time, it was easy for me to imagine the sense of disgrace (and also of "revenge" against the institution) that motivated the attempted suicide, although it is not difficult to imagine that the younger monk may have been offended at the old woman's sense of entitlement to arrive unannounced and demand a bed.

(10) In beholding the brightly-painted concrete walls that now surround so many temples in Cambodia, it is easy for the casual observer to imagine that there has been a tremendous religious revival in the last 10 years.  I did not meet a single person in Cambodia (neither monk nor layperson, neither student nor professor) who was learning Pali, nor any who aspired to learn reading comprehension of Pali.  Outsiders tend to grossly underestimate the extent of this problem, because they (falsely) assume that the ability to chant a number of short texts (in the context of a funeral ritual, etc.) indicates reading comprehension of the language.

Over a period of several years visiting the country from adjacent Laos and Thailand, plus more than one year living within Cambodia continuously, I did meet several monks who had gone to Sri Lanka to study and who had then returned to Cambodia.  They had learned English, not Pali; they had merely learned to say things about the history of Pali, not to read the language.

Everywhere I went in Cambodia, I encountered people who lectured me about Pali (presuming that they knew much more than I did) who had very basic misconceptions about what the language is (and what it is not).  This included monks, university professors, and so on, as well as people who had no formal education, but who sometimes claimed a connection to Pali literacy via a deceased grandfather.  In its way, this experience was a sort of survey of social attitudes toward the language (and related areas of religion, literature and learning) in 21st century Cambodia.  I can't say that I enjoyed it.

There was a time when Cambodians were proud to present their own versions of the ancient texts, in contrast to both the Europeans and the Burmese.  They were able to muster this palpable link to their ancient past (in both manuscripts and printed editions) when their representatives attended the 20th century council to revise the canon that was convened in Burma, starting in 1954 (an historical event about which there are still more rumors than facts circulating).  When (former) King Sihanouk visited Sri Lanka, he was proud to donate Cambodian palm-leaf manuscripts (in Pali) to the Sinhalese temples he visited.  Thanks to the translation provided to me by Rev. Nyanatusita, I saw some of those manuscripts when I was in Sri Lanka; I think they had been unwrapped very few times since their initial donation, perhaps not even once.  It remains a palpable link to the past, but it is a link that fewer and fewer people care about.

You can teach a language; you can provide the opportunity to learn a language.  You cannot teach people to want to learn a language; you cannot force people not to squander the opportunities they're given.  In Cambodia, the opportunities have been squandered both by the donors and the recipients.

Reprinting (and literally photocopying) old books does not entail a revival: at a minimum, a revival would require reading comprehension of whatever those books contain.  In Cambodia, the facade of Buddhist education is maintained by large numbers of students in robes who learn everything from accounting to carpentry --and who proceed to quit the monastery for the secular life as soon as their university degrees are complete.

In many ways, large and small, Cambodia is coming to the end of an era of excuses: donor fatigue is inevitable, and there will always be another disaster somewhere to command public sympathy.  The cause of literacy and philology is never an emergency: it can't really be justified in the same humanitarian terms as the proverbial sack of rice.


[Addendum: wondering what Cambodians have to say about it?  Take a look at the comments section that follows below KI-Media's reprinting of the article.]

The Telakaṭāha-gāthā in Thailand

What if there were tangible evidence (written in stone) about the cultural contact between the ancient (pre-Thai) civilization of Dvāravatī and the island of Sri Lanka?  What if someone found a quotation from a uniquely Sinhalese text in a Dvāravatī inscription?  Well, maybe someone did, and maybe they didn't.

A scholar in Sri Lanka (M. Rohanadeera) published an interesting thesis on an inscription in Thailand in 2003.  In 2006 I wrote up a summary of of his thesis, and sent out a notice to the specialists then known to me (in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) because I was aware that an article (in English) in an academic journal published in Sri Lanka would be "easily ignored" across the ocean to the east.

Of course, many of the replies that I received confirmed that the article had not only been ignored, but had been totally unknown to the specialists concerned.  People don't look for new studies of Thai epigraphy in Sri Lankan sources, and, sadly, both Asian scholars and Europeans often direct their attention solely toward European publications (ignoring whatever is produced on Asia within Asia).  However, I did receive one response from a scholar stating, on the contrary, that any real Pali scholar would read all of the major journals published in Sri Lanka on a regular basis; alas, this is another definition whereby the number of real Pali scholars would come very close to zero.

The contested stone is found in modern Prachinburi, Thailand; it is referred to as the Noen Sā Buā inscription; the date assigned to it is 761 A.D. (thus the term "pre-Thai"; various misconceptions about what the Dvāravatī era/civilization was still circulate, partly stirred by modern Thai propaganda, but partly just resulting from honest confusion and popular mythology).

Rohanadeera's claim is that the text of the inscription is substantially identical to three of the four opening verses of the Telakaṭāha-gāthā.  If true, this would have implications for the presumed date of authorship of the Telakaṭāha-gāthā itself, and also for the general subject of ancient transactions between mainland Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

In 2006, I wrote that, "…Rohanadeera's "eye-copy" of the inscription, provid[es] a very significant improvement (in terms of pure legibility) upon the reproductions of rubbings, or the Thai-script transliterations previously available."  Therein lies the problem.

I received a short notice (in reply to my own short notice) that the stone inscription concerned is genuinely illegible; this opinion came from a specialist in Cambodian inscriptions who had seen the original stone (and who did not rely on indirect renderings).

In other words, rumors of its legibility may have been grossly exaggerated.  Thailand has a bad reputation for making such exaggerations about its inscriptions (much discussed in the controversy over the Ram Kamhaeng stone) sometimes just resulting from a cultural assumption that it would be better to say something than for the stone to say nothing at all, and sometimes resulting from some particular scholarly agenda.

By definition, an "eye-copy" is a drawing.  It's an old-fashioned term, used in contrast to "hand-copy".  Rohanadeera's eye-copy is not a photocopy, nor a photograph, but a drawing that demonstrates his interpretation of what the text seems to say.

If the stone is truly illegible, it is possible that Rohanadeera's work has been inspired by the attempts of prior (Thai) scholars to render it legible; and it is also possible that some of his readings have been influenced by the same Thai transcriptions that he criticizes as faulty in his article.  If a series of scholars make (sequent) attempts to trace and re-trace the same set of outlines, something legible will inevitably emerge.

