03 July 2015

Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong

The origin of the Mahāyāna has been a subject of some fascination over the years. In its mature form Mahāyāna Buddhism could hardly be more different from Mainstream Buddhism and still be thought of as Buddhism. A variety of theories have been proposed for how the Mahāyāna came about. In this article I will précis some recent articles which revise or review of the origins and development of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Note that the articles that this essay is based on are all available on the internet via academic.edu(individual links are included in the bibliography).I highly recommend the two articles by Drewes (2010a, 2010b). They are very accessible and thought provoking. Karashima's articles are long and technical and general readers may find them a bit daunting, but they never-the-less also provide important insights (and post date Drewes by some years and thus also provide a contrast to his work).

The Name Mahāyāna

Like some other Buddhist terms coined in Prakrit, it seems Mahāyāna might have been the victim of a wrong Sanskritisation. We already suspect that sūtra'thread' ought to have been sūkta 'wise saying', both words assimilate tosutta in Pāḷi; while satva† 'being' ought to have been sakta 'committed, intent on', both satta in Pāḷi. Hence bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta 'committed to awakening', and it's possible thatmahāsakta might have signified'one who commitment is great'. Karashima (2015b) provides a comprehensive survey of the word mahāyāna in the various versions of the Lotus Sutra. He argues that the word was probably intended to be the equivalent of the Sanskrit mahājñāna 'great knowledge', but that this was pronounced mahājāna in Prakrit. There was a natural ambiguity with the word mahāyana 'great vehicle'and the Lotus Sutra plays on this to some extent (see Karahima 2015b: 215-217). Later the ambiguity resolved the wrong way and mahāyana became the standard interpretation instead of mahājñāna. So the fact that we talk about a great vehicle and not a great knowledge is a quirk of history.
†Buddhist manuscripts virtually always spell this wordsatva, so that, arguably, the correct form in Buddhist Sanskrit is satva.It has been further over-corrected tosattvaby editors to make it conform with Classical Sanskrit.
Karashima argues that the use of the word was transferred from theLotusto theAṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra(2015a: 115) where the word only occurs in the parts of the text that are considered to have been added towards the end of the composition/compilation process.

Karashima further conjectures, from his own research and work done independently by Peter Skilling (cited 2015a: 117) that the title sūtra or mahāyānasūtrais a later affectation. Such texts are frequently referred to as paripṛccha (question),nirdeśa (description), vyākaraṇa (explanation/analysis), or vyūha (arrangement/manifestation), as well as sūtra. The addition of sūtra is frequently superfluous.

Many texts have the word Mahāyāna in their title. These titles first appear around 400 CE. Karashima (2015a) shows by surveying the Chinese Canon that this was a change that happened over time. He proposes that originally they were known as 'irregular' sūtras signified by Middle Indic *vedulla = Pali vetulla, Gāndhārī *veulla or *vevulla. This corresponds to Sanskrit vaitulya. This word started appearing in Chinese texts about the 2nd century. However because of the ambiguity in the Middle Indic forms and a change in the perception of these texts, by the 5th century the Middle-Indic word began to be interpreted as vaipulya 'extensive, incomparable'. One of the characteristics of the vedulla suttas was that they consisted of a series of questions and answers, characteristic of the paripṛccha texts but also the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Later again these vaipulya texts were renamed Mahāyāna texts.
* The asterisk here stands for a term derived from grammatical rules, but not found in any extant text.

So it seems that history has tricked us once again. As we will see below, the early Mahāyāna texts seem to have been composed in Prakrit and only translated into Sanskrit much later.  Late enough for the translators to no longer have a clear understanding of the intentions of the original authors and to be mislead by the received tradition. We have so many examples of this kind of thing that we must admit that Buddhist lineages of passing on teachings were quite unreliable. Buddhist lineages amount to a game that American kids call "Telephone". The idea that because your teacher tells you they taught you what their teacher taught them, is no reason to believe that you have received reflects an unchanging tradition.

What the Mahāyāna is Not.
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010a: 59)

Early theories

In his two articles Drewes sums up a generation of research into the early Mahāyāna. Mostly it is the story of wrong turns and false assumptions many of which have the origins in the 19th century. For example the idea that Mahāyāna was primarily a lay movement can be traced to an 1865 article by V. P Vasilev. The first actual lay origin for the Mahāyāna was put forward by Jean Przyluski in the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly the idea that the Mahāyāna involved the rejection of the (so-called) arhat ideal was first put forward by T. W. Rhys Davids in 1881. Linking Mahāyāna to the Mahāsāṃghika sect was a popular 19th century idea, being found in the works of Hendrik Kern, L. A. Waddell and T. W. Rhys Davids.

