Tuesday 20 November 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 06, When Primary Sources Aren't Primary Enough

[Contemporary Taiwan; source/photographer unknown]
Someone could start a blog dedicated to discussing controversies in Buddhist studies from over 100 years ago.  Sometimes, I feel like I'm the one who did.  However, today's subject is merely 98 years old --and yet it still is news.

The 1914 thesis of L.A. Waddell is both interesting in itself, and interesting for the incidental issues it raises in passing.  It raises questions about how we know (and how we think we know) anything about Buddhist philosophy.

The 14th suttanta of the Dīgha Nikāya is apparently named the Mahāpadāna Sutta: if you look it up (on paper, or digitally) that's likely to be the name you'll see.  If you check the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, that's the name listed for that suttanta, and there's no explanatory note suggesting that it might be otherwise.

Back in 1914, this man Waddell suggested that it could be otherwise, employing evidence that wasn't really new at the time, and yet still seems new today: "…the texts used for the preparation of the Pali Text Society's edition of this book do not warrant the use of "[Mahā-]apadāna" decidedly, as adopted by the editors.  […] [Of the four manuscripts consulted to establish the title] two (S.t. and K., i.e., Singhalese and Kambojan) read 'Mahāpadāna", but an equal number read 'Mahāpadhāna', [emphasis original] namely MSS. S.ed. and B.m., i.e., [another] Sinhalese and [also a] Burmese manuscript…". (p. 668)

The reader may be forgiven if they now ask, "Well, so what?  What's the difference between -d- and -dh- (ဒ vs. ဓ) in this one word, in this one title?"  As we will see in a minute, if we run roughshod over these sorts of differences, our understanding of whole words and sentences is soon enough quite shoddy.

The -dh- spelling (padhāna, equating to Sanskrit pradhāna) Waddell proposes for the title entails a completely different word from the -d- spelling (apadāna, equating to Sanskrit avadāna, and, in the case of this particular title, the presence or absence of the first vowel (a) is masked by the prefixed mahā-).  Waddell proceeds to point out (p. 670) that we have even more interesting questions surrounding the use of this word padhāna elsewhere that have been "run roughshod" over, in the translation of Buddhist texts.

In the dictionary produced by R.C. Childers (1872–5) this word padhāna is understood as meaning "exertion".  Waddell quotes for us the instructive example of the line chabbassāni mahā-padhānaŋ padahitvā, translated by Childers as, "having spent six years in strenuous efforts".  If you clicked on the link to the range of meaning for the Sanskrit pradhāna, you may well have noticed that it has a long list of meanings, but "exertion" isn't one of them.

Waddell proceeds (p. 671) to state bluntly that this is entirely wrong in his view: padhāna has been mixed up with an etymologically unrelated padhana (and it is the latter only that should have this meaning related to striving and exertion).  Right or wrong, this analysis has been ignored by the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (as mentioned above), and also by the PTS Dictionary (that offers more-or-less the same definition as Childers: "exertion, energetic effort, striving, concentration of mind").  The possible existence of a separate word (or etymology) with a short a (padhana) is not mentioned in the PTS Dictionary.

Waddell then tries to reconstruct the meaning of padhāna with the same sort of methods that people regard uneasily in the work of K.R. Norman: he offers comparative reference to philosphical usage in historically-subsequent sources in Sanskrit (some Hindu, some Buddhist).  However, he is not entirely without evidence from within the Pali corpus of texts: does it really make sense to read padhāna as "exertion" in compound words such as padhāna-bhumi, padhāna-ghara or padhānaniyangaŋ? (p. 672)

R.C. Childers… nobody's perfect.
The coincidence of Pali padhāna with Sanskrit pradhāna doesn't mean that the two would have exactly the same meaning in any specifically Buddhist context (and the Sanskrit use of the word itself has a wide range of meanings for us to consider, in contrast to the PTS Dictionary); however, the connection is enough to make "exertion" seem dubious.  In the Hindu context, pradhāna is an "epithet for the Supreme Brahmanical god" (p. 673) and can have a number of other meanings in specific philosophical contexts.  Any number of meanings might make sense for its Buddhist application, but it seems difficult to imagine how "exertion" came to be presumed as the default for every instance within the canon (aside from the direct influence of the pioneering efforts of R.C. Childers to scrape together a dictionary from a box of manuscripts, and a bunch of conversations with Buddhist monks).

