22 December 2017

What is a Text Anyway?


I often find myself having to stop and reflect on the process and methods I use to explore texts. There is no ideology of method in Buddhist studies, we simply do whatever we think is best at the time. Indeed there is very little discussion of "Theory" in the sense that presently dominates other subjects in the humanities. So as I decipher texts I have to keep asking myself, "What do I have to assume in order for this approach to allow me to make valid inferences, and are those assumptions themselves valid?" Writing my thoughts down is often the best way to organise them. 

My task at present is to identify instances of the Chinese phrase  三世諸佛 in Prajñāpāramitā texts and compare parallels in the extant Sanskrit sources. The phrase means "all the buddhas of the three times" (Three 三 time 世 all 諸 buddha 佛). My hypothesis is that Sanskrit sources will always have atīta-anāgata-pratyutpannā buddhāḥ "past, future, and present buddhas". This is important because the Heart Sutra has "tryadhvavyavasthitā sarvabuddhāḥ" or "all the buddhas appearing in the three times". So far I can say with confidence that this way of phrasing it does not occur in any of the Sanskrit editions of earlier Prajñāpāramitā texts. In the jargon it is a hapax legomenon or a one-off (or perhaps a neologism). 

If my hypothesis is accurate, then this phrase in the Heart Sutra can only be a Sanskrit translation from Chinese. This would prove beyond any doubt that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese. To be clear, it is already beyond any reasonable doubt that this is accurate. I think I can make it certain. And this is important because some scholars are on the fence regards the Chinese origins thesis, and some irrationally reject it. I hope to entice the fence-sitters down to earth and to leave the rejectors no wiggle room. It's part of my elaborate homage to the originator of the Chinese origins thesis, Jan Nattier (3 articles published, 1 submitted for peer-review, and 3 more planned). 


One Text or Many?

However, this task is far less straightforward than it might seem at face value. Take, for example, the first occurrence of the phrase in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa; "Perfect Gnosis in 8000 Lines"). It occurs in a speech that Maitreya gives in praise of transference of merit. In the translation produced by Kumārajīva’s group in about 408 CE, (aka  "T227") it begins at T 8.548a17 (Vol 8 of the Taishō Edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, page 548, panel a, line 17). 

It is easy enough to locate the same speech in Vaidya’s Sanskrit edition (72) [Page 127 of Conze's translation]. However, Vaidya's text is approximately three times as long as in T227. In the translation by Xuánzàng (T 7.791c29), the speech is almost twice as long again. Although we don’t have a Gāndhārī text of this chapter, we know that in general it is considerably less prolix than the Pala Era (8th - 12th Century) manuscripts used by Vaidya for his edition. Also there are seven Chinese translations in total (though only one other is of any great interest). This raises the question of whether "parallel" is even the right term. 

There is, in effect, no single text of Aṣṭa. Each instance of Aṣṭa is unique. And we need to be very cautious about thinking of the Sanskrit text as “original”. In fact, the extant Sanskrit documents certainly do not constitute an “original” for Kumārajīva’s translation, but date from perhaps 400-500 years later. We no longer have Kumārajīva's source document (thought it probably was a Sanskrit translation). 

The prolixity of Xuánzàng's text may be an artifact of his translation process, which often includes an element of auto-commentary: i.e. the text commenting on itself.. Where we can compare the late 1st Century Gāndhārī manuscript we often see that the Sanskrit has expanded one adjective or verb with up to five or six synonyms. For example, where Gāndhārī might have, "speak"; the Sanskrit texts might have, "speak, teach, instruct, draw-out, reveal, illuminate". I think we can see this as a form of auto-commentary. 

This raises some philosophical questions. If Aṣṭa is in fact many texts, in many languages, and specific to particular practice communities in particular places, then are my methods sound? Because, in common with other scholars, I tend to assume a unitary text with at most minor variations that can easily be eliminated. But the variations here are huge and cannot be ignored. And if it was officially translated, then it was authoritative to someone.