Stories of this kind proliferated and became a kind of standard narrative with some variations. The Mahāyāna was a reaction against the narrow mindedness and formalism of the Hīnayāna. Hīnayāna was portrayed as a religion in terminal decline that had preserved texts they didn't really understand (and the 19th century Sangha didn't do much to dispel this view). Mahāyāna was said to have embraced a universal ideal whereas the Hīnayāna was all about self liberation. Mahāyāna was institutionally distinct from existing forms of Buddhism. And so on. In the 1950s Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa proposed a new theory which was that Mahāyāna was a lay movement focused on stūpa worship. (Drewes 2010a: 55)

I would observe that many of these historical narratives owe a great deal to the historical narratives of the schism in the Christian Church that gave birth to the Protestant movement, especially as perceived by Protestant Western Europeans. Protestants identify with the breakaway sect which brings with it a renewal of values and ideals, and (in their own estimation) a greater authenticity. They identify the Mainstream (in this case Roman Catholicism) as intellectually moribund (whereas the Catholic Church has always been more intellectually lively) and morally bankrupt (which was certainly true at the time of the Luther and various other points in history).

The irony is that the heartland of Protestant Buddhism was and is Theravādin Sri Lanka (the story becomes inverted without anyone quite noticing). But there never was this kind of schism in Buddhism! Or at least there is no evidence for it. Mahāyāna activity started small, operated within existing monasteries, and only very gradually over centuries came to dominate Indian Buddhism. Nor, for that matter did Theravāda dominate Sri Lanka until 10th century reforms purged non-Theravāda Buddhism from Sri Lankan monasteries and standardised forms. Many of the features we take to be characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhism are in fact culture norms from Tibet, China or Japan. They bear no direct relationship to Buddhism in India.

The tide began to turn in the 1970s. Greg Schopen's 1975 article introduced a new theory of Mahāyāna origins that directly challenged Hirakawa. Schopen argued that early Mahāyāna groups rejected stūpa worship in favour of what Schopen called "the cult of the book". Drewes (2007) himself critiques this seminal article at length, but it began an American led re-evaluation of the origins of Mahāyāna.

The decisive moment, however, was Paul Harrison's article "Who Gets to Ride in the Great Vehicle? Self Image and Identity Among the Followers of Early Mahāyāna." (1987). This was based on an examination of the first sūtras to be translated into Chinese. This showed that Mahāyāna was overwhelmingly a monastic movement. The texts show little desire for establishing sectarian identity. Some of them even acknowledge the legitimacy of arhatship. They do not recommend devotion to bodhisattvas. They do show a generally negative attitude towards women. (Drewes 2010a: 55-6). And so the lay origins theory died.

The Breakaway Thesis

The standard story about Mahāyāna was that it began life as a break away sect from Mahāsāṃghika. There are several highly contradictory accounts of the schism at the second council which saw the conservative Sthāviras split from the more progressive Mahāsāṃghikas over matters relating to Pratimokṣa rules. Here I find the only bum note in Drewes analysis. He describes this theory of Mahāsāṃghika origin as having died a quiet death. However Karashima apparently disagrees because he continues to see, for example, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as being connected with Mahāsāṃghika (2013). However, the part about Mahāyāna being a breakaway sect is deprecated both for lack of evidence and for positive evidence of continued coexistence for many centuries between the Mainstream and the so-called Breakaways. In fact what evidence we do have suggests that there was only ever one kind of ordination lineage in Indian (Nikāya), there was no distinct Mahāyāna ordination, and no distinct Mahāyāna institutions. Harrison argued that there was no way to determine any sectarian affiliation of the early Mahāyāna.
† The word nikāya is used in different ways, but here means "a group". The nikāya ordinations are basically the same the Buddhist world over. Theravādins also use the term nikāya to indicate ordination lineages within their school.
Mahāyāna Buddhism appears to have developed slowly. It certainly produced many texts in the early centuries, but little hard evidence. Schopen has noted a single statue of Amitābha, broken off at the ankle, but labelled as such on the pedestal, dating from ca. 153 CE. The oldest epigraphical evidence dates from the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
‡ Epigraphical evidence is from inscriptions typically carved into stone at a Buddhist site. Many record donations of money, often from monks.
Once we strip away all the unsupported conjectures and suppositions about Mahāyāna, little remains. There was no "the Mahāyāna" per se (and I have tried to avoid the definite article in this essay). We know, from epigraphical, textual and eye-witness reports of Chinese pilgrims that Mahāyāna monks lived alongside Mainstream monks in the same monasteries. These monks were mainly concerned with the production and spread of new Buddhists texts, a major preoccupation of the texts themselves. Over many centuries the emphasis of monasteries changed so that Mahāyāna ideas and values predominated, but the ordination lineages remained the same (as they do in Tibet and parts of China to this day). According to Drewes, there were reactions, but these were by the Mainstream against Mahāyāna, or indeed by one branch of Mahāyāna against another. There was no Mahāyāna reaction against the Mainstream. There was a slow evolution over at least 600-800 years.

