Showing posts with label Astasahasrika. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Astasahasrika. Show all posts

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 as 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.


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 change, and seem 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've 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 (especially 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 that survived was two variations on the kṣanavāda, or doctrine of momentariness, and the 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 alleys. 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. 


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. 


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 reborn in order to fulfil his role. Early Buddhists 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?


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 homelessness (anāgarika). Or we might say that we go forth from false refuges so 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're 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. 

It's 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.



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

Karashima, Seishi. (2015). 'Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.' ARIRIAB XVIII: 113–162.āyāna_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, means "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 (though 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 learning 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 else's). 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 suggestions 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). 


17 November 2017

All of them Arahants. Notes on Aṣṭasāhasrikā and Speech Acts.

I'm doing some preparation for reading Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) with a friend and have ended up making a load of notes. I'm mainly looking at the edition by Vaidya, but comparing it where possible with the Gāndhārī, and two versions in Chinese, one by Lokakṣema, translated in 179 CE (the earliest), and one by Kumārajīva, translated in 404 (the most popular). This will be too laborious to do for the whole text, but might help shed light on particular passages (we may well get a publication out of it at some point).

The first sentence is:
evaṃ mayā śrutam ekasmin samaye bhagavān rājagṛhe viharati sma gṛdhakūṭe parvate mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdham ardha-trayodaśabhir bhikṣuśataiḥ, sarvair arhadbhiḥ kṣīṇāsravair niḥkleśair vaśībhūtaiḥ suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair ājñair ājāneyair mahānāgaiḥ kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair apahṛta-bhārair anuprāpta svakārthaiḥ  parikṣīṇabhava-saṃyojanaiḥ samyag-ājñā-suvimuktacittaiḥ sarvaceto vaśiparamapārami-prāptair ekaṃ pudgalaṃ sthāpayitvā yaduta āyuṣmantam ānandam ||
In this batch of notes, I will make some miscellaneous comments about numbers, dhāraṇī, and the absence of bodhisatvas. I then look at how speech act theory can inform translation, using one of these adjectives (in red) as my example.


In english we say that there were "twelve hundred and fifty bhikṣus". However, Sanskrit Buddhists texts say this differently, using the form "x hundreds-of-bhikṣus" (where hundreds-of-bhikṣus is a compound, bhikṣuśatāḥ). In this case the number of hundreds is ardha-trayodaśa or literally "half-thirteen". This means thirteen-less-a-half, or twelve-and-a-half. And "twelve and a half hundreds" = 1250. The significance of this number is unclear, but it crops up in other texts as well.


One of the overall things that strikes me about the string of adjectives (in red) is how much it looks like a dhāraṇī. There is the same kind of iteration and alliteration, e.g. suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair,  ājñair ājāneyair, and kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair. If change the instrumental plural to the standard eastern Prakrit nominative singular ending, it emphasises the similarity e.g. 
kṣīṇāsrave niḥkleśe vaśībhūte suvimuktacitte suvimuktaprajñe ājñe ājāneye mahānāge kṛtakṛtye kṛtakaraṇīye apahṛtabhāre anuprāpte svakārthe  parikṣīṇabhavasaṃyojane samyagājñāsuvimukte
Tack a svāhā onto the end of this and it could be a dhāraṇī as found in most Mahāyāna texts after about the 4th Century. It seems we could say that dhāraṇī make use of literary techniques already in use, such as the tendency to iterate adjectives, to double up (or higher multiples) in order to create emphasis. 

The form of this statement, using the instrumental plural is rare in Pāḷi, occurring only in the Samaya Sutta, recorded twice: in the Dīgha Nikāya (DN ii.252) and the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN i.25). 
Evaṃ me sutaṃ – ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sakkesu viharati kapilavatthusmiṃ mahāvane mahatā bhikkhusaṅghena saddhiṃ pañcamattehi bhikkhusatehi sabbeheva arahantehi; 
Thus have I heard: one time the Bhagavan was dwelling with the Sakyas in a large grove in Kapilavattu, together with a large congregation of five hundred bhikkhus, all of them arahants. 
The Pāḷi number idiom is slightly different. Pāḷi says "five measures (pañcamatta) of one hundred bhikkhus (bhikkhusata)." However, most of the other adjectives are familiar in one way or another. 

Note that Lokakṣema's translation doesn't have a list of adjectives and thus looks a lot more like the opening of the Pāḷi Samaya Sutta. It suggests that the adjectives were added after the original composition. This highlights that the Mahāyāna texts were not part of a Canon (a collection of texts in fixed form), even when written but, instead, they were continuously added to over the centuries. 


Though this is a Mahāyāna text and the critical edition is based on relatively late manuscripts, with the oldest being from the 10th Century, there are no bodhisatvas present. This seems significant, because the presence of bodhisatvas seems to be an important feature of Mahāyāna.

However, when we look at the old translations we find a different story. Lokakṣema's translation from 179 AD, 《道行般若經》 (T224) says: 
[8.425.c06] 佛在羅閱祇 耆闍崛山 中,摩訶比丘 僧不可計,諸弟子 舍利弗 、須菩提等;摩訶薩菩薩無央數,彌勒菩薩 、文 殊師利菩薩  等。 
Once the Buddha was at Rājagṛha on the Vultures Peak with a huge congregation of monks, impossible to count, all of them disciples (弟子), including Śāriputra and Subhūti; and countless mahāsatva bodhisatvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī. 
This kind of hyperbole is what we expect from a Mahāyāna sūtra. By the way, the word "disciples" (弟子) seems to reflect an underlying śrāvaka, though we expect arhat here, and is probably a mistake. It may reflect the idea that arhat was the goal of the śrāvakayāna, whereas the bodhisatva was the goal of the bodhisatvayāna