Philology

The basic approach of philology grew out of Bible Studies. As 18th and 19th Century European imperialists looted the world they came across, amongst other things, very old manuscripts of the Bible that had differences from the received text in Europe. I imagine this must have been unsettling for Theologians at the time. Methods were developed to identify the ur-text and restore the Word of God (phew!). Those methods became the main tools of philology and provide Buddhist Studies with some of our most important tools. We too spend time collecting and assessing documents, creating critical editions (restoring the original or ur-text), and doing "higher criticism" based on this "original"

But if what I've been saying about Aṣṭa is true, then the possibility of reconstructing the ur-text is doubtful at best. We know from analysis of phonetic transcriptions of some words and names in the earlier Chinese translations and from the existence of a single badly damaged manuscript--carbon dated to ca. 70 CE--that the oldest Prajñapāramitā texts we know of were in Gāndhārī. In other words in the vernacular language of Gandhāra, a kingdom that roughly equated to the Peshawar region in modern-day Pakistan, though it extended over the Hindu Kush and into what is now Afghanistan as well (hence the Bamiyan Buddhas). Mahāyāna texts began to be translated into Sanskrit around the 4th century CE. The oldest Sanskrit manuscript of Aṣṭa by contrast is from the mid 9th Century (it's held in the Cambridge University Library and I have seen the actual object). In other words it is 800-odd years removed from the origins. Lokakṣema's Chinese translation was produced in 179 CE from a Gāndhārī source text. Might it not have a greater claim to authenticity than a 9th Century copy of a 4th Century Sanskrit translation? 

Recently one of the more inspirational professors of Buddhist Studies, Jonathan Silk,  has raised many related issues. He has argued that a critical edition is in fact a new composition. The idea that a critical text represents the ur-text is simply a fantasy. The reconstructed text may not even be in the correct language. This is the case with the Heart Sutra. It was composed in Chinese, using a quote from Kumārajīva's translation of the Perfect Gnosis in 25000 Lines. Because it contains a quote, even the Chinese text is not a true ur-text because we can go several steps further back - right back to the Gāndhārī text of Aṣṭa. Other parts of the Heart Sutra may have been composed in the late 7th Century, but they show distinct influence from the idiom of Kumārajīva. 

Lest we think that the prajñāpāramitā literature is a special case, let me assure you that it applies to all Buddhist texts, including the Pāḷi texts. There is every reason to believe that the texts were not composed in Pāḷi but are translations. When we look at the Chinese translations of counterparts of Pāḷi texts they show the same trend, albeit to a lesser extent, as the Mahāyāna texts - later translations are more elaborate and edited for consistency (see for example my rough translations of the Chinese Spiral Path texts in the Madhyama-āgama). Consider also that as yet there is no proper critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon. The editions we have were from a very small number of documents. Alex Wynn is heading a project to produce such an edition, but the host monastery in Thailand, Wat Dhammakāya, is embroiled in multiple scandals, so will it have credibility? 

Mahāyāna texts were written down soon after being composed, or were perhaps even composed as written as opposed to oral texts. And yet they were dynamic, open to changed and seemed to have grown over a period of some 6 or 7 centuries. Writing did not cause them to be fixed. Mahāyāna texts were anthologized (as in Śātideva's Śikṣasamuccaya) but they were not Canonised. Even the Pāḷi Canon underwent some post-canonical editing. 

Unlike the differences in the Bible which were effectively an accumulation of mistakes and misreadings, Buddhist texts were actively changed and edited. And not always competently. Part of my work on the Heart Sutra will be repairing the damage done by inept ancient editors.


History of Ideas

For me this impression is reinforced by the history of Buddhist ideas. We all know that Buddhist doctrines changed over time. Buddhists experimented with many varieties of worldview over time and now have such a broad range of views that any attempt to conceptually unite them necessarily fails. Buddhism has not been a single religion for about 2000 years now. We evolved into distinct (incompatible) species. Of course we know that there were innovations, and some of us have adopted one or other innovation as our standard view, but we seldom get real sense of why there are variations. What drove Buddhists to innovate?

The obvious answer is dissatisfaction with the doctrines obtained from the earlier texts (aka The Pāḷi Canon). In other words, we have to ask: If the Pāli texts are so authoritative, why did all Buddhists (including Theravāda Buddhists) keep inventing new doctrines and changing the old ones? Often to the point of completely abandoning the earlier material (esp. in Tibet and Japan).

