24 November 2017

Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis

As I prepare material for my book on the Heart Sutra, I have been collating published responses to Jan Nattier's thesis that the text was composed in Chinese and (back)translated into Sanskrit (Nattier 1992). I suggested in a previous essay that the reception of Nattier's thesis in Japan has been and remains decidedly anti. New evidence of this has emerged in the form of an article by Ishii Kōsei (2015), translated by his English-speaking former student Dr Jeffrey Kotyk

Unfortunately, much of the research done in Japan is only ever published in Japanese and is thus inaccessible to the majority of Buddhist Studies researchers in the West. The linguistic burden is high in our field. I have varying levels of skill in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Medieval-Chinese, but adding modern Japanese just to get access to secondary literature is not feasible. A review article of the Japanese reception of Nattier's article by some qualified scholar is a desideratum, but since Prajñāpāramitā is a tiny niche in Buddhist Studies, it is unlikely ever to happen. 

Ishii is apparently writing in a milieu in which there have already been well-received attacks on Nattier's thesis of a kind that we have not seen in English. He cites publications by Fukui Fuminasa and Harada Wasō, but these apparently focus on the conjecture that Xuanzang might have been responsible for making the Sanskrit translation from Chinese. The conflation of the Chinese origins thesis with the Xuanzang as translator thesis is unhelpful. Nattier leaves open the possibility, but in the end does not commit to Xuanzang being the translator. On the other hand the evidence for Chinese origins is very strong. Ishii seems to think that it is because we Westerner scholars of Buddhist Studies are "not specialists in this respect" that we have fallen for Nattier's thesis, rather than the strength of her arguments.

Ishii thus see his article as contributing some details to an existing (Japanese)  consensus in the face of a general credulity and ignorance in the West. Without access to that consensus, we are forced to take his article on face value, which I'm sure does not do it justice. Be that as it may, I will briefly outline the main points of Ishii's article and then review his methods and conclusions. I may say that my own published research has touched on many of the issues that Ishii has raised and I am thus in a relatively unique position to comment. I am very much a specialist in this respect (see my list of publications).


A Precis of Ishii (2015)

Ishii begins by referencing Nattier's 1992 article with a focus on the idea that Xuanzang might have been involved in editing and translating it from Chinese to Sanskrit. The bulk of the article deals with the opening sentence of the Heart Sutra and with Nattier's translation of it, which Ishii suggests follows the Chinese text, largely on the basis that Nattier omits a word-for-word translation of svabhāva  (1992: 155). 

While Nattier is explicitly translating from a modified version of Conze's critical edition, Ishii refers only to the diplomatic edition based on several hand-copies of the Hōryūji manuscript, produced by Müller in 1884 (though he refers to this as a "critical edition", it is clearly not). In order to attempt to refute Nattier, Ishii launches into a lengthy exposition showing that the word svabhāva is present in the Sanskrit text, but absent in the Chinese, and that the passage overall has given translators some difficulty. He tries to establish a case for the word svabhāva being dropped by a Chinese translator (as it is dropped by Nattier). 

Ishii spends a good deal of time speculating on how to translate the Sanskrit text into Chinese, twisting it this way and that according to rules which may be obvious to his Japanese readers, but which are not at all clear to me. His point seems to be that one may, through a series of arbitrary changes, rearrange a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit, to fit the pattern of Chinese one finds in T251 (the standard Heart Sutra in East Asia). However, on face value the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are simply different. I am told that this may reflect the Japanese practice of rearranging Classical Chinese texts into the Japanese word order and only then interpreting them. A procedure known as  kaki-kudashi 書き下し.

A particular problem is that Sanskrit has three phrases, marked by the present participle caramāṇo "practising") and two verbs with meaning look (vyava√lok) and see (√paś) - both using the pleonastic particle sma indicating the past or the present-in-the-past tense. One of the problems in Chinese is that there are only two verbs in this sentence, i.e. "practising" (行) and "clearly-seeing" (照見). Ishii seems to be saying that the latter is in fact two verbs in two distinct phrases, but rearranged in a series of aesthetic changes so that the two verb characters are together at the beginning of the two phrases, in the order verb1 verb2 phrase1 phrase2

Ishii then discusses the 照見 combination in Chinese literature (two examples) and the vyavalokayati sma/paśyati sma combination in Sanskrit. However, he seems to show that  照見 is used as a binomial verb - the two characters have to be taken together, rather than as two separate verbs, which undermines his case. He argues that thought the phrase 照見五蘊皆空 ([he] saw the five skandhas were all empty") occurs nowhere else in Chinese, that translating it as two phrases does not make sense. 

Next Ishii brings up the commentaries of Kuījī (Ji in the article) and Woncheuk. Ishii notes that Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text and that he used a minor variant of T251, which has an extra character  等 (Sanskrit ādi = English "etc") in two places. Woncheuk was also aware of this variant, and finds ādi in his Sanskrit text, though, of course, his commentary is on the text of T251. It is very likely that these two commentaries established T251 as the authoritative text of the Heart Sutra down to the present. Neither man mentions the differences between the versions in the introductory section. As Ishii hints, had a Sanskrit text been available, it would have been incumbent on the commentator to comment on differences, if only because Sanskrit texts were considered authoritative (this was the entire rationale behind Xuanzang's journey to India after all).

Ishii reveals that his primary goal is still to criticise Nattier's omission of a word for word translation of svabhāva. He has spent 6 of the 8 pages of the article showing this. Though we may say that this is an obvious point and one that has little bearing on the larger issue of where and when the Heart Sutra was composed.

Having laboured this point, Ishii briefly discusses the phrase 真實不虛 "true and not false". The Tang dynasty commentators all take this as a standalone phrase, however Ishii claims that the Sanskrit manuscripts read "satyam amithyātvāt, prajñāpāramitā ukto mantra" which is the way Nattier translates it. Ishii uses the same method to translate the Sanskrit into Chinese, producing something different than the present Chinese text. Ishii seems unaware that Nattier is following Conze's edition, and that Conze's edition gives this passage as:
Tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro’ samasama-mantraḥ, sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatvāt. Prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ. 
On this basis, then, Ishii declares that Nattier's thesis is a mistake and untenable. Had I been reviewing this article prior to publication I would have argued that it need major modifications before being published. As it stands the argument is difficult to follow and the evidence does not support the conclusion. 




Critique of Ishii (2015)


Core of the Thesis

Nattier's thesis mainly revolves around the core section of the Heart Sutra, which is a quote from Kumārajīva's text of the Large Sutra (T223). The Chinese Heart Sutra, especially T250 is identical with T223. T251 is identical, but missing a line at the beginning and one in the middle; and a few technical terms are "spelled" according to innovations introduced by Xuanzang. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra by contrast is a strangely unidiomatic paraphrase of the Sanskrit Large Sutra (compared to either the Gilgit recension or the later Nepalese recension).

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a number of words or phrases that are hapax legomena (one of a kind) whereas the Sanskrit Large Sutra has a string of stock phrases. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is unidiomatic in almost every place where it is possible to use a nonstandard synonym, that is, outside the settled technical vocabulary of Buddhist jargon.

There is no doubt in my mind, despite some minor slips on Nattier's part, that the thesis is accurate. I think I have the smoking gun for this, but have not yet had time to check all of the details and write it up. So far as I can tell the term sarvabuddhāḥ tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ "all the Buddhas existing in the three times" is a translation of a phrase that only ever occurs in Chinese. i.e. 三世諸佛. This is literally, "three time all buddha", but we would translate it as "all the buddhas of the three times". Sanskrit texts always use the wording atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ buddhāḥ instead, i,e, "past, future, and present buddhas". There is no way that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could be anything but a translation from Chinese, produced by someone unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I need to do a very thorough check on the various texts, but I think this conjecture will stand up to scrutiny and provide definitive proof of the Chinese origins thesis.

Whatever minor flaws we may find in Nattier's analysis, the main conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is already beyond reasonable doubt. While I would be interested to get more insights into the problems that Japanese scholars see, I cannot imagine how they think they have disproved the thesis. Ishii has certainly not done so in this article, though strangely he provides quite a good summary of the evidence presented by Nattier. However, Ishii does not even touch on this central problem or any of the evidence for it, but concentrates instead on peripheral and seemingly trivial issues that have no impact at all on the issues at hand.

Both of the passages that Ishii comments on are outside the core part of the text, i.e. not part of the quoted section, but part of the original composition that accompanies it. One in the introduction and one in the concluding passage.


Flaw in the Introduction

Before addressing Ishii's comments the introduction I need to point out that I have showed that Conze (and for that matter Müller) made a mistake in his edition. In the first (three phrase) sentence, pañcaskandhās is nominative plural and vyavalokayati sma is intransitive, both of which are nonsensical and make the sentence impossible to parse as Sanskrit. In fact, as some manuscripts allow, the noun should be in the accusative plural, pañcaskandhāṃs (simply add anusvāra to dhā). If we do this, pañcaskandhāṃs becomes the object of vyavalokayati sma. The result is a sentence that can be parsed and that does not require any punctuation (Attwood 2015).

Without solving this problem the Sanskrit sentence cannot be parsed or translated without fudging things. Both Nattier and Ishii fail to notice anything amiss here. But then so do all other scholars apparently.  In this respect the Heart Sutra is a curiously neglected text given its popularity. My next published article will identify and solve another simple error in Conze's edition (in Section VI) that has also gone unnoticed (the flaw is already outlined in my essay Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar" 13 October 2017, but the article will give the conjecture rigour).