Unfortunately, the Gāndhārī manuscript (dated to 70 AD) is damaged and/or missing at this point. By the late 4th Century Kumārajīva's text (T227), while still considerably shorter than the later manuscripts, is completely conventional:
[537a25 - 26]  如是我聞。一時佛在王舍城耆闍崛山中。與大比丘僧千二百五十人倶皆是阿羅漢。
Thus have I heard: one time the Buddha was staying at Rāgagṛha on the Vulture's Peak, with a great congregation of 1250 bhikṣus, and all of them were arhats. 
Here the word arhat is transliterated as 阿羅漢, which in Middle Chinese was alahan. It may reflect a Prakrit original (cf Pāḷi arahant), but, by Kumārajīva's time, was fairly standard, though there were many variant "spellings" in Chinese, e.g.,  阿盧漢; 阿羅訶, 阿羅呵; 阿梨呵, 阿黎呵. This was later abbreviated to lohan or louhan (these Romanizations represent modern Mandarin pronunciations)

So the text is seemingly quite different at different times, assuming that the Chinese translations accurately reflect their source texts. Nor are the differences explicable as a linear evolution. Lokakṣema has bodhisatvas present, whereas others did not. So was Lokakṣema's text different or was he taking liberties? We don't know, because the Chinese did not preserve the Sanskrit originals of the Indic texts that they translated and, indeed, very few texts survive from that period, anywhere. The surviving Sanskrit manuscripts of Aṣṭa are on corypha palm leaves and date from about the 10th Century onwards. Note also that—especially in the earlier translations—the translators were working from single manuscripts that were most likely riddled with copying errors.

One of the things this brief comparison shows is that there is no single sūtra called Aṣṭasāhasrikā. I tried once before to bring out this with respect to the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'? 20 December 2013). Similarly, Jonathan Silk has recently called into question the applicability of traditional philological techniques of identifying the "original" text, (Establishing / Interpreting / Translating: Is It Just That Easy?), which I used as the basis of my essay, The Heart Sutra and the Crisis in Buddhist Philology (30 June 2017).

Effectively, the text of any given sūtra is different for different people at different places and times. And this is an argument for the prominent position that translations play in Western Buddhism, despite the fact that, as far as the Prajñāpāramitā literature is concerned, there are no good translations, as yet. With the forthcoming book by Paul Harrison we may finally have a decent translation of the Vajracchedikā but, as my work has shown, we do not yet have a reliable source text from which to translate the Heart Sutra. An accurate translation of Aṣṭa would be a fine thing.

Speech Act Theory and Translation

In this short sub-essay I'll take a single example and examine how we should understand it in the light of speech act theory. 


Like most of the adjectives in our list, this is a compound. It combines kṣīṇā, 'cut off', and āsrava, 'inflow' ← ā√sru,* where √sru means "flow", but also "to flow out of, to gush forth". The addition of the ā- prefix to verbs involving direction, usually reverses the direction, i.e., suggests, as a first approximation, "inflow, influx". We could translate kṣīṇāsrava as "inflows cut off". We could play around with synonyms such as "influx", or more traditional attempts at interpretation such as "taints, corruptions" or the wildly interpretive "intoxicant biases" (Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary). But what does any of this mean? What precisely is "flowing in"? I've been a Buddhist for more than 20 years and I still draw a blank when I see these terms.
* the change from sru to srava is regular and expected. The root sru undergoes guṇasro, which is conceived as sr(ău). We add a to create an actions noun giving, sr(ău)a. This creates an internal sandhi which resolves as srava

Can we do better? I think we can. Many writers, not least Richard Gombrich, have pointed out that āsrava (Pāḷi assava) is a term taken from Jainism. In that context, actions (karma) cause an inflow (āsrava) of "matter" or "dust" (the Sanskrit word here is unclear) that sticks to the soul (jīva) and keeps it in saṃsāra. But the word āsrava might also be translated as "channel for acquisition of karma", i.e. the Jains see āsrava both as the flow and channel for flow of karma. Jains believe that suffering removes (nirjarā) karma from the jīva, thus liberates it from saṃsāra. Another way of thinking about it in Jain terms, is that āsrava is a way that the consequences of karma impinge on the person. An āsrava is a karma conduit.

So what might it mean to cut off the inflowing or channels for inflowing of karma? It means that the person concerned is not going to suffer the consequences of any past actions because the flow of karma has ceased. Nor will they create any new karma (conceived of as consequential actions that will result in rebirth) that might prevent from being finally liberated from rebirth. Someone who is kṣīṇāsrava does not create new karma and has no old karma waiting to manifest.

In other words, to be kṣīṇāsrava is to be free of karma: free in the sense of not subject to any consequences of past actions; and free in the sense of not having to worry about what they do because they can no longer do actions that result in rebirth. Of course, Aṅgulimālā might be considered an exception, since he still has to suffer from past karma but he is still not making any new karma and won't be reborn.

Dictionaries are helpful tools, but to really understand a language one has to think beyond the dictionary, to see words in their cultural context. This is particularly important for Sanskrit which is used in a wide range of distinct contexts which may use the same words very differently. Similarly, etymology can tell us what the parts of a compound originally meant, but not how the individual words are used at a particular place or time, let alone the meaning of a compound.

Speech Acts and Translation

The theory of speech acts was developed in the USA in the 20th Century, largely by two men, John L. Austin and John Searle. Their analysis was part of a movement away from seeing language in merely semantic terms by applying principles deriving from pragmatism. Semanticists ask "What does language mean?", while pragmatists ask "What does language do?" Austin and Searle mapped out the kinds of things we do with language. They treated spoken sentences as "speech acts". In this pragmatic view, semantics must be subordinated to pragmatics, if only because of irony, i.e., when we say one thing, but mean something else. If I say "I love your new haircut", a semanticist can only analyse the words themselves and conclude that I do love your new haircut. A pragmatists also listens to my tone of voice and watches my face as I say it, and they might realise I don't like your new haircut, at all, and that I am mocking you. Semantics cannot cope with sarcasm or irony, because the same words are used as if I was sincere. Pragmatics doesn't just add a dimension to semantics, but shows that "sense" occurs in the context that goes well beyond word choices.

