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.

Prof. Jonathan Silk’s “Buddhism, Social Justice and the Status of the Caṇḍāla” (2015.1.30 Kyoto University)

Prof. Silk began his talk with his observation on slavery and violence in Buddhist history, and then proceeded to examine the apparently conflicting treatments of the outcastes in the Buddhist texts. The tenor of his paper basically amounts to what can be described as follows: There is an inherent tension within Buddhism on the topic of social justice. On one hand, in Buddhism one denies hereditary values. One gains meritorious and poor births solely through one’s karma, ie action. On the other hand, Buddhism never denies the caste system and at times portrayed the Caṇḍāla, the outcaste, as “imagination of the negatives,” thus tacitly approved the caste prejudice. Such tension or confusion might have led to the Buddhists’ indifference toward such issues and hence Buddhist monks owning slaves is “not surprising” after all, Silk wryly remarked.

Silk’s paper is very learned – I must admit that I did not follow all the latin expressions and references to the political philosophers – and as always, provocative. However, I believe his argument is fundamentally flawed and I am surprised that among the learned scholars in the audience, no one pointed this out directly. I believe the only scholar who had the intuition about Silk’s flaw was Professor Yokochi, who asked Silk the question, as far as the topic of social justice is concerned, “What was unique about the Buddhist’s karmic theory when everyone else in India shared the same belief?” Silk just brushed it aside saying that he knew nothing about the non-Buddhists in India. Then Professor Somadeva made the somewhat surprising comment that the Śaivas denied karma completely.

But wait. Anyone in India who shares the mental universe of the purāṇas and the epics would naturally and necessarily subscribe to the basic tenet of karma and that it is karma which drives the cycle of rebirths. Just like all the deities and characters in the religious texts, every single sentient being keeps a karmic account of their own. It does not matter what kind of sophisticated logic you build around it, whether divine intervention may be invoked, to what extend free will plays a role and so on, what this amount to is a tacit approval of the present state, good or bad, as the inevitable result of one’s action and thus of one’s sole responsibility (especially the bad ones). This explains the inherent status quo and passivity in all religious systems where karma forms the core belief. In that sense, Buddhism is no different from other Indian religions. Take the case of Sikhism, with its syncretic blend of teachings of Hinduism and Islam, karma was simply assumed in the Guru Granth Sahib. Though philosophers and religious writers will try to introduce sophisticated ways to show their superior and unique take on karma, its basic assumption remains. The belief in karma was simply a default belief in ancient India. The Buddhists are of no exception. However, on the topic of social justice, the Buddhists did have more to say than the others. On this point I will have a few more words to say.

When Silk compared such irregularities in Buddhism with the Catholics’ highly criticized treatment of the problem of sexual molestation by the priests, I thought it was highly inappropriate. Sexual molestation is considered an aberration in Western society. (Correct me if I am wrong, since sometimes one hears some shocking statistics about the situation in America, for which Prof. Silk would know much better than I do). The Church’s indifference to the problem thus deserves serious criticism and reflection on what had gone wrong. But in the case of slavery in historical Buddhist monastery, my question would be first of all, how widespread was this phenomenon? In regions and societies where slavery is observed in Buddhist monastery, what was the situation outside the monastic ground, hence in the greater society? Was there something unique in the Buddhist institution or in the Buddhist texts where one can say that slavery was endorsed? Was the slave girl serving the Buddhist monk in the Silk’s example just part of the social norm, at a particular moment of history and within a particular locale, or was that an explicit gesture of caste prejudice and exploitation on that part of the Buddhists or the Buddhist institution?

Then there is the problem of conflation of which Silk himself had signed a disclaimer in his paper. But still, conflating the different “takes” on caste described in the myriad of Buddhist texts, from the Pāli Canon to the Lankāvatāra, and then conflating Buddhist theories in texts and Buddhist practices (gleaned from fragmentary records) lead necessarily to very confusing results. Silk’s presentation is very nuanced, but not nuanced enough to address this issue of multivocality within the Buddhist texts.