The main problem that Ishii highlights, other than Nattier's failure to provide a word-for-word translation of svabhāva, is that the Chinese has two phrases and Sanskrit three phrases. If we assume that the Sanskrit is original, then we expect three phrases in the Chinese as well. In order to make three phrases, Ishii proceeds to rearrange the characters 照見 to make one verb into two verbs, each applying to two different parts of the sentence. 照 can in fact mean "inspect, regard" which is what vyavalokayati means, so in that sense this procedure makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Ishii's method seems to require us to believe that Chinese has no syntax rules. We know that Buddhist Chinese does follow syntax rules, albeit that it sometimes follows medieval Chinese and sometimes Indic rules. Ishii's method is a classic case of making the data fit the hypothesis. It is a post hoc rationalisation. His method is not sound, and not consistent with established principles of philology.

In all of this procedure it is never explained why a Chinese translator would omit the word svabhāva from their translation if it occurs in the Sanskrit text. Nor why they would condense three phrases down to two. Nothing is explained. 


Assuming that we ignore the overwhelming case of a Chinese origin for the core section, there is no way to establish precedence by comparing the number of phrases in a given passage outside the core. In my work on the epithets of the mantra (Attwood 2015) I showed that the number of epithets varied from 2 to 8 in unpredictable ways. Note also that Conze's English translation of his Sanskrit, has an fourth phrase as he struggled to turn his garbled Sanskrit into comprehensible English.



True and Not False

It is ironic that Ishii should bring up 真實不虛, because the Sanskrit is clearly a mistranslation of the Chinese. Although the combination of 真實 and 不虛 is common in Chinese, the combination of satya and amithyā never occurs in Sanskrit outside the Heart Sutra, where is is one of several hapax legomena. Although Ishii provides several examples of the use of 真實不虛 in Chinese, he never gives the Sanskrit equivalent. Since we know that it is not satyam amithyātvāt, it would be most interesting to see what the equivalent is. 

However the problem here is deeper: satyam amithyātvāt is nonsensical as it stands. Amithyā does not mean "false", i.e. it is not an antonym for satya, which would be mṛṣa or even asatya. Mithyā on the other hand is the antonym of samyañj, and it means "wrong" (as in, going about something the wrong way, against the grain, in the wrong direction). Worse, in fact 虛 isn't an antonym of 真實 "true" either, but instead means "hollow, empty; vain, pointless". The passage does not mean "true and not false" it means "true and not in vain". And amithyā cannot be construed as a good translation of this. And the word in Sanskrit that might correspond to this is tucchaka. A better English translation would thus be "true and effective". A better Sanskrit translation would be satyaṃ atucchakaṃ. Again I hope to publish something on this, but it is another case of something that ought to have been obvious to anyone who reads Buddhist Sanskrit texts. 

Syntactically, in Chinese both qualities are predicates of prajñāpāramitā (there is no suggestion that one is the cause of the other). It makes no sense at all, in Sanskrit, to take satyam amithyātvād with the following passage. Amithyātvād is weird: the wrong word in the wrong form in the wrong case. It is not the weirdest thing about the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but I find it hard to believe that it has not caused other scholars to scratch their heads.


Miscellaneous Criticisms.

It is strange that Ishii would use Müller's diplomatic edition than the critical editions by Conze. Despite being flawed in places, it is still the result of comparing many different manuscripts. At one point Ishii refers to "most of the extant Sanskrit manuscripts", but he does not cite any one of them. We have to wonder what sources he consulted, or whether he referred to Conze's notes in his edition? In which case why not use that edition as his Sanskrit source?

At one point Ishii makes a big deal of the Chinese translations of the extended version of the Heart Sutra T253, T254, T255, and T257. He must surely be aware that there is no dispute that these are translations from Sanskrit. The dates are clearly recorded in Chinese and that they come from a much later period. They have no bearing on the matter which language the text was composed in. Citing them doesn't help his case at all.

Thinking about Woncheuk's reference to a version with 等 (ādi) in it. Lusthaus (2003) also tries to make something of this. But so what? The version is no longer extant and was not canonised - no one saw it as important enough to preserve. And as before, it doesn't affect the main arguments. Ishii and Lusthaus both fail to see that although Woncheuk appears to have had a Sanskrit text, he does not treat it as authoritative. Rather, he comments on T251 as the authoritative version of the text. So does Kuījī. Under what circumstances does a Sanskrit "original" (as Lusthaus calls it) not trump a Chinese translation in early medieval China? In fact both Kuījī and Woncheuk were aware that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, and Kuījī at least knew it contained a quote from T223  (see Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). So this is not news. It is quite likely that it is precisely these two commentaries that establish T251 as the authoritative text in China and its cultural sphere. This is entirely inconsistent with the pair having a Sanskrit "original".



Conclusions

The text of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is so far from the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā Sanskrit literature, Buddhist Sanskrit literature, or any other kind of Sanskrit literature, that the fact itself is (or ought to be) remarkable. The Heart Sutra stands alone in the entire body of Sanskrit literature and is only related to the other Prajñāpāramitā texts by its use of jargon. This is not consistent with being composed in India. It is consistent with having been composed in China by someone proficient in Sanskrit, but without any great knowledge of idiom. This could not have been Xuanzang - who was more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom than anyone in China at the time. I think the mistakes highlighted by Huifeng (2014) also helped to cement the Chinese origins thesis. The translator has misread the Chinese text at times and has struggled to find the Sanskrit vocabulary to express the Chinese concepts at others. Again this is inconsistent with a monk in an Indian Sanskrit-using context. The translator was relatively isolated.

I admit, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging from Ishii and I found the article quite disappointing. He concentrates on peripheral issues and provides no refutation of the very strong evidence put forward already (and added to by Huifeng and myself in the last couple of years). The methods are not sound and the conclusions are weak and do not derive from the evidence presented. It looks like a tendentious throwing together of evidence to support a preconceived conclusion. "It is inconceivable that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, therefore it wasn't. QED." But this is hardly the standard of argumentation and reasoning we expect from a senior academic.

Like other scholars before him, Ishii has simply overlooked the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text, which I am less and less inclined to forgive in professionals. After all, professionals are, on the whole (with a few notable exceptions), very hard on me when I dare to encroach on their territory and do not meet their high standards. So yes, let's have high standards, but that includes not being duped into accepting simple grammatical errors in our texts. 

We should, of course, not judge Japanese scholarship more generally on the basis of this single example, even though Ishii is a senior member of the Japanese Buddhist Studies establishment. We can hope that the article does not reflect the state of the art in Japan. However, it is not a good sign that such a weak and confused article could be published in a peer-reviewed journal at all. 



~~oOo~~



Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. ​​Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017).  ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Ishii, Kosei. (2015) 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 ―ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う = ‘Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier's Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.’ Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu), 2015, 64(1), 499-492. (Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk).

Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) 'The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.

17 November 2017

All of them Arahants. Notes on Aṣṭasāhasrikā and Speech Acts.

I'm doing some preparation for reading Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) with a friend and have ended up making a load of notes. I'm mainly looking at the edition by Vaidya, but comparing it where possible with the Gāndhārī, and two versions in Chinese, one by Lokakṣema translated in 179 CE (the earliest), and one by Kumārajīva translated in 404 (the most popular). This will be too laborious to do for the whole text, but might help shed light on particular passages (we may well get a publication out of it at some point).

The first sentence is
evaṃ mayā śrutam ekasmin samaye bhagavān rājagṛhe viharati sma gṛdhakūṭe parvate mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdham ardha-trayodaśabhir bhikṣuśataiḥ, sarvair arhadbhiḥ kṣīṇāsravair niḥkleśair vaśībhūtaiḥ suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair ājñair ājāneyair mahānāgaiḥ kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair apahṛta-bhārair anuprāpta svakārthaiḥ  parikṣīṇabhava-saṃyojanaiḥ samyag-ājñā-suvimuktacittaiḥ sarvaceto vaśiparamapārami-prāptair ekaṃ pudgalaṃ sthāpayitvā yaduta āyuṣmantam ānandam ||
In this batch of notes, I will make some miscellaneous comments about numbers, dhāraṇī, and the absence of bodhisatvas. I then look at how speech act theory can inform translation, using one of these adjectives (in red) as my example.


Numbers

In english we say that there were "twelve hundred and fifty bhikṣus". However, Sanskrit Buddhists texts say this differently, using the form "x hundreds-of-bhikṣus" (where hundreds-of-bhikṣus is a compound, bhikṣuśatāḥ). In this case the number of hundreds is ardha-trayodaśa or literally "half-thirteen". This means thirteen-less-a-half, or twelve-and-a-half. And "twelve and a half hundreds" = 1250. The significance of this number is unclear, but it crops up in other texts as well.


