28 December 2007

The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ

In my last essay on this all important mantra I summarised the findings of Alexander Studholme on the origins of the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra, and some interesting facets of the identity of Avalokiteśvara in the Karandavyuha Sutra.

One of the main questions that Westerners ask when they come across something like a mantra is "what does it mean?" Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangrila, outlines the progress of the Western understanding of the meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūm over the centuries. One feature of the Western commentaries on the mantra is that the Westerners are convinced that the Tibetans do not know the meaning of the mantra. This is an example of what Edward Said called "Orientalism" - an attitude of disdain towards Asians who did not conform to European norms, and assessments of Asian culture from those norms. Eurocentrism certainly comes across as arrogant and over-bearing in relation to oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ.

The first European interpretation of the mantra dates from 13th century when William of Rubruck reported that the Tibetans chanted "om mani baccam" which is "God, thou knowest". Over the years such basic mis-hearings, and mis-interpretations were the rule. Interpretations such as "Lord forgive my sins", "O god Manipe, save us" followed. In the 18th century the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri who actually learned Tibetan published his interpretation of the mantra as "O thou who holdest a jewel in Thy right hand, and art seated on the flower Pêmà", which may just capture one of the senses of manipadme . However with the coming of scientific philology, in part inspired by the discovery of the Sanskrit Grammarians, a new interpretation emerged. In 1831 Heinrich Julius von Klaproth explained that padmè was padma in the locative case (i.e. in the lotus) and that the mantra means: Oh! The jewel is in the lotus, Amen. From this time on some variation on "The Jewel in the Lotus" became the standard meaning of the mantra. [1] Of course o and hūṃ are always difficult since they are not words in the way that maṇi and padma are, and so they are treated differently, but maṇi and padma become standardised in English language works as two words with padme in the locative case.

The apotheosis of this, orientalist, interpretation is perhaps represented by Lama Govinda's book "The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism", in which the mantra is explicated over the course of 300 pages. Lopez notes that despite its title it is "based on no Tibetan text", but draws on "the Upanishads, Swami Vivekananda, Arthur Avalon, Alexandra David-Neel, and especially the tetralogy of Evans Wentz". "Lama Anagarika Govinda" always brings to mind Harold Bloom's quip about Freudian Literacy Criticism being like the Holy Roman Empire - not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Perhaps it would equally apply to "Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism". Even Robert Thurman a scholar/practitioner in the Gelug tradition adopts "The Jewel in the Lotus" as the explanation of the mantra in his book Essential Tibetan Buddhism. As Lopez notes, no Tibetan text is ever cited to justify this reading.

As early as the 1950's David Snellgrove pointed out that maṇipadme is not two words but a single compound. Maṇi is uninflected, and maṇipadme is not the locative, but a vocative of the feminine form maṇipadmā. The compound is according to Sten Konow (quoted by Lopez) a bahuvrīhi compound which means "O Jewel-lotus" Alexander Studholm critiques this gloss, and by referring to a number of similar expression in Mahāyāna literature concludes:
"The expression should be parsed as a tatpurusa, or "determinative," compound in the (masculine or neuter) locative case, meaning "in the jewel-lotus," referring to the manner in which buddhas and bodhisattvas are said to be seated in these marvellous blooms and, in particular, to the manner in which more mundane beings are believed to appear in the pure land of the buddhas". [2]
This I think sorts out the grammatical issues, although without reference to traditional Tibetan exegesis. Ironically, given the effort that has gone into answering it, Western scholars and Buddhists may have been asking the wrong question. Faced with a mantra the tradition doesn't ask "what does it mean?" it asks "what does it do?". The mantra in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra is said to result in rebirth in one of the hair pores on Avalokiteśvara's body. This alternate destination to the usual pure land, is probably influenced by Puranic traditions, but has the same advantages as a pure land. The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra likens chanting the mantra to a pre-existing tradition of calling to mind of the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva (nāmanusmṛti). That is to say that the mantra is an invocation of the deity, and offers similar protection to that offered in the Saddharmapuṇḍarika, to the one who calls out the name of Avalokiteśvara.

A much more important approach to "meaning" in esoteric traditions is to take the individual syllables one at a time and establish connections with other sets of six such as the six realms. Avalokiteśvara appears in each of the realms to save the beings there from the particular kinds of suffering that afflict beings in them. When they do address the semantic meaning of maṇipadme, it seems that Tibetan texts read it as jewel-lotus. This fact may have been of very little importance in Tibet however, as the mantra is a invocation of Avalokiteśvara, and what else does one need to know?

However this is not to say that the "jewel in the lotus" interpretation is wrong. It is a powerful image, completely consonant with Buddhist principles, and has inspired many people over the years. It may be a case for Sangharakshita's expressed preference for bad philology with good doctrine being preferable to good philology and bad doctrine. It is bad philology, but since the function of the mantra is more important than it's "meaning" the semantics are actually of only minor interest.

Another way of understanding what the mantra does, and which may help us to understand how the chanting of sounds, the semantic content of which may be completely obscure for the person chanting them comes from Ariel Glucklick's phenomenological study of Tantric magic. Magic, he says:
"is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception… [magical actions, such as mantra chanting] constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness where that experience has been broken" [3]
The idea here is not that the mantra affects anything in the outside world - the distinction of inside/outside has no ultimate meaning in Buddhist epistemology in any case - it addresses the sense of relatedness. In the case of illness this awareness is itself healing. In the case of the incessantly chanted mantra is maintains the empathetic link with all beings, and no doubt produces a sense of wholeness and well-being. There is nothing overtly mystical in this explanation as Glucklich adds. "It is a natural phenomenon, the product of our evolution as a human species and an acquired ability for adapting to various ecological and social environments".[4] This is no to deny benefits which go beyond the understanding of science and scholarship. But here at least is an explanation which allows the materialistic Western the leeway they might need to unselfconsciously engage in mantra chanting without worrying about metaphysics. Mantra works on any number of levels, some of which are undoubtedly comprehensible to the modern Western intellect.

Notes.
  1. Lopez, D. S. (jr.) 1988. Prisoners of Shangri-la : Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago University Press. p.114ff.
  2. Studholme, Alexander. 2002. The origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūm : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany : State university of New York Press. p.116
  3. Glucklich, Ariel. 1997. The End of Magic. New York : Oxford University Press. p.12
  4. Ibid., p.12.

For the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra in a variety of scripts see the Avalokiteśvara Mantra on visiblemantra.org.

image from: He's the Wiz!

22 December 2007

The origins of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ

mani stone visiblemantra.org

The earliest text which contains the most famous of all mantras is the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. The title means "the casket containing the magnificent array", with the implication that it is the magnificent array of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva associated with the mantra.

Alexander Studholme has challenged the view that the Kāraṇḍavyūha is a very late and corrupt Mahāyāna text, and established that the Kāraṇḍavyūha is likely to have been written in Kashmir in the late 4th or early 5th century. This is by no means early in the development of the Mahāyāna and post dates the emergence the main themes such as Madhyamika and Yogacara, but not so late as previously thought.

The Kāraṇḍavyūha shows definite Puranic influences especially from the Skanda Purāṇa of the Śaiva tradition. The Kāraṇḍavyūha for instance re-presents material from the Śaiva version of the story of the Vāmana-avatāra of Viṣṇu. Vāmana is a dwarf who asks a king for land. The king grants as much land as he can pace out in three paces. Vāmana transforms himself into a giant and covers the whole earth in one pace, and all of heaven in the second! In the Skanda Purāṇa this is presented as a morality play to encourage generosity, and so it is in the Kāraṇḍavyūha. Also in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Avalokiteśvara appears as a bee in imitation of story about Śiva. Studholme says: "The sūtra clearly reflects a close interaction with a non-Buddhist religious milieu that is predominantly Śaivite, but one which is also respectful of the Vaiṣṇavite tradition." [1] His conclusion is that while the evidence of direct borrowing is limited and relatively weak, the evidence for influence and interaction is indisputable.

