29 November 2013

The Earliest Buddhist Shrine?

Ira Block/National Geographic
In recent days there has been quite a disturbance in the force following the publication, in the archaeological journal Antiquity, of an article reporting an an archaeological investigation in Lumbini, the legendary birthplace of the Buddha:
Coningham. R A E, et al. (2013) "The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: Excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal)." Antiquity 87: 1104-1123
Clearly the title is meant to entice the reader and it certainly caught the attention of the media - the article was widely reported around the world. Anyone interested in the history of Buddhism or indeed the history of ancient India cannot fail to be interested in this discovery. But just what was discovered? Some of the headlines are quite dramatic. Here is a selection:
  • Science Daily & Durham University News: Archaeological Discoveries Confirm Early Date of Buddha's Life
  • Mirror: British professor leads Indiana Jones-style expedition to uncover buried secrets of Buddha
  • USA TodayArchaeological evidence provides new insight into dates when the Buddha lived and died.
  • New York TimesNew Clues May Change Buddha’s Date of Birth
  • Financial ExpressBuddha 2 centuries older than previously thought.
The National Geographic Society provided some funding for the project and seem to have closely involved in communicating the findings to the media. Of the various reports I read, only the USA Today  (memorable quote from Richard Gombrich) and one of the National Geographic articles included any critical comment.

Let me say at the outset that none of the claims made in these headlines are true. They strip away considerable uncertainly expressed in the article itself and even more that emerges from a careful reading of it. And unfortunately it is Professor Coningham himself who seems to be fostering this misconception if his interview on the National Geographic site is anything to go by. He claims that the results shed light on the "lifetime of the Buddha himself." One of the principles that was drummed into me as a student in the sciences was not to go beyond what the evidence showed. Speculation is fine, as long as it is presented as such and treated with caution. In suggesting that his results shed light on the lifetime of the Buddha, Coningham is going well beyond his evidence. 

This much was quite obvious from the mainstream reports and interviews and I wanted to see for myself what the team had discovered.  So I called in at the Cambridge University Library and printed off a copy of the article.

Descriptions of the Field Work

The dig was led by Professor Robin Coningham, of the Department of Archaeology, University of Durham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust. Coningham has a string of publications resulting from work associated with Buddhist sites in India and Sri Lanka and has also done field work in Iran and Bangladesh. Less information is available about Acharya on the web, but he has been involved in previous excavations at the site.

from Coningham et al p.1109.
Post holes are shown in red in C5
and are visible in the enlarged image
(just click on it)
The team examined several small areas (C5, C7, C13, ENE) around the foundations of the Mayadevi Temple ruins (see left). Like many Asokan period ruins, the foundations are a grid of brick walls about 75cm thick (they can be clearly seen in many of the photos in the news stories). These are assumed to have formed the base of a temple. A temple to Rūpadevī stood on the site when it was investigated in the late 19th century. The association with Māyādevī relates to a Gupta-period (300-600 CE) statue found on the site which was originally thought to be Rūpadevī but later reinterpreted as Māyādevī  (the article does not give dates or sources for this identification, but presumably it was early 20th century).

Most important was a small area (C5) ca. 75cm x 200cm in a trench left by a previous examination of the site, and a further area within this of just 50cm x 50cm. So rather large claims seem to be made for a small hole. However what they found is indeed interesting.

Previously Indian archaeology related to Buddhism has tended to focus on the large brick structures erected by Asoka ca. mid 3rd century BC. Some of the reasons for this are obvious - bricks survive and big piles of them are easy to find. The centuries have frequently buried sites under meters of soil, and sometimes only these large mounds still stand out. Some of the earlier work on these monuments showed that they were build around pre-existing monuments. Existing stupas were frequently enlarged in stages, each one encapsulating the previous structure. But on the whole we have no archaeological evidence that predates Asoka. Coningham has dubbed this the "Mauryan Horizon" and the exciting thing is that these new discoveries appear to penetrate beyond that horizon.

At the temple site the earlier team had stopped digging in the central area when they discovered a pavement edged by two rows of bricks of a different size and shape to the traditional Asokan bricks (which are broader and flatter than modern bricks). This pavement clearly ran under the foundations of the Asokan structure and was partly incorporated into the foundations. Below this pavement the present team identified two previous "phases". Below the kerb itself was a series of (irregular) post-holes suggesting that the kerb followed the line of a previous wooden fence. Samples from the fill in these post holes were radiocarbon dated to 799-546 BC and 801-548 BC. Note the broad range of values here: 253 years in both cases. Still, even the upper dates are still much earlier than any previously associated with Buddhist archaeology, if indeed the structure is Buddhist. A problem here is that if the post-holes are Buddhist and the 801 or 799 BC date is accurate, then we have to re-write history much more drastically. The press releases carefully ignore the more distant (and less credible) end of the date range. 

Curiously the video on the National Geographic site shows a team of archaeologists working in a much larger and deeper pit than the one described in the article. And just as Coningham is mentioning the words "wooden structure" the worker in the pit is lifting out a poorly preserved piece of wood. We need to be clear that the article describes a different pit, and no such intact pieces of wood. Any talk of a "structure" in the article is predicated on the "post holes" from which the wood had long rotted away. The idea that it was a tree shrine is predicated not on finding a tree, but on evidence of tree root channels and a micro-anaylsis of the soil.

The earliest phase in this site has been identified as a cultivated flood plain (1112) dating to the end of the second millennium BC. The people cultivating the land ca. 1600 BCE were certainly not Buddhists! They were probably not even Indo-European or speakers of an Indo-European language at this early date either.

In about the 7th century BC an artificial mound appears to have been created using alluvial sediments. From the presence of post holes and the roof tile shards elsewhere at the site (reported by a previous excavation) the group deduce a covered structure. The lack of roof tiles in the present dig, which is central to the temple, suggest an open centre (however the centre of the Asokan structure and the probable centre of the tree shrine do not coincide - see below). Various features of the soil excavated at the centre also suggest exposure to the weather. Features of the present site are similar to tree shrines in Sri Lanka. (1113). One of the gateways at Sanchi depicts a roofed structure with a tree protruding through the roof.

Superimposed on these layers are the later brick structures. It's unclear from the article what date they assign to the pre-Asoka kerb and pavement.


So what we have here is a possible tree shrine that might have had a wooden fence. This was replaced by a brick kerb and stone paved walkway, possibly associated with a roofed structure, and then this whole thing was build over by a large brick monument or temple (of which only the foundations remain) probably sponsored by Asoka since nearby we also find a pillar edict. It is on the basis of the discovery of the pillar edict that Lumbini is considered to birthplace of the Buddha.

The very first question to ask about these findings is this. Is there any indication that the post-holes or paving are Buddhist? And the answer is no. Here Coningham et al. seem to be entirely unaware of the critical discourse surrounding Buddhist historical narratives. Most historians now doubt that the Buddhist texts give us much insight into Buddhist history because we cannot tell what was composed when, nor what was simply passed on and what was invented. My own investigation into the name of the Buddha makes it clear that his name was invented at a time when Brahmanism was ascendant in North India (i.e. after Asoka). The early history of Buddhism is obscured by the lack of reliable witnesses.

It's important to note that tree shrines are not exclusively Buddhist, as Coningham et al admit:
"... [tree shrines] have received little archaeological attention. Perhaps this is even more surprising when one considers that tree shrines are generally held to have been a well-established and ancient form of ritual focus in South Asia, some scholars suggesting an antiquity stretching back to Neolithic times." (1116). 
In view of this and the extraordinary claims made for insight into the "lifetime of the Buddha" one might have expected Coningham et al to provide some evidence that the layers they examined were in any way associated with Buddhist activity. But they do not. All we know is that by the time of Asoka, Lumbini was associated with the birth of the Buddha and the so-called Māyādevī Temple was build on top of an existing tree shrine - or as the article is careful to say "a potential tree shrine" (1117).

