Posts written by Bill M. Mak

Moving forward in the study of the oldest Indo-Greek astral text, the Yavanajātaka

The Yavanajātaka, “Genethliacal astrology of the Greek,” has long been thought to be the earliest Sanskrit treatise on Greek astrology. New reading and evidences suggest however that David Pingree’s dating of the original by Yavaneśvara (149/150CE) and translation by Sphujidhvaja (269/270CE) is untenable. In the first place, there has all along been only one author, Sphujidhvaja, who was known also as Yavaneśvara. Furthermore, there was no date given in the colophon. The dates were Pingree’s own emendation (!).

A number of vexing questions remain. If this important text is not as old as we thought, when was it composed then? What kind of Greek astrology and astronomy was it based on?

It turns out that a lot of elements of this work cannot be traced to any known extant Greek sources. Pingree in some cases would argue that the Indians have preserved what has been lost in Greece. But it is clear that the Yavanajātaka contains many Indian or even specifically Vedic elements. For Pingree who insisted that “there is nothing original in Indian astral science,” these apparently non-Greek elements for him could only be interpolation. Rather than following Pingree’s convoluted arguments, a simpler solution to the problem may be that the work was an amalgamation of Greek and indigenous Indian astral science from the very beginning. In fact, the last chapter on mathematical astronomy is largely Indian, with core concepts such as yuga, tithi, nakṣatras and mentioning of Indian sage such as Vasiṣṭha.

References: Mak 2013:16; Mak 2014:73-75.

Discussion link:


Of Headless Mice and Heartless Men

Charles Krauthammer’s article “Of Headless Mice…and Men,” published originally in Times Magazine in 1998. In what he described as “sheer Frankenstein wattage,” he questioned the consequence and purposes of monsters created in obscure labs around the world. In this case, headless mice and headless tadpole produced in University of Texas and University of Bath respectively. The disturbing scenario of organ plundering from clones was made into the 2005 movie “The Island“. The question of science and ethics, however, has yet to receive the attention from public it deserves. Despite some debates one hears from time to time, everything that carries the label of science still goes on by and large without public scrutiny. Even among my science colleagues, there are those who engage in daily experiments involving killing, mutilating and traumatizing animals. The latest one I learned was to deliver electric shocks to mice to observe changes in the neurological pathway and to find out how memory works. Needless to say, the brain of the poor mice has to be cut up to be observed. I am sure my colleague makes some curious discovery concerning the biochemical foundation of memory. But as far as I am concerned, the memory of the mice consists of nothing more than fear and exploitation by unscrupulous men.


By being silent, we endorse such barbarism which goes on daily in the name of science. While I am not pushing here for veganism or a completely cruel-free society, I am vehemently against unnecessary cruelty and acts which are against common sense. Just like how Mary Shelley had imagined in her Frankenstein over a hundred years ago, there will always be people who pursue their ambition without a conscience and with pure vanity. We cannot stop them. But we should continue to pressure governments and institutions not to fund such activities, or in some cases, even ban or put a heavy price on such violation. A colleague once told me how disgusted, then desensitized after she has been slicing brains for a decade. When I asked why she kept doing it. Her answer was that if she doesn’t, someone else does.


Rather than looking for new knowledge or miracle cure for some obscure disease in so-called scientific programs which governments pour in billions of dollars every year, let us go back to some basic questions we should put to ourselves in our daily lives: Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Are Buddhist Sutras simply “fantastic”?

With no intention to blaspheme (or adding to the recent intense discussion on H-Buddhism on the subject), I would appeal to a more nuanced look at one of the sources of Buddhist Sutras, namely the phenomenon of pratibhā, translated variably as “light, splendor, appearance, fitness, intelligence, presence, fitness of mind, audacity, thought, a founded supposition,” and last but not least “fancy and imagination.” In the context of Buddhist sutras, pratibhā or pratibhāna is sometimes interpreted as eloquence, an ability to persuade the audience through exceptional oratory skill, thus sometimes translated into Chinese as biancai 辯才. But with a closer look at the instances of pratibhā in the Buddhist texts, one may find that it is not so much an attempt to initiate a debate, an argument, or even a discussion. Rather, it refers in fact to one’s (not just the Buddha, but also the dhammakhathika-s) ability to conceive a brilliant and spontaneous idea, and only later to convey it (thus PTSD: paṭibhāṭi — to appear, to be evident, to come into one’s mind, to occur to one, to be clear”). It is more like the brilliant poetry, music and art created intuitively and spontaneously out of one’s creative impulse.

The Buddhists who are known for their pratibhā should thus be viewed as part the great Indic tradition of seers and poets, who have a long history of fantastic oral literature, with an abundance of works from the Vedas down to works of today which are most likely spontaneously composed or even improvised in situ. From the dawn of age, humankind has always marveled at such mysteriously beautiful works, which are brilliant at different levels. They appeal to us both at the level of intellect and at the level of the heart. There may be many explanations, but it appears to me that reasons often follow intuition, sensation and emotion when it comes to things which are “brilliant”.

The word “fantasy” itself has also a lot to tell. Although it has come to mean something unreal, illusory, and by extension, impossible, its original idea was in fact very close to the Indic pratibhā, namely, vision and poetic imagination. The focus is not what is impossible, but rather, what is possible in the human mind. It comes from the Greek word φαντασία which means “display, a visible marking”. In English, the Greek/Latin suffix -phany in “epiphany” and “theophany” is cognate with the verb φαντάζω “to make visible” which shares the same idea of revealing something which would translate into brilliance in mind of the audience or viewers.

The association of light and great ideas is both ancient and common, from the tradition of pratibhā to the proverbial light bulb in the head. An idea is bright when it allows the viewer come out of darkness, see things in their true color as the Diamond Sutra describes (見種種色), see how things are connected in ways that one has never imagined before.

The problem of the modern readers of Buddhist sutras concerns often the veracity of the things described therein. Is reincarnation real? Does one really develop supernatural powers in meditation? How about the Buddhist cosmos? Are all these compatible with our “scientific” view? The naive often want quick and simple answers and become confounded when presented any proximation of truth.

Modern readers often have an obsession with the “truth value” of everything, without the awareness of our constantly changing perception of the reality and the “truths” around us. Ideas which are not compatible with our ideas of the “real,” the “true,” and the “scientific,” are often discarded all too hastily. Scholars of the history of science demonstrate again and again how our scientific view is constantly evolving. But one thing that drives it forward relates often to the human imagination. We enjoy fictions and fantasy literature because they allow us to explore and experience the worlds which we have otherwise no access to. I am not asking the readers of Buddhist sutras to treat what they read as simply fiction and fantasy. Rather, I would say that even the non-Buddhists should appreciate the content of the Buddhist sutras as much as one would appreciate poetry, literature or even fiction and fantasy, if not more so. With appreciation and humility, it is not difficult to see the bright ideas the authors of Buddhist texts try to convey. They are fantastic. They reveal to us a world that is much greater than the one we are familiar with. They inspire and invite us to explore the vastness of the human mind.