Dhāraṇī

One of the overall things that strikes me about the string of adjectives (in red) is how much it looks like a dhāraṇī. There is the same kind of iteration and alliteration, e.g. suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair,  ājñair ājāneyair, and kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair. If change the instrumental plural to the standard eastern Prakrit nominative singular ending, it emphasises the similarity e.g. 
kṣīṇāsrave niḥkleśe vaśībhūte suvimuktacitte suvimuktaprajñe ājñe ājāneye mahānāge kṛtakṛtye kṛtakaraṇīye apahṛtabhāre anuprāpte svakārthe  parikṣīṇabhavasaṃyojane samyagājñāsuvimukte
Tack a svāhā onto the end of this and it could be a dhāraṇī as found in most Mahāyāna texts after about the 4th Century. It seems we could say that dhāraṇī make use of literary techniques already in use, such as the tendency to iterate adjectives, to double up (or higher multiples) in order to create emphasis. 

The form of this statement, using the instrumental plural is rare in Pāḷi, occurring only in the Samaya Sutta, recorded twice: in the Dīgha Nikāya (DN ii.252) and the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN i.25). 
Evaṃ me sutaṃ – ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sakkesu viharati kapilavatthusmiṃ mahāvane mahatā bhikkhusaṅghena saddhiṃ pañcamattehi bhikkhusatehi sabbeheva arahantehi; 
Thus have I heard: one time the Bhagavan was dwelling with the Sakyas in a large grove in Kapilavattu, together with a large congregation of five hundred bhikkhus, all of them arahants. 
The Pāḷi number idiom is slightly different. Pāḷi says "five measures (pañcamatta) of one hundred bhikkhus (bhikkhusata)." However, most of the other adjectives are familiar in one way or another. 

Note that Lokakṣema's translation doesn't have a list of adjectives and thus looks a lot more like the opening of the Pāḷi Samaya Sutta. It suggests that the adjectives were added after the original composition. This highlights that the Mahāyāna texts were not part of a Canon (a collection of texts in fixed form), even when written, but instead they were continuously added to over the centuries. 


Bodhisatvas

Though this is a Mahāyāna text and the critical edition is based on relatively late manuscripts, with the oldest being from the 10th Century, there are no bodhisatvas present. This seems significant, because the presence of bodhisatvas seems to be an important feature of Mahāyāna.

However, when we look at the old translations we find a different story. Lokakṣema's translation from 179 AD, 《道行般若經》 (T224) says: 
[8.425.c06] 佛在羅閱祇 耆闍崛山 中,摩訶比丘 僧不可計,諸弟子 舍利弗 、須菩提等;摩訶薩菩薩無央數,彌勒菩薩 、文 殊師利菩薩  等。 
Once the Buddha was at Rājagṛha on the Vultures Peak with a huge congregation of monks, impossible to count, all of them disciples (弟子), including Śāriputra and Subhūti; and countless mahāsatva bodhisatvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī. 
This kind of hyperbole is what we expect from a Mahāyāna sūtra. By the way, the word "disciples" (弟子) seems to reflect an underlying śrāvaka, though we expect arhat here, and is probably a mistake. It may reflect the idea that arhat was the goal of the śrāvakayāna, whereas the bodhisatva was the goal of the bodhisatvayāna

Unfortunately the Gāndhārī manuscript (dated to 70 AD) is damaged and/or missing at this point. By the late 4th Century Kumārajīva's text (T227), while still considerably shorter than the later manuscripts, is completely conventional:
[537a25 - 26]  如是我聞。  一時佛在王舍城耆闍崛山中。與大比丘僧千二百五十人倶皆是阿羅漢。
Thus have I heard: one time the Buddha was staying at Rāgagṛha on the Vulture's Peak, with a great congregation of 1250 bhikṣus and all of them were arhats. 
Here the word arhat is transliterated as 阿羅漢 which in Middle Chinese was alahan. It may reflect a Prakrit original (cf Pāḷi arahant), but by Kumārajīva's time was fairly standard, though there were many variant "spellings" in Chinese, e.g.  阿盧漢; 阿羅訶, 阿羅呵; 阿梨呵, 阿黎呵. This was later abbreviated to lohan or louhan (these Romanizations represent modern Mandarin pronunciations)

So the text is seemingly quite different at different times, assuming that the Chinese translations accurately reflect their source texts. Nor are the differences explicable as a linear evolution. Lokakṣema has bodhisatvas present, whereas others did not. So was Lokakṣema's text different or he was taking liberties? We don't know because the Chinese did not preserve the Sanskrit originals of the Indic texts that they translated, and indeed very few texts survive from that period anywhere. The surviving Sanskrit manuscripts of Aṣṭa are on corypha palm leaves and date from about the 10th Century onwards. Note also that—especially in the earlier translations—the translators were working from single manuscripts that were most likely riddled with copying errors.

One of the things this brief comparison shows is that there is no single sūtra called Aṣṭasāhasrikā. I tried once before to bring out this with respect to the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'? 20 December 2013). Similarly, Jonathan Silk has recently called into question the applicability of traditional philological techniques of identifying the "original" text, (Establishing / Interpreting / Translating: Is It Just That Easy?), which I used as the basis of my essay, The Heart Sutra and the Crisis in Buddhist Philology (30 June 2017).

Effectively, the text of any give sūtra is different for different people at different places and times. And this is an argument for the prominent position that translations play in Western Buddhism, despite the fact that, as far as the Prajñāpāramitā literature is concerned, there are no good translations as yet. With the forthcoming book by Paul Harrison we may finally have a decent translation of the Vajracchedikā, but as my work has shown, we do not yet have a reliable source text from which to translate the Heart Sutra. An accurate translation of Aṣṭa would be a fine thing.


Speech Act Theory and Translation

In this short sub-essay I'll take a single example and examine how we should understand it in the light of speech act theory. 


Kṣīṇāsrava

Like most of the adjectives in our list, this is a compound. It combines kṣīṇā 'cut off' and āsrava 'inflow' ← ā√sru.*  Where √sru means "flow", but also "to flow out of, to gush forth". The addition of the ā prefix to verbs involving direction, usually reverses the direction, i.e. suggests as a first approximation "inflow, influx". We could translate kṣīṇāsrava as "inflows cut off". We could play around with synonyms such as "influx", or more traditional attempts at interpretation such as "taints, corruptions" or the wildly interpretive  "intoxicant biases" (Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary). But what does any of this mean? What precisely is "flowing in"? I've been a Buddhist for more than 20 years and I still draw a blank when I see these terms.
* the change from sru to srava is regular and expected. The root sru undergoes guṇasro, which is conceived as sr(ău). We add a to create an actions noun giving, sr(ău)a. This creates an internal sandhi which resolves as srava

Can we do better? I think we can. Many writers, not least Richard Gombrich, have pointed out that āsrava (Pāḷi assava) is a term taken from Jainism. In that context, actions (karma) cause an inflow (āsrava) of "matter" or "dust" (the Sanskrit word here is unclear) that sticks to the soul (jīva) and keeps it in saṃsāra. But the word āsrava might also be translated as "channel for acquisition of karma", i.e. the Jains see āsrava both as the flow and channel for flow of karma. Jains believe that suffering removes (nirjarā) karma from the jīva, thus liberates it from saṃsāra. Another way of thinking about it in Jain terms, is that āsrava is a way that the consequences of karma impinge on the person. An āsrava is a karma conduit.

So what might it mean to cut off the inflowing or channels for inflowing of karma? It means that the person concerned is not going to suffer the consequences of any past actions because the flow of karma has ceased. Nor will they create any new karma (conceived of as consequential actions that will result in rebirth) that might prevent from being finally liberated from rebirth. Someone who is kṣīṇāsrava does not create new karma and has no old karma waiting to manifest.

In other words to be kṣīṇāsrava is to be free of karma: free in the sense of not subject to any consequences of past actions; and free in the sense of not having to worry about what they do because they can no longer do actions that result in rebirth. Of course, Aṅgulimālā might be considered an exception, since he still has to suffer from past karma but he is still not making any new karma and won't be reborn.

Dictionaries are helpful tools, but to really understand a language one has to think beyond the dictionary, to see words in their cultural context. This is particularly important for Sanskrit which is used in a wide range of distinct contexts which may use the same words very differently. Similarly, etymology can tell us what the parts of a compound originally meant, but not how the individual words are used at a particular place or time, let alone the meaning of a compound.


Speech Acts and Translation

The theory of speech acts was developed in the USA in the 20th Century, largely by two men, John L. Austin and John Searle. Their analysis was part of a movement away from seeing language in merely semantic terms by applying principles deriving from pragmatism. Semanticists ask "What does language mean?", while pragmatists ask "What does language do?" Austin and Searle mapped out the kinds of things we do with language. They treated spoken sentences as "speech acts". In this pragmatic view, semantics must be subordinated to pragmatics, if only because of irony, i.e. when we say one thing, but mean something else. If I say "I love your new haircut" a semanticist can only analyse the words themselves and conclude that I do love your new haircut. A pragmatists also listens to my tone of voice and watches my face as I say it, and they might realise I don't like your new haircut at all and that I am mocking you. Semantics cannot cope with sarcasm or irony, because the same words are used as if I was sincere. Pragmatics doesn't just add a dimension to semantics, but shows that "sense" occurs in the context that goes well beyond word choices.

This is one of the problems of working with written texts. Written texts have no eyebrows or tone, we cannot tell how the author intended us to read their words. As literal truth, informative myth, entertaining legend, or some other interpretation. To take a real example, one of us might read a Buddhist text such as the Pāḷi Tevijjā Sutta as a parody, which changes its meaning entirely; while another dismisses the idea that Buddhists could portray the Buddha as having a sense of humour as projection and argues for a more literal reading. 