In the Kāraṇḍavyūha Avalokiteśvara is portrayed as Iśvara or Lord, and this is a title particularly associated with Śiva. Avalokiteśvara is also addressed as Maheśvara - Great Lord - three times. Several times Avalokiteśvara is described as the cosmic puruṣa which is a reference to the Puruṣa Sukta from the (Ṛgveda X.90). In a related text Avalokiteśvara is described as Nīlakaṇ(ha - blue throated - another of Śiva's epithets. Although Avalokiteśvara appeared well before the Kāraṇḍavyūha, for instance in the 24th chapter of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika Sūtra which may date back to the 1st century BCE, in the Kāraṇḍavyūha he seems to be consciously being given the attributes and names of Śiva. Avalokiteśvara's thousand armed form has Vedic and Puranic precedents despite the fact that no images of this form have been found on Indian soil - although Chinese images existing as early as the 7th century.


This ambiguity is heightened by Studholme's presentation of information about the very name Avalokiteśvara. The much later verse version of the Kāraṇḍavyūha may be the source of the explanation of Avalokiteśvara as "the lord (iśvara) who looks down (avalokita)" which has become the standard way of glossing it. However Studholme notes that before the 7th century the name seems to have been different. In fact the standard Chinese rendering Kwan Yin (觀音) is not a translation of Avalokiteśvara, but of Avalokitasvara which we would translate as he who is aware (avalokita) of sounds (svara). Avalokiteśvara in Chinese would be Kwan tzu-tsai (觀自在). The fact Kwan Yin has been retained as the popular name of Avalokiteśvara in China suggests it was well established before the change. This usage is confirmed by 5th century fragments of the Saddharmapuṇḍarika, and is used in various Chinese translations and dictionaries. [2]

How did Avalokiteśvara take over Śiva's name and qualities? It is indicated symbolically in the sūtra itself where the two figures meet and Avalokiteśvara congenially converts Śiva to Buddhism. Later, in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha Tantra this story becomes a violent confrontation where Vajrapaṇī and Śiva have a battle of magic (through mantras) and Śiva is first killed, and then revivified before converting to Buddhism. We can read this as an admission that yes, the sūtra is borrowing from the Śaivite tradition, but that it is being converted to Buddhism. Studholm shows that the Kāraṇḍavyūha, and the intended use of the mantra, are entirely consistent with the mainstream of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

This type of assimilation and adaptation was the norm in India rather than the exception, and should come as no surprise. Buddhism was no different and many borrowings from Vedic tradition are to be found in the earliest scriptures. The goal of using these forms is two fold. It is likely that the authors of the Kāraṇḍavyūha were seeking on a purely social level to make converts, to compete with the majority Hindus, and to reinvigorate their own spiritual milieu. On the other hand the broad goal of Buddhism, i.e. the liberation of beings from suffering, is still upper most in their minds.

The Kāraṇḍavyūha shows a concern for the upholding of the institutions of celibate monasticism, however in order to get the teaching of the mantra, monks venture outside the vihara to visit a man who is married with a family, does not keep the precepts, and is dirty. Studholme likens him to a tantric yogin, or a siddha, although the wife and kids really don't fit this picture. In any case the teaching comes as part of a teaching which involves a mandala (with Amitabha in the centre) and an initiation. Despite all of these references to, and borrowings from the Śaiva tradition. However the Kāraṇḍavyūha "presents the practice [of chanting the mantra] primarily within a scheme borrowed from the bhakti side of the Purāṇic tradition". [3] By this he means that the Kāraṇḍavyūha chiefly presents chanting the mantra in terms of the Pure Land tradition - one calls on the name of a Buddha and is reborn in a pure land (in this case it is one of the worlds which are found in the hair pores of Avalokiteśvara, but which are effectively identical to Sukhāvatī). Contrast this with the traditions which draw on the "śakti" side of the tradition, in which the mantra is part of a ritual magic which transforms the practitioner into a Buddha. Studholme makes no comment on the relation of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra to the, by then, centuries old dhāraṇī tradition which is a shame.

Oṃ manipadme hūṃ, then, emerges from interactions between monastic Buddhists and lay Hindu's in 4th or 5th century Kashmir. The religious goal of these Buddhists is conceived in terms of rebirth in a pure land, not in tantric terms.

To see the oṃ manipadme hūṃ mantra in a variety of scripts see visiblemantra.org.


Notes
  1. Studholme p.34.
  2. You can see this for example in English translations from the Chinese version. Of the three that I could lay my hands on easily all were translated from Kumārajīva's 406 version and the name of Avalokiteśvara is translated by Bunnō as Regarder of Cries of the World; Watson as Perceiver of the World's Sounds; and Hurvitz as He who observes the Sounds of the World - all translations of Avalokitasvara. Hurvitz includes a comparison with the Sanskrit version of the sūtra where the name Avalokiteśvara is used alongside his translation of Avalokitasvara without comment.
  3. Studholme p.103.

Studholme, Alexander. 2002. The origins of oṃ manipadme hūṃ : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany : State university of New York Press.
It must be said that this book is an academic text which often labours a point beyond the patience of a general reader, and that it is full of jargon. By which I mean no disrespect for Alex, who was pleasantly surprised when I asked him a question on his book at a public talk and then asked him to sign my copy (a first apparently). It's just that the book is not an introduction to the mantra, but an in-depth study for specialists. Some Sanskrit would be an advantage reading this book.

~~oOo~~

Note 8 Sept 2014
On the name of Avalokiteśvara in Chinese see also: Jan Nattier. 'Avalokitesvara in Early Chinese Buddhist Translations: A Preliminary Survey.' Proceedings of the 5th Chung-Hwa International Conference on Buddhism. Dharma Drum, 2007.
Also note that despite the widespread perception of the meaning of ava√lok spread by Edward Conze it does not mean 'looks down' but 'examines'. See my later essays on the Heart Sutra for more on this. 

14 December 2007

Immanence vs Transcendence

The problem of Immanence v.s. Transcendence is one with relevance to any spiritual tradition, but it has special resonance for Buddhists. Simply put we may say that if Buddhahood is absolutely transcendent then we are cut off from it; and if Buddhahood is absolutely immanent then we are not released from suffering by attaining it. Clearly a Buddhist approach will be to take a middle way. But what are the practical implications of this?

I want to look at some of the approaches to this problem in the history of Buddhism, and show that Kukai came up with a highly creative solution to the problem.

While the Buddha, and perhaps his first few generations of Awakened disciples, lived there was less of a problem with immanence or transcendence because there were living exemplars. However in the Pali texts there is some concern for the way in which one can Awaken. One text which has had a huge influence on the Western Buddhist Order in this regard is the Upanisa Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya. This text describes a progressive series of steps: suffering, faith, joy, rapture, calm, bliss, concentration, knowledge and vision of things as they are, withdrawal, dispassion, freedom, knowledge of the destruction of the mental poisons. Sangharakshita has called this the spiral path, and it is also sometimes called the 'positive nidanas' (although this is not a traditional term). Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a pamphlet about the sutta and the idea, using the term Transcendental Dependent Arising after the Nettipakarana. The idea of a progressive path is present in a number of other suttas as well.

The key point here is that through practice - of awareness, of meditation - one can go through a series of stages which culminate in Awakening. The Upanisa Sutta offers an elegant solution to the problem. Unfortunately it seems Buddhists, including the guardians of the Pali Canon, lost sight of this important teaching and so over the centuries had to come up with a number of other solutions.

One Theravada approach is represented by Peter Masefield's book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Masefield argues that is it necessary to meet a Buddha in person in order to Awaken, that the possibility of becoming Awakened died with the Buddha. His thesis is remarkably easy to refute because although he bases it on a large number of quoted examples from the Pali Canon, he has overlooked many counter examples. Many people become Awakened without direct contact with the Buddha - thousands in the Therigatha alone. The position is one in which the Buddha is absolutely transcendent. We could also adopt a higher criticism approach to counter Masefield's literal reading of the texts as well, but that would take up more space than I have here.

The problem of Immanence v.s. Transcendence underlies the doctrine of the two truths which is central to the later Mahayana. The absolute truth says that Awakening is beyond the reach of language, ie it is transcendent. However if Awakening is absolutely transcendent, then we can not experience it, and so we have the relative truth. The relative truth says language is able to point to Awakening without actually encompassing it, or perhaps that language can describe the path, but not the goal, ie that Awakening is immanent.