Karashima, however, points out that in second stratum of the Lotus Sūtra the dharmabhāṇaka (Dharma preacher) proclaiming the Lotus Sutra were "harshly criticised, slandered for having composed the kāvyas (i.e. the Lotus Sutra itself) and for propagating a heresy" and thus "it is evident that their belief was a very dangerous heresy in the eyes of the Buddhist authorities of that time" (2015a: 115). Similarly Schopen argues that Mahāyāna authors were defensive with respect to the Mainstream. Discussing the Ratnāvalī, a text attributed to Nāgārjuna:
"Even in the hands of one of its most clever advocates it does not appear as an independent, self-confident movement sweeping all before it as... But rather—and as late as the second or third century—it appears as an embattled movement struggling for acceptance." (Schopen 2005: 7)
And also:
"Sociologists, however, who have studied sectarian groups in a variety of contexts have shown that [the sort of characterization found in the Ratnāvalī] is typical of small, embattled groups on the fringes or margins of dominant, established parent groups." (Schopen 2005: 9)
This suggests that Drewes is playing down the antagonism between Mahāyāna and the Mainstream. It seems clear that Mahāyāna believers did co-exist with Mainstream Buddhists, but they did not necessarily co-exist without tensions and conflicts.

The Role of Texts

It seems that in trying to understand Mahāyāna we have placed too much emphasis on the proliferation of texts. Too many assumptions were made about the conditions under which a religious group might produce and transmit new texts. Here again we can point to the influence of Protestantism. To our Euro-centric minds, the production of new texts must be preceded by schism and must represent irreconcilable differences. But this assumption does not apply in India generally. The history of Indian religions is very different from the history of Christianity in Europe, especially as seen through Protestant eyes. Buddhist India was far more pluralistic that Christian India; more tolerant of heterodoxy, though polemics do survive; and more likely to syncretise. 

For some time it seemed that Schopen was right to say that "each text placed itself at the centre of its own cult" (cited in Drewes 2010a: 59). However Drewes calls this into question. Firstly there was no evidence of distinct Mahāyāna communities. Mahāyāna existed within the Mainstream institutional framework. Some have pointed to the divergent doctrinal views of Mahāyāna texts as evidence requiring distinct cults, but Drewes counters that accepting the authenticity of texts with divergent points of views is not a problem today and there is no evidence that it ever was. Drewes suggests that the different sūtras probably reflect the ideas of different authors rather than distinct communities.

So, Mahāyāna was primarily a literary movement, operating within and alongside mainstream Buddhism. It was unlikely to have been a unified movement.

We now have good evidence in the form of the old Aṣṭasāhasrikā manuscript described by Karashima and Falk that the first Prajñāpāramitā texts were composed and/or compiled in Gandhāra in the local language, Gāndhārī (see Karashima 2013).
    It is fairly certain however that writing was in use before the development of Mahāyāna. Drewes notes one Mainstream text with a 2σ range 184-46BCEand another with 2σ range 206BCE- 59CE(2010a: 60). The mid points of these ranges are 110 BCE and 146 BCE respectively. But on the whole it seems that Mahāyāna textual practices were not different from Mainstream practices and Drewes notes that the distinction between categories like "oral" and "written" is not hard and fast in India. Even written texts are memorised and studied orally.

    As Drewes points out, contra to a popular theory, there is no evidence that Mahāyāna Sūtras were initially composed in written form (2010a: 60). Karashima (2015a: 113) reinforces the point that the texts were most likely composed orally in Prakrit. He proposes a rough time line:
    1. Oral transmission in Prakrit. 1st Century BCE.
    2. Oral transmission in Prakrit. Written Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script. 1st~3rd centuries CE.
    3. Broken Sanskrit mixed with Prakrit. 2nd~3rd centuries CE.
    4. (Buddhist) Sanskrit. Written in Brāhmī script. 3rd/4th centuries onwards.
    Drewes places the translation into Sanskrit about a century later than Karashima, i.e. 4th/5thcentury.

    To sound a contrary note I have to point out that propagating a literature is generally a community activity. Written texts require a medium, ink, and implements, all of which suggest an economy in which such things were either produced or could be bought. For oral texts to survive for any length of time they must be memorised by more than one person at a time. But such communities could have existed as cliques within monasteries.

    Forest Dwelling Bodhisatvas

    Paul Harrison (1992) and Reginald Ray(1994) independently floated the idea that forest dwelling ascetics were a significant influence on the development of Buddhism generally and Mahāyāna specifically. The idea seems to have caught on and many scholars have found textual support for this thesis, not least Jan Nattier in her 1993 bookA Few Good Men. Indeed if the heart of the Mahāyāna was in forest renunciants then this would explain the lack of inscriptional evidence (though for the same reason it is inconsistent with written texts).