Speech act theory suggests that we can understand a communication in terms of what was said, what was meant, and what was understood. The technical terms for these are locution, illocution, and perlocution (and be aware that the technical definitions of all of these terms are a lot more sophisticated than how I have boiled it down here). The case of kṣīṇāsrava illustrates this very nicely. Obviously kṣīṇāsrava is a locution, i.e. it is a declaration about an arhat that helps to establish legitimacy and authority on several levels. It establishes the status of people present (who subsequently participate in the dialogues); it helps to establish the status of arhats as a class of people; and because the Buddha is surrounded by a large number of them, his authority and legitimacy is also established. Buddhists are obsessed with these political issues of status, legitimacy, and authority from the earliest records of their thinking.

Conze's attempt to translate kṣīṇāsrava is "their outflows dried up". This is a perlocution for Conze, it represents what he has understood, but it is also a new locution, something he is declaring. This is a feature of translation. The author composes a text and perhaps writes it down as a document. The translator reads the text, tries to understand it in the source language, then they compose a text in the target language which they hope will have the same illocutionary force. A translation is always a new locution. It's never the same locution.

Conze wants us to understand this thing about arhats: "their outflows dried up". This is similar to how Kumārajīva's translation team understood term, since they translate 諸漏已盡 "all leaks completely exhausted"

So contrary to the dictionaries and Jain usage, which clearly suggest that ā√sru means "in-flow", both Conze and Kumārajīva understand "outflow". One of the things about borrowed terms is that they are thoroughly decontextualised, so the knowledge that this word āsrava originally came from a Jain context was lost and not recovered until after Conze was writing.

I'm not sure about other readers but when I think of "their outflows dried up", I think of a leaky container, particularly a human body leaking fluid from various orifices (the Chinese 漏 "leak" only reinforces this!). I have a cold at present with a runny nose and sore throat. I have a lot of extraneous outflows that I wish would dry up. So what Conze seems to be saying, on face value, is that the leaking body fluids from the arhats have dried up. It certainly does not conjure any sense of what the term means in practice, or convey anything to me that I intuitively find meaningful.

By looking at how the word was used in its original context we have deduced that the illocutionary force of kṣīṇāsrava is that arhats are free of karma. And we can use this conclusion "free of karma" as our translation. To my mind, as a Buddhist who has explored Buddhist karma doctrines in some depth, this makes a great deal of sense; whereas, "their outflows dried up" doesn't communicate anything relevant to me (and produces a load of irrelevant associations). 

What I do not control is how the reader will understand this - the perlocution. For example there are many different ways of thinking about karma and I can't be sure that all of them will fit my conception. Some might take this to mean that the arhats are free from moral restraint for example, and able to act immorally with impunity. Though this would not be what I intended to say, not my illocution, it might be a perlocution for the reader.


Conclusions

This "essay" is really just a collection of notes with no overall theme except that they arise out of reading Aṣṭa and thinking about how to translate it. However, one of the major themes I've explored over the years is just how difficult translating really is. I've tried to convey how little confidence we should have in translated documents as representative of the author's intentions. The very idea of "the text" is much more fluid in our Buddhist milieu that it is for, say, Christians.

On one hand this ought to legitimate translations. We know that in most Asian countries, Indic texts were abandoned quickly once translations became widely available. Indic texts were not generally preserved in the long term, but remained theoretically important. On the other hand, the whole point of the story of Xuanzang going to India (and he was only one of many such pilgrims from China and Tibet) was that he felt the translations of Kumārajīva and others were not sufficiently clear or comprehensible. It is a little ironic then, that while his translations were generally considered superior by scholars, none of Xuanzang's translations ever become popular or replaced those of Kumārajīva in the popular imagination.

Translations are seldom really about translating individual words. The basic unit of meaning is the sentence. That is to say, it is how words are used in sentences that convey the authors intentions. A list of adjectives is a special case. But the single word example of kṣīṇāsrava does seem to highlight many of the problems with English translations of Buddhist texts. We are not there yet in terms of fully migrating to English as a medium for communicating the Dharma. We are still struggling with Buddhist Hybrid English and with incomprehensible word for word translations.

One of the problems we seem to have is that few scholars are going over the ground and bringing the light of new discoveries to familiar texts. I think this is partly a problem of how such work is funded now. Everyone is busy working on "new" areas and previously untranslated texts (which seem to become more obscure with each passing year).

Another text I've been looking at recently is Lewis Lancaster's unpublished dissertation on the Chinese translations of Aṣṭa which compares the versions - and delineates three periods of the text. I hope to write up some notes on this as well, because it is apparent that this 50 year old document has not had the kind of influence on the popular imagination of Prajñāpāramitā that it should have. It is  a great pity that in the 50 years since Lancaster's doctoral dissertation is that no one seems to have followed up on the doors that it opened. Certainly, no new translation of Aṣṭa has appeared to replace the faulty one produced by Conze. One bright spot is Seishi Karashima's glossary of Lokakṣema's Aṣṭa. Which ought to make a new comparative translation much easier. 

~~oOo~~















20 October 2017

The Horror of Apocrypha.

People often react positively when I say that I study the Heart Sutra. They often seem imagine that the holiness of the text must rub off on me (I wish!). In reality, I don't find the Heart Sutra particularly interesting, except as a case study in the history of ideas in Buddhism. Unfortunately I found a sixty year old mistake in Conze's edition as I was beginning to learn Sanskrit back in 2012 and for me that meant figuring our how to fix it (see Attwood 2015). But it also meant looking to see in what other ways it was broken. As much as anything, what fascinates me now is that people continue to translate the text even though it is broken in several ways, both by Conze and original translator. What goes on in the mind of a translator who stumbles on a passage that simply does not make sense, but publishes something anyway?

The English language literature on the Heart Sutra mostly celebrates irrationality and mysticism, which goes a long way to explaining why no one noticed that the text did not make sense. It reminds me of that popular formulation of the laws of thermodynamics (aka Ginsberg's Theorem), which I can paraphrase for our purposes as: you can't understand, you can't hope to understand, there is nothing you can do that will bring about understanding. Call this Conze's Theorem, though it could equally well be Suzuki's. If someone accepts Conze's Theorem then their chances of spotting grammatical errors plummets. 

Amidst all the smoke and mirrors we don't usually see that, like many philosophers, priests and mystics actively get in the way of understanding. They impede us by asserting falsehoods, contradicting themselves, and above all by trying to convince us to take up the defeatist, fixed mindset (in the Professor Carol Dweck sense) that Conze's Theorem represents. If anyone actually understood, all the priests would be out of a job, or they would have competition. On the other hand, there is a symbiotic relationship between those who confuse and those who wish to be confused (or to justify their state of confusion or be absolved of responsibility for it). Priest and congregation co-exist and feed off each other.

A friend who likes to produce his own translations of the Heart Sutra, partly based on our long discussions about it, was criticised recently for "taking the mystery out of it". What can I say? The mystery of the Heart Sutra is how Buddhists get away with promoting magical thinking.


The Horror...

Anyway, sometimes my desire to understand forces me (reluctantly) to read books about the Heart Sutra. It's a bit like, having dropped my glasses in the toilet while having a piss, I have to fish them out before I flush, just in case they go past the U-bend. For some reason I had high hopes about Kazuaki Tanahashi’s book. I think it might have been the nice cover. The book does have a very nice cover (right). As the subtitle suggests this was an attempt at a comprehensive account of the Heart Sutra. However, like Red Pine, there was a mismatch between the author's expertise, the subject of the book, and the scope of his ambition. Tanahashi is even less proficiency than Red Pine in Sanskrit and appears to be entirely reliant on third parties, who apparently mislead him on many occasions. His commentary on the Sanskrit text is full of errors of lexicon and morphology and, as a result, quite unreliable.

I'm not even going to mention the new English Heart Sutra contrived with help from Roshi Joan Halifax. Instead in this essay I want to focus on how Tanahashi deals with the news, delivered in 1992, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, in Chinese. It was not Indian and not written in Sanskrit, and therefore not a sūtra. Tanahashi devotes almost four pages to outlining Nattier’s ninety-page article in a fairly neutral manner. His gloss is more or less accurate and he states that he thinks it is plausible (2014: 73-76). 

Then in a separate chapter, he notes the horror with which the article was received in Japan. He cites the late Japanese scholar, Fumimasa-Bunga Fukui (福井文雅), as saying “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (2014: 77). Fukui (who died in May 2017) was a major figure of the Japanese Buddhist establishment, though almost completely unknown in the West because he didn't write in English (e.g. he only has a Japanese Wikipedia entry). Fukui, unsurprisingly given this attitude, is not convinced by the evidence presented, though Tanahashi does not really say anything about Fukui's reasoning. 

Tanahashi also records Red Pine’s objection, which I have already dealt with to some extent (Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar". 13 October 2017). However, unlike Pine, Tanahashi declares himself satisfied by the case that Nattier has made for the Heart Sutra having been composed in China. On the surface this is a victory for reason (sorely needed), but watch what happens next.


It Cannot Be Ruled Out.