It's clear from Buddhist literature that Buddhism in the earliest forms that we meet it is already syncretised with various other religions. It incorporates Vedic gods for example. At it incorporates a variety of animistic deities such as yakṣas and nāgas that play an active role in daily life, but are supernatural. We even have a word for tree-spirits (rukkhadevatā) who live in special trees and are propitiated. The earliest Buddhism is a synthetic construct incorporating many elements, just as Tantra does a millennium later. Assimilation of Vedic places of worship was not possible, because apart from the family hearth where the sacred fire was kept burning they built no temples. Animists on the other hand, who worshipped trees or the spirits who dwelt in them seem to have built fences around special trees to protect them. And this aspect of animism was taken up by Buddhists in their stone architecture of some centuries later.

In my article on the possible Iranian origins for the Śākyas I proposed that the major climate change in 850 BC might have been the event which caused them to migrate to the area north of Kosala that is now associated with Lumbini. If this is correct then the area had been populated for some centuries before Buddhism arose. Indeed Coningham et al show that the earliest phases in their investigation is associated with agriculture suggesting the area was occupied by farmers for almost a millennia earlier than this (1681-1521 BC). My theory would make these the Śākya people and would have predicted that signs of agriculture would be evident by at least 850 BC. Though this does not preclude occupation much earlier by other groups.

That the site at Lumbini was occupied before Asoka is not a surprise. That it might have been a shrine likewise. Various theories predict this, including my own. But where is the evidence for Buddhism at this early date? There is none.

Another series of question concerning the tree remain unanswered. If there was a tree shrine at Lumbini, which was treated as a sacred spot, how did it come to be built over by Asoka? Coningham et al mention the legend of cuttings taken from sacred trees and being grown elsewhere and particular care being taken of such trees. Compare the situation at Bodhgaya where the temple was built to one side of the tree shrine. What happened to the tree at Lumbini? Did the tree died of some natural cause? Or was it destroyed? According to legend the Śākyas were slaughtered by a Kosalan king. If this reflects history did that king also destroy their sacred sites? What was there when Asoka's temple was built apart from a kerbed path?

Post holes
click for larger image
from Coningham p.1115
If we accept the idea that the Asokan structure was built on the site of a pre-existing tree shrine then there are still some oddities. The kerb and path, which the authors take to surround a tree as the focus of a shrine, in fact occur in the centre of the Mayadevi Temple. The post holes (left), taken to mark out a sacred spot, are found to the east of the central chamber in an east-west line. The holes are far from regular in diameter or placing, but appear to be in a roughly straight line going right through the middle of the Asokan structure. Something is askew with the geometry here. The chamber C5 is not the centre of the tree shrine, but its edge. Thus a lack of roof tile shards in C5 is not evidence for an open centre of any putative tree shrine.

This in turn raises another question. Why would the Asokan temple be constructed off to one side of the original shrine and not directly over it? if the tree represented, as the authors suggest, an axis mundi (1117-9), why did Asoka not follow the plan? His other monuments are often expansions of existing monuments that concentrically incorporate them. I would have expected the expert archaeologists to address these questions and provide plausible answers, but they do not.

Railing at the Bodhgaya tree shrine
The post hole sizes vary from ca. 5cm to more than 10cm; they are unevenly spaced; and they have cross-sections far from symmetrical. All this suggests that if the posts that fit them represented a fence then it would have been a rather wonky fence. This means it would be be quite unlike the railings erected by Buddhists around sacred trees and copied by later stone masons at sites like Sanchi. And it is the Sanchi stupas and Bodhgaya tree shrine (image right) which provide the model for the authors to interpret a line of post holes, barely more than 50cm in length, as supporting a fenced enclosure. What seems more likely from the post holes uncovered is a roughly constructed stockade rather than an ornamental railing.

Perhaps it is a naive question but I would like to have read more about the significance of finding charcoal in the post holes (which provided material for radio carbon dating).

More than anything I'm puzzled at being unable to find a date for the kerb and layers of paving in the article. They say (1108) that there were three successive layers of paving. Why were these not dated? If any part of pre-Asokan layers of the site was likely to be Buddhist it was this paving, but they are overlooked in favour of the post holes which are entirely unlike known Buddhist styles. There might have been good reasons for this, but they don't seem to have been stated.


There is no doubt whatever that the find at Lumbini is significant and fascinating. But Coningham et al (and Coningham himself) have overstated the claims for what this find signifies. In particular it tells us nothing whatever about the dates of the Buddha. What it tells us about is the dates of human occupation and use of the site at Lumbini. This is intrinsically interesting, but is only an outline that requires considerable filling in. Specifically it tells us nothing about who the occupants were. The authors of the article seem to have been carried away by the minutiae of the discovery and the assumption that all archaeology on an Asokan site is ipso facto Buddhist.

We have no indication that the underlying layers were in fact Buddhist. Such evidence as is presented -- e.g. that the site may have been a tree shrine -- is ambiguous, and in most cases the language of the article, contra the press release, is carefully hedged and qualified as one would expect in a scientific paper. Such questions as the alignment of the different layers at the site; the unknown fate of the tree in the shrine; and the type of fence suggested by the post holes; all seem to point away from a strong connection to the Asokan layer or a relationship with other Buddhist structures. If anything the evidence suggests a discontinuity. If the suggestion is that the layers under the Asokan structure represent the activity of Buddhists, some extraordinary evidence will be required. Something far more typical of Buddhists must be linked with the layers in question. Until then there is no question of revisiting the dates of the Buddha. There seems to be false reasoning linking all activity on the site with Buddhism because Asoka thought that Lumbini was the birthplace of the Buddha. Even the Buddhist tradition allows that the Śākyas had lived in the area for some time, so why should the activity be pre-Buddhist? Were the Śākyas unlikely to build tree shrines or even temples? Though I have speculated that they might have had residual Zoroastrian beliefs we in fact no nothing for certain about the tribe the Buddha was born into. But they must have had beliefs and acted them out since all humans do.

I imagine that a great deal remains to be done and some interesting discoveries lie in wait beyond the "Mauryan Horizon". But we have learned nothing definite about the origins of Buddhism from this research, let alone about the lifetime of the Buddha. Normally when confronting a gap between the evidence and the media reports I would lambaste science journalists for sloppy reporting and a poor understanding of the scientific process. It is all too common. But in this case the study itself has some flaws, and Professor Coningham seems to have played up the connection with the lifetime of the Buddha despite having no real evidence. Media reports largely seemed to regurgitate an undigested press-release that can only have come from the authors or publishers of the article. I think this is unfortunate.

In these days when funding for research is thin and obtaining grants competitive, I can understand wanting to create a media buzz around a project and its published findings. How exciting to discover something about the historical Buddha! However in this case we learned nothing about the historical Buddha, or even about historical Buddhism. I'd love to have some solid evidence one way or the other. I'm a great fan of evidence. As sophisticated as their archaeological methods might have been, the authors of the article have been let down by their hermeneutics and have produced interpretations that seem doubtful at best. That said I do look forward to seeing what else they come up with in the future. There is a lot of scope for continuing archaeological investigations at Buddhist sites. 


Other responses:

22 November 2013

Patañjali & Pronunciation

sculpture by Natalia Rosenfeld
Buddhist texts are preserved in a wide variety of languages. However in India for more than 1000 years, from just before the common era, most texts were composed and preserved in a variety Sanskrit. Sanskrit was not only the language of the Buddhist texts during this period, but was the literary language of all India, so that Buddhist exegesis was composed in Sanskrit also. Sanskrit was not restricted to Brahmins for most of the common era. Despite grammars dating back to ca. 4th century BCE, which served as prescriptive models, Sanskrit has always existed in a variety of dialects and there was influence in both directions with Prakrits (or vernacular languages that derive from one or other Sanskrit dialect).