    The forest renunciate is a Romantic figure, or at least a focus for Romantic projections, both for their mode of life and for the location of it in wild nature. They are saintly, dedicated to religious practices, especially self-denial, and is associated in many cultures with sacredness. Research has shown that such personal sacrifices are important in encouraging the faith of ordinary people (see Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Thus the forest renunciate appeals to the Romantic aspect of modernist world view and self view.

    However as Drewes remarks "The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010a 61). Of course the texts do mention forest dwelling, but it is hardly the sine qua non of Buddhist practice in most early Mahāyāna texts. Some texts, e.g. the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, even discourage it! The majority of Mahāyāna texts seem to be concerned with easy practices that enable one to get out of saṃsāra with the minimum of effort.

    Ray turns out to have used a very narrow selection of texts to justify his thesis (and those only in translation). He excludes the large majority of the texts that have been translated, let alone of those which are preserved in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. But what is worse is that the texts he does cite frequently undermine his thesis on closer examination. For example he cites the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā as advocating forest dwelling, when in fact it explicitly discourages it! (Drewes 2010a: 62). Jan Nattier's forest dwelling thesis is also, I hate to say, built on shaky ground. It is based on one text, the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, that is admittedly very early, but "advocates forest dwelling and monasticism inconsistently" (Drewes 2010a: 62). Her other contribution focusses on Akṣobhya's pure land, but here also she seems to overlook the ease with which practitioners are promised entry to Abhirati. "Nattier's general idea that earlier forms of Mahāyāna advocated difficult, jātaka-like practices and that easy means of practice were developed only later has no obvious evidentiary support" (Drewes 2010a: 62).

    Clearly forest dwelling played a continuing part in Buddhism. It is evidently an important practice for Mainstream Buddhists, but Mahāyāna texts are equivocal about the benefits. They seem to prefer other kinds of practice; often much easier practices.

    The Bodhisatva Ideal.

    The earlier models of Mahāyāna Buddhism had a break-away group who rejected the arhat ideal in favour of the new bodhisatva ideal. We've seen that the break-away thesis is wrong, that the arhat ideal was not rejected in all early Mahāyāna texts. And in fact there is no strong evidence that the bodhisatva ideal was particularly influential in Mahāyāna. We also know that the bodhisatva ideal was not missing from the early Buddhist texts. But a number of other characteristics distinguish Mahāyāna texts from Mainstream texts:
    • expanded cosmologies and mythical histories
    • pure lands
    • 'celestial' Buddhas and bodhisatvas
    • descriptions of powerful new religious practices
    • new ideas on the nature of the Buddha
    • a range of new philosophical perspectives.
    There's nothing in the actual texts to suggest that the bodhisatva ideal was either the cause of the others, or that it was more prominent than the other characteristics (Drewes 2010b: 66-67). So it seems the focus on the bodhisatva idea is a retrospective emphasis, and the insistence that it was not found in Mainstream Buddhism is a straw man argument, a mistake or a disingenuous piece of misinformation.


    A generation of scholarship has transformed our understanding of the origins and early development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, that scholarly understanding has yet to fully permeate the Buddhist community. Certainly when I got involved in Buddhism in the early 1990s the standard narrative was still basically the 19th century one. I believe that it survives largely intact. Part of the reason might be that it strikes at Buddhist self-views and identity building narratives. My understanding of religious belief is that these are the beliefs that are most resistant to counterfactual arguments. Judging by how reluctantly Buddhists have received the knowledge that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal Chinese text, I suspect that it will be some time before Buddhists catch up with the academy on this, if they ever do.

    A significant drawback in Drewes' articles is that they only relate the etic view, i.e. the views of European and American scholars. They tell us little or nothing of the emic, i.e. of what Buddhists themselves thought about Mahāyāna. I think it likely that etic views were formed in part by the normative stories told by Buddhists themselves. The views held by Western scholars were almost certainly informed by existing Buddhist narratives. It would be useful to know more about the process of view forming amongst these early scholars and the extent to which they were simply repeating what Buddhists themselves believed about their own history.

    It is quite significant if the Buddhist normative stories are at odds with the actual history that we can derive from textual and archaeological studies. My sense is that many of the false stories about the origins of the Mahāyāna are promoted by the sectarian followers of Mahāyāna in order to bolster their own prestige. Buddhists often seem to see themselves as being in a competition to present (and represent) the most "authentic" or most "authoritative" version of Buddhism. Or else they are justifying their own heterodoxy. Many of theses historical narrative are dismissive of Mainstream Buddhism, which in light of the actual history now seems bizarre. And the competitive side of Buddhists is still evident in the present.