The chapter that starts off assessing Nattier's thesis veers off on what seems to be a tangent. Tanahashi notices that T250 is closer to T223 and dubs it the “alpha version”. Despite the fact that T250 differs considerable more from the received Sanskrit text than T251, Tanahashi proposes it as the source text for the Sanskrit. He is concerned here to rally facts that support the identity of Xuánzàng as the translator, a case which in reality is very weak. Someone as familiar with the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature as Xuánzàng undoubtedly was, would be unlikely to make so many idiomatic mistakes or to misread the Chinese text.  The reasoning becomes increasingly specious, but it comes around to an unexpected conclusion:
“Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang’s Sanskrit version could be accepted as an authentic scripture.” (84)
So having accepted the rational argument against the text being authentic, Tanahashi uses deduction to show that after all it is authentic. The reasoning here is quite something and it might be instructive to diagram it.
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.
Note that Axiom3 assumes that the Heart Sutra complies with Axioms1 & 2. Nattier shows, however, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China some time between 404 CE and 672 CE. And so we get the syllogism:
If the Heart Sutra was composed in China, it did not come from India, therefore it is not the word of the Buddha, and therefore it is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1: The Heart Sutra is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1 is the complete opposite of Axiom3. One or other must be false. Nattier in fact downplays this conclusion, presumably out of sympathy with her many Asian Buddhist Colleagues. But anyone can see the implications for this most popular of all East Asian texts. To put it baldly: it's a fake. Anyone who promoted it is a fool. Even if you did understand it, the understanding itself would not be authentic. This is the fear anyway. In my view the Heart Sutra is an authentic expression of early medieval Chinese Buddhism, but that's probably not enough for the traditionalist. 

Buddhist religious authority is partly predicated on the authenticity of the sūtras, and for Japanese Zen Buddhists this sūtra has a central and vital role. The Heart Sutra is the central mystery in the mystery religion that is modern Zen Buddhism (especially after D T Suzuki’s influential Theosophy inspired presentation of it). Axiom1 is the warp upon which the Zen Buddhist priests weave the weft of their religious authority. If Axiom1 is no longer a given, then the whole fabric of the religious tradition may unravel. Zen Buddhism is in danger of losing all credibility: hence the horrified reaction in Japan to Nattier’s article.

So, for obvious reasons, Conclusion1 is unacceptable: Fukui and Pine reject the evidence out of hand. Pine goes as far as denying that there is any evidence.

Tanahashi is, unlike Red Pine, honest enough to admit that Nattier’s case for Conclusion1 goes beyond any reasonable doubt. However, he is still committed to the three axioms. Therefore, he looks for a weak point in Nattier’s case. Her 1992 article is 90 pages long and covers a lot of ground. One of the subjects she covers is the attribution of T250 to Kumārajīva and T251 to Xuánzàng.

Traditionally, of course, T251 is attributed to Xuánzàng as translator. While Nattier casts enough doubt on this attribution for it to be abandoned, she leaves open the possibility that Xuánzàng produced the Sanskrit translation. This is a very appealing possibility to many Buddhists and in it Tanahashi finds his salvation.

Having definitely identified Xuánzàng as translator Tanahashi constructs a fantasy that goes like this. Buddhists, he says, meditate and sometimes, in meditation, they receive divine revelations. Stories of meditating monks receiving instructions from Maitreya or Mañjuśrī are exceedingly common in Buddhist folklore. In these stories, the figures are usually bodhisatvas and they play the role of a virtual-buddha who provides the necessary imprimatur to meet Axiom2 (sūtras are the word of the Buddha).

It is of course well known that Xuánzàng travelled to India. In his final manoeuvre, Tanahashi imagines that the revelation from Avalokiteśvara conveniently took place in India. This allows him to construct the following syllogism:
If Xuánzàng had “received” the [translated] text in India [Axiom1], it would have to be seen as a scripture of Indian origin! Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang's version could be accepted as an authentic scripture (84).
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.

The essential axioms are satisfied and the horror of the prospect that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon is banished, just as Xuánzàng himself banished the demons of the Gobi desert by reciting the Heart Sutra by magic. As Tanahashi says, this possibility “cannot be ruled out”. He is of course right. Just as we cannot rule out the possibility of the tooth-fairy. 

However, Tanahashi cannot cite a single source for this idea. There is nothing in Xuánzàng's own account of his journey to suggest any of this happened. Nothing in the biographies composed by his contemporaries. Not even a suspicious looking legend. There is nothing for anyone to base such speculation on. We associate Xuánzàng with the Heart Sutra, because shoe-horned into his travelogue is a single mention of the text; and because his two main disciples wrote commentaries on the text (which are, curiously, undated - the Chinese dated everything). Xuánzàng is famous precisely for bringing Sanskrit Buddhist texts to China, and translating then into Chinese after he arrived. He was a prolific translator so we have a very good idea of what to look for and the Heart Sutra has none of the tell-tale signs. What is apparent is that someone has inexpertly altered the text to make it look more like a Xuánzàng production, but they didn't do a very good job of it.


So no, we cannot prove that it didn't happen, but there is also no reason to believe it did, except for Axioms1 & 2. 

One weakness that Tanahashi did not exploit, is that while he was in India, Xuánzàng is believed to have made a Sanskrit translation of the Chinese apocryphal text known in English as The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. However, in this case the text is widely acknowledged to be an apocryphon. In trying to establish the authenticity of the Heart Sutra, it would be risky to pair it with a known forgery. Tanahashi avoids this potential complication by not mentioning it (though it is equally likely that he was simply ignorant of this fact). 

Having proved to his own satisfaction that the Heart Sutra is authentic, despite also accepting that Nattier has proved that it is not authentic (in that sense), Tanahashi proceeds as though his fantasy is reality. Just three pages later, he says:
“However, when Xuanzang translated the Hridaya into Chinese, there is no doubt that he referred to the α version [i.e. T250], which he might have believed to be the Kumarajiva translation” (87)
This is a neat trick. He begins by making a show of rationality, of gravely considering and accepting the validity of Nattier’s argument, despite the horrifying consequences that have made his prejudiced contemporaries in Japan (and elsewhere) reject it outright. Nevertheless, he proceeds as though Nattier got it completely wrong and the Heart Sutra is everything the Japanese Zen tradition says it is. The level of self-deception and desperation involved is shocking even to this relatively cynical author.

Oh, and the lack of doubt that Xuánzàng consulted T250 is convenient cover for the fact that T251 is not a separate translation at all, it is T250 that has been lightly edited: two lines have been removed, one from the beginning and one from the middle of the quote from the Large Sutra (T223) and/or it's commentary (T1509); and 3 word have been changed to reflect Xuánzàng's preferred "spelling" (Avalokiteśvara, Śāriputra, and skandha).



"We Fear Change.



With apologies to the copyright holders

Anyone familiar with the history of science probably knows about Thomas Kuhn's description of how science makes progress. It is down to him that we use the word paradigm as much as we do. Scientists supposedly resist paradigm change because they stake their careers on the old idea. However, in science, though there may be resistance, attitudes, theories, and practices do change, because scientists respond to evidence (my lifetime has seen many paradigms shift). In religion, it can be a very different story, even in the religion whose unofficial motto is "everything changes". Ideally in science, theory is evidence led. Religion is almost always the opposite: theory leads evidence. Evidence is either made to fit the theory or it is simply discarded as irrelevant. As we have seen in this case.

In all likelihood both Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi are good men; they are sincere and wrote their books in good faith, not consciously intending to impede understanding by giving false information or creating confusion. They most likely care deeply about the traditions they've given their lives to. They don’t see themselves as deceiving anyone, nor the self-serving nature of their deceptions. In all likelihood, they are just as deceived by their own words as others are (though happy to accept the benefits that accrue to them as a result). The axioms of their worldview override other concerns. Such axioms underpin the deductive logic of the rejection of any counter-factual information. This is the characteristic of a religious mindset.

However, it leaves them vulnerable. Sooner or later, someone like me was going to examine their work and point out the fallacies, biases, and mistakes in their work. The problems that don't just detract from their efforts but characterise them. Everything that is wrong with religion as a cultural institution is on display in Tanahashi's attempt to both accept and subvert the Chinese origins thesis. The rhetoric, the pretence, is that they are concerned with ultimate reality and that they accept that everything changes. But a simple truth such as the Heart Sutra being a Chinese composition, causes such consternation that they revert to type: they obfuscate, deny, and misdirect.

The reality in this case is that the Heart Sutra is changing. It has changed in the past, and it will change again. Buddhism is changing, it has changed in the past, and it will change again. If change is the nature of reality, then the changes wrought by Jan Nattier should be joyfully embraced by Buddhists. Instead, they are fearfully rejected and replaced with fantasy versions of reality. And this is sanctioned by followers because they don’t want things to change either. All too often Buddhism seems like a tragedy blurring into a farce.

The final irony is that, if you could ask the Heart Sutra itself, it would reply: in emptiness there is no Heart Sutra. And the mainstream, the paradigmatic, metaphysical interpretation would be that the Heart Sutra doesn't exist! And laughably, it is precisely my epistemological interpretation (based on Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāḷi suttas) that rescues the text from this ignominious fate. It's only me arguing that of course the text exists, it's just that perception of it is not governed by the same rules as the existence of it. 

The uncomfortable truth is that text that everyone knows and loves, is full of errors. And faith is getting in the way of fixing them. 


~~oOo~~


Biliography


Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

Pine, Red. (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.

Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.

