Monday, 27 January 2014

A Buddhist Theory of Anamnesis?

One may say it is needless and reckless to bring up etic words such as Greek anamnēsis (“remembrance”) to theorize emic Buddhist concepts. It maybe, but as a Buddhist theorist or a theoretician rather than a practician (by the way, this word is attested), I succumb to my temptation to do so. I believe, I have my personal reasons for doing so. Whatever and whenever I write or express anything abstract or philosophical, I can only try to do so in my acquired language, and never in my mother tongue. (My mother tongue, by the way, is not Tibetan or rDzong-kha. People who speak the language call their own language Tshangs-lha. There is no Tshang-lha script and Tshang-lha-medium schools.) Some would pity me. Oh, how sad, it must be terrible not to be able to express thoughts or things in his one’s own mother tongue! I have certainly disadvantages but never feel disadvantaged. If I knew and if I could, I would have learnt any language that I believe could help me express complex ideas in a possibly precise, nuanced, and pregnant manner. So long as I believe that a term can best capture or express a Buddhist idea, I would not, as a principle, refrain from using any word, be it etic or emic. Of course, care should be taken to avoid using terms that bring along wrong connotations and associations, which, I believe can be precluded by clearly defining the terms that one uses. In the end, terms and languages are mere conventions, and are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon.

I learn that the term “anamnesis” is used in Christianity, philosophy, and medicine, and in each case it seems to have a distinct meaning or usage. Now I propose to use it in the Buddhist philosophical context. For doing this, I will take its literal meaning “remembrance” as the point of departure. By “Buddhist anamnesis,” I wish to express the Buddhist idea of anusmṛti (rjes su dran pa) of which there seems to several kinds (usually six) and the idea of dhāraṇī. A proper understanding of the history and philosophy of anusmṛti and dhāraṇī might—and just might—help us to understand not only a piece of the history of Buddhism itself but also about a piece of the philosophy of Buddhism. I do not wish to delve into the role of the idea of buddhānusmṛti in the development of Buddhism, which I, believe is, more known. The role of the idea of vidyā (“cognitive formula”), mantra (“protective formula”) and dhāraṇī (“recollective formula”) is also being increasingly recognized.

What is perhaps hardly known is the idea that the dhāraṇīs (like the bodhisattvabhūmis and pāramitās) are also regarded as the “great mothers” or “great feminine consorts” (yum chen mo) of buddhas (RZ2: 492): “These are yum (i.e. “mothers” and “female consorts”) because they procreate buddhas and engage [in/with them]” (de nyid sangs rgyas rnams bskyed pa dang spyod pas yum mo). Buddhists may often be confounded to see or know that Mahāyāna Buddhism, be it in its Mantric or non-Mantric form, is riddled (or some might even think “infested”) with depictions of all kinds of male and female deities; some that look pleasing and pacifying whereas others that appear unpleasing and terrifying. We cannot deny this fact. But how do we explain these phenomena? Proposing them to be historical figures like the historical Buddha himself would be as ludicrous as denying them together as foreign elements that complacent Mahāyānists incorporated into Buddhism and hence as having nothing to do Buddhism at all. I personally believe that we—again regardless of whether we see such developments as desirable or as aberration (Fehlentwicklung)—could offer a historically plausible explanation. For example, it would be difficult, if not impossible to defend that a historical person Mañjuśrī and Mahākāla lived in a certain period and in a certain place. In what place and in what century should they have lived (if they lived)? Were they Indians, Tibetans, Chinese, or Central Asians? The idea of Mañjuśrī, for example, I think, can certainly be traced. This is not just a position of a hypercritical and hypocritical (and what some might think self-serving) academician. I recall mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs once telling us: “If you think Mañjuśrī is a person eternally holding a sword and utpala, you have missed the point.” Mañjuśrī is to be understood, so to speak, as an icon, a representation or crystallization, or, an iconic figure that stands for the embodiment of the insights (or cognitive aspects) of all buddhas and bodhisattvas (or if you will simply all beings).