    This new historical paradigm may well shed new light on old debates about the sectarian affiliations of the some more prominent Mahāyāna śāstra writers, like Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu. The idea that these writers could have a foot in both camps no longer seems odd. Assigning them to either Mainstream or Mahāyāna might be to misunderstand where their loyalties lay. It is only our perception of sectarian divides that make us struggle to place a figure Nāgārjuna who both cites āgama texts and uses Mahāyāna ideas like śūnyatā. As monk Nāgārjuna can only have been ordained in a Mainstream lineage, because that was the only kind of Buddhist ordination. Perhaps it was entirely natural at the time to have loyalty to a conservative ordination lineage and an innovative textual tradition at the same time.

    Drewes argues against the use of the term Mainstream Buddhism largely because different scholars have used it in widely varying ways. He suggests non-Mahāyāna, but I disagree. It would be better to have a positive term for what was, after all, the mainstream of Buddhism for a millennium, and to seek a consensus on how it is used. Defining the mainstream in terms of not being part of a minority movement seems perverse. In light of this new picture that has emerged, "Mainstream" seems the best candidate yet as a term to contrast the Mahāyāna tendency in Buddhism over a period of many centuries.

    I've noted a few points of discussion and disagreement. These ought not to distract from overview provided by Drewes. Overall these articles are an important contribution to our understanding of the history of Buddhism. The articles benefit from being well written and organised. Although many scholars contributed to the change in worldview, to see all that work expertly summarised is quite an experience. It brings with it that frisson that the true intellectual feels when they experience a paradigm shift. One's worldview does not simply adjust to the new knowledge, but the new knowledge restructures the world view. The case Drewes makes seems to sit on firm foundations and to completely supersede the legacy view of Mahāyāna. Personally I love it when this happens. Everything we thought we knew was wrong. Fantastic!



    Drewes, David.

    Seishi KARASHIMA

    Schopen, Gregory. (2005) Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India. University of Hawai'i Press. http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/books/schopen-figments-chap1.pdf

    See also Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of Mahāyāna.
    Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013. [Reviewed by Dhīvan in the Western Buddhist Review. And seems to make many of the same points from a mostly Theravāda point of view.]

    26 June 2015

    Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

    One of my long time fascinations is with the Pali Kaccānagotta Sutta or Sanskrit Kātyāyana Sūtra. It survives in three versions: Pāḷi, Chinese, and Sanskrit. It is fairly well known that Nāgārjuna quotes a Sanskrit version of this text in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7). It's less well known that a number of Mahāyāna Sūtras appear to quote this sūtra as well. Long term I would like to do a complete survey of how this text was used in Buddhism over time, but we can say that it forms an important link between Mahāyāna and Mainstream forms of Buddhism. Some very useful reading on this subject can be found in Salvini (2011). There is also some discussion focussed on MMK in Kalupahana (1986).

    In this essay I'll translate and discuss a passage from the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and argue that it recapitulates the argument about dharmas from the Kātyāyana. The implication here is that Kātyāyana provides a conceptual continuity link between trends of Buddhism. It represents a truth about experience that is widely acknowledged by different Buddhist schools of thought.

    In my next blog essay I'll be exploring some important ideas about the history of the early Mahāyāna. One thing that has emerged recently is that Mahāyāna texts were almost certainly composed orally and in Prakrit. In the case of the Aṣṭa we have physical evidence in the form of a birch bark manuscript, written in the Gāndhārī Prakrit in Kharoṣṭhī script and carbon dated to the first century CE (the mid-point for the probability curve is 79 CE). So the Sanskrit text is a translation. Aṣṭa might have been translated into Sanskrit as late as the 5th century CE. This undermines the claim of the Sanskrit version of Aṣṭa (or any Mahāyāna text) to be "the original". In some ways the early translations into Chinese might better represent the original text, though this is debatable. 

    The passage that I want to explore is Chapter 1, section 19; Vaidya (1960). In Conze's translation (1973) this passage occurs on p.87-88. My translation is:
    When that was said, the Bhagavan said this to Elder Śāriputra, "thus training, Śāriputra, the bodhisattva mahāsattva does not train in any dharma. What is the reason for it? For the dharmas do not exist in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi polloi take them to exist."  
    Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist, Bhagavan?"  
    The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though they don't exist. Not-being found in that sense they are said to be unfound (avidye). The foolish, ignorant hoi polloi are engrossed in them. All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing. Having imagined them, they are obsessed by the two extremes. They don’t know or see those dharmas. Therefore all dharmas they imagine are non-existing. Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas] the are engrossed in the two extremes; engrossed they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them they become engrossed in name and form. Non-existing all-dharmas are imagined by them. Imagining those non-existing all-dharmas, they do not know and do not see the path as it really is. Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is they don’t depart from the triple realm and do not awaken to the highest truth. They go by the name “fools”. They do not develop faith in the true dharma. The bodhisattva mahāsattva does not become engrossed in any dharma, Śāriputra."
    Typically Conze manages to make this section paradoxical. He has dharmas both existing and not existing at the same time, which does not make sense on any terms. For Conze such non-sense is a way of pointing to a transcendent, ineffable truth that words are incapable of communicating. Supposedly, the contradiction temporarily confuses the rational mind (as conceived) and allows the intuitive mind (as conceived) to make an intuitive leap to the transcendent truth. There are many false assumptions here about the nature of reason and imagination. 
    † See for example: Reasoning and Beliefs. (10 Jan 2014)
    The important point of the Kātyāyana is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) are not terms that can be applied to dharmas qua mental objects. The typical Mahāyāna explanation, following the Two Truths doctrine is that dharmas both exist and do not exist. Kātyāyana makes sense, the Two Truths explanation does not. I believe that in this passage from Aṣṭa, the Kātyāyana argument about dharmas is being recapitulated in much the same terms, and with the same warning about what happens if we do get caught up in the dichotomy. In other words that this is in fact a tacit reference to Kātyāyana.