13 October 2017

Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar".

When I mention to anyone that I work on the Heart Sutra, there is a better-than-even chance that that person will declare that they like Red Pine's book on the text (2004). This small book purports to be a translation from the Sanskrit along with a commentary. However, Pine is not very good at Sanskrit and there are a load of mistakes in his book, and his commentary is sectarian, to say the least. My Amazon UK review of his book suggests that it is "a facile book on modern Japanese Zen rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra." I say this whenever his name comes up, but his reputation survives intact. The response is usually along the lines "We trust him, we don't trust you (so fuck off)". The last may be sotto voce, but sometimes it is expressed just like that.

Facts don't necessarily win arguments or establish reputations; and nor do falsehoods necessarily lose arguments or destroy reputations. No one alive today can doubt this truism. Nevertheless, I still try to deal in facts and here are some facts about Red Pine's attempts to understand the Heart Sutra.

One of the characteristics of Pine's approach is his outright rejection of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China.
"... we are shown no proof that the Heart Sutra was originally composed or complied in Chinese, that any part of the first half was extracted from the Large Sutra or any other Chinese text, or that the mantra was added later."  (2004: 23)
Pine instead proposes a "lost manuscript thesis". That is to say, he argues that the Heart Sutra quote from the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is from a (now lost) sūtra with the same name, and with the same meaning, but written in an entirely different Sanskrit idiom from any other Prajñāpāramitā text. In other words, he believes that the Indian sūtra existed in at least two prose versions, which paraphrased each other; meaning that one of them was in the standard idiom of all other Prajñāpāramitā texts, and one was in an idiom unknown except for the passage in the Heart Sutra. The fact that the Chinese Heart Sutra is coincidentally identical to Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati is apparently irrelevant (note: it is T250 that is character for character identical; T251 has a line removed in the middle and a couple of key terms changed). 

In taking this perverse approach, Red Pine is asserting that the Sanskrit text is original and authoritative and that the Chinese text is just a translation. But as we will see, this is not what he believes in practice. I draw your attention to Section VI of Conze's edition and to Red Pine's "translation". 


The mystery of Section VI.

Conze's edition chops up the Heart Sutra into sections to make it easier to comment on. The earliest manuscripts of the Heart Sutra do not have sections. In fact, they don't even have sentence or word breaks. They have no punctuation at all. In Conze’s edition the passage reads:
VI. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo Prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ.
This section has already been examined in detail by Huifeng (2014), but there is work to do yet on the Sanskrit. I am about to submit a short article tackling the mistake introduced by Conze, and am working on another article which tackles what went wrong with the original (back)translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. Here, I just want to look at Red Pine's approach and what it reveals about his methods.

The second sentence in particular is puzzling. Jan Nattier notes that it seems "abbreviated at best", but doesn't seem to clock why. Others seem to gloss over the problems. What Pine says is this:
“I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta” (2004: 137)
If we look at the Sanskrit text it is apparent that there are problems with this passage. The two words viparyāsātikrāntaḥ and niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ are both bahuvrīhi compounds or compound adjectives. The two words in the compound work together to describe a noun: "one who has overcome delusion" and "one whose extinction is final". But there is no noun for them to describe. Nor does the sentence have a verb or anything that might substitute for one - and just as in English, a sentence without a verb is a contradiction in terms.

A compound cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces under any circumstances. It is never allowed.  There is nothing vague about this rule. For one thing, were we to do that to viparyāsātikrāntaḥ, as Pine does, we would leave  viparyāsa with no case ending and thus no relationship to the other words in the sentence (grammar is all about relationships between words). The role of the compound in the sentence is entirely determined by the second member of the compound, which does have a case ending (in this case masculine nominative singular).

The passive past participle atikranta cannot function as a finite verb under any circumstances. The root verb ati√kram does not mean "see through" it means "go beyond, transgress, transcend". Given the Prajñāpāramitā idiom, it probably ought to be samatikranta, which cannot be construed as "transgress", but that is a another story.

Pine has misread the sentence and, in asserting that there are any "vagaries" here, has gone completely off piste. The problem, as my forthcoming article will show, is that Conze has incorrectly put a full stop (US "period") in the middle of the sentence, stranding the three adjectives (atrastaḥ is the third) apart from the noun they describe, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ. Note that the Chinese text in the CEBTA version of the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka has a semicolon at this point, rather than a full stop. Conze had little or no facility with Chinese and never checked the Chinese texts when preparing his Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts.

This is completely obvious to anyone educated in Sanskrit: adjectives taking the case of their noun is very basic stuff (you probably learn this in the first or second week of study).

Why is it so obvious in this case? Because the noun nirvāṇa is invariably neuter (nominative singular nirvāṇaṃ), but in the Heart Sutra it has a masculine ending, -nirvāṇaḥ. The only time this is permitted is when a word is used as an adjective for a masculine noun, in the nominative singular: adjectives take the gender, case, and number of the noun they describe. Thus niṣthānirvāṇaḥ can only be a bahuvrīhi compound, an adjective, and can only be related to a masculine noun in the nominative singular, and could not be anything else. The only candidate noun within 20 words in either direction is bodhisatvaḥ, in the previous "sentence". When we remove the full stop we have one perfectly good Buddhist Sanskrit sentence.

Conze blunders again and the whole (Buddhist) world blindly follows him off the cliff.

The essential problem, then, is that cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ is not a well formed sentence. It's just a qualifier and three adjectives, with no verb, no subject, and no noun to be described. When we remove the full stop, and merge it with the previous sentence, we supply all three. That is why Pine is struggling, but he doesn't see it. And rather than take the simple and obvious solution he abandons Sanskrit grammar altogether and claims that Sanskrit grammar itself is "vague". Given that he has abandoned grammar, why does he choose the particular configuration he does? If he is abandoning the rules of grammar then he might have opted for any combination of words. The answer lies in the Chinese text.


Chinese 

The text that everyone in Asia considers to be the Heart Sutra is T251. It differs from T250 at this point, but only in a minor way (I will deal with this in the article, but not here). The Chinese parallel to the Sanskrit phrase cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in T251 is:
無罣礙故,無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想,究竟涅槃。
A word for word translation would be:
unattached (無罣礙) because (故),there is no (無有) terror (恐怖),going beyond (遠離) delusions (顛倒) [and] illusions (夢想 ),final (究竟) nirvāṇa (涅槃).
Here the particle 故 gives the first word the same sense as the Sanskrit ablative of cause, it is a qualifier meaning "because, since". The previous sentence concluded that "[the bodhisatva's]  mind 心 is unattached 無罣礙". So the qualifier links the two phrases, in the manner of "; because of that...". Then we have a statement that appears to logically follow from it, i.e. "because he is unattached, he is without fear". Then we have a verb "he goes beyond" and it has a direct object "delusions and illusions" and an indirect object "final-nirvāṇa". So it says:
[his mind is unattached]; since it is unattached, [the bodhisatva] is not afraid; he goes beyond delusion and illusion to final extinction.
I want to draw your attention to two things here. Firstly the sentence structure of the Chinese is completely different to the received Sanskrit and some of the words are different. I've already pointed out that the second part of Section VI cannot be a standalone sentence in Sanskrit. But in Chinese, we do have a well formed sentence with verbs and nouns (the subject is implied, but it is the bodhisatva in the preceding phrase). Translating this we don't struggle, at least we certainly don't have the kind of problems thrown up by Conze's Sanskrit edition.

Secondly compare how Red Pine has construed the Sanskrit text to make atikranta the verb (= 遠離), viparyāsa a standalone noun (= 顛倒), niṣthā an adverb (= 究竟), and nirvāṇa a standalone noun (涅槃). To make it plain, Red Pine has chopped up the Sanskrit sentence, abrogating the rules of Sanskrit grammar, to make it read (more or less) like the Chinese, but with a concession to his Zen ideology. The concession is that he takes niṣṭhā as an adverb "finally" related to the "verb" atikranta, rather than part of the adjective "final-extinction". This allows him to construe the possibility of "finally seeing trough nirvāṇa". Again Sanskrit does not allow parts of compounds to come adrift and act independently, so this reading of the Sanskrit is wrong. I don't think it works in Chinese either, though at a pinch it might be a plausible reading. A broader look at the phrase 究竟涅槃 in Chinese shows that it is always a single compound and not an adverb-noun combination. But Red Pine does not seem to know this.

The main point I wish to make here is that Red Pine prioritises the Chinese text over the Sanskrit (and not just here either).

As I noted above, Red Pine says that he considers the Sanskrit text to be the authentic original Heart Sutra. The Chinese text is merely a translation. But when he meets a problem in the Sanskrit text he does not deal with it in Sanskrit (even though there is a simple and obvious solution to his problem), instead he uses the Chinese text as a guide to butchering the Sanskrit, to make it read like the Chinese.

I discovered this some weeks ago and I still laugh out loud every time I explain it to anyone. Despite what he says in relation to the Chinese origins thesis, and despite claiming that he is translating from Sanskrit, in practice Red Pine treats the Chinese text as authoritative and translates from Chinese (on more than one occasion). 

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?" The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
Now to give him his due, Red Pine is almost unique in admitting that he had any problem at all translating this part of the text. Most religious translators hide their struggles and their methods from their readers giving the illusion of greater understanding than is humanly possible. In this case Conze's edition is unreadable and untranslatable. A sentence with just a qualifier and three adjectives is nonsense and nonsense cannot be translated into sense. But strangely enough all the English translations seem to make sense. How does that happen? 