The most prominent amongst the later theories is the Tathagata-garbha or Buddha Nature doctrine. In this theory each being already contains a germinal Buddha only waiting for the right conditions in order to manifest. Spiritual progress is often perceived in terms of clearing away defilements which obscure our true nature. The kind of practice most closely associated with this theory are generically called "formless". The quintessential practice is zazen, or 'just sitting'. The 'object' of meditation is simply the play of the experience arising and passing away.

However there are problems with the Buddha Nature theory. Buddha nature is often described as indestructible and eternal. There is a clear conflict with the doctrine which proclaims that everything is impermanent. Also if every being has Buddha Nature and we accept a theory of rebirth, then it creates a problem in that our Buddha Nature must transcend our death(s). How does this Buddha Nature follow us through the cycles of birth and death? Buddha Nature begins to sound all too like the Upanishadic idea of an Atman. A further problem is that it open the way to adopting the wrong view that we are already Awakened and need make no effort to change.

In the early 9th century when Kukai was introducing esoteric Buddhism to the Buddhist intelligentsia of Japan, the general view seems to have been that Buddhahood takes three incalculable aeons to attain. This is a more or less infinite amount of time - from any point of time Awakening is always sometime in the very distant future, and therefore essentially unattainable. The view comes from an over literal reading of Mahayana sutras. Yes the Buddha did have to spend aeons perfecting the perfections, but again the stories of the Pali Canon which show disciples regularly Awakening in very short spaces of time seem to be lost. Since practice cannot result in Awakening, it is directed towards mundane ends such as the prosperity of the emperor and the empire. Another aspect of establishment thinking was that the Dharmakaya was absolutely abstract, that there was no possibility of contact with it - ie that the Buddha was absolutely transcendent in the final analysis.

Kukai's great catch cry was "Awakening in this very existence!". So how did he overcome the immanence/transcendence problem? Kukai's approach was a radical take on the theory of interpenetration which is central to the Avatamsaka Sutra. Although the idea of interdependence is not found in the Pali Canon it is a logical consequence of "things arising in dependence on causes". If everything depends on causes then everything must depend, indirectly at least, on everything else. Kukai believed that interpenetration was the nature of reality and that nothing at all was left out of this, including crucially the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If everything is permeated by the Awakened mind of the Buddha, especially in his Dharmakaya aspect, then Awakening is immanent not just in beings, but in every atom of the universe. He seems to have taken to heart the image from the Avatamsaka Sutra which describes the universe as a great sutra, the letters of which are the items of experience (dharmas).

This approach gets around the problems inherent in the Tathagata-garbha approach. If we accept that there is any possibility of Awakening, then we are in contact, however faintly, with Awakening. In this theory practice consists of making the most of our connection by making our body speech and mind conform to those of the Dharmakaya via the medium of mudra, mantra, and mandala.

Kukai rejected the idea of an absolutely transcendent Dharmakaya - largely as far as I can tell on the basis of Nagarjuna's rejection of the validity of the existence/non-existence duality. Although it is incorrect, in his view, to state that things exist, it is equally wrong to say that they do not exist. The relationship is one of dependent arising, of course. It is not always obvious because of his esoteric approach to practice, but in many ways Kukai was a back to basics Buddhist.

The idea that Awakening is possible here and now, is a necessary corrective. It is explicit in the Pali Canon, and contra Masefield, there is no reason to believe that the conditions of the present preclude Awakening. Although I find Kukai's solution to the problem attractive and creative, I also see it as unnecessarily complex. In the absence of the early teaching on progressive conditionality, it is probably the next best thing, and at least it holds open the possibility of the Awakening in the present.


image: Wikipedia

07 December 2007

Creativity and Imagination

Creativity is an important quality in the spiritual life, and one I think that is quite poorly understood. There is a categorical difference between being artistic and being creative. Making art in whatever medium is the most high profile, and generally considered to to be the most valuable manifestation of creativity. Not everyone has the talent, dexterity, or the patience to be an artist, but still, everyone is creative. In this post I want to explore some of my ideas about creativity, and to show that creativity is a universal human activity, not confined to art making.

Let's start with a definition. What is creativity? Creativity is the ability to look for, find, and realise, new possibilities. I see creativity as a process that has phases and requires different attitudes and skills in each. The process of creativity has these stages: generating, filtering, focussing, moving towards, internalising.

All of our minds are capable of drifting, of being erratic, of jumping around. The infamous monkey mind. I take two contradictory positions on this. Firstly I celebrate my monkey mind because what it is doing is generating possibilities and ideas. Most of us filter out 90% of what our mind generates as non-sense or not needing to be above the threshold of awareness. The artist however pays closer attention to the 'noise' their mind generates because in it lurk all kinds of new possibilities, new combinations of familiar things. The Buddhist position, my second viewpoint, views the monkey mind as a kind of disaster in progress and seeks to calm it down. A calm and controlled mind is free to move in any direction, and we can choose which direction it moves in. So meditation brings in a tension for me. I know that periods of my life which are difficult, chaotic even, are also the times when I can be incredibly productive in my art - which suggests heightened creativity. Too much chaos and the mind becomes incoherent of course, but equally too much calm might mean a reduction in the flow of ideas. However meditation can make me more observant, more able to sustain my gaze which is an important creative skill, but it is an aspect of the second phase of the creative process.

We always have more options than we can choose from. We are always receiving more sensory data than we can possibly process. We are usually flooded with stray thoughts and memories, each of which produces a cascade of association. So we filter what is in our awareness, sometimes through habit, or cultural conditioning, or perhaps because of personal biases, but mostly from necessity. If we were suddenly able to be aware of literally everything that is going on in our bodies and minds we would be swamped and overwhelmed. However we can always do with being a little more aware. Being creative means paying attention to our internal psycho-physical process. Paying attention to what attracts and repels us, what fascinates and what bores. Either extreme may be where the pay-off is. The tension of anticipation of change can make boredom exquisite. People who are more obviously creative are probably more aware of this process and more willing to entertain seemingly silly or ridiculous information arising from his process. They have looser criteria, or can allow the filters to be less restrictive for periods of time. Some people attempt to use drugs for this purpose, but my experience suggests that in such cases people are creative despite the drugs, not because of them.

Once I picked up the exhaust manifold from an old engine lying by the side of the road. As I turned it over I thought - "Snoopy!". It suddenly looked like a beagle sitting with his head hanging. More profoundly William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand. Objects in our environment can be the grit in our minds to create pearls of creativity. Having seen something interesting in the stream of output from their churning mind, the artist then gives it their full attention. This is where meditation and art really start to work together because samatha (calming) meditations are excellent for aiding this process. Creativity means we can hold an idea in our thoughts and walk around it, explore it, see where it wants to go, follow it a little way into the future in our imagination. I've come to see this as an important aspect of imagination. The ideas just come, just stand out from the flotsam and jetsam of our minds, but to explore them takes imagination.

I think of imagination as my sense of the future. In memory we examine past experience, in imagination we try to predict what a future experience will be like. This is very advantageous on a practical level - it enables us to plan ahead, to try out a new experience a little to see whether we think it is worth expending energy on. When it comes to art, the artist is usually working from a mental design. When Michelangelo was asked by a child what he was doing in his workshop, he replied "there are angels trapped in these blocks of stone, and I'm trying to set them free". Imagination is not the source of creativity, it is a skill that enables us to take advantage of a natural situation. It allows us to mentally develop an idea when it occurs to us, if it gets past the filters. Imagination can be developed through use.