This is one of the problems of working with written texts. Written texts have no eyebrows or tone; we cannot tell how the author intended us to read their words, whether as literal truth, informative myth, entertaining legend, or some other interpretation. To take a real example, one of us might read a Buddhist text such as the Pāḷi Tevijjā Sutta as a parody, which changes its meaning entirely; while another dismisses the idea that Buddhists could portray the Buddha as having a sense of humour as projection, and argues for a more literal reading. 

Speech act theory suggests that we can understand a communication in terms of what was said, what was meant, and what was understood. The technical terms for these are locution, illocution, and perlocution (and be aware that the technical definitions of all of these terms are a lot more sophisticated than how I have boiled it down here). The case of kṣīṇāsrava illustrates this very nicely. Obviously kṣīṇāsrava is a locution; i.e., it is a declaration about an arhat that helps to establish legitimacy and authority on several levels. It establishes the status of people present (who subsequently participate in the dialogues); it helps to establish the status of arhats as a class of people; and because the Buddha is surrounded by a large number of them, his authority and legitimacy is also established. Buddhists are obsessed with these political issues of status, legitimacy, and authority from the earliest records of their thinking.

Conze's attempt to translate kṣīṇāsrava is "their outflows dried up". This is a perlocution for Conze, it represents what he has understood, but it is also a new locution, something he is declaring. This is a feature of translation. The author composes a text and perhaps writes it down as a document. The translator reads the text, tries to understand it in the source language, then they compose a text in the target language which they hope will have the same illocutionary force. A translation is always a new locution. It's never the same locution.

Conze wants us to understand this thing about arhats: "their outflows dried up". This is similar to how Kumārajīva's translation team understood term, since they translate 諸漏已盡 "all leaks completely exhausted"

So, contrary to the dictionaries and Jain usage, which clearly suggest that ā√sru means "in-flow", both Conze and Kumārajīva understand "outflow". One of the things about borrowed terms is that they are thoroughly decontextualised, so the knowledge that this word āsrava originally came from a Jain context was lost and not recovered until after Conze was writing.

I'm not sure about other readers, but when I think of "their outflows dried up", I think of a leaky container, particularly a human body leaking fluid from various orifices (the Chinese 漏 "leak" only reinforces this!). I have a cold at present with a runny nose and sore throat. I have a lot of extraneous outflows that I wish would dry up. So, what Conze seems to be saying, on face value, is that the leaking body fluids from the arhats have dried up. It certainly does not conjure any sense of what the term means in practice, or convey anything to me that I intuitively find meaningful.

By looking at how the word was used in its original context we have deduced that the illocutionary force of kṣīṇāsrava is that arhats are free of karma. And we can use this conclusion "free of karma" as our translation. To my mind, as a Buddhist who has explored Buddhist karma doctrines in some depth, this makes a great deal of sense; whereas, "their outflows dried up" doesn't communicate anything relevant to me (and produces a load of irrelevant associations). 

What I do not control is how the reader will understand this - the perlocution. For example there are many different ways of thinking about karma and I can't be sure that all of them will fit my conception. Some might take this to mean that the arhats are free from moral restraint, for example, and able to act immorally with impunity. Though this would not be what I intended to say, not my illocution, it might be a perlocution for the reader.


This "essay" is really just a collection of notes with no overall theme except that they arise out of reading Aṣṭa and thinking about how to translate it. However, one of the major themes I've explored over the years is just how difficult translating really is. I've tried to convey how little confidence we should have in translated documents as representative of the author's intentions. The very idea of "the text" is much more fluid in our Buddhist milieu that it is for, say, Christians.

On one hand, this ought to legitimate translations. We know that in most Asian countries, Indic texts were abandoned quickly once translations became widely available. Indic texts were not generally preserved in the long term, but remained theoretically important. On the other hand, the whole point of the story of Xuanzang going to India (and he was only one of many such pilgrims from China and Tibet) was that he felt the translations of Kumārajīva and others were not sufficiently clear or comprehensible. It is a little ironic then, that while his translations were generally considered superior by scholars, none of Xuanzang's translations ever become popular or replaced those of Kumārajīva in the popular imagination.

Translations are seldom really about translating individual words. The basic unit of meaning is the sentence. That is to say, it is how words are used in sentences that convey the authors' intentions. A list of adjectives is a special case. But the single word example of kṣīṇāsrava does seem to highlight many of the problems with English translations of Buddhist texts. We are not there yet in terms of fully migrating to English as a medium for communicating the Dharma. We are still struggling with Buddhist Hybrid English and with incomprehensible word for word translations.

One of the problems we seem to have is that few scholars are going over the ground and bringing the light of new discoveries to familiar texts. I think this is partly a problem of how such work is funded now. Everyone is busy working on "new" areas and previously untranslated texts (which seem to become more obscure with each passing year).

Another text I've been looking at recently is Lewis Lancaster's unpublished dissertation on the Chinese translations of Aṣṭa which compares the versions - and delineates three periods of the text. I hope to write up some notes on this as well, because it is apparent that this 50 year old document has not had the kind of influence on the popular imagination of Prajñāpāramitā that it should have. It is  a great pity that in the 50 years since Lancaster's doctoral dissertation no one seems to have followed up on the doors that it opened. Certainly, no new translation of Aṣṭa has appeared to replace the faulty one produced by Conze. One bright spot is Seishi Karashima's glossary of Lokakṣema's Aṣṭa, which ought to make a new comparative translation much easier. 


31 July 2015

Form is Emptiness. Part III: Commentary continued.

~~Continued from Part I & Part II~~

I've combined the three parts of this essay into a single pdf:
Form is (Not) Emptiness.
Previously: In Part I, we explored the language of the passage associated with the phrase "form is emptiness, emptiness is only form". We identified the authoritative versions of the passage, in Sanskrit and Chinese, in the Heart Sutra and the source of the quotation, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. In Part II, we glossed over the existing commentaries, discarding them largely because they treat the Heart Sutra as a tabula rasa on which can be asserted various sectarians versions of Buddhism. We then began to explore passages from the Aṣṭasahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) to see what they might tell us about the phrase "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" from the Heart Sutra. The method is productive of interesting commentary on the passage, but we had not found an exact parallel. In Part III we begin to dig deeper.