What goes through the mind of the translator faced with a text that doesn't make sense, but who wishes to be known as an expert in understanding that text?

Presumably the demands of status mean that these translators simply lie about understanding the text, and then lie to themselves about having lied. And do a lot of hand waving to distract anyone from seeing the lies. They feel safe in the knowledge that very few of their readers bother to learn Sanskrit and that scholars play no corrective role in the process.

And they do get away with this cheating, this intellectual fraud. Time after time.

Surely the publisher of Red Pine's book, Counterpoint Press, also has some responsibility (as do other publishers of non-fiction books)? Counterpoint Press edited the book and presumably sub-edited the English in it. Why was the Sanskrit not sub-edited? No one seems to have bothered to check a dictionary at any point. It seems that they did not do any fact-checking or due-diligence, such as having an expert read the manuscript. At best the complacency of the publisher has facilitated the ongoing deception. 

We expect religieux to fudge things from time to time because they have an agenda that includes overriding ideological concerns. We understand this and while we may not endorse it, at least it is no great surprise to find that a religious translator has manipulated a text to make it fit their preconceptions; or told us what they think it ought to say rather than what it actually says (especially in cases where they demonstrably do not understand it, as here). We expect religieux to have exaggerated reverence for a printed text and not to think about how the text might be wrong (Thich Nhat Hahn is the sole exception to this that I'm aware of, but as I explained, his solution is to hide the problem by manipulating the translation. This is just an exercise in hand waving). 

What of academia? Many of the people who have studied, translated, and commented on this text were academics of quite high standing. Conze's first edition (1948) was published in a prestigious journal, where it was supposedly peer-reviewed. How did all of these experts in Sanskrit, miss the fact that the neuter noun nirvāṇa was in the masculine gender in this text and not see the implications of this? Any undergraduate student could spotted this and have told us what those implications were. 


Conclusion

The fact is that Buddhists have been poorly served by religious teachers and academic experts alike. In the case of the Heart Sutra, huge, possibly irreparable, damage has been done by D T Suzuki and Edward Conze and their Theosophy inspired nonsense. Yet both are almost deified and occupy a kind of pantheon of Buddhist Modernism. Conze has been described by Sangharakshita as "one of the great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century". He was a poor editor and translator, and while his views were influenced by Buddhism (amongst other things), I'm not convinced he was a Buddhist at all.

Red Pine's popular book is full of egregious errors and, as we now know, a degree of deception, inconsistency, and hypocrisy. At best it is a facile book on modern Japanese Zen ideology, rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra. But there is no doubting that it is popular. So it too has done huge damage.

Where we might have expected correctives from the supposedly objective scholars based in universities, dispassionately studying the languages and documents of Buddhism, we simply see more of the same in most cases (with a few notable exceptions). The most basic level of scholarship has been left incomplete, while scholars pursue ever more obscure objectives. I'm told by insiders that this might be so that they can avoid confrontation with anyone else in the field. Criticism that might affect anyone's career prospects is scrupulously avoided and even suppressed as journals refuse to publish it. Still, Conze has been dead for 43 years, I can't see how criticising him is going to hurt anyone.

Another problem, of course, is that the field is tiny and funding for it in the West has become scarce. Most of the major projects are based in Asia, under the guidance of Buddhist organisations and funders, meaning that scholarship is beholden to those with strong religious ideologies. Dissent is not really possible under such conditions.

The Heart Sutra is frequently referred to as "the most popular Mahāyāna text in the world". Most undergraduates in Buddhist Studies read it. Probably many of them read it in Sanskrit. So actually what I said about any undergraduate spotting the mistake is probably wrong, because several generations of them have not spotted it, or they spotted it and stayed quiet. And so simple grammatical errors have persisted in the most popular Buddhist text for almost 60 years (the anniversary of Conze's edition is in 2018; he died in 1974). 

I'm repeating myself in complaining about Buddhist Studies as a discipline (if "discipline" is the right word). But here I am working systematically through the shortest text in popular use (260 Chinese characters and about the same number of words in Sanskrit) and still finding mistakes in the text and trying to figure out how anyone could have translated the resulting mess. Something is deeply wrong in the world, if an autodidact, amateur, independent scholar is the one finding these fundamental problems. They should have been ironed out by academics decades ago. Conze should never have been allowed to publish his critical edition with errors in it for a start, but they should have been corrected long before now. 

Ironically, in the final analysis, this set of circumstances can only stand because Buddhists themselves are complacent and not paying attention. Perhaps we are in a kāliyuga after all?

~~oOo~~



Bibliography

Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. 

Huifeng, Shi. (2014). Apocryphal Treatment for Conze's Heart Problems: "Non-attainment", "Apprehension", and "Mental Hanging" in the Prajñāpāramitā. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.

25 August 2017

Rationality

There's been quite a lot of talk of "meta-rationality" lately amongst the blogs I read. It is ironic that this emerging trend comes at a time when the very idea of rationality is being challenged from beneath. Mercier and Sperber, for example, tell us that empirical evidence suggests that reasoning is "a form of intuitive [i.e. unconscious] inference" (2017: 90); and that reasoning about reasoning (meta-rationality) is mainly about rationalising such inferences and our actions based on them. If this is true, and traditional ways of thinking about reasoning are inaccurate, then we all have a period of readjustment ahead.

It seems that we don't understand rationality or reasoning. My own head is shaking as I write this. Can it be accurate? It is profoundly counter-intuitive. Sure, we all know that some people are less than fully rational. Just look at how nation states are run. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to realise that I don't understand reasoning. After all, I write non-fiction. All of my hundreds of essays are the product of reasoning. Aren't they? well, maybe. In this essay, I'm going to continue my desultory discussion of reason by outlining a result from experimental psychology from the year I was born, 1966. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason, Mercier & Sperber (2017) describe this experiment and some of the refinements since proposed.

But first a quick lesson in Aristotelian inferential logic. I know, right? You're turned off and about to click on something else. But please do bear with me. I'm introducing this because unless you understand the logic involved in the problem, you won't get the full blast of the 50-year-old insight that follows. Please persevere and I think you'll agree at the end that it's worth it.


~Logic~

For our purposes, we need to consider a conditional syllogism. Schematically it takes the form:

If P, then Q.

Say we posit: if a town has a police station (P), then it also has a courthouse (Q). There are two possible states for each proposition. A town has a police station (P); it does not have a police station (not P or ¬P); it has a courthouse (Q); it does not have a court house (¬Q). What we concerned with here is what we can infer from each of these four possibilities, given the rule: If P, then Q.

The syllogism—If P, then Q—in this case tells us that it is always the case that if a town has a police station, then it also has a courthouse. If I now tell you that the town of Wallop in Hampshire, has a police station, you can infer from the rule that Wallop must also have a courthouse. This is a valid inference of the type that Aristotle called modus ponens. Schematically:

If P, then Q.
P, therefore Q. ✓

What if I tell you that Wallop does not have a police station? What can you infer from ¬P? You might be tempted to say that Wallop has no courthouse. But this would be a fallacy (called denial of the antecedent). It does not follow from the rule that if a town does not have a police station that it also doesn't have a court house. It is entirely possible under the given rule that a town has a courthouse but no police station.

If P, then Q.
¬P, therefore ¬Q. ✕

What if we have information about the courthouse and want to infer something about the police station. What can we infer if Wallop had a courthouse (Q)? Well, we've just seen that we cannot infer anything. Trying to infer something from the absence of the second part of the syllogism leads to false conclusions (affirmation of the consequent)


If P, then Q.
Q, therefore P. ✕

But we can make a valid inference if we know that Wallop has no courthouse (¬Q). If there is no courthouse and our rule is always true, then we can infer that there is no police station in Wallop. And this valid inference is the type called modus tollens by Aristotle.

If P, then Q.
¬Q, therefore ¬P. ✓

So given the rule and information about one of the two propositions P and Q we can make inferences about the other. But only in two cases can we make valid inferences, i.e. P and ¬Q.

rulegiveninferencevalidity
If P, then Q.PQ
¬P¬Q
QP
¬Q¬P


Of course, there are even less logical inferences one could make, but these are the ones that Aristotle deemed sensible enough to include in his work on logic. This is the logic that we need to understand. And the experimental task, proposed by Peter Wason in 1966, tested the ability of people to use this kind of reasoning.


~Wason Selection Task~

You are presented with four cards, each with a letter and number printed on either side.

The rule is: If a card has E on one side, it has 2 on the other.
The question is: which cards must be turned over to test the rule, i.e. to determine if the cards follow the rule. You have as much time as you wish.
~o~

Wason and his collaborators got a shock in 1966 because only 10% of their participants chose the right answer. Having prided ourselves on our rationality for millennia (in Europe anyway) the expectation was that most people would find this exercise in reasoning relatively simple. Only 1 in 10 got the right answer. This startling result led Wason and subsequent investigators to pose many variations on this test, almost always with similar results.

Intrigued they began to ask people about the level of confidence in their methods before getting their solution. Despite the fact that 90% would choose the wrong answer, 80% of participants were 100% sure they had the right answer! So it was not that the participants were hesitant or tentative. On the contrary, they were extremely confident in their method, whatever it was.