The next thing in the creative process is a response to our mental creation - we have had the new idea, made it stand out from the background noise, explored and navigated it, and now we must move towards it. We have to act on the idea. In art of course this usually means making some kind of object. Or we might bake a cake, plant a bulb in the garden, make a witty comment in the moment, or simply stand for a few minutes to look at a sunset. All of these seem to me to arise out of the creative process as I understand it. This phase often calls for persistence. Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying that "invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". I'm frequently complemented on my art works. Sometimes people will say "I wish I could paint". I definitely get the sense that they wish to be able to conjure a painting out of nothing. When I have an idea for a painting I generally spend quite a bit of time thinking about it. I might look at art works, or read some books which will inspire me or give me ideas about techniques. Then I will start drawing. This can take some time because I'm not a skilled draughtsman. I struggle with proportion and line. I struggle with shading and colour. It takes a lot of work to get a drawing that will form the basis of a painting. Then I have to transfer the drawing to a canvas or board. The act painting is tedious and takes a long time. I make a lot of mistakes which must be corrected laboriously. It takes many hours, days and weeks to make a painting that I feel happy about. I most certainly do not conjure anything out of thin air.

This is the last phase of the creative process - learning or internalising. Having conceived of and executed a creative act we try to reflect on the experience. Sometimes we can reuse what we've learned, and apply it to other situations and it has a concrete practical value. Other times it's a one off and highly ephemeral. But whatever the utility of what we have learned we allow ourselves to absorb the experience.

The most obvious application of creativity in the spiritual life is the conceiving of, and pursuit of positive change. In the field of ethics for instance we can be creative by allowing for more subtle choices in complex situations - we can allow for more possibilities, explore the potential consequences, move pro-actively towards our best option, and finally to learn about the consequence of our actions. Each phase of the creative process is important and benefits us in it's own way.

30 November 2007

The Cult of the Book and Western ideas of Canonicity

American Scholar Gregory Schopen makes the interesting observation that the study of Buddhism contains a curious anomaly. Buddhologists have always had two sources of information about the history of Buddhism: texts and material remains. However despite the existence of epigraphical and archaeological evidence, Buddhologists have set this aside and focuses on texts, taking texts as the sine qua non of the history of Buddhism, and of what Buddhism is. Western Buddhists have conspired with scholars because of a traditional tendency to fundamentalism with regard to texts, we have picked up our Asian teachers' faith that a sutra was always the literal word of the Buddha: thus have I heard.

Anyone educated in the sciences, as I was, will be familiar the refrain that one can only draw conclusions from what one observes. At school one almost always knew what was supposed to happen in a science experiment - but my teachers always insisted that I write up what actually happened and account for any discrepancy between that and what was expected. As the humanities have invaded the sciences - creating the "social sciences" - they could be expected to take on this dictum. However Schopen makes it clear that Buddhologists have not done this. In the rare cases where non-textual information is considered, it is always secondary to texts, and where it conflicts with texts it is set aside as an aberration.

Schopen takes a rather provocative stance in response to this situation - motivated perhaps in part by a desire to stimulate discussion, or perhaps it is frustration? For instance Schopen claims in his book Bones, Stone, and Monks that there is no evidence for a canon of writings before the 5th century. No canon is mentioned in any reliably dated source before this time Although the canon refers to it's own creation at an early date, it has become apparent over the years that the Pali Canon reflects a highly sectarian set of views, and is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of a form of Buddhism which is current in the 5th century in Sri Lanka. Another claim which Schopen makes is that the canonical texts reflect an idealised history, a way of life which no one has ever followed. Where there is material evidence on the lifestyle of monks and nuns it always contradicts the texts. For instance it is axiomatic that the Sangha did not own property, and yet inscriptions on stupas up and down India show that the donors that paid for the monuments were frequently the same monks and nuns who owned no property. Indeed coins are a common find in monastic ruins, and the means for minting coins have been found in at least one! The idea that monks did not own property is contradicted by the evidence of archaeology.

It has been interesting over the years being a member of the FWBO and seeing the vehement criticism of Sangharakshita for having the temerity of teaching things which were not strictly canonical and still calling it Buddhism. For instance Sangharakshita has made creative use of the metaphor of evolution to illustrate his thinking on the spiritual life. This kind of heterodoxy is condemned in some circles as "not Buddhism". Why? Because it is not in a traditional text - although it could be argued that Sangharakshita is simply restating an idea which is explicit in the Pali Canon, in the Upanisa Sutta for instance, but that would be to play the fundamentalists game. Oddly, for an Indian religion, written texts have become the arbiters of orthodoxy - a situation which I would argue runs counter to the long history of religion in that country.

So why is it that Buddhologists and Buddhists have privileged texts? Schopen claims to detect the spirit of Protestantism behind it. During the formation of the Protestant movement one of the defining disputes was over the status of practices. Amongst other things Catholics were accused of idolatry because of the worship given Mary and the Saints. The Protestant response was to turn to biblical fundamentalism in order, not only to distinguish themselves from Catholics, but to justify their heterodoxy by claiming to be more orthodox that the orthodox. Recall the violent repression of heterodoxy which characterised the Catholic Church over the centuries: heretics were not only persecuted they were tortured and horribly executed. If the justification for dissent came from the Bible itself, well perhaps it might prevent a red-hot poker in an uncomfortable place!

The same scenario probably would not have happened in India. The hegemonic religious caste of India has never been hostile to heterodoxy in the same violent way. When the Brahmins felt threatened by a competing faith they adopted what I call the Microsoft Approach: buy-out, rebrand, and market as an innovation. And so Shiva, the ancient cult, was soon adopted as Brahminical and Shaiva priests made honorary Brahmins. If you look at the avatars of Vishnu you will find a number of local cults - gods in the form for instance of a tortoise, a fish, a boar, a dwarf - incorporated. Indeed the 9th incarnation of Vishnu is the Buddha himself, relegated to telling us to be kind to animals. "All is one; God is good".

And so we have the interesting situation at present. Scholars of history have accepted the inevitable and more or less abandoned the project of creating a history out of the sacred texts. Anthropologists have decided they are more interested in what people do, than what they believe; beliefs are interesting in so far as they result in behaviour - a sentiment I believe the Buddha might have endorsed. Of course linguists are OK because they are interested in the language rather than the message. But Buddhists maintain a kind of fundamentalism about Buddhist texts. No point of view is valid unless punctuated by a quote from the Pali Canon (I know I am guilty of this!) Taking the Pali Canon as an example we know that it has been translated at least once (into Pali), that is has been edited rather clumsily at times, and that the current collection is attested only in the 5th century. The canon shows that it's preservers had preoccupations which were not always shared by the contemporaries, and that by the time writing came into being there were multiple competing interpretations of some of the most fundamental doctrines - such as the status of dharmas. It seems clear that the composition of news texts was a constant activity for Buddhists by the time that they began to employ writing in perhaps the 1st century BCE. The newly composed texts often gave considerable space to denouncing their heterodox co-religionists in the most base terms (I believe for instance that hinayana has caste-ist overtones and can be equated with insults such as "nigger" in contemporary vocabulary). And these are the texts to which we Buddhists yoke ourselves, mostly quite uncritically.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Buddhist scriptures, and value them both as spiritual inspiration and as literature. But I believe that what we Buddhists actually do is far more important than what we believe. The scriptures may well contain echoes of the words of the Buddha, but there is no substitute for practice, and the instruction of a more experienced spiritual friend. If, in the end, what works is in contradiction to the texts, then we must follow our insights, as the composers of the later Buddhist texts did. Buddhism is founded on principles, not on texts. Buddhist fundamentalism can never be justified in terms of Buddhist principles.


Further Reading

Harrison, Paul. 1995. Searching for the origins of the Mahayana : what are we looking for? Eastern Buddhist. 28(1), p.48-69.

Schopen, G. 1991. Archaeology and Protestant presumptions in the study of Indian Buddhism. History of Religions. 31(1), p.1-23.

Schopen, G. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks : Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press.

Schopen, G. 1999. The bones of a Buddha and the business of a monk : conservative monastic values in an early Mahayana polemical tract. Journal of Indian Philosophy. vol. 27, p.279-324.