Whether or not you agree with Waddell's analysis, we have here already a set of reminders of just how tenuous our connection to primary sources may be: the correct spelling of the title of one suttanta (in the PTS edition) looks like it was decided by a coin toss between two spellings (equally represented in four sources) and a whole series of concepts (tied into the religion, philosophy and meditation of Buddhism) seem to predicated on a dubious reading of the same word that he suggests may have been overlooked in that title (pradhāna).  Waddell could be wrong, but, if so, the significance of the warning wouldn't change much: our assumptions about these texts are tenuous, and real difficulties can be obscured by the seeming-certainty of dictionary definitions.  Small but important distinctions can also disappear in under the hands of European editors (d vs. dh, and a vs. ā) --and, thus, primary sources start to become secondary, as they reflect the active interest (and revisions) of a modern author.

Also, explicitly enough, the article reveals the tension that surrounds the (white, western, English-language, 20th century) revalorization of the canon: Waddell is willing to get to grips with the plain fact that (as he says) "the compilers of this Pāli canonical book did not regard the Buddha as a mere man." (p. 674, emphasis in the original)  Already, in 1914, Waddell was dealing with an articulated agenda (amongst his contemporaries) to discount supernatural material in the Buddhist canon as if it were confined to later "accretions" (i.e., to assert that they are not found in the most ancient part of the Pali canon, where European rationalism was expected to be vindicated, etc.).  Of course, it would be convenient for anyone with a bias opposite to Waddell's to be able to treat the various compound words including padhāna as having something to do with exertion ("hard work") rather than something analogous to the concept of [Sk.] pradhāna in either Hindu polytheism or in Sāṃkhya cosmology.

We now have our attention drawn to three very different words, that look very similar in Romanized transliteration, and that some sources (editions, translations and dictionaries) may not be willing to admit exist as three separate words at all: apadāna, padhāna, and padhana.

There's nothing conclusive about Waddell's analysis of the issue: it reads like the start of a conversation that is still very worthwhile, circa 100 years later.  Part of the problem (today) is that people regard dictionary definitions as conclusive (and as having great finality) simply because they are published in the form of a dictionary entry (with all the connotations of the word "definitive" haunting the reader).  Dictionary entries, too, should be regarded as a single moment in a still-ongoing conversation.

"…the future of the 'Anthropology of Buddhism' will be dharma-tourism decorated with quotations from Foucault."  E. Mazard, 2009.  [Photo by Darren Donahue]

I have no idea, incidentally, if K.R. Norman or anyone else has since written an article investigating this specific issue; I asked one colleague before posting this short notice if he had heard of any recent publications on the matter ("recent" meaning "from the last 50 years", perhaps).  Posting informal articles of this kind is about the only method I have to find out (from others) if they know of more progress on an obscure issue of this kind.

Of course, it shouldn't be obscure: the word padhāna appears hundreds of times in the core canon, often in the midst of long compound words that evidently had a more precise meaning in the minds of their ancient authors than they do in the minds of their modern readers today.  It isn't a trivial matter at all, and there's no reason to assume that this word had the same meaning in various contexts (and in various compound words) throughout the canon.

Even if we only shift our understanding of the word by a few degrees, it would change our translation of (e.g.) the debate between Buddhists and Jains preserved in the Devadaha suttanta (MN no. 101).  What exactly should we assume about the meaning of this word, in a context that involves both Buddhist and Jain doctrines?  Should we totally disregard the denotations and connotations that the word has in Hindu and Sanskrit sources in such a context?  Does the translation "exertion" really make sense here at all?  That seems to be a conversation worth having.

Padhāna appears conjoined with samādhi in many phrases that modern readers care about, under the heading of "meditation"; it also appears in passages that make modern readers uncomfortable, under the heading of the "supernatural powers" that monks are supposed to acquire.  It is easy for a translator to run roughshod over its meaning in translating long compound words like chanda-samādhi-padhāna-saṅkhāra-samannāgataŋ (found, e.g., in MN no. 77, and elsewhere).  Given that this phrase is used in explaining the acquisition of "supernatural powers" (iddhi) it wouldn't be surprising if the word meant something more than just "hard work" --but, conversely, insisting on the Childers/PTS translation only might be convenient for a translator trying to make the passage seem more mundane.

A Bibliography of Just One Entry:
L.A. Waddell.  1914.  "The So-Called 'Mahapadana' Suttanta and the Date of the Pali Canon".  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Jul., 1914, p. 661-680.