Of course in Sri Lanka and countries under the influence of the Sri Lankan Buddhists, the North Indian mixed Prakrit we now call Pāli was important. And we are beginning to understand the importance of the language of Gandhāra (usually called Gāndhārī) and it's influence particularly in Central Asia and China.

Even in India there are some variations in pronunciation. Buddhists outside of India have struggled with Sanskrit pronunciation. Sanskrit contains sounds that are not part of the Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, or English sound palette. The first three nations settled on standard pronunciations a long time ago. In the individualistic English speaking world the problem of pronunciation continues, with a wide variety of mispronunciations being common. So we may here the syllable saṁ (as in saṁgha) being pronounced like the English words sang, sung, sum, and (the name) Sam. Sometimes all four by one person. 

I have written about pronunciation before in 2009. I've given up trying to correct people's pronunciation in writing. English speakers have a strong tendency to pronounce written words as though they were English - with all the vagaries of English pronunciation. And because we tend to learn our Buddhist vocabulary from written sources we seem to be stuck with the morasse of mispronunciation. In the short term I don't think anything I can say will change things. Certainly nothing I write will change things. Although a few of us make forays into Buddhist canonical languages, I don't know anyone who is familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet that phoneticists use to disambiguate spoken sounds.

But pronunciation is important, and not just for aesthetic reasons. An ancient commentary on the grammar of Sanskrit, the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya or Major Commentary on Grammar of Patañjali (also credited with composing the Yoga Sūtras), criticises bad pronunciation (mithyā prayukta) in this way:
duṣtaḥ śabdaḥ svarato varṇato vā mithyā prayukta na tam artham āha;
sa vāgvajro yajamānaṃ hinasti yathendraśatruḥ svarato 'parādhāt.
A faulty word, badly pronounced due to a misplaced accent or badly articulated sound does not convey the intended meaning. A word-lightning bolt kills the sponsor of the sacrifice, just as a misplaced accent in 'indraśatru'.
I've not attempted a verse translation here and have crammed in some extra information because much is alluded to this little verse that won't be obvious to readers.

Firstly there are two main ways to make mistakes: in accent (svarata) and in articulation (varṇata). Accent refers mainly to the Vedic pitch accent. Although the use of the pitch accent was changed to a stress accent in Classical Sanskrit, the placing of the accent still provided important information about how to conjugate any particular verb or render a compound as we will see, since this is the important aspect of the story. In English great use of the change in stress was made by the Two Ronnies in their hardware shop sketch: it's not clear whether Ronnie Barker is asking Ronnie Corbett for "four candles" or "fork 'andles" (the London accent drops the h of handles which accentuates the ambiguity). The pronunciation is the same and all that distinguishes them is the stress.

The mis-articulation of a word is a more obvious mistake. Articulation refers to the way the parts of the mouth move in order to create the sounds of speech. A single mispronounced letter can completely change the meaning of a word. This is used to great comic effect in Monty Ponty's Life of Brian in the character of Pontius Pilate who has a speech impediment (though of course we ought not to laugh at other's afflictions). When his friend, "Biggus Dickus", steps in to try and calm the situation, things get out of hand. Pilot remonstrates with the crowd, pointing out that his friend Biggus Dickus "commands a quack legion. He wanks as high as anyone in Wome." The crowd is already rolling on the floor laughing and any hope of regaining control or dignity is now lost.

The story alluded to in the verse relates to Indra and his mortal enemy Vṛtra. Indra is the god of storms and rain, a counterpart of Thor in Germanic myth. Vṛtra is synonymous with 'drought', though literally the name means 'restrainer', i.e. the one who holds back the rains. The two characters of this story seem to be personifications of the annual anxiety over the arrival of the monsoon. Leading up to the monsoon rains, which last for three months, there is no rain at all for nine months. If the monsoon fails there is, even now, widespread famine in India as crops fail for lack of water. Also, as in other river valleys, the annual floods ensure the continued fertility of the soil despite heavy cropping. Since the regular arrival of the monsoon is the natural order, when it fails something must have held it back (vṛta). So each year Indra must do battle with Vṛtra (sometimes envisioned as a dragon) in order to release the rains from Vṛtra's restraint. This story has been assimilated to a much older narrative about a warrior slaying a demon which is found in mythology across Eurasia (associated with the so-called Nostratic proto-language). The story is found, for example, in the Old English story of Beowulf and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In one of the stories surrounding this mythic pair, Vṛtra prepares a magical rite in which he will kill Indra. Within the rite he pronounces the following mantra: indraśatrur vardhasva! He had intended to say "may Indra's killer (i.e. himself) prosper. However he mispronounces the word indraśatrur and was himself killed. Why?

The word indraśatru is a compound. And as with most compounds it can be read a number of ways. The most obvious reading, where the pitch accent falls on the final syllable of śatru, is that the compound is a tatpuruṣa compound and means 'the killer (śatru) of Indra. However, when he gets the accent wrong Vṛtra makes the compound a bahuvrīhi '[he whose] killer is Indra'.

The magic of the mantra is infallible and so Vṛtra effective ensures his own demise by effectively naming himself 'killed by Indra'. By merely uttering the words in the ritual, which is to say the sacrificial, context, Vṛtra becomes the one who is killed by Indra. The utterance becomes a word-lightning bolt (vāg-vajra) which strikes and kills the sponsor of the sacrifice! The last little cultural detail here is that the Vedic sacrifice is sponsored by a wealthy community member,  who is known as the sacrificer (yajamāna) but by Classical times carried out by a group of priests who are experts in the sacrificial ritual (yājñika). If the priests go wrong it is not they, but the sponsor upon whom the mistake rebounds. Of the four priests taking a central role in the ritual, one, the brāhmaṇa, has the role of silently following the proceedings and repairing any mistakes by chanting special mantras. Presumably it would have been incredibly bad for the priestly business to have one's mistakes killing one's benefactors and sponsors.

Buddhism was initially, and is once again in the modern times, a religion without intercessors. In between the early and most recent periods the Buddhist clergy did (and sometimes still do) act as intercessory priests, performing rituals and prayers on our behalf, but fortunately we have sidelined them to a great extent in modern Buddhism. For modern Buddhists it is our own deeds of body, speech and mind which are important. The onus is on us to practice effectively, which is a very onerous duty. It means we are back to the consequences of our actions rebounding directly onto us. Thus we are like Vṛtra - both the sponsor and performer of deeds and mistakes rebound on us directly.

Coming back to the verse, the problem is that mispronounced words do not convey the intended meaning (na tam artham āha). People who complain about "poor" English grammar, and there are lots of them, make the same point. Part of the difficulty is that spoken language and written language are quite different.

Ideas about when human's acquired spoken language vary but it's generally agreed that we had the vocal apparatus by about 200,000 years before the present, when anatomically modern humans begin to be found in the fossil record. Apart from a very few individuals with severe learning difficulties, more or less every human acquires some form of spoken language. Even the famous Helen Keller acquired language despite being both deaf and blind (and eventually became an author whose books inspired me as a child). Most of us learn our mother tongue effortlessly merely by hearing it spoken and we understand a great deal well before we ourselves can speak. No difficult grammar lessons are required. This has lead some linguists to propose a "language instinct", the idea that our brains are pre-prepared by genetics to absorb whatever language we hear spoken around us. (See Stephen Pinker's book The Language Instinct).