    Perhaps it is worth rehearsing why the denial of existence and non-existence is accurate and not at all paradoxical. My starting point, as always, is to take the subject under discussion to be experience. Being naive realists, or what the text calls "foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi" (bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto), we have an experience and we imagine ourselves to be contact with something real, be it internal or external with respect to our first-person perspective. Ignoring what the experience implies about the world of sense experience, ignoring matters of ontology, the focus of the Kātyāyana is on the experience itself. Is the experience of an object an existing thing or a non-existing thing, irrespective of the nature of the object? Clearly the answer is that it is neither. An experience cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence. It arises, lingers for a short time, and then passes away. But the experience itself is entirely internal to us. Two people may see the same object and agree on it's characteristics. But their experience of it is individual and cannot be agreed on. And thus Conze, in affirming both existence and non-existence, has come to precisely the opposite conclusion because he seeks a transcendent truth behind the words; a noumenon of the text. Conze's Romanticism has a Platonic flavour to it.

    The answer that an experience is neither existent nor non-existent is important because it is the understanding the nature of experience that has soteriological value. We say that "things" are arising and passing away, but the Buddhist texts seem to refer mainly (if not solely) to the arising and passing away of experiences. In the Kātyāyana it says that only dukkha arises and only dukkha cease. The same point is made in the Simile of the Chariot. Dukkha here is a synonym for unenlightened experience. This search for understanding is deprecated by Conze, by modern Zen commentators, and many Tibetan lamas, because they too believe in a transcendent truth that requires the suspension of reason (as they conceive reason). In the Spiral Path texts the experience of liberation (vimutti) is initiated by becoming fed up  (nibiddā) with the objects of the senses, i.e. with the intoxicating play of experience. Suspension of reason is not a prerequisite for awakening in these texts.

    Central to Buddhist soteriology is the fact that our sense of self, our first person perspective, is also an experience and partakes in the nature of all experiences. Streams of sensory information converge and are woven together to create the persistent illusion of being a self. Though of course we know that the illusion of the first-person perspective can be broken by drugs, trauma, brain injury, and of course by meditation. In this view, insights consist of seeing experience, particularly the first person experience, in such a light that it ceases to intoxicate and fascinate. The word for 'insight', vipassana, literally means to 'see through', not as our translation suggests, 'to see into'. 

    In our naivete about experience we imagine each experience signifies something real and we respond to it as though it were real. But in addition to this we are burdened with ideas about what constitutes happiness as the goal of our lives. The unenlightened, the bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto, believe, deep down inside, that happiness is about having pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant experiences. Maximising the former and minimising the latter seems to be the operational definition of happiness. If we can only arrange things so that we have the optimum amount of both then we will be happy and free of unhappiness. For most of us this means living in a unsatisfactory compromise and a lot of self-delusion about how happy we really are. Our pleasures do not satisfy. Our pains are all too many and not the least of them is mortality!

    The line of thought in the Kātyāyana is often mixed up with attempts to apply dependent arising to all kinds of other processes, particularly karma and rebirth. And I have showed how this leads to inconsistencies and incoherent statements about the nature of the world across a number of essays (see the Afterlife tab for a list). Many Buddhists end up believing that the impermanence of "things" (e.g. tables, chariots, or other physical objects) is the key teaching of Buddhism, when it's just a truism that everyone is already aware of (See Everything changes, but so what?). The Kātyāyana is one of the texts where the intent of the idea, by which I mean the application to experience and only experience, is apparent. And it was this intent that was, I argue, taken up by the Aṣṭa and by Nāgārjuna some centuries later. Although there are many loud voices arguing about what Nāgārjuna meant to say in his very confusing opus, with most of them seeing Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā as having deep ontological implications. I say that in citing the Kātyāyana in the way that he does, we might understand his ideas better if we take the domain of application to be experience and forget about ontology. Nāgārjuna makes better, if not perfect, sense if we take him to be someone commenting on the phenomenology of experience rather than speculating about metaphysics. 

