In the comments on my page of links about Dependent Arising, Eisel Mazard wrote:
“Or, we could directly read what the original Pali has to say, we could be honest about it, and we could be open about the history of the ‘European tradition’ of interpretation that has created so many strange assumptions about what the text is supposed to imply (but doesn’t, in fact, say)…
“If you can’t read primary sources (in Pali) it’s a sad fact that nobody playing the game makes it easy for you to know where the original text stops, and where ‘interpretation’ starts. If you have the time to read that article (linked to) you may well be shocked to learn that the diversity of these interpretations reflects a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty.”
In my answer to this comment, I said I didn’t believe what was going on was “intellectual dishonesty” but that “My expectation is that our translators believe they are translating what is actually meant. ” I had read the post the author linked to, and regretted that comments were not allowed, and left it at that.
However now, almost three years later, I have finally gotten around to locating and reading the paper Mazard wrote about Dependent Arising, that is referred to in the post I couldn’t comment on. I’ve even added a link to it on my DA links page, not because I think it has any chance of presenting what the Buddha actually was talking about, but because it demonstrates how easy it is to pick and choose what one looks at — ignoring or failing to notice anything that would undermine one’s theories — to come up with something that can be mistaken for a good argument. Is this apparent blindness to text that would disprove a theory “intellectual dishonesty”? Or is it just human nature at work? It would take greater familiarity with the author to know which is the cause, but I thought it might still be useful (to me, and maybe to others) to note where the arguments he makes might seem logical, and what he fails to notice that so readily undermines the whole point. I would love it if folks would take the time to do this for papers I publish; it can only help refine or strengthen an argument to know where its weaknesses are.
At the start of his paper, he notes that DA is known for its profundity, but then points out that “…it is rare to find a clear answer to the question of what this famous tract of text [is] supposed to be about: what is the thesis that the 12-links formula was meant to explain or support? I find the answer in the text itself…” and he almost builds a decent case for DA just being about how birth comes about, but he does this by using a limited set of the terms in the 12-link DA, and appearing to be completely blind to text in the same suttas he cites that give psychological definitions of terms he focuses on that occur “before birth”. He also entirely skips the middle section, in which the process of “contact”, “feeling”, “craving”, and “clinging” come into play — is the fetus doing that? — all of which come just prior to “becoming” and “birth”.
I do agree that a lot of what is written about DA is fuzzy — that’s why I started (years ago now) focusing on trying to understand it from the texts themselves — and I agree that we need to anchor what we think is being said with evidence from the texts. But because the Buddha’s way of speaking isn’t exactly like ours (not in the grammatical construction of sentences; and not even in his choice of overall rhetorical devices) it is not possible to be certain that we have understood, exactly, all of what he is trying to say, not in any given sentence, nor rephrasing of lessons, nor the whole of his dharma. I say “all of what he is trying to say” because it is my contention that he layers one or more levels of meaning onto much of what he says, and any given interpreter’s reading may make use of one level in support of their theory, while missing the other layers. This is one mistake I believe Mazel makes. He recognizes — correctly, I think — that the Buddha is naming and describing events that come prior to birth, but fails to understand why he is describing them, or how their description fits into the overall lessons the Buddha is trying to get across to us, because he has missed the other layers.
It takes reading the whole — or at least as much of the canon as one can get to — and trying to make sense of the pieces in terms of the overall points being made, to begin to put together a theory. And while it is wise to anchor our arguments in the texts, we would do well to remember that the talks presented in the text are framed in the context of a certain time and place, with much of that context simply assumed as background by the speakers, and as such unstated. Hints at this background might well be found in the texts, but in so large a volume of work as the collections of the Buddha’s talks, hints often go unnoticed. It seems to me almost easier to argue a theory from what we can see and to then assess it on how logical it is within the frame, than to expect every element to be readily visible. Interpretation is necessary. Then the best way to disprove an interpretation might well be to then find examples in the text that make that interpretation impossible.
Which is a little of what I’m doing here, starting with the mention, above, of the way the support for his theory that it’s all about what leads up to birth leaves out four central links that describe how we process experiences. This needed to be left out of his thesis because the detailed description of these links includes not only the activation of the senses, and recognizing that contact as pleasant or unpleasant (which could happen before birth) but then there is craving (tanha) for sensual pleasures, and for becoming (bhava) or what is not becoming (vibhava), which describe cravings far more complex — psychological — than a fetus will be capable of in the womb. The next step afterward is clinging (upadana) which is described as being about not just sensual pleasures but about views about the self, and about rites and rituals, none of which the fetus can even be aware of.
Mazel first defends the eleventh link (jati) as clearly describing the actual, physical process of being born, and I am sure he is right about the description being literal. He then uses a bit of DN 15 [pts D ii 63] on name-and form (namarupa) in which — he is also correct here — the Buddha is clearly talking about the moment when consciousness (link three — vinnana) comes into the mother’s womb, so this has to be about how we come to be born. Then he says:
“…however, the passage is wildly incongruent with attempts of many other interpreters to render the whole doctrine in more abstract terms (variously psychological or metaphysical).”
and somehow he seems to have missed the section just before the part he quotes, which is clearly about the psychological:
“‘From name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how, from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes contact. If the qualities, traits, themes, & indicators by which there is a description of name-group (mental activity) were all absent, would designation-contact with regard to the form-group (the physical properties) be discerned?” [Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
Now, granted, it’s a bit tough to decipher the above. This is because the Buddha isn’t speaking to us now, but to the people of his own time who thoroughly understood the terms and the context. Basically it is the start of an argument that says that because we are already familiar with “qualities, traits, themes, & indicators” that allow us to have created definitions (“name-group”) we can tell when we contact something’s form (through any of our senses) what it is, and what it is good for — through its “form-group”. That may not be easy to understand, but even without clear understanding, the mention of mental processes involving “qualities, traits, themes, & indicators” alone has to make it clear that what’s being discussed are activities of a person out in the world, not a fetus in the womb. This is not metaphysical, I agree, but it definitely is psychological. And it is in the same sutta, right next to the portion Mazel quoted.