After about age 12 learning a new language becomes a laborious process of rote learning, though each additional language is said to come easier by those who go in for polyglotism. The change is related to changes in the brain around puberty which involve pruning brain connections to optimise for the local conditions. In others words we spend our first 12 years being a generalist and learning whatever we can and then we settle down to specialise in the most common events, actions, etc. Of course the brain remains plastic throughout our lives and learning certainly takes place, but it doesn't have the effortless quality with which we learn our mother tongue.

Writing is a quite distinct process. Left to themselves humans learn to speak, but not to write. Writing emerged only about 3000 years ago. Learning to write is laborious even for children, and most of us never excel at it either in terms of graphic form or content. Indeed those who write well are celebrated in literate cultures precisely because the skill is rare. Writing is not a skill we have evolved directly. It is one that employs a variety of general skills, mostly optimised for other tasks. Many cultures never develop writing. Amongst the thousands of languages in Australia, New Guinea and Melanesia for example, not one was written before contact with Europeans.

To be fair, most English speaking Buddhists come across their first Sanskrit words when they are already adults. And we all tend to fall back on what we know to interpret new stimuli. Presented with new words, most of us rely on habits to try to pronounce them. And even when correction is offered it is ignored. So despite repeated reminders an erstwhile housemate of mine pronounces the tri in tri-ratna as English 'try'. He knows it's wrong because I repeatedly told him so, but he prefers the incorrect-but-familiar to the correct-but-unfamiliar when it comes to language. And most of us are like this. Indeed this is a microcosm of a human problem on a macro scale. Most of us want most things to be settled and stable, with a modicum of novelty to keep it interesting. We think in well worn grooves that are not always helpful.

Very few Buddhists make the effort to learn canonical languages or even make much effort with accurate pronunciation. People I know just shrug and say they don't really care. And making them care is beyond me.

In my book Visible Mantra I've argued that one ought to be concerned with good pronunciation on various grounds (p.15f) , but my book is hardly on the 'Best Sellers' list and I'm not a person whose words have influence. In Malcolm Gladwell's taxonomy of players in change, from The Tipping Point, I am a maven, but not a connector or a persuader. Though of course you, the reader, are reading this and will perhaps be influenced by it. And perhaps you are a connector or persuader?

The general disinterest in our canonical texts and languages is not a new thing. For most of the history of Buddhism most texts were known only to a few cognoscenti. The average Buddhist probably did not know any sutras, or at best might have chanted one or two as a magical charm. Most Buddhists in the past did what Buddhist do now and repeated edifying stories about their teachers and figures of the past (perhaps, but not necessarily, including the Buddha). We like  to tell and hear stories in which principles are personified. Even amongst the monastic institutions the education focusses on commentaries in the vernacular. Texts like the Heart Sūtra might be memorised in Sanskrit, but Sanskrit itself is not studied, so the text is not understood in Sanskrit and the recitation relies on the idea that Sanskrit has magical qualities. Sanskrit has no magical properties - it's just a language like any other. There is ample evidence of Buddhist texts being garbled by scribes who mechanically copied without understanding, or indeed by teachers who were unable to speak the language of the texts. My work on the Vajrasattva Mantra is a good example of the latter problem.

It is sad that the increasing popularity of Buddhism in the West has coincided with a slide towards the new form of libertarianism (sometimes called Neoliberalism, though it is extremely illiberal) and the decrease in funding to the liberal arts (including the study of religion and ancient languages). The decline of Buddhist Studies and Sanskrit and Pāli Studies in the UK has been marked since the 1970s. Pāli and Buddhism have almost entirely disappeared from Cambridge University for example. But given that most Buddhists don't care about Buddhist Studies, and that many Buddhist leaders are openly hostile to academia, it can be no surprise. The down side is that the study of our texts, history and culture is largely in the hands of those with no interest in the practice of Buddhism and even for them funding and opportunities are dwindling.


Should anyone be interested in following up the reference to the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya an English translation, accompanied by a translation of a standard Indian sub-commentary, can be found here.

15 November 2013

The use of Negation in Vajracchedikā

Paul Harrison
This essay will reproduce and, to some extent, critique an argument put forward by my countryman, Paul Harrison, in his 2006 English translation of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā or Diamond Sutra. My thanks to David Welsh for bringing this article to my attention and providing me with a copy of it. 

The Vajracchedikā was first translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva in ca. 402 CE (one also sees the date given as 401 and 403). The text that Kumārajīva translated was somewhat shorter than the one edited by Max Müller in 1881, suggesting that the text continued to change after it was first composed. The dating of the initial composition of Vajracchedikā is now disputed. Conze had argued that it belonged, with the Heart Sutra, to the period ca. 300-500 CE which follows the expansion of the basic text from 8000 to 100,000 lines. We now know that the Heart Sutra is a special case and was composed in the 7th century in China. Some scholars now argue that Vajracchedikā belongs to the earliest strata (see Schopen 1975: 153, n.16; Williams 1989: 42). According to one source cited by Schopen "...the latest date of establishment of the Diamond Sutra will be 200 AD or probably 150 AD" (153, n.16). It may be that, contra Conze, Vajracchedikā predates Aṣṭasāhasrikā (Schopen n.17). Jan Nattier has proposed that the Vajracchedikā was composed in a very different milieu (2003: 180, n. 18) "one of many reasons" is the difference in terminology: where Aṣṭa prefers experiential terms like na saṁvidyate 'is not found' and nopalabhyate 'is not obtained, Vajracchedikā is more confident using the verb 'to be' (asti, nāsti). For Nattier this suggests that the Vajracchedikā is more at ease with ontology. Another of the quirks of Vajracchedikā is that it never mentions śūnyatā or svabhāva which is odd for a supposedly late Prajñāpāramitā text.

In his notes to the revised edition of the (partial) Gilgit ms., Greg Schopen (1989) has listed the many problems in Conze's Sanskrit edition of Vajracchedikā (1957), along with previous editions. Conze has been too eclectic with his source materials and paid insufficient attention to chronology. His notes also leave much to be desired. We have reason to be suspicious of Conze's edition and thus of his translation of and commentary upon this text.

In 2006 Harrison & Watanabe published a new (partial) edition of the Vajracchedikā based on a manuscript (probably) from Bamiyan, Afghanistan and held in the Schøyen Collection.  Like the edition by Schopen, this new edition is considerably shorter than previously published editions and close in content to the Chinese translation of Kumārajīva. In the same publication Harrison combined the Gilgit and the Schøyen partial manuscripts to create a single hybrid which represents the text as it circulated in Greater Gandhāra (roughly Northern Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan) in the 6th or 7th centuries. This hybrid manuscript was then the basis of a new translation (Harrison 2006). The text and translation (sans Harrison's extensive notes and comments) are available online via Biblioteca Polyglotta at the University of Oslo.

In his notes Paul Harrison tackles the vexed subject of paradox. His very interesting contribution is to provide a detailed argument for reassessing the idiom which is so particular to the Vajracchedikā, which he sums up as "X is non-X; hence it is called X." In particular Harrison cautions against reading "some kind of mystical subversion of language" into this idiom. Richard H. Jones also resists the conclusion that the text was illogical or not meant to be understood, an idea which he says is "...frankly baffling and insulting to the ingenuity of the authors of this and other Perfection of Wisdom texts" (190, 220-3). I go along with this.

The mystification, even obfuscation, of Perfection of Wisdom texts has been actively pursued in some quarters. Correcting such misreadings will no doubt take time and will probably be resisted by those who enjoy the status quo. I put Harrison's case here, slightly modified with insights from Jones, in the hope that it will cause the more thoughtful amongst us to reconsider the Perfection of Wisdom. My own agenda is to try to demonstrate that the Vajracchedikā is another text which makes more sense when read using what I have called the hermeneutic of experience.