    In the Aṣṭa version of the idea, the author has chosen to use the words that are tricky to translate while retaining the connotations of the original. So in a key passage (Aṣṭa 1.19.4) the Buddha says to Śāriputra:
    na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | 
    "For the dharmas do not exist (na saṃvidyante) in the way that the foolish, ignorant hoi-polloi take them to exist (abhiniviṣṭāḥ)." 
    Elder Śāriputra said, "How then do they exist (saṃvidyante), Bhagavan?" 
    The Bhagavan said, "They exist as though (yathā) they don't exist. Not-being found (avidyamāna) in that sense (evaṃ), they are said to be unfound (avidyā)." 
    The last statement in the Sanskrit text is:
    yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evam avidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti |
    Conze translates "As they do not exist, so they exist. And so, since they do not exist [avidyamāna], they are called [the result of] ignorance [avidyā]", employing his usual hermeneutic of obscurity. He also translates avidyamāna as "do not exist", but avidye as "ignorance", but by his own logic the latter ought to mean 'not existing'.

    Saṃvidyante is a passive form from sam√vid. Conze translates as ‘exists’. BHSD defines it as "is found, exists’ (=vidyate ‘is found; often virtually = asti)." PED saṃvijjati2 ‘to be found, to exist’. MW ‘know, recognise; perceive; approve’. It's tricky because there are two homonyms √vid meaning 'to know' (cognate with our word 'wisdom') and √vid meaning 'to find'. The two are indistinguishable except by context. The same goes for vidyamāna, a present participle 'knowing, finding' (here negated by the prefix a-). The other word here is abhiniviṣṭāḥ (abhi+ni√viṣ) which has a range of meanings 'entered or plunged into; intent on, endowed with; determined, persevering). Conze (1973a) suggests "settled down in, is accustomed to suppose."

    So Conze is treating almost all the verb forms as meaning "exists". And we ought to point out that if a Sanskrit author wished to assert the existence of something they can do so very directly with the verb asti or some variation on √vṛt. So we need to be alert here to connotations. I think that √vid as found is relevant here. So say that if we go looking for a dharma is it not found, is not the same as saying it means it does not exist. We certainly have experiences, and so to that extent they do sort of exist. But when we say they "exist" we mean only that we have an experience, not that some kind of really existent entity has arisen and persists. Clearly the author of the Aṣṭa has some very like the Kātyāyana teaching in mind. And the consequences is similar in the sense that it leads to two extremes of thought: that dharmas either exist or do not exist and all the problems that this causes. And note that the Two Truth argument adopts both extremes rather than avoiding either of them. Compare Aṣta 1.19.7:
    kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | 
    Having imagined [the non-existing dharmas] they are engrossed (abhiviviśante) in the two extremes (dvāv antāv); being engrossed (abhiniviśya) they rely on the observed object as a basis and imagine dharmas in the past, in the future, and in the present moment. Having imagined them they become engrossed in name and form. 
    Note the recurrence of abhini√viṣ here, translated as 'engrossed' this time (and as "settled down" by Conze). Taking dharmas to be real, settling into a view, we make mistakes about the nature of experience and by implication suppose that sense experience can be ultimately satisfying. And this is categorically a mistake. 

    It has been argued that the Aṣṭa contains no direct reference to the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of sarva-asti (always existent), but Aṣṭa 1.19.7 might be just such a reference. Here the deluded people imagine (kalpayanti) that dharmas exist in the past, future and present. This is precisely what Sarvāstivādins believe. If we recall the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance this 'always on' feature of dharmas was the Vaibāṣika solution to the disconnect between action and result in time that the the doctrine of karma requires. It earned the Vaibāṣikas the nick-name Sarvāstivāda. However after examining two of the early translations T224 《道行般若經》by Lokakṣema (179 CE) and T227 《小品般若經》by Kumārajīva (408 CE) both make the point about the two extremes, but neither of them have this passage about past, future and present. So we must conclude that it was interpolated into the Sanskrit text at a later date. So if criticism of Sarvāstivāda was intended, it was not part of the original intention. Kumārajīva's translation of the dvāv antāv 'two extremes' is prosaically 二邊 'two extremes', whereas Lokakṣema has the more interesting 兩癡耳 literally 'two insane ears'.

    Taking the text on face value, the criticism of the two extremes (existence and non-existence) is tilted towards criticising existence. Presumably precisely because the existence view was prevalent at the time. If this interpretation is correct then it may help explain the idiom in the next sentence (1.19.8)
    tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ |
    All dharmas imagined by them are non-existing.
    Kalpita is a past participle from √kḷp. The literal meaning is 'made, fabricated'. I'm presuming here that the fabrication is a mental one. There's not really a word for "imagination" in Sanskrit (one of many differences in how they understand mind). Again the idea here seems to be that one has an experience and in the way of naive realism mistakes it for something more substantial than it is. And when we treat experiences this way it obscures the Buddhist path or as Aṣṭa puts it yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti 'Not knowing or seeing the path as it really is...'