The people taking part were not stupid or uneducated. Most of them were psychology undergraduates. The result is slightly worse than one would expect from random guessing, which suggests that something was systematically going wrong.

The breakthrough came more than a decade later when, in 1979, Jonathan Evans came up with a variation in which the rule was: if a card has E on one side, it does not have 2 on the other. In this case, the proportions of right and wrong answers dramatically switched around, with 90% getting it right. Does this mean that we reason better negatively?
"This shows, Evans argued, that people's answers to the Wason task are based not on logical reasoning but on intuitions of relevance." (Mercier & Sperber 2017: 43. Emphasis added)
What Evans found was that people turn over the cards named in the rule. Which is not reasoning, but since it is predicated on an unconscious evaluation of the information, not quite a guess either. Which is why the success rate is worse than random guessing.

Which cards did you turn over? As with the conditional syllogism, there are only two valid inferences to be made here: Turn over the E card. If it has a 2 on the other side, the rule is true for this card (but may not be true for others); if it does not have a 2, the rule is falsified. The other card to turn over is the one with a seven on it. If it has E on the other side, the rule is falsified; if it does not have an E, the rule may still be true.

Turning over the K tells us nothing relevant to the rule. Turning over the 2 is a little more complex, but ultimately futile. If we find an E on the other side of the 2 we may think it validates the rule. However, the rule does not forbid, a card with 2 on one side having any letter, E or another one. So turning over the 2 does not give us any valid inferences either.

Therefore it is only by turning over the E and 7 cards that we can make valid inferences about the rule. And short of gaining access to all possible cards, the best we can do is falsify the rule. Note that the cards are presented in the order in the same order as I used in explaining the logic. E = P, K = ¬P, 2 = Q, and 7 = ¬Q.

Did you get the right answer? Did you consciously work through the logic or respond to an intuition? Did you make the connection with the explanation of the conditional syllogism that preceded it?

I confess that I did not get the right answer, and I had read a more elaborate explanation of the conditional logic involved. I did not work through the logic but chose the cards named in the rule. 

The result has been tested in many different circumstances and variations and seems to be general. Humans, in general, don't use reasoning to solve logic problems, unless they have specific training. Even with specific training people still get it wrong. Indeed, even though I explained the formal logic of the puzzle immediately beforehand, the majority of readers would have ignored this and chosen to turn over the E and 2 cards, because they used their intuition instead of logic to infer the answer.


~Reasons~

In a recent post (Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability, 20 Jul 2017) I explored some of the consequences of this result. Mercier and Sperber go from Wason into a consideration of unconscious processing of information. They discuss and ultimately reject Kahneman's so-called dual process models of thinking (with two systems, one fast and one slow). There is only one process, Mercier and Sperber argue, and it is unconscious. All of our decisions are made this way. When required, they argue, we produce conscious reasons after the fact (post hoc). The reason we are slow at producing reasons is that they don't exist before we are asked for them (or ask ourselves - which is something Mercier and Sperber don't talk about much). It takes time to make up plausible sounding reasons. we have to go through the process of asking, given what we know about ourselves, what a plausible reason might be. And because of cognitive bias, we settle for the first plausible explanation we come up with. Then, as far as we are concerned, that is the reason.

It's no wonder there was scope for Dr Freud to come along and point out that people's stated motives were very often not the motives that one could deduce from detailed observation of the person (particularly paying attention to moments when the unconscious mind seemed to reveal itself). 

This does not discount the fact that we have two brain regions that process incoming information. It is most apparent in situations that scare us. For example, an unidentified sound will trigger the amygdala to create a cascade of activation across the sympathetic nervous system. Within moments our heart rate is elevated, our breathing shallow and rapid, and our muscles flooding with blood. We are ready for action. The same signal reaches the prefrontal cortex more slowly. The sound is identified in the aural processing area, then fed to the prefrontal cortex which is able to override the excitation of the amygdala.

A classic example is walking beside a road with traffic speeding past. Large, rapidly moving objects ought to frighten us because we evolved to escape from marauding beasts. Not just predators either, since animals like elephants or rhinos can be extremely dangerous. But our prefrontal cortex has established that cars almost always stay on the road and follow predictable trajectories. Much more alertness is required when crossing the road. I suspect that the failure to switch on that alertness after suppressing it might be responsible for many pedestrian accidents. Certainly, where I live pedestrians commonly step out into the road without looking.

It is not that the amygdala is "emotional" and the prefrontal cortex is "rational". Both parts of the brain are processing sense data, but one is getting it raw and setting off reactions that involve alertness and readiness; while the other is getting it with an overlay of identification and recognition and either signalling to turn up the alertness or to turn it down. And this does not happen in isolation but is part of a complex system by which we respond to the world. The internal physical sensations associated with these systems, combined with our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, about the situation are our emotions. We've made thought and emotion into two separate categories and divided up our responses to the world into one or the other, but in fact, the two are always co-existent.

Just because we have these categories, does not mean they are natural or reflect reality. For example, I have written about the fact that ancient Buddhist texts did not have a category like "emotion". They had loads of words for emotions, but lumped all this together with mental activity (Emotions in Buddhism. 04 November 2011). Similarly, ancient Buddhist texts did not see the mind as a theatre of experience or have any analogue of the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor (27 July 2012). The ways we think about the mind are not categories imposed on us by nature, but the opposite, categories that we have imposed on experience. 

Emotion is almost entirely missing from Mercier and Sperber's book. While I can follow their argument, and find it compelling in many ways, I think their thesis is flawed for leaving emotion out of the account of reason. In what I consider to be one of my key essays, Facts and Feelings, composed in 2012, I drew on work by Antonio Damasio to make a case for how emotions are involved in decision making. Specifically, emotions encode the value of information over and above how accurate we consider it.

We know this because when the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is disrupted, by brain damage, for example, it can disrupt the ability to made decisions. In the famous case of Phineas Gage, his brain was damaged by a railway spike being drive through his cheek and out the top of his head. He lived and recovered, but he began to make poor decisions in social situations. In other cases, recounted by Damasio (and others) people with damage to the  ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex lose the ability to assess alternatives like where to go for dinner, or what day they would like doctor's appointment on. The specifics of this disruption suggests that we weigh up information and make decisions based on how we feel about the information.

Take also the case of Capgras Syndrome. In this case, the patient will recognise a loved one, but not feel the emotional response that normally goes with such recognition. To account for this discrepancy they confabulate accounts in which the loved one has been replaced by a replica, often involving some sort of conspiracy (a theme which has become all too common in speculative fiction). Emotions are what tell us how important things are to us, and indeed in what way they are important. We can feel attracted to or repelled by the stimulus; the warm feeling when we see a loved one, the cold one when we see an enemy. We also have expectations and anticipations based on previous experience (fear, anxiety, excitement and so on).

Mercier and Sperber acknowledge that there is an unconscious inferential process, but never delve into how it might work. But we know from Damasio and others that it involves emotions. Now it seems that this process is entirely, or mostly, unconscious and that when reasons are required, we construct them as explanations to ourselves and others for something that has already occurred.

Sometimes we talk about making unemotional decisions, or associate rationality with the absence of emotion. But we need to be clear on this: without emotions, we cannot make decisions. Rationality is not possible without emotions to tell us how important things are. Where "things" are people, objects, places, etc. 

In their earlier work (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) of 2011, Mercier and Sperber argued that we use reasoning to win arguments. They noted the poor performance on the test of reasoning like the Wason task and added the prevalence of confirmation bias. They argued that this could be best understood in terms of decision-making in small groups (which is after all the natural context for a human being). As an issue comes up, each contributor makes the best case they can, citing all the supporting evidence and arguments. Here confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. However, those listening to the proposals are much better at evaluating arguments and do not fall into confirmation bias. Thus, Mercier and Sperber concluded, humans only employ reasoning to decide issues when there is an argument. 

The new book expands on this idea but takes a much broader view. However, I want to come back and emphasise this point about groups. All too often philosophers are trapped in solipsism. They try to account for the world as though individuals cannot compare notes, as though everything can and should be understood from the point of view of an isolated individual. So existing theories of rationality all assume that a person reasons in isolation. But I'm going to put my foot down here and insist that humans never do anything in isolation. Even hermits have a notional relation to their community - they are defined by their refusal of society. We are social primates. Under natural conditions, we do everything together. Of course, for 12,000 years or so, an increasing number of us have been living in unnatural conditions that have warped our sensibilities, but even so, we need to acknowledge the social nature of humanity. All individual psychology is bunk. There is only social psychology. All solipsistic philosophy is bunk. People only reason in groups. The Wason task shows that on our own we don't reason at all, but rely on unconscious inferences. But these unconscious (dare I say instinctual) processes did not evolve for city slickers. They evolved for hunter-gatherers.

It feels to me like we are a transitional period in which old paradigms of thinking about ourselves, about our minds, are falling away to be replaced by emerging, empirically based paradigms that are still taking shape. What words like "thought", "emotion", "consciousness", and "reasoning" mean is in flux. Which means that we live in interesting times. It's possible that a generation from now, our view of mind, at least amongst intellectuals, is going to be very different. 

~~oOo~~



Bibliography

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) 'Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

See also my essay: Reasoning and Beliefs 10 January 2014





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