Buddhists will be familiar with the idea that prefixing a- (or an- for words beginning with vowels) to a noun or adjective negates it. (However, I have argued against the popular perception that this is the function of the syllable 'a' that gives it a central place in Prajñāpāramitā. See The Essence of All Mantras). Harrison begins by pointing out that such negated words can be treated as compounds of either of two types: as a karmadhāraya (not-X, no X, non-X) or as a bahuvrīhi (X-less, Lacking X, having no X). In his example the word aputra can be read as describing a person who is 'no son', with the possible implication of being unworthy of his parents; or the person might be 'sonless' or 'have no children'. Either reading is possible and only context can tell us which reading applies in any given case.

English translations of Vajracchedikā and other Prajñāpāramitā texts almost always opt for the karmadhāraya reading. Thus in Conze's (1975) translation we find:
And this world-system the Tathāgata has taught as no-system. Therefore it is called a 'world system'. (52; §13c)
I think everyone agrees that this is nonsense, even if we disagree on the significance of such nonsense. See for example Shigenori Nagatomo (2000) for an attempt to make "make intelligible the logic that is used in this Sutra in which a seemingly contradictory assertion is made to articulate the Buddhist understanding of (human) reality" (213).

There exist at least four Sanskrit variations on this sentence, 8 Chinese translations, and one Tibetan. The Gilgit Sanskrit manuscript reads:
yo 'py asau lokadhātur adhātuḥ sa tathāgatena bhāṣitas tenocyate lokadhātur iti | (Harrison 137)
We've mentioned that the English practice is to treat the compounds as karmadhāryas ("no-system"). Harrison points out that the Chinese also read karmadhārayas, because they negate the terms using 非 fēi rather than 無  (cf the negations in the Heart Sutra which all use 無). What interests Harrison is that the Tibetans treat the compounds as bahuvrīhi (X med pa or X ma mchis pa) and that this seems to be the better reading. In the case of lokadhātu/adhātu we might, with the Chinese, construe this as 'the world system (or realm, sphere, element etc) is not a system'; or '...is a non-system'; or '...is no system at all.' However we may also read it as saying that lokadhātu lacks a system or that there is no system in it (138). Harrison translates:
"Any world system there is has been preached by the Realized One as systemless. Thus it is called a world-system" 
The obvious question is whether we can chose either option arbitrarily? Harrison thinks not. He thinks we must chose to read these compounds as bahuvrīhis, i.e. as adjectives of the unnegated term. In this case adhātu is an adjective describing the substantive lokadhātu. In order to show this he first lists all thirty of the terms that are negated in the text. In each case what is negated is the second part of the compound: where we have a compound of the form XY the negative is almost always aY, though sometimes aXY with an implied negation of Y. For example lokadhātu > adhātu; puṇyaskandha > askandha; ātmabhāva > bhāva and so on.

Reading the Negations in Vaj

The key to understanding this idiom, according to Harrison, is in the phrase nirātmāno dharmā 'dharmas are selfless', which is found in the Vajracchedikā (17h) but echoes an Āgama phrase. It's also expressed anātmakāḥ sarve dharmāḥ 'all dharmas are selfless'. The Pāli counterpart of this phrase, sabbe dhammā anattā, is more ambiguous and is frequently read as 'all dharmas are not-self'. However Harrison argues that the ambiguity is not present in Sanskrit, so that a term like nirātma must be read as a bahuvrīhi (i.e. as self-less, rather than non-self).
"Thus nirātmāno dharmā means that all dharmas lack a self or essence, or to put it in other words, they have no core ontologically, they only appear to exist separately and independently by the power of conventional language, even though they are in fact dependently originated" (139)
I'm largely in agreement with Harrison. One of the key features of Prajñāpāramitā thought is a trenchant critique of substance ontologies which became a feature of Buddhist Abhidharma thought in North India around the beginning of the common era.

However I differ from Harrison in attributing the problem to "appearance" and "conventional language". Clearly we do have experiences. This is not a matter of appearance or convention. The use of the term "illusions" (indicating that experience is not real) is itself an aspect of the shift of attention from dharmas qua experience to dharmas qua reality. The latter leads to the necessity to split reality into relative and absolute (or conventional and real). If we do not go down the path of real dharmas the issue of conventional vs real language does not arise. In other words the split of language into conventional and real is dependent on framing the discussion in terms of real or unreal. The early Buddhists deny the validity of this dichotomy with respect to experience (e.g. Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12.15) and thus imply that the conventional/real split is not valid either. Thus if we accept the early Buddhist argument, and I do, then we need not invoke conventional language and illusions. 

The Buddhist model of cognition itself shows why this is so: cognition (vijñāna) is always sense-object, sense-faculty and sense-cognition working together. "Direct knowledge of objects" is simply not possible in this model as sense-cognition is always part of Buddhist knowledge production. "Reality" gets crowbarred into Modern Buddhism, but in early Buddhism there seems to be no concept that corresponds to our concept of reality. Early Buddhists accepted no noumena behind phenomena. The Buddha was always concerned with experience and understanding the nature of experience.  

Thus, the problem is not one of "appearance", but one of interpretation. The naive realist feels themselves to be in direct contact with reality. And as part of this interpretive framework the sense of self is also interpreted as real (giving rise to a number of false notions such as disembodied consciousness; pure subjectivity; a true self, i.e. a substantial entity behind what feels like subjective experience; and persistence of consciousness after death). When we understand that these ideas where meant to be applied to the domain of experience, rather than the broader domain of reality, then we eliminate a great deal of confusion both in language and metaphysics. 

This different aside, Harrison's proposal to read negated compounds like adhātu in the Vajracchedikā as bahuvṛhis is very interesting and useful. In the case of a term like prajñāpāramitā we get the negated term apāramitā. As he says prajñāpāramitā "does not contain any perfection [pāramitā] within itself, it is devoid of perfectionhood, so to speak, which would constitute its essence."

So the form of the first part of the argument is now: Any X kind of Y is Y-less according to the Buddha. In other words just because we can talk about various kinds of dhātu (loka-dhātudharma-dhātumano-dhātu etc) does not make dhātu a thing; does not make dhātu real; does not imply a substantial entity. There is no dhātutva or dhātu-ness, no noumena lurking in the background to give our experiences the qualities of permanence, satisfactoriness or substance.

Final Affirmation

Harrison's explanation of the final affirmation ("thus is it called Perfection of Wisdom") I find less convincing precisely because I'm unconvinced by the arguments about so-called conventional language.
"If there was perfection in the perfection of insight, then perfection would exist apart from the perfection of insight, and we would have two things, not one, and we could no longer speak about anything as the perfection of insight... However, there is no perfection existing as an entity in and of itself apart from the perfection of insight..." (139-40).
This approach echoes discussions in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and does draw out an important aspect of the critique in the sense that it is critical of essence or noumena. However I think Jones does better. The form of the affirmation in Sanskrit is:
tenocyate lokadhātur iti i.e. (without sandhi) tena ucyate "lokadhātuḥ" iti.
Jones points out that the tendency of previous translators to render tena as 'hence, thus, that is why' introduces a paradox. He argues that in fact no paradox is implied (222). What translators, including Harrison it seems, are doing here is making the final statement a direct logical consequence of the previous: XY is Y-less, therefore it is called XY. But as we have already observed, this inference is not logical. The fact that a world-system is not a system does not logically infer that we should call it a world-system. In this case the word "therefore" seems out of place to say the least and this raises the question of how we translate tena.

Conventionally, tena in this position can be translated as "therefore". Apte's dictionary sv. tad has "...tena the instrumental of tad is often used with adverbial force in the sense of 'therefore', 'on that account', 'in that case', 'for that reason.'" Jones is arguing that tena does not have adverbial force here. Jones construes the sentence as being in the form: "XY is not a (real) Y. The word 'XY' is used this way." 