Thus far I have believed that only the “perfection of insight” (prajñāpāramitā: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyi pa) has been depicted as the “Great Mother” (Yum-chen-mo). But all ten pāramitās and bhūmis, a host of other feminine nouns which express central Mahāyāna concepts have been considered as “great mothers” and as “goddesses” (RZ2: 491–492). What seems to be desideratum, in my view, is to take all possible items/topics/categories (and subcategories) found in the Abhidharmic literature and see how these very items have been described in Prajñāpāmitā literature and then study how and with what/which (female or male) deity each item has been identified. As far as I can see, the five Tathāgatas, the eight Bodhisattvas, and all the female and male deities we see in Mantric literature are explained as the pure nature or purity of a particular phenomenon included in the phenomena of ground (gzhi)—five skandhas, twelve āyatanas, eighteen dhātus—and of the path (lam) including 37 bodhyaṅgas. I don’t know if this theory has ever been proposed by anyone thus far but I speculate that grammatical gender of a word that expresses a certain topic could have opened up the possibility for the eventual personification and deitification of all phenomena. Rong-zom-pa  (RZ2: 491–492) seems to suggest that one of the reasons why most of the phenomena have been considered “goddesses” (lha mo) and “mothers or consorts” (yum) is their female grammatical gender (mo’i rtags). The fact the upāya is grammatically masculine seems to have provided a possibility for one to call it “father” (and not “mother”) and the feminine grammatical gender of prajñā seems to have provided one with a possibility to call it “mother” (and not “father”). One feels that in a language where there is no grammatical gender, such a creative development would not have taken place, at least not so conveniently or readily. The grammatical gender or sex by itself and already seems to imply personification. That is, grammatically, prajñāpāramitā can only be a “she,” which is de facto a “female person.” It is said that one cannot become a buddha without prajñāpāramitā; prajñāpāramitā is said to procreate a buddha and thus she is said to be a “mother.” She is an extraordinary “mother” who procreates supernal awakened beings. The elements of femininity and divinity seem to merge into one in this way. So we see Prajñāpāramitā depicted as a female deity. No one, not even the tradition, would take the deity Prajñāpāramitā as a historical person allocable to a certain time and place. And this, in my view, is crucial for understanding the entire of world of Sūtric and Mantric Buddhism filled with various types of deities.

Now returning to “Buddhist Anamnesis,” some of the key terms and concepts that need to be explored are of anusmṛti (rjes su dran pa) and smṛti (dran pa). The six anusmtis as recorded, for example, in the Mahāvyutpatti, are buddhānusmti, dharmānusmti, saghānusmti, śīlānusmti, tyāgānusmti, and devatānusmti. Instead of śīlānusmti, Rong-zom-pa has ānāpānānusmti (Wangchuk 2007: 302). “Not forgetting bodhicitta (bodhicittāsapramoa), too, is important. From a viewpoint of axiology and epistemology, I think that although “recollection” or “remembrance” would be seen as instrumentally valid and valuable, but epistemically be considered invalid. That is, dran pa cannot be a tshad ma and it is not a tshad ma! From a viewpoint of psychology, dran pa would essentially be considered a wholesome mental factor (kuśala: dge ba), and depending on the stage of its development, it would it is one of the five faculties (dbang po lha) or five kinds of strength (stobs lnga). It can be defiled (zag pa dang bcas pa) as in my case or undefiled in the case of a bodhisattva on the second bhūmi, for instance. From a standpoint of ontology, how far can dran pa subsist? According to those who maintain that a buddha is nothing but purified dharmadhātu, dran pa, which is a cognitive element, would cease when its cause and conditions ultimately cease at the stage of a buddha.

As for dhāraṇī (gzungs or gzungs ma), we can find the concept of it in both Sūtric and Mantric forms of Buddhism. It may be translated as “mnemonic formula.” In contrast to mantra—which may be rendered as “magical formula” or perhaps better as “protective formula,” particularly considering its speculative etymology shes skyob “that which protects the mind”—and vidyā (rig sngags or rig ma), which may be translated as “cognitive formula,” dhāraṇī is a “recollective formula” or “retentive formula.” Just as a mathematical or chemical formula captures, encapsulates, expresses, and retains a great deal of information in just a few letters or numbers, so does dhāraṇī seems to be conceived of as a formula that captures, encapsulates, expresses, and retains a great deal of information about Buddhist theories and practice. One can easily understand how and why it can be maintained to carry out to play the role of the Buddha or a buddha and his activities in the world. In a way, it is as though dhāraṇī were a kind of chip or “memory card” that conserves, preserves, and reserves crucial information about the Buddhist doctrine for the present and future generations. Just as a mathematical or chemical formula might appear to a lay person nonsensical, gibberish, or, unintelligible, if we do not understand its nature, function, history, and philosophy, dhāraṇī might appear to be nonsensical, gibberish, or, unintelligible. But worth bearing in mind is not everything that appears to be hocus-pocus must necessarily be hocus-pocus. Again we may not believe in the actual efficacy of dhāraṇī but the question that we have to ask is whether we really understand the idea of/behind dhāraṇī.