Conversely, there's the appealing possibility that Rohanadeera has looked at a stone inscription and simply read it more accurately than others have done before.  This appeals to human optimism in general, and also appeals to the general sense that a Sri Lankan scholar would bring a new perspective to a Dvāravatī inscription.  Alas, the year is now 2012, and I am unlikely to ever hear (or read) a further response to the controversy.

Thus the controversy is likely to end just where it began: with a single (interesting) article published in Sri Lanka, largely unknown in Thailand, and thus neither accepted nor refuted (although I've done my part to draw attention to this thesis for six years by now).


Addendum, June 6th, 2012.  Contrary to my expectations, it seems that I posted this article at just the right time, and it received a considerate response from several of the salient experts in epigraphy.  Replies came in from Michael Vickery, Bora Touch and J.C. "Chris" Eade.  The extent to which anything else written on the stone may or may not be genuinely legible seems to be a matter of no clear consensus, but it is remarkable that this short notice article (posted to a hitherto-unknown blog) was able to spur a re-evaluation of the evidence.

Two of the outstanding complaints about the inscription seem to be (1) a general agreement with my warning that the text is less legible than has commonly been supposed, with the lines of text supposed to iterate the date of the inscription considered especially dubious and, (2) that the particular date assigned to the stone should be considered false, along with concerns about an anachronism in the manner of the date's (supposed) recording.  There is a third suggestion now bandied about openly that (3) the entire inscription could be a fraud.  Perhaps it is because of the reliance on poor quality illustrations (and even worse transcription) that the participants in the discussion have been reluctant to come to a rapid decision on the matter; it was for this same reason that my own approach was to more vaguely suggest that the original inscription was much less legible than had been supposed --and that it had been "rendered legible" by wishful thinking on the part of the interpreters.  That hypothesis isn't fraud, but, of course, it doesn't exclude the possibility of fraud, and the possibility should be tested.  The problem with an argument for fraud is that it requires intentional deception; although that's not uncommon, it is even more common to encounter self-deception (with consequences quite unintentional).


A bibliography of just one entry: M. Rohanadeera, "Earliest evidence of cultural relations between Sri Lanka and Dvāravatī Kingdom in Thailand", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, Volume XLVIII, Special Number [in commemoration of the 250th anniversay of the restoration of the higher ordination, etc.], 2003, Columbo: Sri Lanka.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Causality and Canonicity, Misinterpreting Dependent Arising

Causality and Canonicity:
A Sequel on the Misinterpretation of Buddhist "Dependent Arising" and/or/as/vs. "Interdependence"

§1.  I was in Taiwan at the time that a conference on this subject transpired at Opole, Poland; despite the huge distances involved, I briefly got into correspondence with the organizers of that conference, as I was sincerely considering (somehow) getting to Poland and back in order to contribute some of my thoughts on the origin of so many of the debates surrounding "causality" in Buddhism.

At that time I had written two essays dealing with this subject (i.e., prior to the one now before your eyes), one of which is still in peer-review, the other posted online by New Mandala.

I then had the educational experience of trying to explain this material to an audience of Chinese University students studying Buddhism at Taiwan's 玄奘大學.  In reviewing the array of European misinterpretations of the "12 links" formula (a.k.a, the 12 nidānas, 十二因緣, "dependent arising", and many other names), one of the suggestions from the Chinese students was simply that I should stop reading European scholarship entirely, and switch to Chinese translations.  In saying this, they were responding (sincerely enough) to the very serious problems that I was pointing out in the European tradition of interpretation.  Alas, we do not have a superior alternative provided to us by Chinese scholars --nor from anywhere else-- and my conclusion now remains (as before) that the alternative to bad secondary sources is to directly interrogate the primary sources.

I do not yet know what progress may have been made in Poland, and I might entertain some hope of hearing back about the proceedings of the conference after posting this latest article (howeverso informally) to the internet.  Of course, I fear for the worst: that new publications will continue to recycle the misinterpretations of the old.

§2.  Fully ninety years ago, A.B. Keith published a textbook (with the imprimatur of Oxford University emblazoned upon the cover) with an influential chapter devoted to the subject of causality and the 12 links formula. (Keith, 1922)  In surveying the competing (European) interpretations of the 12 links, the author listed ten different views, each wildly diverging from the others.  In my own opinion (explained below, and in my prior article) all of these interpretations liberally diverged from the primary source texts, and Keith could have solved the problem by returning to the primary source text, instead of attempting to offer the proverbial "averaging of wrong answers".

For my Chinese audience (when I summarized this in Taiwan), perhaps, it did not seem credible that Europeans had spun out so many contrasting theories almost a hundred years ago.  Even more fantastic interpretations have been devised since that time.

After these ten different interpretations are set out as a series of synopses, Keith adds his own conclusion; however, I would not call this an eleventh interpretation because (remarkably enough) Keith's preferred interpretation is a reiteration of his own paraphrase from (and conclusions on) Paul Oltramare's (1909) La formule bouddhique des douze causes….

Paul Oltramare. Photo Credit: Société Asiatique
§3.  Who was this Oltramare whose opinion took on the aura of the "winner" in Keith's comparative survey?  He was a popularizer of Buddhism and the esoteric Orient; he was not a philologist, and his published works reflect many (imaginative) theories of a bygone era, that are neither accepted nor refuted in our times because, simply, none of them can be taken seriously.  Among other accomplishments, he produced a book-length work (with the imprimatur of the Musée Guimet) arguing that Buddhism is devolved from Theosophy:

[English rendering:] Buddhism is a theosophy that made itself into a religion. This means that in Buddhism, theosophy adapted itself to a whole other set of conditions, and that its force of action increased exponentially.
[Original French:] Le bouddhisme est une théosophie qui s'est faite religion. Cela veut dire que, dans le bouddhisme, la théosophie s'est adaptée à de tout [sic] autres conditions, et que sa puissance d'action s'est accrue énormément.  (Oltramare, 1923 p. x)

[English rendering:] Intellectualist, rational, exempt from mysticism; Buddhism owes these characteristics to its theosophical roots.
[Original French:] Intellectualiste, rationnel, exempt de mysticisme, c'est à ses origines théosophiques que le bouddhisme doit ces caractères. (Idem, p. 481)

As I say, this would neither be accepted nor refuted today: it is on a par with of the extremely sloppy use of Buddhist sources by the "American transcendentalists" of the 19th century that are today only examined for what they tell us about American culture in that century (i.e., they do not reveal anything about the ancient origins of Buddhism).  Likewise, I would suggest that sources like Oltramare reveal many things about the culture of France in his own era, but nothing about Buddhism.  Lest I be accused of favoritism here, I should say that the same complaint can be directed against Schopenhauer, who relied entirely on secondary sources (if not tertiary sources) in spinning out his own theories and opinions about Buddhism without much of a basis in fact.  All three of these examples were much more influential than they deserved to be in shaping the European imagination as it was applied to Buddhism in the century that followed.