The iti following lokadhātuḥ is equivalent to putting the word in quotes. The Sanskrit: lokadhātur iti corresponds to English [the word] 'World System'. The verb ucyate is a third person singular passive from √vac 'to say, to speak'. Here the passive requires the weakest grade of the root vowel and √vac undergoes samprasaraṇa to become uc; and ucyate means 'it is said, it is spoken'. And here we understand that it is the word lokadhātu (in the nominative) that is being spoken. With a passive verb the agent will be in the instrumental case and tena is the only word in the instrumental case. Thus, here we can take tena 'by him' to be the agent of the verb rather than an adverb. The use of the pronoun tena would usually refer to a previously mentioned agent, in the previous phrase i.e. tathāgatena 'by the Realised'.

So the phrase reads: 
tena ucyate lokadhātuḥ iti
by him / is said / "lokadhātu"
The word 'lokadhātu' is said by him [i.e. the Realised].
Jones argues that this means that the Tathāgata uses a word like lokadhātu always keeping in mind that there is no substantial, really existent kind of 'dhātu'. This is emphasised later in the text: a bodhisattva perceives no ātma, satva, jīva, or pudgala, which here translate roughly as 'substance, essence, soul or homunculus' (Vaj §6 ). Or to put it another way, the names we give to persistent and repetitious experiences cannot hide the truly ephemeral, unsatisfactory and insubstantial nature of experience. I've argued before that this is only true (or only straightforwardly true) when the domain under consideration is experience. Hence I see a continuity here with one of the most important threads of early Buddhist thought that is epitomised by the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) and the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

The Role of Translator

I think what both Harrison and Jones are getting at is that the translator is also an interpreter. A translator assumes that the text made sense to the author and tries to understand the sense and communicate it in another language. Conze's interpretations unconsciously colour every line of his translations. However, he frequently choses unclarity precisely because it suits his interpretation (this was for example how I understood his misreading of the first sentence in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra resulting in a simple grammatical error). Faced with a sentence that presents a difficult reading, the translators job is to try to get across what they think the author was getting at. Slavishly sticking to a literal rendering of the words is seldom helpful especially if one also uses the foreign syntax. Buddhist authors use both the Sanskrit language and sectarian Buddhist idiom to convey ideas, the text is embedded in the context of a worldview. It's not sufficient to translate an idiom literally because idioms are not used literally. Consider English idioms like "I'm going to see a man about a dog", or "he'd lose his head, if it wasn't screwed on". Literalism only leads us astray and yet Conze admits he has translated as literally as possible to the point of reproducing the Sanskrit syntax. This approach has marked Conze as a leading exponent of what has been called Buddhist Hybrid English.

Of course for Conze, perhaps influenced by Suzuki and late Buddhist commentators, the quotient of nonsense in his texts seemed to give him a certain amount of pleasure. It gave him scope to play the gnostic and insinuate that he understood this text in a nonconceptual way through (deep) meditation, whereas his academic readers, approaching Buddhism intellectually, had to be content with illogical nonsense. There are constant digs at the plodding intellectual non-meditator in Conze's commentaries. As his memoirs make plain, Conze felt, with some justification, deeply aggrieved at his treatment by the academic establishment of the UK and USA and was contemptuous of most of his colleagues. Conze is thus a complex figure and his work is complicated by such factors as well.


Thanks to Harrison and Jones, we now have two possible interpretations of this and similar passages: one which conveys nonsense and implies occult profundity; and one which conveys some sense and is no less profound but in a more obvious way.

Taking the whole sentence again:
yo 'py asau lokadhātur adhātuḥ sa tathāgatena bhāṣitas tenocyate lokadhātur iti |  
The Tathāgata taught a world-system that is without a [noumenal] system, the word 'world-system' is used this way by him.
I think it's worth repeating that this statement is not less profound than Conze's gnostic interpretation or more mystical readings. That fact that we can understand the statement does not make it less valuable.

Of course whether we can experience a "world-system" is moot. With cosmological terms like lokadhātu we are in an abstract realm. Even in modern cosmology everything we know about the universe is inferred rather than experienced. The object of the senses here is an abstraction formed in the mind on the basis of sense data; i.e. it is an object of the mind-sense (manas). The Vajracchedikā is in fact equivocating on this element of Buddhist cosmology. "OK," it is saying "even if you believe in a world-system (or any other cosmological or metaphysical entity), your experience of it is still subject to the laws of experience: impermanence, disappointment and insubstantiality." Whatever categories, abstractions, ideas, entities you can come up with, your experience of them is subject to these constraints because it is only through experience that you know anything at all. Here the relatively unsophisticated Buddhist approach to psychology has distinct advantages. By lumping all mental experience under the heading of manas we are less likely to get caught up in finessing the details of the aspects of humanity that make us feel special. Our ability to think abstractly is remarkable, but to Buddhists it's just another kind of experience about which we make epistemological mistakes. 

Whatever ontology we might subscribe to, there are always these epistemological constraints that leave us off balance. Though we might make apparently valid ontological inferences, commitment to any particular ontology as an individual is always premature because knowledge proceeds from experience, not from reality, and experience is always a co-creation (pratītya-samutpāda) of objects, our sensory apparatus and our mind. This is directly contradicted by Buddhist mystics, who sometimes claim that direct knowledge of reality is the goal of Buddhism, but it is what the Buddhist texts say over and over; and it is also what my friends who go deep into meditation also say. In this view the problems of human existence are due, in effect, to epistemological errors which can be corrected by careful observation of experience under controlled conditions and the guidance of an experienced mentor. The problem addressed by Buddhist practice are, on the whole, not caused by ontological errors. With some caveats, what we experience is not an illusion, but we do have illusions about what we experience. Of course we do make ontological errors, but the Buddhist texts do not seem overly concerned with this type of error which is relatively easily corrected.

I've said that ontological commitments based on individual experience are always premature. However we can get around this by pooling our resources. One of my frustrations with philosophy and particular Buddhist philosophy is that it always seems stuck in the point of view of an absolutely isolated individual and takes no account of our collective endeavours. In fact we social primates almost always work in teams. We can have reliable knowledge about the world around us through comparing experiences, though even when this collaborative effort is coordinated and formalised (as in the sciences) most knowledge is still considered provisional, because there is always the possibility of a "black swan event". Most importantly by communicating with others we do know that objects exist apart from our perception of them, even though we might be slightly fuzzy about the details of that object. One only has to watch the heads at a tennis match - turning this way and that as they follow the action to know that the ball is not something that we alone are perceiving. The only way to maintain that objects do not exist, is to artificially disallow the evidence of others.

But the whole focus of the Buddha's teachings is away from the objects and on the experience itself. And in experience neither real nor unreal apply. Even if the object were permanent, the experience itself would still change because it relies partly on us - our sense organs and sense cognition. These simple facts can be used to direct our practice of Buddhist techniques in an effective direction. The Prajñāpāramitā teachings continue this focus.

As a final aside aside Jan Nattier has an interesting take on this type of negation: "[In the Aṣṭa and the Vajracchedikā] the initial negations are directed not at 'dharmas' or at things in general, but at the bodhisattva and the practices in which he is engaged. It is my strong suspicion that this 'rhetoric of negation' first emerged as a tactical attempt to undercut the potential for bodhisattva's arrogance, and was only later generalized to what came to be considered to be a new (anti-abhidharma) ontology" (2003 135-6, n.62). Hopefully in the future Nattier will collect her thoughts on the Vajracchedikā and publish them.