Rather than inherent tension or confusion within Buddhism on the question of social justice as Silk suggested, there is in fact another way to reframe the question – which in my opinion is simpler and more logical, but unfortunately, not so interesting and certainly not scandalous to draw new readers’ attention. Karmic theory and caste prejudice were part of the substratum belief system in ancient India. Once again I would invoke the idea of a default. So those images of the outcastes portrayed as the “imagination of the negatives” are simply part of this default. Whether the writers genuinely believed in it, invoked them consciously or unconsciously, with or without the target audience in mind, it matters very little. The Buddhist writers just did as everyone else did. But what I would give the Buddhists more credit for, is in fact the way some Buddhist writers did try to overthrow such prejudice by consciously undermining the caste system with the Buddhist version of the karmic theory. The Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna was an excellent example of how a Buddhist writer undermined caste prejudice by a story of caste reversal — casting the outcaste King Triśaṅku as Buddha’s previous rebirth, and Prakṛti the Brahmin girl as the outcaste girl’s previous rebirth. What we can say is that it was a laudable attempt by the Buddhists, at least some of them, though their attempt, or if we say the collective Buddhist attempt, was never a complete one. Caste prejudice was too pervasive and the Buddhists addressed the problem by shifting the focus to meditation and the supramundane. It would not be until the modern time with figures such as Ambedkar and those of Engaged Buddhism, when Buddhists tried to tackle the problem of social justice directly. Silk did not touch on this point at all.

I believe what had gone wrong with Silk’s discussion was his overemphasis on the bizarre and the aberrant. With his past book title such as Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Buddhist Legend and Historiography, Silk is indeed known for his penchant for the provocative. Let me admit that I am an admirer of Silk’s scholarship, and that as someone trained first as a generative linguist at McGill, I too have a keen eye on the bizarre and the aberrant. But still, treating subject matters with equanimity, taking in contextual cultural cues from the broader Indian society, is so much needed in the current Buddhist scholarship. The Buddhist adage of yathābhūtadarśanam, seeing things as they truly are, remains I believe the goal scholars should all strive. For that, Buddhist scholars in particular still have much to learn from their colleagues from Indology.

2015 Bill Mak Conference Schedule

§W40. [forthcoming] “Zodiac in South and East Asia: Transformation and interaction with indigenous astral science as seen from textual and iconographical sources.”The 14th International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia. International Society forthe History of East Asian Science, Technology and Medicine (ISHEASTM)  /  École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France. Jul 6-10, 2015.

§W39. [forthcoming] “A new edition of the Yavanajātaka based on the newlydiscovered manuscripts.” 16th World Sanskrit Conference. International Association of Sanskrit Studies (IASS) / Silpakorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. Jun 28 – Jul 2, 2015.

§W38. [forthcoming] “Buddhist astral science in East Asia.”History of Astronomy workshop, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN,U.S.A. Jun 24 – 28, 2015.

§W37. [forthcoming] “Greek Astral Science in China:Nestorians, Perso-Arabs, and the Jesuits.” (Speaker and panelorganizer). “Overlapping cosmologies and cosmographies in pre-modern Asia (1)”. The 19th Asian Studies Conference Japan. Sophia University, Tokyo,Japan. Jun 21, 2014.

§W36. [forthcoming] “The Legacy of Greek Astral Science inChina, Japan and Southeast Asia – past and present.” (Speaker and workshoporganizer)1st  International Workshop on Traditional Sciencesin Asia. Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan. Jun 18 – 19, 2015.

§W35. [forthcoming] “The audible universe and the inaudiblesound — Cosmic symbolism in the guqin musical repertoire.” 1stHong Kong guqin studies conference 第一屆香港琴學青年論壇, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, Apr 10-11, 2015.

§W34. [forthcoming] “The Evolution of Buddhism in Hong Kong andits Transformation during the Japanese Occupation Period (1941–1945).” International Conference on the History of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Apr 10-11, 2015.

§W33. [forthcoming] “Buddhism in Hong Kong during WWII” (inChinese)二戰時的香港佛教. Lecture at Society of Hong Kong History, Hong Kong, Apr 8, 2015.

§W32. [forthcoming] “The calculation of planetary weekday inSouth Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.SAW Conference – Mathematical Practices in relation to the Astral Sciences, Université Paris 7 Laboratoire SPHERE, Mar 26-31, 2015.

§W31. [forthcoming] “Ritualistic cyclicity in Indo-Greek astralscience – expressions for various modes of time measurement in the Yavanajātaka.” Workshop on astral sciences, mathematics and rituals, Université Paris 7 Laboratoire SPHERE, Mar19-20, 2015.

§W30. [forthcoming] “The Transmission and Transformation of Ptolemy,Dorotheus and other forms of Greco-Babylonian astral science across Eurasia.”Hakubi Seminar. The Hakubi Center for advanced research, Kyoto, Japan. Feb 3 –2015.