While I was researching the history of the ideas of karma and rebirth, I identified a couple of probable reasons for innovation that I still have not seen in any books. My prime example is that karma requires consequences to manifest long after actions; while dependent arising denies that this is a possibility - "when this ceases, that ceases." Once the action has ceased, the possibility of a future consequence should entirely vanish.

Now, Buddhists had four choices: leave it incompatible; modify karma; modify dependent arising; or modify both. Initially they opted for modifying dependent arising in various ways (though all survived was two variations on the kṣanavāda or doctrine of momentariness; and that dvayasatyavāda or doctrine of two truths.). However, later, when the karma doctrine no longer fit their needs, they also modified karma (On this see my 2014 article in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics). 

Over time, Buddhists changed things. They changed what seem like central doctrines and they changed seemingly sacred texts. Often they went down blind allies. Modern Buddhists tend to have some knowledge that things changed, since most of us have read books from different traditions and experienced the confusion of terms and ideas. On the other hand, very few of us understand the dynamics that produced these changes. The "why" question is often left blank. A notable except is Ronald M. Davidson's Indian Esoteric Buddhism, which describes the socio-economic and geopolitical forces that may have contributed to the rise of Tantric Buddhism. 


Conclusion

I don't expect anyone will rush out and start learning multiple traditional languages (though Pāḷi is not so hard, and we have an excellent Pāḷi teacher in Cambridge). But I hope that we can move towards a more sophisticated view of texts. I'll finish with some key points

  • Buddhist texts have complex histories and change considerably over time.
  • With very few exceptions all the texts we have are translations.
  • Sanskrit is very seldom an "original" language. 
  • Chinese is far more important than we have so far grasped. 
  • Buddhist texts were always unsatisfactory to Buddhists.
  • This unsatisfactoriness was a major driver of doctrinal innovations. 
  • On-going doctrinal innovation is a feature of the history of ideas in Buddhism.
  • Innovation causes legitimation anxiety for Buddhists.
  • Each generation has adapted the Dharma to their needs, while claiming to be reinstating what the Buddha taught.
  • Pāḷi texts (or their analogues in Gāndhārī and Chinese) are perhaps the most important single source of arguments and disputes in the long history of Buddhism. 
  • There is, and can be, no Buddhist "Bible" nor indeed anything that we might call "Basic Buddhism". 

All the best for the solstice. 

~~oOo~~

15 December 2017

Bodhisatvas in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā

This is another in a series of reflections on the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as I read through it in Sanskrit with a friend. Despite the central importance of this text in Mahāyana it is curiously neglected. Only one complete English has been published, though several partial translations exist. No modern commentary has been produced, though there are a handful of book chapters and articles (and one book which is a collection of such). The Chinese translations seem to have had more attention. It would be a great shame to lose sight of this most important Mahāyāna text. 

I noted in an earlier post that the nidāna of Aṣṭa tells us that there are ((13 - 1/2) * 100) or 1250 arhats present for the action. Although Lokakṣema's translation (ca. 179 CE) includes some bodhisatvas. None of the other versions of the text mention bodhisatvas being present. And yet, most translators seem to think that the Buddha asks Subhuti to "explain to the bodhisatvas". 

One of the translation problems is that the action begins with the Buddha saying to Subhūti:
tatra khalu bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtiṃ sthaviram āmantrayate sma - pratibhātu te subhūte bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ prajñāpāramitām ārabhya yathā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur iti || 
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Subhūti, from perfect understanding of practitioner-aspirants, explain the way that practitioner-aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
The Gāndhārī text is fragmentary, but for comparison reads
[tatra ho bhag̱ava aïśpa suhuti amaṃtreti paḍi]‐ [1-03] + + + + + + + + + mahasetvasa prañaparimidu aradhya yasa bosisatve mahasa[tv]e [1-04] + + + +1 [mi]dae ṇiyayae  
Conze translates this as:
The Lord said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings go forth into perfect wisdom! 
What he has done, and my friend concurs with this, is that he has read the genitive plurals (bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ) as dative plurals: i.e. as "to" or "for" instead of "of". There was a tendency for the dative plural and genitive plural to merge in Pāḷi - the genitive form being used with a dative meaning. But this is not true in Classical Sanskrit. In fact in Sanskrit, for nouns in -a, it is the dative and the ablative that begin to merge. The language of Aṣṭa is more or less Classical Sanskrit. Just to complicate matters, the Gāndhārī appears to have a genitive singular (mahasetvasa).