Wedemeyer, Christain, K. 2001. Tropes, typologies and turnarounds : a brief genealogy of the historiography of tantric Buddhism. History of Religions. 40(3), p.223-259

22 November 2007

The Green Rite

Some time ago I was in the British Museum where they have a number of stone carvings from the stupa at Amaravati. The carvings are old and worn but you can still see the exquisite skill with which they were created and get a sense of the wonder that the stupa must have been. What an extraordinary focus for feelings of devotion that stupa must have been. The friend I was with, and I, could occasionally make out details from stories which the carving depicted. At one point as I walked along I saw a very worn carving but which stood out very clearly as being a story from the Pali Canon about the Buddha. It showed the Buddha, barely visible through the wear, standing in front of an elephant that was clearly kneeling before him in supplication.

In the story the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, who wishes to succeed the Buddha as leader of the monks, arranges for a large bull elephant in rut to be let loose in the market place as the Buddha is walking through it. The elephant is enraged and charges about causing havoc and everyone runs for their lives. However the Buddha stands his ground. The elephant sees the Buddha, a slight figure, standing there and charges towards him. The Buddha simply stands his ground and as the elephants gets closer he lifts his hand and holds it palm outwards. Radiating loving kindness towards the elephants he is totally unafraid of death, or being hurt. As the elephant approaches it is overcome by the outpouring of love and fearlessness in his direction , he slows, and then comes to a standstill. And then he bends down and places his head on the ground at the feet of the Buddha.

This is the archetype of the Green Rite, the Rite of Fearlessness. The Green rite is associated with the Buddha Amoghasiddhi whose names means infallible success. His mudra is the mudra of fearlessness. Notice that the hand is not extended like a policeman stopping traffic. The hand is held palm outwards at the heart - it is not a command, or a demand. It is an offering.

The Green Rite is not one of the original Tantric Rites. For instance the Mahāvairocana Abhisambodhi Uttara Tantra has pacifying (white), enriching (yellow), subduing (red), and fierce (black) rites. The Four Rites correspond to an old Vedic classification the varṇas. They correspond to the four basic castes as outlined in the Puriṣa Sūkta of the Rig Veda for instance: Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaisya, and Śudra. However when Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi joined Amitābha and Akṣobhya on the mandala two more rites were added - for instance the Tara Tantra has six.

In the Rogue Elephant story the Buddha pacifies the Elephant by radiating maitri or love - which could be seen as an example of the Red Rite. This demonstrates the way the Dharma transcends any particular teaching. However underlying the Love of the Buddha is his transcendental Insight - his knowledge and vision of how things are. It is from this direct knowledge that his fearlessness arises, and that makes all his actions successful. The Buddha knows that he has nothing to lose, that even death itself does not terrify him the way it does the rest of us. He sees everything as it is and therefore does not cling to any experience, nor push any away. Any action undertaken from this point of view is bound to succeed, because success is judged in terms of results, and acting from insight guarantees a positive result.

For ordinary mortals the Buddha left guidelines for acting until direct insight guides our actions. These are the various ethical or moral teachings. These vary from the "ordinary common sense" approach which is typified in the early verses of the Metta Sutta, to the the long lists of precepts in the Bhikṣu Pratimokṣa, and find a sublime expression in the Ten Skilful actions (dasa-kusala-karma) which form the Ten Precepts of the Shingon School and the Western Buddhist Order. Once again there are cross-overs with the other rites, but the special quality of the Green Rite is that it is active. Whereas in the White Rite for instance we may say that it focuses on purity and refraining from evil actions; in the Green Rite we must actively express love and kindness. If Gratitude and Generosity are the key aspects of the Yellow Rite, then we may say that acts of kindness and selfless love are the marks of the Green Rite.

Meeting fear is a key part of the spiritual life. As we practice we are very likely to find fear arising. The Green Rite tells us the way to deal with fear. It is to dwell in love, to radiate love, and to act out of love. Acting from love guarantees success, because in Buddhist terms success is acting with love.

01 November 2007

The Essence of all Mantras

I declare that A
is the essence of all mantras,
and from it arise mantras without number;
and it produces in entirety the Awareness
which stills all conceptual proliferations.

The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra
translated by Stephen Hodge (XVIII.3, p.326-7)



I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Richard Salomon recently. He heads up the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project which is based around Kharoṣṭhī script manuscripts from Gāndhāra and in the Gāndhāri language. These texts which are held in the British Library are very old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century common era. Gāndhāra is a very interesting area, having been the entry point to India for immigrants, traders, and invaders for many centuries. So it was a very rich and diverse culture. Kharoṣṭhī was the first script used to write India languages, and that it was derived from the version of the Aramaic script used by various Persian conquerors. In Kharoṣṭhī there is one sign for an initial vowel - the short a. To indicate other vowels one uses diacritic marks, in the same was that medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks on consonant signs. Kharoṣṭhī was later displaced by Brahmī from which all modern Indian scripts (as well as most South-east Asian scripts, and the various forms of Tibetan writing)

Regular readers will be aware that I've been interested in the Arapacana alphabet for a while. One of the features of the Arapacana is that is has only one initial vowel sign. Professor Salomon has shown that this is almost certainly because it was the alphabet of the Gāndhāri language which was written in Kharoṣṭhī. It seems that this is a related to the absence of initial vowels in the Aramaic script - they are not used in Semitic languages. When designing a script to write Buddhist texts one needs to be able to write initial vowels, for instance: evam mayā śutam (Thus have I heard which begins all Buddhist sūtras). Brahmī scripts use a different sign for each vowel (although long vowels are indicated with diacritics marks in most cases).


Kharoṣṭhī vowels
a i u e o ṛ aṃ
Kharoṣṭhī created a single vowel sign on the model of the consonant signs - it is simply 'a' if unadorned, but can become any vowel with diacritic marks.


The quote at the beginning of this post may not be familiar, but the sentiment might be. The letter a has this special place in Buddhist thought and practice. One explanation is that the letter a, when added to the beginning of most Sanskrit nouns, it turns them into their opposite: vidya is knowledge, while avidya, is ignorance. This allows us to use the letter a to stand for the Truth which cannot be fully comprehended by language: it is possible to negate any definite statement about the transcendental (including this one!).

However I don't think this alone accounts for the notion that the letter a is the source of all mantras, if only because the a- prefix for verbs usually indicates the imperfect past tense rather than any sense of negation. Another idea relates to the way that Indic alphabets attach an inherent short letter a to each consonant. So the Sanskrit consonants are written as syllables or phonemes - called akṣara - (e.g. ka kha ga gha ṅa); not simply letters (e.g. k kh g gh ṅ). As in Kharoṣṭhī, medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks. This is quite a good way of looking at it, but there is still a slight flaw which involves the vowels.


Sanskrit vowels in Siddhaṃ script
a ā i ī u ū e ai
o au aṃ aḥ ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ
अ आ इ ई ए ऐ
ओ औ अं अः ऋ ॠ ऌ ॡ
The vowels, except for ā, aṃ and aḥ , can't really be considered to derive from the letter a. All vowels are similar in that they are voiced similarly - differences in sound are due to shifts in the tongue and lips changing the resonant frequency of the vocal track, but it doesn't seem to be enough to consider, say, the letter ī to derive from the letter a. Graphically the vowels are mostly not related to the shape of the letter a either. This is all true of the Brahmī derived scripts. It is not quite true for Kharoṣṭhī however because of the single initial vowel.

My suggestion is that the special function of the letter a in Buddhism is a relic of the Gāndhāra area. It is only in Kharoṣṭhī that all signs for letters derive from, or contain, the short a.

One piece of supporting evidence comes from the Sūtra of Perfect Wisdom in 25,000 Lines. This sutra was probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century, and is preserved in a variety of Sanskrit originals, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translations. In the sūtra the alphabet is used as a mnemonic for a series of reflections on the nature of phenomena. Each letter is indicated by a keyword starting with that letter; and each word is the basis for a line of verse. Being a Sanskrit text one might expect the Sanskrit alphabet to be used, but it is not. The alphabet is a partially Sanskritised version of the Arapacana alphabet. Even in the fully Sanskritised version of this practice - present for example in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra - the vowels are sometimes left off so we have the Sanskrit consonants, but the letter a as the only vowel. The tradition is preserved and the trail seems to lead back to Gāndhāra, at least on Indian soil.