In Mantric Buddhism, dhāraṇī came to be called a “Great Mother” (yum chen mo), “a goddess” (lha mo), or “a female consort” (yum or gzungs ma). It is perhaps only too apt to identify and personify dhāraṇī as a female principle or female person. With all due respect to the “male principles” and “male persons” (and with all possible exceptions), one does seem to get an impression in real life that “female elements/persons” tend to be more “protective,” “retentive,” and “attentive” of whatever or whoever is entrusted to them. In this connection, I find the idea of entrusting (a Tantric scripture) to a woman (bud med la yongs su gtad pa) seems to be very interesting. If I were Vajradhara and if I had a choice to entrust my tantra to a man or a woman, I, too, would chose to entrust it to the latter. Fellow men, I mean no offence to you! There would be no guarantee, of course, but the chances that my tantra will be protected and thus survives a little longer is perhaps a bit greater!


1 comment:

  1. I think it's worth separating out various threads in relation to dhāraṇī.

    The exact etymology is uncertain but it is clearly derived from √dhṛ 'to support, to remember (In the sense of bear in mind)' and related to dhāraṇa 'holding, possessing; remembering, keeping in mind'. The word dhāraṇī is grammatically feminine, whereas dhāraṇa is masculine.

    In the context of the early Prajñāpāramitā texts a dhāraṇī is indeed a mnemonic - akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmānam adyutpannatvād. The syllable a, reminds us of the word anutpada 'unarisen' which we use in a meditation, reflecting that with respect to dharmas, nothing real arises when we have an experience. Lists of key words in the alphabetical order of the Gāndhārī language (a ra pa ca na...) are found in many texts. Some of these are Sanskritised so they use the Sanskrit alphabetical order (in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra for example).

    Incidentally the letter 'a' is the mother of all letters because in this early context, Gāndhārī is written in Kharoṣṭhī script, which like Tibetan scripts only has one character for initial vowels and uses diacritics to get the rest. And consonants are cited with an inherent 'a'.

    But most dhāraṇī are not in fact mnemonics at all - they are much more like Pāli parittā texts. Texts chanted for the purposes of protection. If you look at the dhāraṇī chapter of the Sudharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra you'll see a range of dhāraṇīs that seem quite strange - they utilise patterns of words that are found more often in Dravidian languages (called "echo words"). Their express purpose is protection of the chanter from misfortune and similar functions. These dhāraṇīs can be quite long, like the Uṣnīṣavijaya Dhāraṇī or the Nīlakaṇṭhā Dhāraṇī and some become sūtras in their own right (there are in fact hundreds of dhāraṇī sūtras in Chinese translation). And their efficacy is due to being chanted rather than any connection with memory. Why these passages and texts are called dhāraṇī is unclear.

    However because of the presumed etymology and the Prajñāpāramitā mnemonics its common for people who write about Buddhism to say that all dhāraṇīs are mnemonics even though this is factually incorrect.

    A third category of dhāraṇī are much more like mantras, though this distinction is blurred, but some of the dhāraṇīs seem very likely to have been composed in a Tantric/mantric context unlike the Sudharmapuṇḍarikā. Possibly the Uṣṇiṣavijaya Dhāraṇī falls into this category?

    By the way anamnēsis must mean 'non-forgetfulness' where amnēsis means 'forgetfulness' from the Greek root √mnē, which comes from Proto-Indo-European *√man 'to think'. Thus despite some similarities this word is not related to either the English word remember or mnemonic, or the Sanskrit √smṛ (> smṛti, smarati) which are from a PIE root *√(s)mer - which reduplicates in Latin to give memor-. Though I don't think this undermines your suggestion since the semantic fields clearly overlap.

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