Conze, Edward. (1957) Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. Serie Orientale Roma XIII. Roma. 
Conze, Edward (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. 2nd Ed. George Allen & Unwin.
Harrison, Paul. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra', in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.
    Harrison, Paul & Shōgo WATANABE (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā.' in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p. 89-132.
    Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and Other Perfection of Wisdom Texts. New York: Jackson Square Books.
      Shigenori Nagatomo. (2000) 'The Logic of the Diamond Sutra: A is not A, therefore it is A.' Asian Philosophy, 10(3): 212-244
        Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
            Schopen, Gregory. (1975) 'The phrase ‘sa pṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet’ in the Vajracchedikā: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahāyāna.' Indo-Iranian Journal. 17(3-4): 147-181.
              Schopen, Gregory. (1989) 'The Manuscript of the Vajracchedikā Found at Gilgit,' in Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts, ed. by L. O. Gómez and J. A. Silk, Ann Arbor, pp. 89-139.
                Williams, Paul. (1989) Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. London, UK: Routledge.

                  08 November 2013

                  Moral Metaphors

                  George Lakoff
                  From time to time I mention the work of George Lakoff. He is primarily a cognitive linguist, but applies linguistics to a broad range of domains. Lakoff is particularly known for his work on metaphors. His book, co-written with Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By is on my list of non-fiction books everyone should read. Lakoff, like another well known linguist, Noam Chomsky, has ventured into the world of politics. He is perhaps less successful in this, though also less trenchant and less controversial. One of his important contributions is to analyse the linguistic frameworks that politicians of the left and right (or liberals and conservatives) use in their rhetoric.

                  Lakoff is a liberal and is concerned that conservatives have stolen a march on liberal politicians, especially in the USA. Part of the problem seems to be that liberals don't understand that they are often debating on and in conservative forms which only serves to reinforce conservative norms. A similar thing has happened in the UK. Lakoff's analysis is set out in various publications, but an easily accessible and apoposite version can be found in:
                  Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. (1995). http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html
                  In this essay I want to outline the basic framework of morality that Lakoff presents because I think it offers general insights into morality, but also specific insights into Buddhist morality. Part of my project with respect to Buddhist morality is to examine the claim that Buddhist morality is substantially different from other forms of morality. I've been attempting to undermine this idea in a desultory way for a few years now. In particular I have sought to show that karma is distinct as an agent of morality only in that it is not personified. I've also tried to show that post-mortem judgement and reward/punishment is a feature common to various forms of morality including both Christian and Buddhist. The function of karma is just the same as moral gods, it's only the user-interface that is different. Lakoff's moral framework shows this in greater relief, but it also gives a sound basis for thinking about morality. 

                  In Lakoff's account of metaphor there are two important concepts:
                  1. consciousness is embodied
                  2. the experience of embodiment provides the source domain for most metaphors
                  Embodied consciousness is fast becoming the consensus view of consciousness. It argues from a variety of viewpoints that what we call consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the maintenance of bodily states in the brain through layered models that are used primarily to regulate and optimise both internal states and external behaviour. Lakoff and Johnson have argued for this view from language and philosophy, Thomas Metzinger, Antonio Damasio and many others from neuro-scientific evidence. This view is radically non-dual in the sense that the mind/body duality is completely broken down - the mind is embodied, embodiment is a necessary condition for having a mind (though we must keep in mind that there are powerful reasons that naive realists do believe in disembodied consciousness - such as the classic out-of-body experience). 

                  Lakoff takes experience as the source domain for metaphor and abstraction. So whereas philosophers will often discuss causality in abstract terms, Lakoff looks to the experience of an infant gaining control of their limbs and becoming able to move things about according to their conscious will. In this view causation as an abstract metaphysical notion is rooted in the domain of willed actions. Those interested in Kantian accounts of causality may find this interesting since it may well account for a priori structuring of knowledge as well (I don't know this branch of Lakoff's work well enough to comment: see Philosophy in the Flesh).

                  Such conceptual metaphors are central to Lakoff's account of morality. A conceptual metaphor is:
                  "an unconscious, automatic mechanism for using inference patterns and language from a source domain to think and talk about another domain."
                  In his discussion of morality Lakoff highlight's two metaphors
                  • well-being is wealth
                  • moral arithmetic
                  In the former the source domain is wealth. Wealth is something which can be gained or lost. Wealth is also involved in transactions - I can give something of value to enrich you, or take something from you to impoverish you. I can also give something of negative value which impoverishes you. Clearly wealth is itself a metaphorical concept. If I can give and take it, clutch it and hoard it, make it, lose it etc., then we are employing a more fundamental metaphor that wealth is an object (that can manipulated with (metaphoric) hands). Other metaphors help to structure the concept. For Lakoff, our abstract thought is structured by a series of interdependent metaphors that are rooted in our experience of being embodied and our physical interactions with the world. This ability to think of one domain in terms of another (i.e. to use metaphors) makes our thinking very flexible and adaptable.

                  In this view metaphors of wealth and wealth transactions can be applied to the domain of well-being (so that by association we may treat well-being as a object as well). Thus by making noise I can give you a headache and undermine your well-being. By giving love I can make you happy, though this may require an exchange of tokens. Many events can rob us of our well-being, none more so that any kind of physical assault. With respect to wealth one must acquire a certain level of wealth in order to have well-being. We're using wealth in a very general sense here, not necessarily as an economist might define it. And we are not placing restrictions on the kinds or number of metaphors that relate to well-being. The selected metaphors are only one dimension chosen because they highlight a facet of morality.

                  Morality then, is, at least in part, the book-keeping of such transactions; or what Lakoff calls "moral arithmetic". The ancient Egyptians conceptualised judgement in the afterlife as a weighing up of good and bad deeds. This notion of a final reckoning (i.e. tallying or counting up) is widespread. The tally maybe kept by a god (such as Anubis, Ahura Mazda, Mitra, or Jehovah) or in the case of Buddhism it may be a natural law (karma, dharmatā), but fate is seen as hanging in the balance of actions with a moral dimension (i.e. good and bad). In Indian terms if the accumulation of merit (puṇya) outweighs the accumulation of evil (pāpa) then one goes to a good destination (sugati) and if not then one goes to a bad destination (durgati). The very word for friend in Sanskrit (mitra) originally meant "contract". A contract sets out the expectations of two parties in a transaction, whether substantial or abstract. If the consequences of actions are minimal we say someone "got off lightly"; or if caught out, a judge may "come down hard". Buddhists use this bookkeeping/balance metaphor in terms like 'weighty karma'.  

                  The moral accounting scheme operates on several main principles.


                  If I give you something of positive value then you owe me something of equal value. There is an element of obligation here that Lakoff does not discuss, but which I think was especially important in the ancient world. The Indian word mitra now means 'friend' but was originally both a contract (which spells out obligations) and a god, Mitra, who oversaw the fulfilment of obligations. Mitra's counterpart Varuṇa had a similar but broader purview in that he oversaw the obligations of the devas to maintain the cosmic order, ṛta. Even now people can be reluctant to accept help for the obligation this places them under. If my well-being  is enhanced by your actions there is often an expectation of quid pro quo. Two principles of morality emerge (and here I extent Lakoff's definition a little):
                  1. Do no harmMoral (in the positive sense of good) action is (willingly) giving something of positive value or (willingly) taking something of negative value; immoral action is giving something of negative value or taking something of positive value, in both cases against the will of the recipient.   
                  2. Debts must be paid. Failure to pay debts is immoral. Thus if a criminal is deprived of liberty for a period, they are said to have "paid their debt to society". We always want to repay kindness. Revenge is payback.

                  Retribution or Revenge.

                  Harm is a reduction in the wellbeing of the recipient. Either something of negative value is given (e.g. a disease; a blow, an insult); or something of positive value is taken (e.g. prestige; property). In the case where harm is done a dilemma is created in the application of the principles of reciprocation.

                  On one hand we might insist that the first principle dominates. So if I harm you settlement of the debt, then on balance I have not acted morally because causing harm is not moral.