I say "on Indian soil" because the use of alphabetical verses, that is to say verses in which the first letter of the first word of each line are in alphabetical order (a kind of acrostic) is unknown in pre-Buddhist India. Verses were organised by length, and by numerical schemes, but not alphabetically. Verses were arranged alphabetically in Semitic cultures, so there are Old Testament psalms and Manichean hymns with verses in alphabetical order. Which brings us around in a circle to the Semitic origins of Kharoṣṭhī.

The letter a, then , is the source of all the other letters in the alphabet; and the alphabet is the source of all the mantras - hence the composer(s) of the Mahāvairocana abhisaṃbodhi Tantra could say that "from [a] arise mantras without number".

If you'd like to learn to write the letter a in the Siddhaṃ script then visit my other website: visiblemantra.org

image: Siddha letter a from AKARA : The Quest for Perfect Form
(although it looks identical to one in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy in the Eastempty img for amazon associates, p43.)

17 September 2007

The Heart Sūtra - Indian or Chinese?

Pic of Jan NattierIn this post I want to call attention to an important article, now over 15 years old, but with hardly any recognition outside academic circles. The article is:

Jan Nattier. 1992. The Heart Sūtra : a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.

The editors of JIABS are in the process of digitising their back issues which will be available for free download. In the meantime they have graciously given me permission to offer the pdf to anyone who would like a copy. Click here.

Jan Nattier (left) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University, and a scholar of great merit and interest. The article is a fine example of contemporary scholarship, meticulously reasoned, well structured, and typically for Nattier, well written. This last is a strong feature of Nattier's published work - she can write very well. However the article also offers a startling conclusion with wide implications for Buddhists.

The main argument of the article is that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China, incorporating some verses from the Chinese version of the Large Prajñāpāramita text, and back translated into Sanskrit sometime in the 7th century. Nattier also offers an explanation for the two different versions, one longer and one shorter, of the Heart Sūtra. Page references are to Nattier's article.

Nattier focuses initially on the shorter version of the Heart Sūtra. This has several problematic features which distinguish it from sūtras generally and the other Prajñāpāramita sūtras in particular. Firstly it does not begin with 'thus have I heard'; second there is is no audience reaction at the end of the sūtra; third the Buddha makes no appearance; fourth Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion makes an unexpected appearance, while the usual characters of Prajñāpāramita sūtras (such as Subhuti) do not; and lastly the sūtra contains a mantra, which few other Prajñāpāramita sūtras do, and then only the later tantric sūtras. Any explanation of the origin of the Heart Sūtra should provide some insights into these oddities, and Nattier's article does just this.

It has been known for centuries that the lines beginning with "form is not other than emptiness" and ending with "no knowledge and no attainment" are quoted from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, or Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the Large Sūtra). The first reference to this borrowing is in a Chinese commentary from the 7th century. Nattier spends quite some space looking at the various versions of these verses. They occur in four places:
  • Sanskrit Large Sūtra (using the oldest extant manuscript from Gilgit)
  • Chinese Large Sūtra (trans. by Kumarajiva)
  • Sanskrit Heart Sūtra (Conze's critical edition)
  • Chinese Heart Sūtra (trans. Hsuan-tsung)
Nattier makes several comparisons. Firstly the Chinese Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Large Sūtra. These are laid out side by side and even without being able to understand the Chinese characters, it is obvious that they are virtually identical. Next the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Heart Sūtra are compared and we find a "virtual word for word correspondence" (p.160). However comparing the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra we find many differences of vocabulary and word order, although the meaning is synonymous. An example is:

Sanskrit Large Sūtra : (na)anyad rūpam anyā śunyata / nānya śunyatānyad rūpa
Sanskrit Heart Sūtra : rūpān na pṛthak śunyatā / śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam

In the list of the nature of dharmas the Sanskrit Large Sūtra uses singular verbal forms, is more repetitious and slightly longer; while the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra uses plural adjectival forms, and is shorter and more succinct. Almost every word, barring some very well known technical terms such as śunyata, are different. Conze explains the differences in repetition as a process of summarising, however Nattier contends that this runs counter to the general Indian tendency to elaboration. In any case the changes in vocabulary are unprecedented and "there is no straight forward way to derive the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra, or vice versa." (p.167)

The best way to understand the progression is that the verses moved from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra to the Chinese Large Sūtra, and thence into the the Chinese Heart Sūtra, and finally into the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra. Which is to say that it is far more plausible on philological grounds that the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra is a translation of the Chinese rather than the other way around.

Nattier proceeds to marshal supporting evidence for this conclusion beginning by considering known examples of back-translation - these are plentiful in Mongolian scriptures apparently. An important sign of back-translation is the choice of "unmatched but synonymous terms" (p.170). Also there may be occurrences of incorrect word order, grammatical errors point to the under lying language. In this case the evidence points to the Chinese Heart Sūtra as being a likely intermediary between the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra: where the former has nirodha (extinction), the latter has kṣayo (destruction) while the Chinese Heart Sūtra has chin which can be a translation of either. This turns out to be true for each synonym in the Sanskrit texts.

Historical evidence also supports the argument. Indian commentaries cannot be dated to before the 8th century, while there is no independent evidence such as quotes in other texts which might place it earlier. By contrast Chinese commentaries are definitely dated in the 7th century, and "..the existence of the Heart Sūtra is attested in China at least a century before its earliest known appearance in India" (p.174)

However there are still some problems. In particular the Chinese were usually very particular when composing apocryphal texts, taking a lot of effort to make them look like Indian sūtras, and yet the Heart Sūtra clearly lacks many important features. Nattier cites a Japanese study (by FUKUI Fumimasa) which she says make a strong case for reconsidering the Chinese title of the Heart Sūtra : hsin ching. Fukui says this should be understood not as saying that the text is the heart, or essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition, but rather represents a "dhāraṇī scripture", ie simply a text to be chanted. It is clear that this has indeed been the function of the text since its earliest mentions. The missing attributes (such as the 'thus have I heard') are less of a problem if we accept that the text is not even attempting to be a sūtra.

Most of the remaining problems occur in the portion of the text which surrounds the quoted verses - what Nattier calls "the frame". She seeks to show that it is plausible for the frame to have been composed in China. For instance the presence of Avalokiteśvara: this is quite consistent with devotional Buddhism in South West, 7th century China, and his presence is less surprising if the text is a devotional text for chanting rather than the essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition. The presence of the mantra also marks out the Heart Sūtra as different. Nattier points out that the mantra is present in at least three other Chinese texts, and the epithets of the mantra also exist independently. (p.177). The point being that the presence of a mantra need not rule out a Chinese origin.

I think this is the only place where Nattier misses a trick. Donald Lopez, for instance, has commented on the lack of coherence between the mantra and the text.
"The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra". - Lopez. The heart sutra explained. p.120.
The mantra is not of a piece with the sūtra, but appears to have been tacked on. Further Alex Wayman has noted that commentaries on the text lack coherence:
"The [commentators] seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition" - Secret of the Heart Sutra p.136
This observations only strengthen the impression of a text appearing suddenly without a history of exegesis to be referred to. But, back to Nattier's article...

Another feature which supports the idea that the frame was written in China relates to phrases such as "satyam amithyavāt" which Conze translates as: "[It is] true. For what could go wrong". This is clearly an awkward phrase both in Sanskrit and in English translation. The Chinese - chen shih pu hsü or "genuine, not vain" - however is "entirely natural in Chinese". As Nattier says:
"The Heart Sūtra thus diverges from anticipated Sanskrit usage, offering instead a precise replication of the word order of the Chinese" (p.178)
The final mystery is the existence of the two versions of the sūtra. The evidence is good that the short version was the one which was most prominent version in China. All of the extant Chinese commentaries are based on the Hsüan-tsang's (or Xuanzang) 'translation' of the short version. If we accept the idea that the sūtra was back-translated into Sanskrit after being composed in China, then the long version makes sense in the face of Indian criteria for authenticity - which include the appropriate opening, the presence of the Buddha, and the audience reaction to the discourse. The long version supplies all these features that are missing from the short version. From the Indian point of view the short version is not a sūtra at all - which fits with the idea that it was not intended to be one.