    Interestingly in 1.19.12 the wrong view is seen as an impediment to the development of faith in the truth of the dharma (satyaṃ dharmaṃ). This suggests that the mistake is foundational and must be sorted out right at the beginning of the religious life. My sense is that most modern Buddhism is already lost in speculation about ontology and supernatural forces. As Justin Whitaker recently pointed out to me ,most Buddhists and scholars still invoke some variation of "seeing reality as it is" when describing Buddhist soteriology. But reality implies existence. Whatever we see as it is (yathābhūta), it cannot be described in terms of existence or non-existence and therefore is neither real nor unreal. Reality can have nothing to do with Buddhist soteriology by definition. To be real whatever it is would have to be permanently existing and I don't think I need to explain why that is a problem.

    I hope I have showed that at the very least the author of Aṣṭa had Kātyāyana in mind as they were writing this section. I think this shows that at least at the beginning of producing the Prajñāpāramitā texts the authors saw the domain of application of the Dharma as experience. They were not caught up in the metaphysical speculations of the Ābhidharmikas. They were however caught up in their own metaphysical speculations about the nature of the Buddha, though that is a story for another time. The importance of this discovery is that it helps us to understand the apparently paradoxical texts of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. In flirting with paradox they were trying to describe an attitude towards experience that had a liberating effect. They did not set out to confuse the reader, but to draw attention to our suppositions about experience and reality. The former we can know and understand, the latter we can only make inferences about, based on the commonality of experience with reference to the same object.

    A first step in reforming modern Buddhism would be to establish the domain of application of our theory and practice, and in such a way as our theory and practice were complimentary. Despite all the bitching from Buddhists about the Mindfulness Therapy movement I think they have a much better handle on this focus and integration of theory and practice. Better to be working with experience in a shallow way than to have a deep engagement with the kind of ontological speculation that typifies contemporary Buddhists discourse, because the latter is not beneficial in any way while the latter at least is mildly beneficial and creates a basis for progress.



    Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
    Conze, Edward (1973a) Materials for a Dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Suzuki Research Foundation.
    Drewes, David (2009). Early Indian Mah ay ana Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.Religion Compass 4/2 (2010): 55–65, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x. https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship
    Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.
    Salvini, Mattia. (2011) The Nidānasamyukta and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: understanding the Middle Way through comparison and exegesis. Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies.II: 57-95. https://www.academia.edu/1925584/The_NidÄnasamyukta_and_the_M_lamadhyamakakÄrikÄ_understanding_the_Middle_Way_through_comparison_and_exegesis
    Vaidya, P.L. (1960) Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 4). http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/bsu049_u.htm

    Sanskrit text 

    Aṣṭa 1.19. (Vaidya 1960)
    evamukte āyuṣmān śāriputro bhagavantam etad avocat – evaṃ śikṣamāṇo bhagavan bodhisattvo mahāsattvaḥ katamasmin dharme śikṣate? evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat evaṃ śikṣamāṇaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvo mahāsattvo na kasmiṃś cid dharme śikṣate | tatkasya hetoḥ? na hi te śāriputra dharmāstathā saṃvidyante  yathā bāla-pṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | āyuṣmān śāriputra āha - kathaṃ tarhi te bhagavan saṃvidyante? bhagavān āha - yathā śāriputra na saṃvidyante, tathā saṃvidyante evamavidyamānāḥ | tenocyante avidyeti | tān bālapṛthagjanā aśrutavanto 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tair asaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ  | te tān kalpayitvā dvayor antayoḥ saktāḥ tān dharmān na jānanti na paśyanti | tasmāt te 'saṃvidyamānān sarva-dharmān kalpayanti | kalpayitvā dvāv antāv abhiniviśante abhiniviśya tan nidānam-upalambhaṃ niśritya atītān dharmān kalpayanti, anāgatān dharmān kalpayanti, pratyutpannān dharmān kalpayanti te kalpayitvā nāmarūpe 'bhiniviṣṭāḥ | tairasaṃvidyamānāḥ sarvadharmāḥ kalpitāḥ | te tān asaṃvidyamānān sarvadharmān kalpayanto yathābhūtaṃ mārgaṃ na jānanti na paśyanti | yathābhūtaṃ mārgam ajānanto 'paśyanto na niryānti traidhātukāt, na budhyante bhūtakoṭim | tena te bālā iti saṃjñāṃ gacchanti | te satyaṃ dharmaṃ na śraddhadhati | na khalu punaḥ śāriputra bodhisattvā mahāsattvā kaṃcid dharmam abhiniviśante ||

    PS. If any one has a pdf of Conze's Sanskrit edition of Aṣṭa I'd love to get a copy.
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