So far, we've been looking for a statement along the lines of "rūpaṃ śūnyatā", which would be the obvious ancestor of the line from the Heart Sutra. So far, the approach has been productive, but we haven't really hit the mother lode. But what if, in being transmitted, the text was changed in an unexpected way? What if, for example, a key word was changed? Is this plausible?

In fact, this seems to be what has happened. In Chapter One of Aṣṭa (1.22) we find a passage that is identical in syntax to the famous passage from Pañcaviṃśati, except that one of the words has been changed. This passage follows on from the one that I identified with the Kātyāyana Sūtra in an essay a few weeks ago. The context is a series of questions and answers on the subject of how a Bodhisattva trains. The passage we are looking at begins with Subhūti asking a question of the Buddha:
"If the Bhagavan were asked, 'Can the man of illusions (māyā-puruṣa) train in omniscience (sarvajñā), will he come near it, will he go forth to it?' How would the Bhagavan explain the answer to this question?"
Here sarvajñā 'complete knowledge, omniscience' is a synonym of prajñāpāramitā and originally of mahājñāna (which was hyper-Sanskritised to mahāyāna as we saw in Early Mahāyāna). In East Asia manuscripts of the Heart Sutra the maṅgala is often namas sarvajñāya. This seems to be the first mention of the māyāpuruṣa or 'man of illusions', or as Conze translates, "illusory man", so we're not quite sure of the context of the word. By way of answer the Buddha asks Subhūti a related question:
"What do you think Subhūti: is illusion (māyā) different from form? Different from sensation, apperception, or volition? Is illusion different from cognition?"
The key phrase in Sanskrit is "anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam". This is starting to seem familiar. The form of this question also suggests that Conze has erred in interpreting māyāpuruṣa. It's not an adjective 'illusory', not 'the man who is illusory', rather 'illusion' is a substantive, as in the 'man who is an illusion' or more likely '...has illusions'. The Buddha seems to be asking whether we can separate the man from his illusions about experience. Subhuti answers:
"It is not the case, Bhagavan, that illusion is different from form. Bhagavan, the illusion is form; form is only an illusion. It is not the case, Bhagavan, that illusion is different from sensation, from apperception, from volition. The illusion is only sensation, apperception and volition, and sensation, apperception and volition are only illusions. It is not, Bhagavan that illusion is different from cognition. The illusion is cognition; cognition is only an illusion."
What the Buddha is saying here is that illusions (things the unenlightened take to be real) are not found outside the five branches of experience (pañcaskandhāḥ) but, in fact, that the five branches of experience are the illusion. At least to the unenlightened, experience is an illusion that we buy into. This is a useful observation.

Even more interesting is that this passage from Aṣṭa uses exactly the same syntax as used in the Heart Sutra passage from Pañcaviṃśati with one change: the word śūnyatā is replaced by māyā. A reminder that the form of the words from the Heart Sutra found in Pañcaviṃśati is:
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā | nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ | rūpam eva śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpam
And here in Aṣṭa:
na hi anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva māyā | māyaiva rūpam |
In Aṣṭa it is part of a discussion between the Buddha and Subhūti, but in Pañcaviṃśati the protagonists are the Buddha and Śāriputra, and in the Heart Sutra they are Avalokiteśvara and Śāriputra. There are some minor spelling differences caused by sandhi, and by the use of pronouns in Aṣṭa, but neither the words nor the grammar is changed by this. Aṣṭa only has three phrases, to Pañcaviṃśati's four, leaving off an equivalent of nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā. Otherwise, the two passages are more or less the same. Too similar for this to be a coincidence. The Aṣṭa passage has to be the source of the passage in Pañcaviṃśati that became the famous line in the Heart Sutra, but with reference to illusion rather than emptiness.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate this passage in the Gāndhārī manuscript published by Falk & Karashima (2012). However, we can find a probable counterpart to this passage in the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (Rgs).
māyopamāṃ ya iha jānati pañca skandhāṃ
na ca māya anya na ca skandha karoti anyān |
nānātvasaṃjñavigato upaśāntacārī
eṣā sa prajñavarapāramitāya caryā || Rgs_1.14 ||
Here, the one who knows that the five skandhas are like an illusion,
Does not make illusion one thing and the skandhas another;
The one who practices for peace is free of multiplying perceptions,
His practice is the highest perfection of understanding.

The Relation Between rūpa and māyā.

The phrase in Aṣṭa, with "illusion", makes sense in both directions with māyā: "the illusion is form; form is only an illusion." Or "form is an illusion, which is the illusion of form." Indeed, this is fairly standard Buddhist rhetoric about the nature of experience, which seeks to undermine our fascination (or intoxication) with sense experience and encourages us to do the practices which enable us to detach (sober up) from it (especially the vimokṣa practices found in MN 121 & 122).