Reading -ānām as Dative

For the sake of argument, let us accept the dative reading for the moment. The Buddha asks Subhūti to explain to the bodhisatvas how the bodhisatvas have gone forth. Apart from the fact that no bodhisatvas are present, why would the bodhisatvas need to have being a bodhisatva explained to them? One implication might be that our definition of bodhisatva is in error. In this view, the arhats present are the bodhisatvas.

Recall that our text was composed in the very earliest times of Mahāyana. (See my overview of recent research on this topic: Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong. 03 July 2015). I cited David Drewes summary
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010: 59)
So perhaps we need to be wary of the later definitions of bodhisatva. The Pāḷi word bodhisatta was already in use for an aspiring Buddha. Indeed in Pāḷi there is only one bodhisatta who is the Buddha before his bodhi. I'm unsure who first proposed this, but there is a theory that satta was wrongly Sanskritised as satva (and later by English editors as sattva). In other words there is an argument that the Pāḷi was not satta "being" but satta "committed, intent on" and ought to have been Sanskritised as sakta. Caveats aside, the idea is that bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta "committed to awakening", and it's possible that mahāsakta might have signified "one whose commitment is great".

The linguistic argument on its own is not very persuasive, but consider also that Jan Nattier, in her book A Few Good Men (1993), argued that bodhisatva referred not to mythical/magical beings, but to people who had committed themselves to attaining liberation. In other words people who sought to emulate the original bodhisatta. They were what we might call full-time practitioners in contrast to monks who were concerned with more mundane matters like running monasteries and doing magic for lay-people.

This distinction has sometimes been formalised as a split between forest dwelling anchorites and town dwelling cenobites (country monks and town monks). For example, Reggie Ray wrote about this in his book Buddhist Saints in India. However, the Ugraparipṛcchā (Nattier 1993) shows the bodhisatva monks living in monasteries alongside other monks. David Drewes has been critical of this thesis: 
"The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010: 61). 
We could, therefore, translate bodhisatva mahāsatva as "practitioner aspirant". However, we must stress that the wrong Sanskritisation can only have reflected the understanding of the day, i.e. those who began to use Sanskrit understood satta to mean "being". So the confusion is not simply a mistaken word choice, but evidence that the word had changed its meaning. And note that the Gāndhārī text, by far the oldest Prajñāpāramitā document unambiguously has satva

In this sense, an arhat who had been a aspirant to liberation might just qualify as being a bodhisatva. Or perhaps it trades on the distinction which occurred quite early on between an arhat and a buddha. However working out the metaphysics of all this is tricky. An arhat has escaped rebirth so cannot be reborn, but a bodhisatva must be born in order to fulfil his role. Early Buddhist accepted that winning the goal meant leaving the game, while Mahāyānists could not bear the thought of continuing without their key players, so forced them to rejoin saṃsāra as iterative messiahs.


Reading -ānām as Genitive

As I say, there seems no obvious reason to read these words as being in the dative case. Nor does it make sense to explain things to people who are not present. So the argument for reading this as genitive, "the perfect understanding of the bodhisatvas" makes more sense (to me anyway). Additionally there is no problem posting that bodhisatvas have Prajñāpāramitā which might be explained by Subhūti (to the arhats), whereas explaining it to them sounds wrong.

So on balance I still lean towards saying that Conze got it wrong. However, the second clause of the sentence is still awkward.

yathā bodhisatvā mahāsatvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur
For a start the connecting adverbial pronoun is yathā, which usually means something like "in that /which way", "just as", or "according to". It is a adverb of mode, i.e. describing how or the way something is done. Compare other modal adverbial pronouns: tathā "in that way"; sarvathā "in every way"; aññathā "in another or different way". And so on.