§4.  Apart from the question of whether or not Oltramare's interpretation of the 12 links could possibly be accepted as authoritative (in the 21st century), I would note that Keith himself seems to have had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone in quoting Oltramare's reinvention of the primary source texts.  I infer that Keith was aware of the (stark) difference between dry philology and popularizing literature, and that he was not so foolish as to regard the sources he was surveying as all being equally valid.

Nevertheless, Keith made the intentional choice to favor a popularizing theory (that was only loosely inspired by the source texts) for the explicitly stated reason that he considered the extant primary sources to be incoherent.  It seems reasonable to impute the further reason that he wanted his own book to seem decisive and entertaining to students and non-specialists: by favoring Oltramare as he did, his chapter comes to a neat conclusion after reviewing ten (mutually-incompatible) theories on the matter.

The process of reading Keith's survey of such divergent European interpretations is enough to convince an average reader that the original texts (in Pali) must be somehow muddled or incoherent, because each of the voices quoted in turn seems to have nothing in common with the other nine.

Keith complains, repeatedly, that the primary source has somehow ceased to make sense, insinuating (but not demonstrating) that there must have been scribal errors in transmission or some such thing.  I do not have any reason to believe that Keith was really consulting the primary sources himself, and this seems to just be an argument of convenience for the sake of muddling through his textbook.

Overall, the textbook does not give the reader the sense that Keith and Oltramare have come to a resounding solution to "the mystery" of the 12 links, but, more dangerously, it does set forth the text as a great mystery, open to nearly boundless reinterpretation.  In reading Keith's account, it seems reasonable to suppose that the 12 links text is written in riddles or complex poetic allusions (hint: it isn't).

§5.  Unfortunately, this loose interpretation (of Keith's) took another step toward unquestioned fact when it was quoted by David J. Kalupahana in his (1975) tome, Causality: the Central Philosophy of Buddhism.  This book, directly adapted from the author's PhD thesis, cites just two sources to back up its interpretation of the 12 links and the gandhabba: one is A.B. Keith (1922) and the other is the selfsame Paul Oltramare (1909) cited within Keith's argument. (Kalupahana, 1975, p. 115–119)

I have said before that Keith had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone in resolving the conundrum he had set out for his reader (in surveying so many theories) but this tone completely disappears in Kalupahana: from this point forward, Oltramare's invention appears as if it were an unquestioned matter of fact.

One crucial point here is Kalupahana's assumption that the meaning of the Pali word gandhabba is "…the psychic factor that survives physical death and which, in association with the fetus… helps in the development of the new personality." (Kalupahana, 1975, p. 116)  He directly cites Oltramare as the authority on this point.

Keith's textbook (as cited by Kalupahana) merely summarizes and re-states Oltramare's theory; thus, where Kalupahana cites these two authors, it is not a case of two corroborating sources but of only one and the same source, cited both directly and indirectly.  Unfortunately, Kalupahana gives the reader the false impression that this is a broad consensus of scholars that he subscribes to, and many later authors have (apparently) been convinced by this seeming consensus.

§6.  These old errors are ever new, and the ramifications are ongoing, because the current generation of scholars gleefully repeats them, as the unquestioned assumptions guiding "new" discoveries.  David Webster published an account in 2005 that reiterates all of these misconceptions (dating back 90 years and more) as if their authority remained unquestioned and unquestionable.  On page 148 of Webster's tome The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon he makes the following declaration, directly citing Kalupahana as his authority for so doing:

"So, paṭicca-samuppāda [i.e., the 12 links formula] is to be understood as a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'. [This is attributed directly to Kalupahana, 1976, p. 26] However, […] this notion is applied with the greatest intensity on [sic?] the process of how we come to be reborn […]."

On the very next page (149) Webster then recycles the misinterpretation of the Gandhabba, which is again cited to directly Kalupahana (he certainly isn't guilty of plagiarism!) without Webster showing any interest in what the primary source actually says (nor in what Oltramare says, and the latter, as aforementioned, is actually Kalupahana's dubious secondary source on this matter).

I have already addressed this erroneous interpretation of the gandhabba elsewhere in print (Mazard, 2011, §2) and I will not re-state that material here.  It is, however, a "pure error", that can be corrected by simply reading what the original texts actually say (and do not say), and by comparing the same tract of text where it appears (verbatim) in more contexts than one.

What I would point out here is that this extremely speculative theory (on the dubious basis of Oltramare's creative license) took on the mantle of respectable scholarly discourse simply through repetition (with greater concision) in Keith's textbook, and then through its reiteration in Kalupahana's thesis.  The assumption was equally false in Kalupahana, in Keith, and in Oltramare; and all of the speculative tenets that presuppose this assumption collapse simply by reading the primary source text on these issues (and, to be clear, "primary source" does not mean "later commentary", and it does not mean "modern European translation" either).

§7.  The quotation I've selected from Webster is tortuous and yet brief: the first principle of the thing, directly cited to Kalupahana, has no support in the primary source texts whatsoever (and, as much of this article shows, it is directly contradicted by what the primary source texts do say).

Even if the reader is a complete naïf in the evils of academic non-fiction, he or she should still wonder, "Why do we have no quotation from the Buddha saying anything like this if he (supposedly) had meant to say it?"  The Pali language does not lack the words to express things that are "universal and uniform", but any such words are lacking from the passages in question (concerning paṭiccasamuppāda, or whatever we're going to call the 12 links formula in plain English).

If this is supposed to be such a crucial (and "central") principle of the Buddha's philosophy why is it that the entire (voluminous) corpus of the first four Nikāyas of the Pali sutta-piṭaka are utterly lacking in a single quotation of the Buddha preaching anything remotely resembling this tenet?  In looking at such vague generalizations from academics, the reader must demand to know why is it that we are not looking at a quotation from the Buddha himself saying that the 12 links are, thus, "a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'".