Initially, in Buddhist texts, the relationship between form and illusion is stated as a simile. We find it said in Aṣṭa, for example, that form is like an illusion (māyopamaṃ rūpam. Aṣṭa 9 cf. Rgs 1.14a). The same simile is given at the end of the Vajracchedikā:
tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvaśyāya budbudaḥ
supinaṃ vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭavya saṃskṛtam | || Vaj 22
We should see the conditioned as a star, a kind of blindness, a lamp,
An illusion, a dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a lightening flash, a cloud.
The simile is well known and comes from early Buddhism. For example, in the Pāḷi Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95) we find it stated like this:
Evameva kho, bhikkhave, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ [ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā, oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā, hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā], yaṃ dūre santike vā taṃ bhikkhu passati nijjhāyati yoniso upaparikkhati. Tassa taṃ passato nijjhāyato yoniso upaparikkhato rittakaññeva khāyati, tucchakaññeva khāyati, asārakaññeva khāyati. Kiñhi siyā, bhikkhave, rūpe sāro?
Just so, Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees some form, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, faraway or right here, he studies it, investigates its origins... and it appears to him unreal (rittaka), empty (tucchaka), without substance (asāraka). After all, what substance (sāra) is there in form?
The word sāra here might also be translated by 'essence', a metaphor drawn from the heartwood of a tree. In the passage below a plantain tree lacks any wood, let alone heartwood. The point being that nothing real comes into being when we have an experience that can be designated 'form'. 'Form' is a label we apply to experience, even when we think we are applying it to the world. Pheṇa concludes with a verse similar to Vaj.
Pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ, vedanā bubbuḷūpamā
Marīcikūpamā saññā, saṅkhārā kadalūpamā;
Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ, desitādiccabandhunā.
Form is like a ball of foam, sensation like a bubble.
Apperception is like a mirage, volition like a plantain
Cognition is like an illusion. So the kinsman of the Sun taught.
So there is some continuity of this idea from Mainstream Buddhism into the early Prajñāpāramitā texts (Aṣṭa, Rgs, and Vaj). Unfortunately, the replacement of māyā with śūnyatā in the comparison breaks the metaphor and the statement no longer makes sense. What makes the Aṣṭa version work is that māyā is another substantive noun (even though illusions are insubstantial). In rūpameva māyā we are comparing two substantives in a well known metaphoric relationship, based on an old simile. Anyone familiar with Buddhist literature is aware of the kinds of comparisons quoted above and can contextualise the statement to make sense of it. However, śūnyatā is an abstract noun from an adjective. In order for the apposition to really work we need something like rūpatā śūnyata 'formness is emptiness', but this still does [not?] make sense when we reverse it. So the substitution of śūnyatā for māyā leaves us with a mess of grammatical and exegetical problems. In short, it seems to have been a mistake.

But is it plausible to say that an ancient editor introduced a mistake into a "sacred" Buddhist text, rendering it nonsensical? Before answering this question we need to follow the lead just discovered a little longer. The invocation of māyā leads us back to the Pañcaviṃśati, which reinforces the idea that we have discovered the origin of the "form is emptiness" passage.

Back to Pañcaviṃśati

In a forthcoming article, I show that the passage known as "the epithets of the mantra" has two possible sources in Pañcaviṃśati that occur close together. One is far more likely to be the source, but the two are very similar in wording apart from the context. Nattier (1992) noted that in the epithets that the word vidyā had been translated into Chinese and then came out as mantra in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. My article will examine this case in more detail.

Alerted by the word māyā to look again at the Pañcaviṃśati I discovered that the "rūpam śunyatā" phrase also occurs twice. The other occurrence is at the beginning of Chapter Three. The form here is a dialogue between the Buddha and Śāriputra, and one of the main differences from Aṣṭa is that the answers are more long winded. Śāriputra asks how a bodhisatva ought to practice (caritavyam). In the Gilgit manuscript the Buddha begins his reply, iha śāradvatīputra (recall how uncertain the wording of this address was in Part 1). The fact that Śāriputra is the interlocutor here also brings us closer to the Heart Sutra.

Importantly, the Buddha's reply is that the bodhisatva does not samanupaśyati 'perceive, observe, regard, consider' anything about themselves or what they are doing (which sounds a lot like śūnyatāvimokṣa). And they especially don't perceive/consider the skandhas. And why not?
Because a bodhisatva is indeed empty of self-existence. It is not through being empty that form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are empty. Emptiness is not separate (anyatra) from form. Emptiness is not separate from sensation, apperception, volition and cognition. Form is only emptiness. Sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are only emptiness.
Note here that anya (other, different) is replaced by the locative anyatra (elsewhere, elsewhen).
What is the reason? Because this is a mere name; bodhi and bodhisatva are mere names which are emptiness. Form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are mere names. Because form, sensation, apperception, volition and cognition are like illusions (māyopama) and a mere name is not situated or located [anywhere]: non-existent, unreal, false, an illusory idea, self-existenceless, and without self-existence, non-arising, non-ceasing, not decreasing or growing, not defilement or purification.
Although we can be fairly sure that the quotation from the Heart Sutra is taken from the passage a little further on, this passage may well have been influential. What this passage does, is tie us back to the Aṣṭa more clearly through the reference to the skandhas being mere names (nāmamātra) and like illusions (māyā-upama). The use of the locative adverbial pronoun, anyatra, means we read the text as saying that emptiness is not found outside of form in time or space. Emptiness, then, is a quality of experience, rather than a quality of reality. Or we might say that phenomena are characterised by emptiness and noumena remain unknown and (as far as Buddhists are concerned) unknowable.

It becomes more clear why a bodhisatva is doing a skandha reflection at the beginning of the Heart Sutra. The context in the Pañcaviṃśati is precisely this:
kathaṃ punar bhagavan bodhisatvena mahāsatvena prajñāpāramitāyāṃ caritavyam
How, moreover, Bhagavan, should the bodhisatva mahāsatva practice with respect to perfection of wisdom.
The Heart Sutra begins with Avalokiteśvara, the archetype of a bodhisatva in 7th Century China, doing the practice of perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitācāryām caramāno) which consists of examining the five skandhas (vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhān)

It then proceeds to describe how the bodhisatva should relate to the skandhas, in a passage that seems to resonate with the Pāḷi Cūlasuññatā Sutta. Thus, the opening of the Heart Sutra is probably not arbitrary, but also relates more generally to Chapter Three of Pañcaviṃśati, the main difference being that the abstract bodhisatva has been replaced by the archetypal bodhisatva Avalokiteśvara. An obvious next step is to compare this passage in Kumārajīva's T223, which I have not had the time to do yet. And this blog post is far too long already. We can also connect this with the skandha reflection practice in the Mahāsuññatā Sutta (MN 122) which shows how one pursues the experience of emptiness, while at the same time reflecting on experience.

On final comment on this is that in Conze's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati he uses the subject divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra which would have us believe that passage quoted in the Heart Sutra (1975: 61) is related somehow to the Four Noble Truths. The Heart Sutra passage covers the end of the second and beginning of the third truth. This seems to me to be a very unlikely reading of the text.