On purely philological grounds it seems that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China around the verses quoted from the Chinese version of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra. Internal textual evidence supports this conclusion, as do historical considerations. In short everything points in the direction of the 'Heart Sūtra' being a Chinese liturgical text which only became a sūtra on being back translated into Sanskrit, probably in India in the late 7th century. What is more, the most problematic features of the sūtra become comprehensible if we accept this view.

Nattier spends several pages exploring the role of Hsüan-tsang in the popularisation of the text: it was certainly a favourite of the pilgrim/translator, and he did know it before he left on his trip to India. It seems likely, though it is not proven, that it was Hsüan-tsung himself who introduced the text to India and translated it into Sanskrit when he discovered that the Indians lacked it. We know that exactly this happened in the case of another Chinese apocryphal text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, which he translated into Sanskrit during his stay at Nālandā.

To those amused, or perhaps alarmed, by this apparent forgery, Nattier points out that "it is now becoming clear that the Chinese were avid producers as well as consumers of Buddhist sūtras... and indeed evidence is accumulating for an important backwash of Chinese Buddhist influence into Central Asia" (p.181). Though the Heart Sūtra may be an apocryphal text:
"...this in no way undermines the value that the text has held for Buddhist practitioners. "Whatever is conducive to liberation" - so the Buddha is said to have told his followers - "that is my teaching"." (p.199)
Nattier's article is a fantastic example of the kind of careful and exacting scholarship which marks her out. The conclusions are monumental, and yet eminently accessible. I highly recommend reading the article. Her work deserves a wider audience, and her conclusions should be informing our understanding of Buddhist history, both social and textual. One thing is clear from this, and her other publications, we Buddhists cannot afford to be fundamentalists when it comes to texts!

10 September 2007

Kukai Bibliography

If you are interested in Kukai (空 海) and only know English then your choice of reading material can seem quite limited, especially if you only look at what is in print right now. There are of course a number of websites but these largely parrot what is found in Hakeda and Yamasaki. I wrote the current Wikipedia article on Kukai a couple of years back using pretty much those same sources, with additional notes from Abe. (Note there are moves afoot to abridge my text, so it may already look different).

So where to go to get more depth on The Daishi when there are all too few Shingon teachers outside of Japan? This is my working bibliography of English language sources on Kukai, with some annotations. All of this stuff is available through interlibrary-loan in the UK, and probably Europe and the US; and some of it is available on the web. If you don't know about interlibrary-loan ask your local library to explain it.

Abé, Ryūichi.
  • 'Scholasticism, exegesis and ritual practice : on renovation in the history of Buddhist writing in the early Heian Period. in Adolphson, M, et a. (eds) Heian Japan : centers and peripheries. Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 2007
  • The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.[Something of a mixed blessing this book. Unrivalled for detail in places, and with very helpful part translations of some of the major works and many minor works. An excellent companion to Hakeda's Major Works but not a place to start. However it is frequently drowned in the jargon of semiotics and thereby made obscure. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Abe has misunderstood the Buddhist attitude to vijnana in making it a source of meaning rather than a source of delusion, or confusion. Not for the faint hearted.]
  • Saichō and Kūkai : a conflict of interpretation. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1995 22(1-2) p.103-137.[A revisionist look at the relationship between these two pivotal figures in Japanese history suggesting that personal feelings had less to do with their split than political aspirations]

Arai, Yūsei [Abbot]. Shingon Esoteric Buddhism : a handbook for followers. (Kōyasan, Japan : Kōyasan Shingon Mission, 1997).[A good glimpse into modern day lay Shingon. Note that Shingon nowadays incorporates a strong Pure Land theme, and the focus for lay people is not "Awakening in this very existence", Kukai's catch cry, but praying to Odaishisama for rebirth in Sukhavati. The process of this change is brought out in Statler and others.]

Benn, C. China’s golden age : everyday life in the Tang dynasty. Oxford University Press, 2002.[Benn offers us a detailed glimpse of the Changan that Kukai would have visited - fantastically wealthy, ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, and more densely populated that Manhattan Island!]

Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28.[The full story of Kukai's journey to China with many details not included in other accounts, part translations of the Ambassador's report to the Emperor, and Kukai's letter to the Governor of Fukien. Borgen's account of the journey is essential reading for this very important aspect of Kukai's biography.]

Deal, W. E. 'Hagiography and history : the image of Prince Shōtoku' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999. [In terms of background to Kukai it is important to understand Prince Shōtoku and his legacy.]

de Bary Theodore Wm. [Ed]. Sources of Japanese Tradition. [vol 1.]. New York : Columbia University Press, 1958, 1964.[Valuable history and part translations of some of Kukai's better known works.]

Gardiner, D. L.
  • 'Japan's first Shingon ceremony' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999)
  • Transmission problems : the reproduction of scripture and Kūkai’s “opening” of an esoteric tradition. Japanese Religions, 28(1) 2003, p.5-68.
  • Metaphor and Mandala in Shingon Buddhist Theology. Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 47/1: 43-55, April 2008.
  • Transcendence and Immanence in Kûkai's Thought. Esoteric Buddhist Studies: Identity in Diversity, Proceedings of the International Conference on Esoteric Buddhist Studies. Koyasan University, Japan, Septermber, 2006), March 2008, Koyasan University
see also Gardiner's publications page at Colorado College website.

Gibson, M and Murakami, H. Tantric poetry of Kukai (Kobodaishi) : Japan's Buddhist saint. New York, White Pine Press : 1987.[Not as interesting or useful as I had hoped. The work of two enthusiastic scholars of literature with a relatively shallow understanding of Kukai and Shingon. However there is so little of Kukai's poetry available in English that it is worth having. See also Green. Hakeda translates a fair amount of poetry in Major Works as well.]

Giebel, R. W. (trans.) Shingon texts. [BDK English Tripitaka 98 I-VII]. Berkeley, Ca. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004.[Giebel's translations appear to stick close to the text, but this does not make for good readable English. It leads him for instance to employ neologisms such as 'inexponibility', 'differentiatingly', and 'intercorrespondent' in order to find a single English word for each one in Chinese. Some seem gratuitous such as esoteric sutras being 'veridical' rather than truthful. Key technical terms are sometimes translated with no footnotes, so that the translations are unreadable unless you either know already what the text says, or are deeply versed in Buddhist jargon and can guess the underlying term. What, for instance, are the discourses of the Dharma-Buddha? Another example is the terms used in the more sophisticated esoteric version of the 'Trikaya doctrine'. Frustratingly text names are translated into idiosyncratic English with only a reference to the Taisho edition of the Chinese Canon. Thus the well known Dasabhumika Sutra, becomes the Treatise on the [Ten] Stages (T26.133c-134a). It is not at all clear who the intended audience is. This makes Giebel valuable only as a check on other more felicitous translations. Read Hakeda instead, and then Abe. The one good point is that he translates all of the quotes in the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron : The difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, which Hakeda does not]

Grapard, Allan G. 'Precepts for an emperor' in White, David Gordon. Tantra in practice. University of Princeton Press, 2000, p.147-164.A translation of the text Kukai wrote for the abhisheka ceremony of Heizei, the sometime rebellious former emperor turned bhikshu. Useful as comparison with Abe's commentary on this text as it relates to the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron.]

Green, Ronny. The Mysterious Mirror of Writing: Kūkai’s Poetry and Literary Theory. Unpublished manuscript. Available: http://www.ronnygreen.us/kukaipoetry.htm[Probably the only critical work on Kukai's poetry in English. See also on Ronny's website excerpts from unpublished book length biographies of Kūkai and Gyoki ]

Hakeda, Y.S.
  • Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).[The one book that no one interested in Kukai can do without. Continues to stay in print fortunately. Probably the best biography to date, and of course Hakeda's excellent translations of Kukai's writing. This is the bible as far as I'm concerned. That said you may need to do some background reading (Such as Snodgrass for instance, and Yamasaki) and interpretation to understand Kukai. In his translation Hakeda does not get in the way as is the case for Giebel and Abe. ]
  • The religious novel of Kūkai. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 20(3/4), 1965, p.283-297.[Discusses the Sango Shiiki as a literary text, ie a novel. Many of the insights in this paper are incorporated into Major Works]
  • (trans.) Awakening of Faith. (New York : Columbia University Press, 199?).[This is a text which was very influential on Kukai's thinking - for instance you can see the influence in the structure of the Sokushin jōbutsu gi : Attaining Enlightenment in this Very Existence]

Hare, Thomas Blenman. Reading writing and cooking : Kūkai’s interpretive strategies. The Journal of Asian Studies. 49(2) May 1990, p.253-273.[Problems of language and meaning; includes the best description of the Kokūzō gumonji no hō practice which Kūkai undertook when he left university.]