The verb is a third person plural past perfect from nir√i "go forth, depart". So it means "they went forth, they departed". Since we have an agent (bodhisatvāḥ) in the nominative plural this is fine: bodhisattvāḥ niryāyur means "the bodhisatvas have gone forth". The perfect tense is for actions that are completed in the past and in English usually involves "has" or "had" plus a past participle, i.e. "he has gone".*
* There are three kinds of past tense in Sanskrit: aorist past "I departed"; past imperfect "I was departing"; and past perfect "I had departed". Plus the passive past participle "departing was done by me". 
But what is prajñāpāramitā doing in this phrase? Well, it's a trick question. It cannot easily be explained as it stands. But in a later paragraph the whole sentence is repeated with the word prajñāpāramitāṃ in the accusative case and this does make sense, sort of. The accusative is used to indicate the object of the sentence (the thing to which the action of the verb is being done) or with verbs of motion, it can be the destination. So the whole sentence says:
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Explain, Subhūti, from the perfect understanding of the practitioner aspirants, the way that practitioner aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
So, that's what it says, but what does this mean?


Observations

The Bhagavan is asking Subhūti, the chief representative of the Prajñāpāramitā practice community, to explain to the arhats, the fact that bodhisatvas have perfect understanding and that they have gone forth to that perfect understanding. In Buddhism we are quite familiar with the language of going forth. Typically, Buddhist monks go forth from home (āgarika) into the homelessness (anāgarika). Or we might say that we go forth from false refuges to that we can go for refuge to the triratnāḥ or three precious gifts (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha).

The text is hinting, I suppose, that perfect understanding is a standalone refuge. That if one has perfect understanding, then one doesn't really need the other refuges. If this is what the text is saying, then it may have been be controversial. It still is.

Why the arhats need this instruction is far from clear. Aṣṭa does not have the disdain for arhats that developed later in some quarters of the Mahāyāna literature. Apart from having had a guide, there is nothing to distinguish an arhat from a buddha.

Before we can even take this in, we find that the first thing Subhūti does is to deny the very terms on which the Buddha has asked him to speak (i.e. he is correcting the Buddha). We more or less used to seeing Śāriputra as a Mahāyāna patsy, but less used to thinking of the Buddha in this role. Subhūti denies that he can see, apprehend, or perceive any such phenomena as a bodhisatva or prajñāpāramitā. In which case, he asks, "what perfect understanding would I teach to which bodhisatvas?" (katamaṃ bodhisatvaṃ katamasyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām avavadiṣyāmi anuśāsiṣyāmi?).

It turns out that precisely this is the teaching of perfect understanding, i.e. this denial that names apply to experience; or conversely the idea that just because you have a name for a phenomena does not make it real. This takes some reflection. But it helps to get a little of the context provided in the subsequent paragraphs.

Subhūti then proceeds to outline an idea that has been central to my own understanding of the Dharma for ten years: that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to experience. The language mirrors the Sanskrit version of the Pāḷi Kaccāgotta Sutta (SN 12:15) - see my translation of the Kātyāyana Sūtra. And as it happens I have already had a preliminary go at writing about this aspect of the sūtra: Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (26 June 2015).

But we can briefly say that the teaching given to Kātyānayana (or Kaccāna) is the teaching of perfect understanding. I believe I am the first person to make the connection quite so plainly. Though many people, not least David Kalupahana, have noticed that Nāgārjuna makes passing reference to the Kātyāyana Sūtra, I have not yet seen any reference to this much earlier (and defining) reuse of Kātyāyana. 

Its common to think of Mahāyāna as a radical departure from mainstream Buddhism. But this seems to be inaccurate. Instead we can think of the Prajñāpāramitā working out the implications of a much older way of thinking about Buddhism as evidenced by the Kātyāyana Sūtra. In other words they were a conservative group of meditators, focussed on experience, doing practices associated with states of emptiness (cf MN 121) or cessation (cf DN 9).  They were also resisting the metaphysical speculations emerging into mainstream Buddhist discourse by this time. It is sometimes said that Prajñāpāramitā is a rejection of Abhidharma, but Lewis Lancaster's PhD dissertation from 1968 shows that Aṣṭa contains some Abhidharma elements and gradually assimilates more as time goes on.