Having established the connections we need to say a few words about the introduction of deleterious changes to Buddhist texts.

How Buddhist Texts Change for the Worse

From the available evidence it appears that Buddhists constantly tinkered with their texts in large and small ways, sometimes expanding them massively as with the extrapolation of the 8,000 line text to 100,000 lines; sometimes changing a single word. We often find that successive Chinese translations of texts get longer and longer. There are many reasons why texts get amended and adapted. These are not always to do with increasing wisdom over time. Sometimes the changes are ideological. Sometimes our texts have been amended in ways that are dubious at best and catastrophic at worst. For example, in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, sandwiched between a discussion of the four pilgrimage places and how to deal with the Tathāgata's remains, is a passage about how male monks should have nothing to do with women (DN ii.140-1). It is so out of place that it jars the mind when reading the text. But for an example of poor editorial choices we can use the Heart Sutra itself to demonstrate. Take the line:
Nāvidyā nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmaraṇam na jarāmaraṇa-kṣayo.
No ignorance or end of ignorance... up to... no ageing and death, no end of ageing and death.
This is the standard list of twelve nidānas, in both the forward and reverse directions at once, with just the first and last items on the list, and using the abbreviation yāvat 'as far as' to stand for the middle ten items. One could hardly get a more orthodox pan-Buddhist idea than this list. In an ideal world we'd have given the directions separately, tadyathā:
Nāvidyā yāvan na jarāmaraṇam | na jarāmaraṇa-kṣayo yāvan nāvidyākṣayo
No ignorance [as a condition for the arising of volitions]... up to no ageing and death [arising on the basis of birth as a condition]. No cutting off ageing and death [through the cessation of birth] down to no cutting off ignorance [and thus putting an end to this whole mass of suffering].
Even so, the intent of the text is clear, it's about the twelve nidānas and negating them as a set, for the purpose of undermining the idea that the words are more than mere words (nāmamatra). However, some editors or scribes have failed to see the twelve nidānas here and just noticed nāvidyā (or na avidyā) 'no ignorance' and interpolated na vidyā 'no knowledge' as though the point were simply to negate pairs of opposites. One of the manuscripts that does this is the Horiuzi Palm-leaf Manuscript held in Hōryūji monastery, the oldest extant Sanskrit manuscript of the Heart Sūtra. In the Horiuzi ms. this passage reads (interpolations in bold):
na vidyā nāvidyā na vidyākṣayo nāvidyāksāyo yāvan na jarāmaraṇaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
In fact, here the editor has gone one step further and also interpolated na vidyākṣayo as well. It's a bizarre intervention. It's difficult to explain. This particular manuscript has been very influential, especially in Japan. For example, this mistake is replicated at least twice in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy of the East (1995: 119, 120-1), and also in the modern Japanese Siddham script calligraphy manual, 梵字必携 (A Manual of Sanskrit Writing).

Depending on when the changes happen and how often manuscripts get copied, such interventions can become the standard. In the first part of the long text Heart Sutra, the sentence in which Avalokiteśvara examines the skandhas and sees that they are empty of svabhāva ought to have two verbs: one meaning "examined" (vyavalokayati sma) and one meaning "saw" (paśyati sma). However, in the extant versions the verb paśyati sma has been replaced by a second vyavalokayati sma. This is clearly a simple error, but it must have occurred early on, because it infected all of the extant long texts, including those in Tibetan, and no copyist since has been honest or brave enough to correct it.

Similarly, I've showed that the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra routinely transmitted by Tibetan lamas is garbled (Jayarava 2010). The garbled version occurs in every Tibetan source that I have consulted over many years, except the Kanjur (See Canonical Sources for the Vajrasatva Mantra). So we can say that bizarre interpolations in texts seem to be de rigueur, and mostly because some Buddhists didn't learn Sanskrit (at all or well enough), but a simple correction by someone who does know Sanskrit is almost always unwelcome because the text is "sacred" or because it would undermine the authority of the guru. Once a text has become nonsense, it seems to be resistant to being repaired, even when the repair is simple and obvious.

So the idea of someone who did not fully understand the text changing the wording in an ad hoc way that did not take the context into account and resulted in non-sense, and this bizarre intervention being accepted as authentic and transmitted faithfully, is not at all far fetched. In fact, it happens all to often! We can point the finger at ancient Buddhists, but, in fact, the process continues. Conze's translations, for example, are full of bizarre interventions and his Sanskrit editions of grammatical errors. My first published article on the Heart Sutra (Attwood 2015) looks at a simple grammatical mistake that appears to have been overlooked by Conze, apparently because of his religious beliefs. I'm not quite sure why anyone else overlooked it, but in fact everyone did for over 60 years. A less technical (and non-paywalled) summary of this article is also available: Heart Murmurs.

When someone we admire and believe to be wise says something incomprehensible, we are predisposed to assume that the statement is profound, too profound for us to understand. Dan Sperber (2010) has called this "The Guru Effect". Sperber was largely focussed on secular contexts, living as he does in the France of post-modern philosophy which turned nonsense into an art form, to wide acclaim. Conze and many other commentators take this approach with Prajñāpāramitā. Their attitude is that the nonsense is a feature not a bug. "Of course it is illogical," they say, "if it was logical anyone could understand it and it wouldn't be profound." This kind of aberrant thinking has prevented progress being made on understanding these texts for generations.