Conversely, if it is necessary for contemporary authors like Webster to turn to Kalupahana as a witness (to give flesh to this apparition) we must now be willing to discard his testimony, because we know that it is founded on nothing but Oltramare's imagination, as reiterated in Keith's survey of secondary sources some 90 years ago.

It is relatively easy for me to prove that popular misconceptions are misconceptions; but it is very difficult to deal with the roots of why they are so popular.

(Convincing? This inscription is also a 19th century fraud.)
Soaring abstractions about the 12 links are now the staple (and "stump speech") of lectures from both religious authorities (career monks) and secular ones (career professors).  There are difficult questions of how we really came to know the things that we presume to know (as dogmas) that must now be put to an entire generation of professors who are accustomed to repeating philosophical generalizations about Buddhism without any real skepticism about how these tenets have come to be so generally accepted.

Let us be very clear: either we are debating the interpretation of something that is actually found written in the Nikāyas of the Pali canon, or else we are debating something that modern interpreters invented.  In this case, there is no third possibility.

§8.  The second half of my tortuous quotation from Webster is much closer to the what can be found written in the canon, and yet it also demonstrates how much discomfort these texts cause for contemporary Westerners.  We are told that the generalization conjured up from Kalupahana "is applied with the greatest intensity on the process of how we come to be reborn".

This insinuates that there are canonical texts of "lesser intensity" where we would find this concept applied to other subjects (such as those "universal phenomena" that I hear so much about these days).  The point is neither argued nor proven.

Simply, Webster invites the reader to imagine that this one example exists on a spectrum of various levels of "intensity", but the truth that is waiting to be discovered in the primary sources is that incarnation itself (inclusive of conception, gestation and birth) really is the sole subject and theme being discussed in the presentation of the 12 links.  As I've said in my earlier essay, in these texts the subject of "birth" (jāti) is extended as far as snakes hatching from eggs, and as far as the supernatural nativity of the gods, but there is absolutely no suggestion that this "birth" is an ontological doctrine of "the interdependence of all phenomena", nor anything else so abstruse.

§9.  The present article could end at this point, simply as a "short notice" pointing out (once again) that European sources of this kind need to be read with a very high level of skepticism, and evaluated in direct contrast to the primary sources in the canon.  Instead, I would go a bit further to offer some discussion of a few of the (many) salient sources in the canon, simply to share some of my optimism as to what the next generation may yet make out of the "raw materials" that these texts still present for scholars to set to work upon.  I admit that I do not have so much optimism to share, but I will share what little I have.

The prevalent (but false) notion that all of the scholarship on Theravāda Buddhism has already been done is not only false because of the poverty of that past research (as in the case of Kalupahana and Keith) but also because of the richness of the primary sources themselves, providing us with many questions for philosophers to ask themselves (and each other!) for many generations to come.

§10.  For those who read the canon for themselves, I would cite the passage that I am about to discuss at length (so that it can be found regardless of whether the reader is using the Burmese edition, the Cambodian edition, or any other version).  It is in the second division of the Saŋyutta Nikāya (the Nidānavagga), in the first saŋyutta thereof (the Abhisamayasaŋyutta), in a subsection opening with the Assutavantu-sutta, under the (overly-common) rubric of Mahāvagga.  This spans pages 148–198 of the Sinhalese [B.J.T.] edition, in vol. 14 of the series (published in B.E. 2505 = C.E. 1962), with the first page thereof equating to p. 94 of the corresponding volume of the PTS edition.

§11.  This "subsection" of text (for lack of a better word) is interesting for many reasons, and only a few of them will be discussed within the remit of this article.  In glancing at the first and the last suttantas of the subsection (namely, the Assutavantu- and the Susīma-) we find some philosophically interesting reassurances that the subject-matter dealt with is not reserved for the most advanced monks, but, on the contrary, that it is entirely comprehensible for people who have not attained nibbāna, and even for the common run of humanity.

Last things first: the final sutta here (Susīma-) describes at length the status of those who understand the Buddha's doctrine (and who accordingly define themselves as liberated) but who lack the supernatural powers and transcendent visions of someone who has attained nibbāna.

It is stipulated here (in the Buddha's dialogue with Susīma) that the full understanding of "no-soul/no-self" results in both (i) the individual overcoming birth, and also (ii) knowing as a certain fact that he or she has done this revelatory thing (i.e., they don't merely know it, but they also know that they know it).  This state of liberation is, nevertheless, a thing quite different from possessing other supernatural abilities, visions, etc., associated with nibbāna, and the Buddha demonstrates this to his interlocutor in an interesting way: immediately after the clarification about the nature of this revelation (that one has put an end to birth), the Buddha questions Susīma to verify that the latter monk fully understands the doctrine of the 12 links.  With this affirmed, the Buddha then indicates that (ipso facto) the interlocutor is himself an example of the phenomenon he was just questioning: Susīma himself is liberated in the way described, and lacks supernatural powers, he has not experienced supernatural visions, and so on.

In the checklist of doctrines that the Buddha affirms his interlocutor (Susīma) correctly understands, the 12 links formula appears last (i.e., immediately before the supernatural powers); it is recited both forward and backward (from birth to ignorance, and then from the cessation of birth back again).  Evidently, the Buddha's student knows the formula forward and backward, and the Buddha affirms in this dialogue that Susīma understands it all correctly --and yet he lacks the further (supernatural) achievements.

§12.  In case the reader is afraid that we are nevertheless discussing something that only concerns a small margin of humanity, who have very nearly attained nibbāna (although not quite), the opening suttanta of the sub-section makes it very clear that such liberation is (to some extent) attained by the "average punter", or even by an unlettered ignoramus (thus the title, Assutavantu-suttanta).  The reader will be getting the correct impression that the organization of the texts here is not random: we do seem to have a similar set of themes introducing and closing the subsection.

I can't comment on everything that's interesting about the passage in this article, but I would draw attention to the very down-to-earth context that this affords to the 12 links doctrine: the hypothetical ignoramus is indeed said to be liberated from the body, and from the illusion of the body as the self.  This liberation is expressed with various forms of the verb nibbindati (i.e., a verb with quite a bit of doctrinal resonance in Buddhism!).

The correct understanding of the doctrine of the 12 links among the cognoscenti (…sutavā ariyasāvako paṭiccasamuppādaŋ…) is then compared to the understanding of this ignoramus, affirming that both parties have (or hypothetically can have) the same understanding of the 12 links, and of the body as non-self; therefore, both may be liberated to some extent.  However, the true cognoscenti are not merely liberated from the body and the self, but are also liberated from a further list of factors, such as the appearances of things and our concepts about them (with the same loaded verb employed for the liberation discussed throughout, i.e., nibbindati).