The importance of rejecting astitā and nāstitā is that it ought to prevent us from reading the text as  metaphysics. I say "ought", because clearly it never stopped some people, notably Edward Conze. If we cannot speak of existence or non-existence, then we are not talking about reality or truth either (the words are if anything more synonymous in Sanskrit). Instead we are talking about phenomenology and epistemology. And by calling into question the applicability of names for phenomena, Aṣṭa is inviting us to question the very basis of our knowledge about the world.

The way I understand this is that, if you attain cessation, it is experience that ceases, and while it is ceased, one dwells in emptiness.  And when one allows experience to start up again, it's like watching a boring film and not being caught up in it, but noticing how bad the acting, dialogue, and plot are.

A lot of fluff has built up around this basic idea, but this is the essence of Buddhist liberation. From the point of view of emptiness, there is nothing to hang a name on. Imagine that we have two states: one in which there is no arising and ceasing, and one in which there is. If we treat it as "reality" (which it is not) then the fact that is it unchanging from an experiential point of view is very misleading. It points in the direction of absolute being or absolute reality. But this would be a mistaken interpretation. Emptiness is not absolute. Nothing that we can experience is, or can be, absolute.

If this experience were common to meditators, and the techniques for attaining such states seem to have been quite widespread, then the contrast may well account for the dualism of Sāṃkhya-darśana and also the absolute being of the Upaniṣads. Indeed mystical speculations about this experience may well explain a good deal about India religion more generally.

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Drewe, David. (2010). 'Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.' Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

Karashima, Seishi. (2015). 'Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.' ARIRIAB XVIII: 113–162. https://www.academia.edu/12854001/Who_Composed_the_Mahāyāna_Scriptures_The_Mahāsāṃghikas_and_Vaitulya_Scriptures

Nattier, Jan. (1993).A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Ray, R. A. (1994). Buddhist Saints in India : A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press.


01 December 2017

Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation.

We're making slow progress on the Aṣṭa, but both enjoying the process and nutting out some tricky passages. I want to highlight another passage from early on in chapter one. This part of the introduction seems to serve several functions. One of the main functions is that it addresses the perennial Buddhist anxieties over legitimacy and authenticity. The aim of the text here is to establish the principle that what the disciples of the tathāgata say is authentic because it ultimately derives from him. But it also does something more interesting.
1.4.1. atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir buddhānubhāvena āyuṣmataḥ śāriputrasya imam eva rūpaṃ cetasaiva cetaḥ-parivitarkam ājñāya āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – yat kiṃcid āyuṣman śāriputra bhagavataḥ śrāvakā bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti, sa sarvas tathāgatasya puruṣakāro veditavyaḥ | 
Then Elder Subhūti, with the authority of the Buddha, having known the form of the thoughts of Śāriputra with his own mind, said this to Śāriputra: “Elder Śāriputra, whatever the disciples of the Bhagavan say, instruct, teach, draw out, reveal, and illuminate, it is all to be understood as the work of the Tathāgata. 
1.4.2. tatkasya hetoḥ? 
What is the reason? 
1.4.3. yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ, tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti, tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkṛtya dhārayitvā yad yad eva bhāṣante, yad yad eva deśayanti, yad yad eva upadiśanti, yad yad evodīrayanti, yad yad eva [3] prakāśayanti, yad yad eva saṃprakāśayanti, sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham | 
Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata. Training in that instruction of Dharma,  they realise the nature of experience and carry [the realisation] along. Having realised that nature, whatever they speak, whatever they instruct, whatever they teach, whatever they draw out, whatever [3] they reveal, and whatever they illuminate, is all consistent with the nature of experience. 
What I want to focus on here is the sentence 1.4.3 (Chapter 1, Para 4, sentence 3). In this passage there is a series or succession of related phrases using different grammatical forms. 

yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ

"Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata." The tense is past, and the mode is passive as so often occurs with Sanskrit (deśita is a passive past participle). In the traditional guru/chela relationship it is the teacher who is active at this point, and the student is a passive recipient of the teaching. Or more literally the "pointing out", since √diś means "point". Not like modern ideas of education. Guru as we know mean "heavy", while cela means "cloth or clothes" (though it can also mean the "mere outward appearance", or "slave"). It's not clear how this word came to be used in the sense of "disciple".