This exercise has proven the value of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as a commentary on the Heart Sutra. The strategy has provided us with an important new insight into the meaning of the text. Though we still don't have the passage in the original Prakrit, locating it in the early Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts gives us a better sense of the history of the ideas. Now the history the passage looks like this:

  • Rgs
māyopamāṃ ya iha jānati pañca skandhāṃ
na ca māya anya na ca skandha karoti anyān |
  • Aṣṭa
na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva bhagavan māyā | māyaiva rūpam ||
  • Pañcaviṃśati
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā | nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ | rūpam eva śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpam ||
  • T223/T250
非色異空 非空異色 。色即是空 空即是色。
  • Hṛdaya
rūpaṃ śūnyatā | śūnyataiva rūpaṃ | rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā | śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam ||
A fairly standard Buddhist simile—experience is like an illusion—becomes a metaphor—experience is illusion—and then is given a seemingly deliberate, perhaps ideologically motivated, twist that makes it abstruse—experience is emptiness. The change left dozens of generations of Buddhists puzzling over what it could mean, caught in the "Guru Effect" trap of assuming that the text as presented was the most profound wisdom imaginable. Under these conditions, the apparent lack of logic and sense is used to undermine the reader (Conze does this quite openly). This is partly because the putative author of the Heart Sutra was the perfect Buddha, who by this time can do no wrong (I explored aspects of this change in the how Buddhists understood the nature of a Buddha in Attwood 2014). The Guru Effect means that we take what are simple mistakes, and construe them as inevitably failed attempts to communicate some higher Truth. The possibility of error is axiomatically ruled out. All that is left is the failure of the reader. And some readers can turn this to their advantage by claiming to understand the incomprehensible, often through their meditative experience. Unfortunately, meditation gives few insights into Sanskrit literary or grammatical traditions.

There seems to have been a simultaneous valorisation and decontextualisation of the term śūnyatā in Mahāyāna circles. If we see Aṣṭa in the light of the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas which focus on the vimokṣa meditations, especially the signless liberation (animitta-vimokṣa) and the emptiness liberation (śūnyatā-vimokṣa), we see a strong continuity of ideas. But in Pañcaviṃśati the continuity was broken or, at least, a good deal weaker. Śūnyatā was no longer an experience to be cultivated in meditation, but a kind of ontological absolute. The change from māyā to śūnyatā may have fitted with a developing Prajñāpāramitā ideology but, linguistically and philosophically, it was a disaster because the passage could no longer be parsed linguistically or logically.

The change might have remained very obscure, except that the Pañcaviṃśati was almost as popular as the Aṣṭa and this line came to form part of the Heart Sutra, which gained popularity far outweighing its humble origins (which were also soon forgotten). Again, it might have remained an obscure Chinese magical text had someone, likely Xuánzàng, [not?] translated it into Sanskrit, called it a sūtra, and re-imported it to China as an authentic Sanskrit Buddhist text. Again, the context was forgotten and the Sanskrit version taken to be the ur-text. From there it took off. Generations of Buddhists, from quite early on, assumed that the obscure Chinese amulet was actually the Sanskrit essence of the superlative insights into "reality", the sarvajñā, prajñāpāramitā or mahājñāna. The fact that it was nonsense only made it seem more profound (via the Guru Effect). This left the text resistant to analysis, and each new generation of confused Buddhists went along with it for fear of being thought shallow and foolish. The willingness to submerge one's identity to the extent that one will agree to endorse something that is nonsense is a key aspect of belonging to a religious group. In modern times, the more Romantic one is, the easier this embracing of the illogical. To date, the world of academia has done little to dispel the pall of foolish piety that hangs over the Heart Sutra.

Another surprising conclusion of this study is that "form is emptiness" is not, in fact, the be all and end all of the Heart Sutra, not the essence of the Prajñāpāramitā. The Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā makes clear that when one practices with concepts like "form is empty" in mind this is still an error. The śūnyatā-vimokṣa samādhi is free of such concepts. If we are looking for a key line in the Heart Sutra, I suggest that it is, in fact, sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanāḥ 'all mental events are characterised by lack of self-existence'. This is the underlying reason that 'form' is like an illusion. It is this that opens up the discussion of what the text means and points to the profound insight that the Buddha had about the nature of experience.

We really ought to talk more about śūnyatā as one of the trivimokṣa or 'three liberations', a state in which all verbal cognition shuts down and the experience is empty of all concepts (something of this is hinted at in my discussion of SN 45.11 and 45.12 from 2008: Communicating the Dharma). Śūnyatā-vimokṣa is a condition that can be attained temporarily in meditation and as a permanent condition is synonymous with bodhi. The Cūlasuññata Sutta (MN 121) explains to some extent how one approaches this in meditation. But this is another subject that I'll have to return to.

The alternate passage in Pañcaviṃśati also sheds light on the construction of the opening passage of the Heart Sutra; at least in outline we now understand more why Avalokiteśvara makes an appearance and what he is doing. And perhaps helps to explain why Śāriputra is the interlocutor.

Finally, I have tried to show that "error" has to be a possible state in any textual hermeneutic. When we read a text we have to be capable of seeing error as error. Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism are all to often blind to this possibility. The tendency, especially with respect to the Prajñāpāramitā, has been to take error as "paradox" or as being a consequence of the ineffability of Reality. Notable exceptions to this criticism are Paul Harrison and Richard H Jones whose work has helped me to see errors for what they are. The refusal to see clearly means that there has been little investigation of errors in Buddhist texts. Ironically, errors seem to have two main sources: unfamiliarity with our canonical languages, and deliberate alteration motivated by ideology. Sometimes both at once.

Those of us who take study seriously eventually learn that the texts are not a true refuge. Having now written 21 essays on the text (this one is 12,000 words long) and with one published article and one in development, and having discovered a new Heart Sutra manuscript, I fancy I know a thing or two about the Heart Sutra. In the last five years I have certainly discovered things about the Heart Sutra that were previously unknown, but the main thing I've learned is that knowing it, even understanding it, is no substitute for a systematic approach to transformation. Śūnyatā is primarily an experience. On the other hand, while nonsense is a possible reading for any passage in my hermeneutic, we get nowhere by assuming that the message of our texts is intentionally illogical and thus impervious to analysis. There has to be a balance.

For me, at least, the Heart Sutra will never be the same.