The contrast here is not the same as in the dialogue with Susīma.  The ignoramus does not seem to be in a position to declare that he has overcome birth: although liberated from the body, he is contrasted to those who are both liberated both from the body and from the further list of appearances, concepts, etc. (and the latter are said to have overcome birth, whereas the ignoramus is not).  The ignoramus is capable of being disillusioned with the body (as the self) but, apparently, he does not go on to the more profound disillusionment with the mind and apperception.

§13.  The third suttanta in the sub-section provides us with some very dramatic (and gory) allegories that I pass over without comment for the sake of concision (but they deserve an article of their own), and then the fourth in the sequence (titled Atthirāga-) returns us to the issue that has made some of my readers so uncomfortable with my earlier essay on the 12 links: the explicit connection between this doctrine and the development of the embryo.

This passage is titled the Atthirāga-suttanta, and it opens by stating its subject as the four types of food for beings "or" (vā) those not yet born and awaiting birth.  The original text is very clear that it is not describing the nourishment of beings that do not yet have any existence whatsoever (such as a hypothetical person 100 years hence, who is neither conceived nor born yet); rather, it explicitly concerns those who are already existing/established (ṭhitiyā) but who are (as yet) waiting to be born (sambhavesīnaŋ).  This leaves nothing up to the imagination.

Following after the description of the four types of food we have an explicit statement about the desire and consciousness of the unborn being described (i.e., what we would call an embryo or fetus in plain English) and this then explains the sequence of stages following as resulting from this unborn being's desire both for literal (palpable) food, and also for "food" that is not meant so literally.  The desire for the "contact" of the senses (with things perceived) is the second type of food; apperception is the third (manosañcetana, thinking and/or desire of some kind resulting from perception; the PTSD prefers "volition" [q.v. āhāra]); and consciousness (viññāṇa) is the fourth.

The canonical material on the four foods is yet another subject that deserves an article of its own, and that is indeed very jarring and culturally-alien to European readers (I've neither seen nor heard of a monk offering a lecture on the meaning of "the food of consciousness" to a Western audience).

With this image of the as-yet-unborn being desiring four types of food established, what does the text do with it?  The successive stages of "development" (literally, "growing") are attributed directly to this desire as its origin: …āhāre atthi rāgo, atthi nandi, atthi taṇhā patiṭṭhitaŋ tattha viññāṇaŋ virūḷhaŋ.  This is to say that there is the "growth" of consciousness where there is first the desire for food established; and the location referred to (i.e., "where" the desire is established) is evidently the womb, given both the paragraph immediately before, also the allegory of the painting that follows immediately after (discussed below).

Whereas this preliminary stage (after desire) is said to "grow" (virūḷha), we have a significantly different verb used for the next stage in the process: nāmarūpa (a term discussed at too much length already in my former article) doesn't grow from consciousness, but instead "enters" (the womb) with the verb avakkanti.  This is a verb that is indeed specially linked to conception (see, e.g., the examples of usage of avakkanti gathered in the PTSD entry for Gabbha).  Only nāmarūpa is thus said to "enter", whereas consciousness before it "grows", and the next stage thereafter is again said to "grow" (vuddhi, another word for growth/increase, whereas virūḷha was used before).  There's a further clue here to the correct interpretation of these passages (that I've already been hinting at in my earlier work on the subject).

I do not think that anyone could dispute that this passage is (i) explicitly about the subject of incarnation (punabbhavābhinibbatti) and (ii) that we have most (though not all) of the familiar vocabulary from the 12-links formula presented in a series of stages leading up to that incarnation (that is concluded with a single stage that covers the whole of the succeeding life, old age and suffering unto death, ending the sequence: jātijarāmaraṇa).

I think that some of the resistance to this interpretation arises from a sense of disappointment that the 12 links are no longer bundled up with the abstractions of "the interdependence of all phenomena"; however, while the teaching is about birth, it is not merely about birth, and while it is about the fetus, it is not merely about the fetus.  The grander meaning of the teaching is already very clear (in my opinion) from the texts that open and conclude this subsection: the "soulless" origin of human life is evidently a crucial part of the Buddha's teaching of "no-soul" to adults, and is part and parcel of the liberation from the illusion of the soul/self that is so much talked about throughout the canon.  These are not lectures about the fetus for the sake of talking about the fetus; they very much are part of the teaching of nibbāna, and that is entirely obvious for those of us who are reading the content in its original context.

§14.  This lecture from the Buddha about the stages leading up to birth is followed immediately by an allegory that is clearly intended to make the whole sermon less mysterious (not moreso).  The process of development just described here is compared to an artisan who works with color or dye (rajako vā cittakāro) who is making an image of a man or a woman on a flat wall or canvas.

There's nothing tricky or elusive about it: the formation of an actual person is compared to the process of painting of a portrait of a person.  It's an allegory that would make sense in any cultural context, in explaining what it cleary is meant to explain; conversely, it wouldn't make much sense at all if we were trying to foist a "a universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'" onto this passage of text.

Immediately thereafter the sermon reiterates that "in just the same way" the desire for the four foods (that, at the top of the sermon, was clearly indicated as being the desire of those who exist but are not-yet-born) leads to this series of other stages, concluding (as I've said before) with birth, and then old age and suffering unto death.

§15.  All of this could be discussed at greater length, and, in a simple sense, it should be: we should have a situation wherein five different Pali scholars really look carefully at primary source texts of this kind and discuss their interpretation productively, with comparative reference to similar passages, and so on.

Instead, the baleful situation we've now inherited is a milieu with a thousand scholars uncritically repeating what can be found in secondary sources like A.B. Keith and Kalupahana, with only a thin veneer of interest in the original texts.

Although I'm not convinced that the relationship between K.R. Norman's criticism and his infamy is one of causation rather than correlation, it seems that Norman made himself infamous for complaining about this type of problem openly (e.g., denouncing other scholars for providing block quotations in Pali that they obviously had not read themselves).  Similar dysphoria surrounds the life and times of A.K. Warder, whose shadow was still darkening the halls of the University of Toronto when I was there (over 10 years ago), and about whom gossip has remained unremitting in his retirement.  Both men have left us a legacy of published texts; neither has left us a legacy of living scholars to supersede them (and, on the contrary, their former students have tended to make them all the more infamous in retrospect).  The legacy of the now-retired generation's enmities is a basic fact of life for anyone working on Theravāda Buddhism in the 21st century.  None of us can ignore it; all of us live with it.  Even when I was living in Vientiane (as far removed from any PhD program as could be imagined) this would routinely be the first subject that professors would want to advise me on when they first met with me (i.e., they would hasten to impart their view of who hated whom and why).