                  On the other hand we might insist that debts must be paid no matter what. Thus if you harm me, then it is immoral not to harm you back in some way to settle the debt, even though causing harm is immoral.  

                  Lakoff calls the first position the Morality of Absolute Good and the second the Morality of Retribution. With respect to the death penalty, for example, liberals tend to adopt the Morality of Absolute Good (the principle of the debt must be paid cannot justify the immoral action of killing as retribution); while conservatives tend to adopt the Morality of Retribution (the repayment of the debt over-rides the immorality of killing). In Christian terms we obviously also have a contrast between New Testament Morality ("turn the other cheek") and Old Testament Morality ("an eye for an eye"). 

                  We see that the same set of metaphors are used, but they are employed in different ways. In my own account of morality the different aspects of the metaphor are given different salience by different people. For liberals it is more salient not to do evil; for conservatives it is more salient to pay off debts. 

                  A feature of both Buddhist and Christian morality is the principle of passivity. In Christian terms "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12.19)". Buddhists texts argue that we should never react to harm. "Anger is never soothed by anger." (Dhammapada 3-6). If we genuinely believe in karma then all actions will be paid out according to their deserts and no further action is required when someone harms us. Indeed the worse the harm the more horrific the consequences for the person doing the harm. Retributive action on our part will only cause more harm, since the principle of paying off debts is taken out of our equation. The Buddhist moral imperative is to focus on our own actions and to purify our motivations so that we ourselves do not cause harm. 

                  In a Buddhist world where we do not believe in karma there is a reversion to the moral principles we were raised with, which often tends to be the Morality of Retribution. In fact I think we can say that most Western Buddhism is underpinned more by Christian morality, as echoed in our laws and social rules, than by Buddhist morality. 


                  In the retributive model of morality we aim to balance things out: good for good and harm for harm. But it's possible to create balance by offering positive to counteract the negative, that is to make amends or restitution. In my early research on Buddhist morality I showed that making amends is not possible in the early Buddhist ethos (See Did King Ajātasattu Confess To The Buddha?). Since the consequences of any and all actions must be experienced, making amends cannot change the balance retrospectively. Or in other words karma cannot be wiped out, though it can be mitigated by conditioning oneself to bear painful vedanā (through learning to bear small discomforts, one can bear greater discomforts equanimously). Of course this changed and Buddhists soon began to allow for making amends to karma through rituals and purification (which is the subject of a forthcoming article). However even this was abstract and unrelated to making amends to the person harmed by our actions. The sense of Buddhist texts is that Buddhists are expected to live in isolation until they are able to operate skilfully in the world. Buddhist (monastic) morality is focussed on restraint, guarding, controlling and protecting the sense faculties so as not to stir up negative emotions.

                  We often hear about Buddhists 'burning up karma' but this is not a feature of early Buddhism. It is a feature of early Jainism. The Jains practiced painful austerities in order to balance the moral ledger. If pain is the result of bad actions, then by pursuing painful sensations one pays off the debt incurred. This principle was also taken up by Buddhists though they still had an effective injunction against the extremes of asceticism, they invented ritual ways of counteracting bad karma.


                  Altruism is a special case amongst the other forms of moral accounting. Altruistic behaviour seeks to do good without creating a debt, i.e. with no expectation of a return. Cancelling debts in this way, though builds up "moral credit" [Lakoff's term]. In Buddhism we call this moral credit puṇya. Of course we do benefit from altruistic behaviour because everyone benefits. Generosity is often repaid with generosity, even when, or especially when there is no obligation.

                  Lakoff separates out the other side of the altruism coin - cancelling a debt created by harm - calling it "turning the other cheek". But I think that structurally it belongs with altruism. 

                  Cancellation of Debts

                  One aspect of morality that Lakoff doesn't mention is the scapegoat, which is a special form of debt cancellation. The scapegoat was an old Jewish custom which we can see as relieving the tension that can be created by the build up of moral debts. Each year a sacrificial goat was consecrated and imbued with all of the moral debt for that year. It was then sent out into the wilderness, that is banished from the tribe, which in that climate meant certain death. It reminded people that they needed each other to survive and that allowing moral debts to build up or remain for long periods of time tended to divide loyalties. At the same time another goat was sacrificed to God to reinforce the moral covenant. 

                  Now "scapegoating" has largely negative connotations these days - blaming someone else for our misdeeds. But in essence it involves ritual forgiveness of moral debts. Interestingly the Jews also practiced the cancellation of financial debt every fifty years (known as a jubilee) for just the same reasons. Allowing financial debt to continue building up indefinitely seriously weakens a society. Many economists argue that private sector debt, especially household and non-finance sector debt, was at the root of the global financial crisis initiated by the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank in 2008. 

                  Forgiving debt, whether financial or moral, is an emotive issue in the West and I don't think we'll see any change away from the gestalt in which paying debts over-rides doing harm, even though great harm continues to be done by the unwise build up of financial debt. However one of my economic inspirations, Ann Pettifor, successfully led a campaign to have billions of dollars worth of debt in Africa to be forgiven in the Jubilee 2000 Campaign. That debt was never going to be repaid anyway. It had been imposed on poor African countries by the IMF and World Bank in an ideologically driven fervour and simply created the conditions for ongoing misery. I'm an advocate of a modern debt jubilee, as proposed by Professor Steve Keen. But perhaps we need to think in terms of moral debt jubilees as well? 


                  This, then, is how I see Lakoff's metaphorical approach to morality. I find it an elegant and useful approach because it allows us to get beneath the trappings of morality in various settings and see the mechanisms - i.e. to see the way our thinking is structured by metaphors. In particular it shows that the mechanisms are similar in most cases. While groups might evaluate the salience of the various aspects differently we can see that the same principles apply across a wide spectrum. 

                  My case that there is nothing very special about Buddhist ethics is advanced. The distinctive features of Buddhist ethics are on the surface. Beneath the surface we see the same currents moving: i.e. concerns with group membership and group norms; narratives which ensure compliance with norms (especially post-mortem judgement); metaphors such as wellbeing = wealth and moral accounting; and preventing attempts to balance the moral books tearing a society apart by placing the balancing in the hands of an impartial supernatural accountant (e.g. Anubis, Jehovah, Varuṇa, Ahura Mazda). Many societies separate the metaphysical 'judiciary' from 'punishment and corrections', but some combine them, along with legislative and executive branches in what I have called a "swiss-army-knife god". Where rules directly affect the physical survival of individuals or the group they will tend to be the same since humans have fundamentally similar requirements for survival; and where they are concerned with local conditions and etiquette they will tend to be different. 

                  Of course Buddhists will say that morality has a higher purpose in Buddhism - it forms the foundation for transcendent knowledge gained via meditation. In Lakoff's terms such knowledge seems to have the main effect of removing a person from the necessity of moral accounting. The adept is characterised as a person who only acts for the good. Attenuating or eliminating self-preoccupation changes the equation - we may act and be acted on without any need to reciprocate (śīlapāramitā and kṣantipāramitā?). If we do not incur moral debts or hold others indebted to us, then the principle of do no harm comes to the fore in all relationships. We see here that behaviour is both the foundation for liberation, but also the most obvious sign by which we perceive someone as liberated. One who is liberated from greed and hatred must perforce operate with a different set of moral metaphors, but seen in terms of the standard metaphors they ought to exemplify morally good behaviour. 

                  I haven't gone further into Lakoff account of the political spectrum because it is less relevant to discussions of Buddhist ethics and would have taken too long. But I do recommend reading the essay referred to above, or Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant. Even if it does nothing to change your political sympathies, it is as well to understand the other point of view a little better. For a good summary of left and right values as they manifest in various spheres of life, I recommend the infographic by David McCandless.

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