Chinese Texts from the CBETA version of the Taishō.
Sanskrit texts from Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages (Gretil)
  • Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā from Harrison & Watanabe, as simplified on Bibliotecha Polyglota.
  • Prajñāpāramitā-ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā from Yuyama, Akira. (1976)

Attwood, Jayarava (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 21: 503-535.
Attwood, Jayarava (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 8: 28-48.
Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. [revised version of Conze (1948).]
Conze Edward. (1975) The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: with the Divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. University of California Press.
Eckel, Malcolm David. (1987) Indian Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra: The Politics of Interpretation. The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 10(2): 69-79.
Falk, Harry & Karashima, Seishi. (2012) A first‐century Prajñāpāramitā manuscript from Gandhāra - parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1). ARIRIAB XV, 19-61. Online:
Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.
Hyun Choo, B. (2006) 'An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch'uk's Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra)' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. February 2006, Vol.6, pp.121-205.
Jayarava (2010) The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra. Western Buddhist Review. 5.
Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Wisdom. Jackson Square Books.
KIMURA Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. [Input by Klaus Wille, Göttingen, April 2010].
Lopez, Donald S. (1988) The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.
Lopez, Donald S. (1996) Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University Press.
Huifeng [aka Orsborn, M. B.] (2008) A Survey Of Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra Translations In Chinese. Online:
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Although I don't cite it directly, the material on śūnyatā-vimokṣa is inspired by an essay privately circulated by my colleague Satyadhāna, which I read when most of this essay was already sketched out. That essay was a follow up to his article (which I have only skimmed so far):
Satyadhāna. (2014) The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review. 6: 78–104
Satyadhāna's work seems to me to provide further keys for understanding the early Perfection of Wisdom. But in any case I'm now working on the Pāḷi material myself. A good introduction to śūnyatā in Pāḷi texts can be found in:
Anālayo. 2010. Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses. Pariyatti Press: 272-281

Sanskrit Aṣṭasāhasrikā Passages
Numbers in square brackets are pages in Vaidya's Edition.
1.12 [6] evamukte āyuṣmān subhūtir āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – etam etad āyuṣman śāriputra evam etat | rūpam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ rūpasvabhāvena | evaṃ vedanaiva saṃjñaiva saṃskārā eva | vijñānam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ vijñānasvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitaiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā prajñāpāramitāsvabhāvena | sarvajñataiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā sarvajñatāsvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitālakṣaṇenāpi prajñāpāramitā virahitā | lakṣaṇa-svabhāvenāpi lakṣaṇaṃ virahitam | lakṣya-svabhāvenāpi lakṣyaṃ virahitam | svabhāva-lakṣaṇenāpi svabhāvo virahitaḥ ||

1.14. punaraparamāyuṣmān subhūtir bodhisattvaṃ mahāsattvam ārabhyaivam āha – saced rūpe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpanimitte carati, nimitte carati | saced ‘rūpaṃ nimittam’ iti carati, nimitte carati | sa ced rūpasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati | evaṃ saced vidanāyāṃ saṃjñāyāṃ saṃskāreṣu | saced vijñāne carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānanimitte carati, nimitte carati sacedvijñānaṃ nimittamiti carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati| sacet punarasyaivaṃ bhavati - ya evaṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāyāṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāṃ bhāvayatīti, nimitta eva sa carati | ayaṃ bodhisattvo 'nupāyakuśalo veditavyaḥ ||

1.22 atha khalvāyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etada vocat - yo bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchet - kimayaṃ māyāpuruṣāḥ sarvajñatāyāṃ śikṣiṣyate, sarvajñatāyā āsannībhaviṣyati, sarvajñatāyāṃ niryāsyatīti? tasya bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchataḥ kathaṃ nirdeṣṭavyaṃ syāt? evamukte bhagavānāyuṣmantaṃ subhūtimetadavocat - tena hi subhūte tvāmevātra pratiprakṣyāmi / yathā te kṣamate, tathā vyākuryāḥ / sādhu bhagavannityāyuṣmān subhūtirbhagavataḥ pratyaśrauṣīt / bhagavānetadavocat - tatkiṃ manyase subhūte anyā sā māyā, anyattadrūpam, anyā sā māyā, anyā sā vedanā / anyā sā saṃjñā, anye te saṃskārāḥ / anyā sā māyā, anyattadvijñānam? subhūtirāha - na hyetadbhagavan / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadrūpam / rūpameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva rūpam / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyā sā vedanā, anyā sā saṃjñā anye te saṃskārāḥ / vedanā saṃjñā [9] saṃskārā eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārāḥ / na bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadvijñānam / vijñānameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vijñānam //

15.2 iha subhūte bodhisattvā mahāsattvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhimabhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupamiti dharmaṃ deśayanti / evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ / evameva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ / yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam , anutpannam aniruddham, evameva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvādavikalpāḥ / tatkasya hetoḥ? yā subhūte rūpasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evaṃ vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārāṇām / yā subhūte vijñānasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evameva subhūte yā sarvadharmāṇāṃ śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / tatkasya hetoḥ? śūnyatāgatikā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ / te tāṃ gatiṃ na vyativartante /[148]

Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Passage

Gligit ms. folio 17 recto - 17 verso.

tathā hi sa bodhisatvo nāma svabhāvena śunyaḥ na śunyatayā rūpaṃ śunyaṃ na vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā na śunyatayā vijñānaṃ śunyam nānyatra rūpāc chunyatā nānyatra vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārebhyo nānyatra vijñānāc chunyatā | śunyataiva rūpaṃ śunyataiva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ śunyataiva vijñānaṃ (Gilgit 17v) tat kasya hetoḥ | tathā hi nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta bodhiḥ nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta bodhisatvaḥ nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta cchunyatā | nāmamātram idaṃ yad uta rūpaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā vijñānaṃ | tathā hi māyopamaṃ rūpam vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārā māyopamaṃ vijñānaṃ māyā ca nāmamātraṃ na deśasthā na pradeśasthā: asad abhūtaṃ vitathasamaṃ māyādarśanaṃ svabhāvarahitaṃ asvabhāvaś cānutpādaḥ anirodaḥ na hānir na vṛddhiḥ na saṃkleśo na vyavadānam