As a corollary, perhaps, the tiny number of scholars who can (and do) read Pali in 2012 are incapable of corresponding or cooperating with each other.  Indeed, the few legitimate scholars may have something to learn from the snake-oil salesmen (who fraternize amongst themselves relatively well, despite the open competition between them).  The invidious divisions that have separated this tiny discipline into a series of even smaller camps (each sharpening its knives against the others) provides a bleak portrait of human nature.

I have heard reflections on this subject both from J.M. Masson and from A.K. Warder; I have heard such reflections from Buddhist monks who spend more time in caves than in universities, and I have heard them from careerist PhD candidates, who have no plans of ever meditating in a cave.  This problem is much the same amongst scholars who are openly religious and amongst those who are avowedly secular; in my experience, those who call themselves secular often turn out to be "true believers" in a religion of their own devising.

§16.  Among the responses to my earlier article on the 12 links was the objection that my reading of the texts concerned "cannot" possibly be correct (as if this were a matter of logical inference) because such an interpretation entails that an as-yet-unborn baby can think and desire.  This comment came to me from two Europeans who both consider themselves experts on the subject, both of whom have published articles and books on Buddhism (and who have dealt with the 12 links here and there in their respective works, at varying length).  In their shared opinion, my interpretation cannot be correct because they (as modern readers) consider it absurd to attribute consciousness or desire to an embryo or fetus.

This complaint results from the reckless imposition of a modern, western cultural expectation onto an ancient (and culturally alien) source text as a criterion.  In effect, the interpreter is demanding that the primary source should reflect his own cultural expectation, or else that it must be disregarded as logically "impossible" for failing to do so.

§17.  As a first reply to this objection, I must say that modern Europeans should not pose such questions with the conceit that they are the first generation to ask them, but must (at a minimum) check the record of such questions that have already been asked and answered within the ancient texts themselves.  This is one of many examples about which we do have related questions that were asked by skeptical monks or early followers of the Buddha, with the ensuing debates recorded in the canon.  (I note that there is more salient material of this kind than I can deal with in the remit of this article.)

In this case, I would refer to a tract that is not famous, but also not entirely obscure, as K.R. Norman took some interest in it when constructing his own interpretation of the 12 links;¹ it is called the Moḷiyaphagguna-suttanta (SN vol. 2, PTS p. 12 et. seq.; BJT p. 22–24).  Here the doctrine of the four foods is cross-examined in terms of the "eating" of the "food of consciousness" (by beings "or" those waiting to be born, the wording is identical to the passage discussed before: …bhūtānaŋ vā sattānaŋ ṭhitiyā, sambhavesīnaŋ vā anuggahāya).  The question is posed as asking "who" is doing this "eating" at this stage (…ko nu kho bhante viññāṇahāraŋ āhāretī-ti?).

A direct answer to "who?" would entail a person, and this is a possibility that the consistency of the philosophy of no-soul must guard against carefully (i.e., Buddhist orthodoxy cannot admit that a soul as present to perform the eating, nor even allow the presence of any "thing" apart from the physical body that could be taken as a supernal self of any kind); and, indeed, we get some circumlocution in the answer.

The Buddha's reply insists that these stages of development should only be asked about (and explained) as a sequence of stages leading up to future birth (with each stage reliant upon the one before it as a precondition, …viññāṇāhāro āyatiŋ punabbhavābhinibbattiyā paccayo).

Much of the text here is familiar (more or less verbatim) from passages already discussed in this essay.  The locus of the debate is established with exactly the same statement about the four foods being consumed by the one who is already "established" (ṭhitiyā) but yet awaiting birth that I summarized in §13, above.

The question of who eats is followed by "who is it that has this contact [of the senses]?" and "who is it that desires?"  In other words: the question of how it is that a fetus desires was asked within the canon itself.

There are other things that are interesting about this passage, but all that I am here drawing attention to is that a passage of this kind is sufficient to remove any doubt that this "food" and also the desire for the food really does concern a stage leading up to birth itself (and really does pertain to a being awaiting birth).

I can't say that I find this so incongruous as some of my critics pretend it to be: relative to any other ancient theory of gestation that is still extant, it is hardly amazing that the people of India had the notion that the fetus consumes nutrients, and also desires to do so, before birth.

§18.  The idea that an unborn fetus thinks, eats, and desires is not really very surprising in any cultural context.  If the same ideas were found in an ancient Greek text from the same era, I don't know if anyone would now find it controversial.

Anyone who has placed their hand on the belly of a pregnant woman can (or could) infer that the movement of the unborn infant indicates consciousness.  All around the world the spectacle of birth and still-birth has inspired tremendous speculation (and a great diversity of religious doctrines) concerning the stage at which the spirit enters the infant, or at which the infant begins thinking for itself, and so on, entailing discrepancies about the stage at which a child should be assigned a name by its parents, and receive various rites of passage.  This is the stuff of Anthropology 101.

For peoples of all cultures and languages, the gore and mortal danger of child-birth has inspired religious doctrines.  As a subject of myth, it is perhaps second only to death and war, and what the Pali canon has to say about it really isn't so shocking (indeed, post-canonical Buddhist literature has some much stranger ideas on the subject that are outside of the remit of this article).

The idea that an unborn infant eats and desires food while it is in the womb is even less surprising when we consider the same things are supposed about ghosts in the literature of ancient India (including the Pali canon), without any ontological conundrum.  If a given culture believes that hunger and desire continue after death, why would they hesitate to imagine that these things are going on prior to birth?

To my knowledge, none of the world's traditional (religious) views of gestation coincides with the discoveries of modern science overmuch; it may be that modern readers rebel against the notion that the Pali canon contains these passages because they would prefer to imagine that the Buddha had (supernatural) foreknowledge of things that science was later to discover.  This kind of anachronistic scientism is a perennial pattern of popular religion.  It arises in almost every creed, with or without any doctrinal basis; it appeals to the imagination because it seems to confirm the supernatural origins of the religion by pointing to knowledge of natural science in ancient texts, and acclaiming this knowledge as "impossible".  The idea that the Buddhist canon contained all the "modern wisdom" of theoretical physics and ecology was in fashion when I was an undergraduate (and seemed laughable to me at the time); it seems to have gone out of vogue, whereas similar notions about Buddhism and psychotherapy still seem to be in business.