Here dharmaḥ appears to mean the teaching of the Buddha. In other words they adopt a lifestyle and are taught to interact with other people; they are taught meditation techniques, and how to interpret their experiences of meditation in a particular theoretical framework, according to the ancient doctrines of Buddhism.

Note that the Dharma was taught by the tathāgata, the "one in-that-state". This is the basis of the claim to legitimacy of these ideas. Everything that enlightened Buddhists say or do is ultimately traced back to the the ultimate authority in Buddhism, the original tathāgata (thought note that what Buddhists mean by this shifts over time).

tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās

Edit. Dhīvan has reminded me that here tatra, is a logical connector - it means "with respect to this". A literal translation would be pretty clunky, even for me, so while I think some more about it, I'm going to leave it as is. Also note that the phrase before tatra is singular and after is plural.

"Training in that teaching of the Dharma." Here the tense has become present and the mode active (via the present active participle). Both the pronoun and the noun are in the locative case. The cognitive metaphor that comes to mind for an English speaker is that the teaching is a container; one trains in it. Almost as though one enters a special room which is set up for the purpose of practice. A virtual environment. Or even an abstract "sacred space". 

Śikṣā can mean learning, study, or training (i.e. both the more cognitive and the more practical elements of learning). The verb √śikṣ is from the desiderative mood of the verb √śāk "to be able, capable" (whence śākya). So śikṣā reflects a "desire to be capable". So we begin with learning as a passive activity and then proceed with the student or pupil as an active participant, trying to fulfil their desire for competence or capacity.

Incidentally, in early Buddhist texts these two phases have two different outcomes with respect to confidence. The outcome of  the passive phase of leaning is faith (saddhā), usually faith in the tathāgata; while the outcome of  active training is perfect clarity (aveccapasāda). So despite what mainstream Buddhists say, saddhā or śraddhā is precisely the passive faith of the newly converted. It carries us through into training, but is eventually replaced by one's own understanding. Faith is very much the right word for this initial phase of confidence in the teacher. It is blind in the sense that it has not been tested, but not blind in the sense that it cannot be tested.


te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. One gains personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and one carries it one (dhārayanti). It is not explained here what is meant by dharmatā. But we get this dichotomy that one is taught the Dharma and one realises dharmatā. The - suffix makes an abstract noun. These refer to ideas, qualities, and states that cannot be experienced with the five sense. So in a sense this is saying that by practising the Dharma one has a personal insight into the idea of the Dharma. 

The word I'm translating as "personal insight" is sākṣātkurvanti, a verbal compound sa-ākṣāt + √kṛ. The first part sa-ākṣa means "having eyes"; and is only used in the ablative of cause "from having eyes"; which is taken figuratively to mean "before one's eyes, evidently, in person, etc". And it is combined with a form of the verb √kṛ "do, make". A single word translation might be "realise", but it maintains the connotation of a personal insight. Something that has been seen with one's own eyes, as it were. As we know, seeing is a metaphor for knowing in both English and Sanskrit. "I see" means "I understand" in both languages. 

Of course, with an abstract noun the word must be metaphorical, since abstractions cannot literally be seen. So the student "sees" the nature (dharmatā). A lot of my recent published scholarship has involved infiltrating Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience into interpreting the Prajñāpāramitā literature as also being concerned with experience rather than metaphysics. Hence, I prefer to think of dharmatā referring to the nature of experience. This is exegesis rather than translation, but without the proper interpretative framework (or hermeneutic) a text like the Aṣṭa rapidly becomes incomprehensible. 