I am agreeing, then, that in this section, the Buddha is clearly talking about how consciousness appears in the womb, but at the same time I disagree that those who argue that he is talking about something psychological should be scoffed at the way Mazel does, because — clearly — the Buddha is talking about psychology. How can I both agree and disagree with Mazel? Simple: layering of meaning. Mazel is right that the Buddha is describing the obvious process of birth, but he doesn’t recognize that this is because seeing the mechanism of the process is necessary to understanding something else that is harder to see. The Buddha uses the way human beings are conceived and come into the world as a model to describe how something else, something very important, is conceived and comes into the world — and that is a psychological something.
Mazel next argues that the deity — a gandhabba— that is found in some descriptions of the process of conception, is there because it was believed the demi-god’s presence enabled fertility. This is in contrast to a traditional view that the gandhabba is some part of the being moving from a past life to the next. In my view, either possibility works as something the Buddha would be saying here — and in fact he may have designed the description with generic enough wording that the text would fit right into the worldview of believers in either way of looking at how conception happens. I propose that the Buddha’s mention of the gandhabba isn’t described so that we understand “how life begins as the Buddha has seen it to be” but rather is a very generalized model that serves one great purpose: to model the action being described in something subtler. A generic description makes the model accessible to more people. The details of the role the gandhabba plays aren’t actually important, which is why they are never described in any text.
“This essay has for its purpose the simple but fundamental task of establishing what the 12-links formula is about (i.e., the subject matter broached in the canonical primary source texts). I would now contrast a few of the popular opinions on this matter, taking my motto from Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘False facts are highly injurious … for they often endure long; but false views… do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness…’.
“Many of the leading interpretations are pointedly vague. The influential translator Bhikkhu Bodhi remarks: ‘In its abstract form the principle of dependent arising is equivalent to the law of the conditioned genesis of phenomena.’ As anodyne as this may sound, I must repudiate it as a ‘false fact’: the subject of the doctrine is simply incarnation (inclusive of conception, the development of the embryo, and birth).”
False views can be built up from missing facts, and I commend Mazel on recognizing that they will be met with folks — like me — who will take, if not pleasure then at least education from working through them to try to understand where the falseness derives from.
I do agree that many explanations of Dependent Arising are vague; I believe this is because the writers haven’t fully understood the layering of meaning. As in the snippets of suttas quoted from DN 15 both above and in Mazel’s paper, two different layers may be discussed side-by-side, and if a translator is only working with one layer, while half-blind to the other, confusion (with a resulting vagueness) ensues.
“The conditioned genesis of phenomena” is pretty vague, but wouldn’t be entirely wrong as something discussed in DA if it was addressing the meta-model described by idappaccayatā, known as “this/that conditionality” but which more literally means “this is supported by that”. Understanding in general how “because this is, that can come to be” is critical to understanding what’s being pointed out in DA, and the Buddha does use examples on many levels to help us see what’s going on. “The conditioned genesis of [all] phenomena” is the most general of examples of what’s going on in DA, which is, perhaps, what Bodhi is talking about when he calls this “the most abstract form”. How we come into being (conception, gestation, birth) and come to suffer aging and death provides a more detailed example of the mechanism being pointed out. But neither the meta-model nor the detailed model are the ultimate point of DA; they just point to “the shape” of what’s going on, they model the action taking place in the hardest to see, critical layer of the lesson.
“The Pali canon contains many discourses concerning the function of the mind and perception, but this isn’t one of them. ” Mazel says. And yet, the Buddha has said that if we see Dependent Arising, we see the dhamma, so if his discourses on the dhamma often concern the mind and perception, ipso facto DA has to include them, too. And it does, in the DN 15 quote I cited, and in the four middle links Mazel doesn’t mention.
When he goes on to deny that there is any support for the three-lives model, he takes on Mahāsi Sayadaw, who is quoted as saying that the Buddha did not describe consciousness’s relationship to past existence. Mazel then says:
“This is, in fact, a confession that the three-lifetimes interpretation is not supported by the primary source texts: there is no discussion of a past (nor future) existence internal to the 12-links formula”
This is wrong — there is certainly quite clear mention of a life that follows birth, aging, and death. It is there, in DN 15 [pts D ii 63], in the description of how name-and-form supports consciousness, in the section immediately following the quote Mazel used to show that DA is definitely about conception taking place in a woman’s womb:
ettāvatā kho, ānanda, jāyetha vā jīyetha vā mīyetha vā cavetha vā upapajjetha vā.
“This is the extent to which there is birth, aging, death, passing away, and re-arising. ” [Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
It’s hard to imagine how he missed that.
“Or, we could directly read what the original Pali has to say, we could be honest about it,” he said in comments on this blog, and I would insert “all of the suttas on the subject in” after that “what”, meaning we need to read the whole sutta, and every one that deals substantively with subject, and be honest if we didn’t take the whole into account, for whatever reason.
That all dependent arising is about is how we come to be born makes no sense when it is viewed as part of the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, and, while Mazel’s paper proves that the Buddha does talk about how we come to be, it ignores evidence indicating that there is far more to it than that.