Neither in Laos nor in Canada have I encountered people with rational attitudes toward pregnancy.  Instead, everywhere I've lived, I encountered people who were adept at presenting their own superstitions as if they were rational, and at rationalizing their preferred superstitions.

I remember hearing a "scientific" defense of the traditional Lao practice of mothers starving themselves during the last trimester of pregnancy (from a Lao government official).  He explained this to me in response to my asking about a report from an international health agency that had identified this traditional practice as a major cause of lifelong health problems in Laos.  He explained to me that this tradition was "scientific" because the mothers ensured that the baby was relatively small and easy to give birth to in this way.  In reply, I explained that the foreign experts were concerned that the lack of nutrition could be impairing the brain development of the fetus; he was not hostile to the suggestion.  In the most common form of the practice, reportedly, the would-be mothers subsist on nothing but a traditional soup of some kind (i.e., it is not absolute fasting, but an obstetrician's nightmare nevertheless).  Others in Laos remarked to me that the practice was just motivated the vanity of the mothers, who wanted to remain as thin as possible despite pregnancy.

I am sure that similar dialogues have transpired all over the world, as one culture tries to impose its notions of science onto another.  Within the decadent west, any excuse seems to be good enough when it comes to cigarettes, alcohol, meat-eating and other vices, despite whatever science may say (or whatever may be said on its behalf).

Modern science is not so influential over peoples' attitudes as schoolmasters suggest it should be, when they lecture children on the subject, in the hope that the next generation will be more rational than the one before it.

§19.  In reflecting on the ancient past, nothing could be more spurious than a modern judgement as to whether or not the received text "makes sense" by some scientific (or scientistic) notion that could not possibly have been known to the authors of these texts in ancient India.  If we think it is impossible for a man flying through the air to touch the sun or the moon with his fingertips, that does not entail that it is impossible for this to be the correct interpretation of the text itself.

All of this is neither more nor less absurd than the medieval Chinese complaining that the Buddha could not have possibly encouraged people to shave their heads because such an act would be an offense to their ancestors: it is simply one cultural set of expectations held up as a criterion for the judgement upon another.

Given that modern Europeans do not believe that the ghosts of their ancestors can eat (nor that they require feeding), what would be the result if we applied this same criterion to all the canonical passages about feeding deceased ancestors?  Am I making an interpretive error, when I read that ancient Buddhists believed that monks could fly through the air and touch the surface of the sun and the moon with their fingertips?  If this is all supposed to be "logically impossible", is it therefore the role of the interpreter to lie and misrepresent the texts, so that modern Europeans can imagine that they had much more in common with ancient Indians than they do?

Should we (mis-)interpret all of these passages to force them to "make sense" relative to a totally alien set of cultural expectations?  The answer must be a resounding "no"; meanwhile, anyone who opts for "yes" instead will end up in the same category as Oltramare.

We must allow the ancient texts to tell us what Buddhism is supposed to be, and not (the other way around) impose a modern notion of what Buddhism is supposed to be onto these ancient texts (to then ignore all of the evidence to the contrary).  As soon as the reader has taken the step of imagining what the text "cannot" say, he or she has taken an insupportable step beyond simply letting the text speak for itself.

§20.  When, in my former article, I pointed to the word mātukucchismiŋ that appears in the middle of the 12 links formula (and means, "in the mother's womb", locative) I was neither making any claim about what the text "must" say, nor about what it "ought to" say.  We can debate the significance of what the text says; however, we cannot debate what the text hypothetically ought to say, to then disregard all evidence to the contrary as found in the text.

I did ask both of my correspondents (who rejected my basic premise) how they would instead translate words so blatant as mātukucchismiŋ that appear in the middle of these texts (given that the presence of this word alone utterly contradicts their interpretations).  They have offered no answer; both responded as if this were some new word that I had invented for them to consider, and not something I was directly quoting from a passage of text that they had allegedly read for themselves many times over, become experts in, and already published their opinions on.

This type of direct question and answer (although not quite Socratic) is sorely missing from the peer-review process.  The printed page can divert the reader's attention away from evidence that contradicts the interpreter but the simplicity of asking such a question brings a great train of bafflegab to a halt.

Progress cannot consist of one generation after another offering ever more soaring generalizations (about "causality", "interdependence", etc.) with ever less salience to the source text.

§21.  I previously pointed out that the Upanisa-suttanta (PTS SN vol. 2, p. 29 et seq.) provides the reader with an obverse set of 12 stages leading from suffering (dukkha) to salvation (nibbāna) following after birth. (Mazard, 2011, §3)  In my former essay, I only discussed this text to show the incompatibility of the (canonical) 12 links with the (post-canonical) "three-incarnations" interpretation (found in the commentaries).  The Upanisa-suttanta thus presents the 12 links with a "pleasing symmetry" that is missing when the 12 links appear in isolation.  I would here draw attention to another text that attempts to add a very different ending onto the 12 links formula (i.e., instead of just concluding with birth, and then suffering unto old age and death).

The text is the Upayanti-suttanta (Sinhalese SN [B.J.T.] vol. 2, p. 186, PTS SN vol. 2, p. 118–119).  I think it is fair to say that this sutta is not famous (although none of the suttas on the 12 links formula are really famous in the sense of popular Buddhist literature).  To my knowledge, this Upayanti-suttanta has not been influential in Western theories about canonical causality.

It received a peculiar synopsis in Malalasekera's Dictionary of Pali Proper Names:

When the ocean rises with the tide, the rivers, their tributaries, the mountain lakes and tarns, all rise as a result. Likewise rising ignorance makes, in turn, becoming, birth and decay and death to rise and increase.  (Malalasekera, 1937-8, s.v. Upayanti)

From this summary translation, a reader could not guess that this image (of the rising waters) illustrates the 12 links formula, nor that it is salient to the Buddhist philosophy of "causality" (as broached by the conference in Opole, and in so many dozens of theories that have proliferated since A.B. Keith made his list of just ten).