However, realisation itself is an experience and thus only fleeting. A true insight will change the "seer", or at least change their perceptions of experience. They may no longer feel any sense of experience being owned for example - there is a flow of experience for them, but they do not feel it is "my experience" (though it continues to be their experience and no one elses). The verb √dhṛ means, "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e. memorising)" or "maintenance". 

My reading is that the ongoing effects of the realisation are what is meant here, rather than any reference to remembering. One has an experience of (what we Buddhists call) "insight" and is left with an ongoing change in one's perceptions. What Jeffery Martin calls "on-going non-symbolic experience". 

One of the things that interests me here is that a century or two later, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra introduces the idea of the dhāraṇī as something to be attained, alongside samādhi. In other words the bodhisatva, by practising accumulates a range of samādhi and dhāraṇī. And this use of dhāraṇī has puzzled scholars, because it does not clearly relate to the other uses. I think that this early (and somewhat confusing) use of dhāraṇī might relate to the ongoing nature of the changes wrought by meditation on one's perceptions of experience. Other uses of the word dhāraṇī were tacked onto this basic idea; first as the mnemonic practice in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā—which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet as a reminder of a sequence of words, which in turn form the basis for a series of reflections on śūnyatā); and subsequently as the magic spells chanted for protection. 

I've already noted how the opening sentence of Aṣṭa has some dhāraṇī-like qualities. We see this again here in the sequence: bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti. Again if we made these nouns, with the -e ending, and added svāhā at the end, it would be indistinguishable from the type of dhāraṇī than began to appear in Mahāyāna texts a few centuries later. And there is evidence from the Chinese texts that the original phrase had just one verb, bhāṣante, and that the synonyms were added later. Another way of looking at these lists over synonyms is that they are a form of auto-commentary. The earliest version simply had bhāṣante "they speak" and then someone elaborated, by adding five synonyms, just in case we didn't get it. On the other hand √bhāṣ "to speak" is one of the most common verbs in Sanskrit, so it hardly needs explanation.

yad yad eva bhāṣante.... sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham

Finally, the text concludes that whatever is said—by someone who has been instructed in Dharma, practised it, and realised the idea behind the Dharma (dharmatā) and experienced ongoing shifts in their interpretation of their experience—is consistent with the nature of experience. The text goes on to say a little more about this and justify it, but we have the gist.

Here then is the justification for going beyond the ancient stories and legends of the Buddha. It is because the experience of a personal insight into the nature of experience is common between the Buddha (presuming he existed) and the contemporary teachers who bring new perspectives on the experience and new ways of explaining it. Having had a realisation, it is carried on and informs the teaching of the next generation. 

Of course not everyone accepted such arguments, but over about five centuries Mahāyāna gradually became the mainstream in Buddhist India and it was Mahāyāna that spread to most of Asia. Even the Theravādins in Sri Lanka, flirted with Mahāyāna briefly before purging it and taking a conservative stand on their own stories and commentaries.

This is a text that requires and benefits from a considerable amount of unpacking. And this requires an interpretive framework. It is better to consciously choose a framework, rather than relying on intuition; and it is better to choose one that is fruitful in terms of practical and actionable insights. I think the hermeneutic of experience is the best interpretative framework available to us. I didn't invent it by any means, but as I have applied it over some years now, I find it resolves paradoxes, creates sense from nonsense, and recasts the mystic in pragmatic terms. One of the main things we look for in our literature is suggests for practice. Metaphysical or mystic interpretations don't give us that. Even if this is not what the authors intended (though I believe it is), it is still the best way to approach any Buddhist text, because it informs approaches to practice that have long been confirmed by experience. 

My final comment is that Conze seems to get almost every sentence wrong in his translation. He obscures more than he reveals. The need for a new, accurate, and reframed translation is urgent. I cannot understand why this text has not been retranslated in the way that, for example, the Pāḷi texts have been retranslated. Of course, nowadays we have a partial Gāndhārī text (dated to ca. 70 CE) and we give a lot more weight to the seven Chinese translations (though not all equally). So, any study of the Pala Dynasty Sanskrit manuscripts would need to be accompanied by parallels from the Gāndhārī and Chinese versions where they shed light. It would be a major undertaking (and is beyond the scope of what I could achieve). 


~~oOo~~

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