Haresaku, Masahide. Encounter with an empathic, personal god : a seminar on Shingon Mikkyō. [Trans. Paul L. Swanson]. Bulletin (Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture). No.5, 1987, p.2635.

Henshall, K.G. A history of Japan : from stone age to superpower. (2nd ed.) (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Hinonishi Shinjō. "The Hōgō (Treasure Name) of Kōbō Daishi and the development of beliefs of associated with it," Japanese Religions. 2002, v. 27 (1), pg 5-18. (Translated by William Londo)[Fascinating little article which traces the history of the Kūkai Mantra: namu daishi henjō kongō.]

Hisao Inagaki. Kūkai's "Principle of Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body," in Payne, R.k. (ed) Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston, Wisdom : 2006. p.99-118. [Another translation of the classic Sokushin jōbutsu gi]

Hodge, S. (trans.) The mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. (London : Routledge Curzon, 2003).
[By far the best English translation of this most important Shingon text. Hodge works from the Tibetan translation which has minor differences, mostly structural, to the Chinese, but includes the seminal commentary and summary by Buddhaguhya. The introduction contains much useful information and I found myself wishing that Hodge had allowed more space for it. It lacks an index which would have been useful. ]

Hori, Ichiro. On the concept of hiriji (holy-man). Numen. 5 (2) 1958, p.128-160.
[Kukai is of course famous as a mountain ascetic (yamabushi) and this paper delves into the Japanese tradition of seeking out lonely peaks for meditation, and discusses Kukai's predecessors as well as both Saicho and Kukai as yamabushi.]

Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online: http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/kasulis3.htm[The problem of how words function as symbols/signs is at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, and this paper compares theories from ancient Greece and medieval Japan.]

Keenan, L. K. En the Ascetic in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999).[More on of Kukai's main yamabushi predecessors - see also Hori]

Kimbrough, R. Keller. Reading the miraculous power of Japanese poetry : spells, truth acts, and a medieval Buddhist poetics of the supernatural. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32 (1) 2005, p.1-33.

Kitagawa, J. M. Kūkai as master and saviour in Reynolds, F.E. and Capps, D. (eds) The biographical process : studies in the history and psychology of religion. (Mouton : The Hague, 1976).

Kiyota, Minoru. Shingon Buddhism : theory and practice. (Los Angeles : Buddhist Books international, 1978)

Matsuda, Willaim J. 2003. The founder reinterpreted: Kūkai and Vraisemblant narrative. 
MA Thesis. University of Hawaii. http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/7110

Orzech, Charles. The legend of the iron stupa in Lopez, Donald S. [ed.] Buddhism in practice. Princeton University Press. 1995.

Rambelli, F.
[Rambelli writes from a hard-core semiotics point of view, which is to say he is concerned with the relationship of 'signs' to the 'things'. Ironically semiotics jargon is frequently and bizarrely obscure and difficult for the lay person. Rambelli is also fond of neologisms: Kukai is 'polyhedrical'; and two words are "synonymical variants" of each other rather than simply synonyms. Not for the faint hearted, and I recommend boning up on semiotics for a few months in advance.]
  • - The semiotic articulation of Hosshin Seppō : an interpretive study of the concepts of mon and monji in Kūkai’s mikkyō in Astley, I. (ed) Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. (Copenhagen : The Seminar for Buddhist Studies, 1994). p.17-36.
  • - True words, silence, and the adamantine dance : on Japanese mikkyō and the formation of the Shingon Discourse. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1994 21(4) p.373-405.[I'm not convinced that Rambelli's approach in this paper - to the extent that I understand it of course - is workable. Is the contemporary semiotic model capable of comprehending the way Kukai understood "meaning"? I think of Foucault's ideas in the Order of Things on how epistemology changed amongst the intellectuals of renaissance Europe away from resemblance as a source of knowledge, toward difference. Both Rambelli, and I think Abe, seem to place too much emphasis on difference in interpreting Kukai: his world view was one in which resemblance was the key to knowledge. Rambelli seems to overlook to implications of all dharmas being marked by shunyata for instance!]

Reader, I. Legends, miracles, and faith in Kōbō Daishi and the Shikoku Pilgramage in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999[Summary of some of the legendary material which constellates around Kukai]

Rouzer, Paul. “Early Buddhist Kanshi : court, country, and Kūkai”. Monumenta Nipponica. 2004, 59(4) : 431-61.

Shiba, Ryotaro.
Kūkai the universal : scenes from his life. New York, ICG Muse Inc. 2003.[Appalling novel based very loosely on the life of Kukai in which Kukai becomes a carousing and boozing wideboy freely indulges in pleasures of the flesh! The translation doesn't help with several infelicitous coinings such as baptism for abhisheka. Although Shiba is a celebrated author of historical novels in Japan, this is more novel than historical. Don't bother.]

Snodgrass, A. The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism. India, Aditya Prakashan : 1997.[Important book. A very good introduction to Shingon doctrine, and a very detailed survey of the two mandalas. One idiosyncrasy is that uses dhāraṇī as the general term rather than mantra. This is in line with some of Kukai's thinking, but not a general practice. In print in India]

Statler, O. Japanese pilgrimage. London : Picador, 1984.[One of the best sources of legendary material about Kukai - an aspect of him that is badly neglected by English speaking academics. Out of print, but 2nd hand copies do pop up from time to time.]


Takasaki Jikidō. “Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai) and Tathāgatagarbha Thought”. Acta Asiatica. 1985. 47 : 109-129

Tanabe, G.J.
  • 'The founding of Mount Kōya and Kūkai's eternal meditation' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999
  • Kōbō Daishi and the art of esoteric Buddhism. Monumenta Nipponica. 1983, 38 (4), p.409-12.

Toby, Ronald, P. “Why Leave Nara? Kammu and the transfer of the Capital. Monumenta Nipponica. 1985. 40(3) : 331-347.

Tōno, Haruyuki.
Japanese Embassies to T'ang Cina and their ships. Acta Asiatica. 1995 69: p39-62

Totman, C.
A history of Japan. (Blackwell, 2005).

Wayman, A and Tajima, R. The enlightenment of Vairocana. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.[I don't get Wayman, don't follow his arguments, don't see why he highlights the things he does. I haven't found his contribution very helpful. Tajima is more accessible but wildly and uncritically sectarian. Overall you could probably give this a miss. Hodge's introduction and translation is far more comprehensible]

Yamasaki, T. Shingon : Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Fresno, C.A. : Shingon Buddhist International Institute, 1988.[A very good introduction to Kukai and Shingon. Slightly frustrating in that Japanese terminology is used throughout with no links to Sanskrit, which makes it difficult to link it with the wider Buddhist tradition. Expensive on Amazon etc, but still in print and available at a reasonable price from the publisher - they may be slow to respond however.]

Yamamoto, Chikyo. Mahāvairocana-Sūtra : translated into english from Ta-p’I-lu-che-na ch’eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch’ih ching, the Chinese version of Subhākarasimha and I-hsing AD 725. New Delhi : International Academy of Indian Culture, 1990.[A disappointing translation from the Chinese version. The English text is often impenetrable at times when Hodge is perfectly clear. A potential high point is the inclusion of the Siddham script calligraphy of all mantras, by a respected calligrapher. However the calligraphy appears to be quite poor, is not well reproduced, and is frequently not in accordance with the roman transliteration (I didn't have enough patience to work out which was incorrect). If you are not sentimental about the Chinese vs Tibet version issue, and want a single translation of this important text, then go for Hodge.]
(Updated 17-7-2009)
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