The image of the waters rising, becoming full, and then flowing from one stage to the next, is applied to all 12 links in the primary source text:

[1☛2] Avijjā upayantī saɲkhāre upayāpeti.
[2☛3] Saɲkhārā upayantā viññāṇaŋ upayāpenti.
[3☛4] Viññāṇaŋ upayantaŋ nāmarūpaŋ upayāpeti.
[4☛5] Nāmarūpaŋ upayantaŋ saḷāyatanaŋ upayāpeti.
[5☛6] Saḷāyatanaŋ upayantaŋ phassaŋ upayāpeti.
[6☛7] Phasso upayanto vedanaŋ upayāpeti.
[7☛8] Vedanā upayantī taṇhaŋ upayāpeti.
[8☛9] Taṇhā upayantī upādānaŋ upayāpeti.
[9☛10] Upādānaŋ upayantaŋ bhavaŋ upayāpeti.
[10☛11] Bhavo upayanto jātiŋ upayāpeti.
[11☛12] Jāti upayanti jarāmaraṇaŋ upayāpeti.

The parallelism here is a refreshing contrast to the vagueness of so much that has been said on the subject in more recent centuries.

The sequence moves from largest to smallest, i.e., the allegory pairs ignorance (avijjā) with the ocean (mahāsamuddo), and the subsequent stages of the sequence (of 12 links) correspond to smaller and smaller bodies of water, concluding with a what we might call a mud-hole, or at least the smallest order of pond (the word is kussobbha/kussubbhe, which the PTSD renders as "a small collection of water" in its entry for sobbha, and instead as "a small pond" under Kussubbha).

Although it might seem that everything that could be said on this subject has already been said, it seems like a strikingly original thought to conceive of this sequence of 12 stages as one wherein the subsequent stages are smaller than (and subsidiary to) the earlier stages.

This is part of the aforementioned optimism that I wanted to share with the reader: there are still "new" things worth reading in these ancient texts, and there are new debates of interpretation worth having, although I sincerely hope that we can dispose of some of the older ones.  Frankly, there might be some original thought yet needed to sort out what this image of the rising water entails for the assumptions that the original authors had as to what any of this means.

The sense in which this text (the Upayanti-suttanta) is mutually-illuminating with the one I mentioned in my earlier essay (the Upanisa-suttanta) is that both describe the 12 links in two directions.  In this case, the tide doesn't just flow in (from ignorance through to birth), but it also drains out again.

In what sense does it "drain out"?  It is important to note that it does not begin with birth draining out, for the others to flow back in a symmetrical sequence; instead, the first thing to drain out is ignorance, i.e., first the tide of the ocean goes down and then each of the smaller bodies of water drains out in the same sequence as before, dependent upon the prior, larger one draining first (regardless of what we might know about the modern science of hydrodynamics).

This is decidedly not an image of the smallest pond drying up before the tide recedes; instead, the tide recedes first at the largest scale, and subsequently in the smaller (and subsidiary) bodies of water.  Ignorance drains out first, and birth drains out last (with all the other stages named in-between, of course).

This allegory (of the tide) is incompatible with the various abstract theories of modern Europeans about the source text: in addition to the explicitly stated location of this whole sequence "inside the mother's womb" (already quoted and cited from various contexts above) we here have the relationship between the stages of development illustrated with the filling up and overflowing of successive bodies of water.  We cannot possibly be reading about the epistemology that transpires in so many mind-moments within an adult brain, nor some implicit argument about ontology that provides a "universal and uniform explanation of 'the functioning of phenomena'" (are the phenomena located one within the other, on smaller and smaller scale?).  I also do not see how this could be reconciled with the "three lifetimes" interpretation of the 12 links (discussed in my earlier essay, and not repeated here) without some sort of hermeneutic trapeze.  Clearly, it is one incarnation as the water flows in, and it is within one lifetime that the water flows out.

§22.  The lesson that I hope my readers will take from this is that the primary source texts really do have new things to teach us.  My point is not solely to draw attention to how unreliable western sources can be; I would also indicate in a positive sense that the primary sources can speak for themselves, if only we will put aside our preconceptions and be willing to listen.

We can only proceed to further understand this ancient doctrine of "causality" with the frank admission that the Pali text stating "inside the mother's womb" (mātukucchismiŋ, locative) really does mean what it so blatantly says.  Further, we must accept (despite many creative interpretations to the contrary) that the word "birth" (jāti) really does mean the physical birth of an infant at the end of this process of development.  However, with these basic assumptions established, the relationship between the 12 links and other aspects of the Buddha's philosophy (such as the liberation arising from the understanding that there is no soul, discussed above) start to become obvious.

If we could set aside the seeming-consensus that Kalupahana has burdened us with, we could start to deal with the genuine (and genuinely interesting) problems of interpretation that the ancient texts still present for a new generation of scholars.

¹ I believe this argument concludes around p. 260 of Norman, 1993, with the suggestion that ignorance itself (as the first link of the 12) is the bridge between rebirths.  I do not recall ever seeing this aspect of K.R. Norman's interpretation of the 12 links cited (or paraphrased) by anyone other than K.R. Norman, whereas I see Kalupahana's view cited (and paraphrased) frequently.


• I-Tien Hsing.  2005.  "Heracles in the East."  Asia Major.  Vol. 18, part 2 (third series).
• D.J. Kalupahana.  1975.  Causality: the Central Philosophy of Buddhism.  Reprinted by Routledge in 2003.
• D.J. Kalupahana.  1976.  Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis.   University of Hawaii Press.
• Keith, A.B.  1922.  Buddhist Philosophy in India and Ceylon.  Oxford University Press.
• G.P. Malalasekera.  1937-8 (2 volumes).  Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names.  Pali Text Society: Oxford, U.K.  (This is now widely available as a digitized resource on the internet.)
• Eisel Mazard.  2011.  "Discarding Dependent Origination, Returning to the Primary Source of the 12 links (十二因緣) in Theravada Buddhism."  New Mandala (website, edited by Prof. Andrew Walker & Nicholas Farrelly of A.N.U.).
• K.R. Norman.  1993.  Collected Papers vol. IV.  Pali Text Society: London.
• Paul Oltramare.  1909.  La formule bouddhique des douze causes: Son sens originel et son interprétation théologique.  Georg et cie: Geneva.
• Paul Oltramare.  1923.  L'Histoire des Idées théosophiques dans l'Inde: La théosophie Bouddhique, Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Genthner, Annales du Musée Guimet, Bibliothèque d'Études, tome 31.
• David Webster.  2005.  The philosophy of desire in the Buddhist Pali canon.  RoutledgeCurzon Critical Studies in Buddhism.  Routledge and/or Psychology Press.