Showing posts with label Emptiness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emptiness. Show all posts

12 February 2016

The Myths of Religion and Being Bauddha.

No doubt there are innumerable definitions of religion from many different points of view. In 2015 I wrote an essay, The Complex Phenomenon of Religion (25 Sept 2015), mapping out some of the key ideas that I see as underlying religion and how they interrelate to create religion. The foundational ideas being: supernatural agency, morality, and ontological dualism. These ideas are intuitive to most people, or at least (to use Justin Barret's term), minimally counter-intuitive. I tried to show how each of these ideas entails others and thus starting from our intuitive conclusions about the world, we are drawn into a complex and self-confirming worldview. Morality or a just world entails an afterlife because the world of the living is patently unfair. An afterlife is itself intuitive for various reasons, but particularly made possible by ontological dualism, the idea that our soul or mind is distinct from our body. And this dualistic conclusion is intuitive to many people because of, for example, out-of-body experiences, and so on. All of the main features of religions, including Buddhism, emerge from various interactions amongst these basic intuitive conclusions and generalising from experience.

Another way to look at religion, is to see it as based on a series of interrelated myths. Myths are stories that express the values of a society in symbolic terms. A characteristic of many of these stories is that, as well as embodying our intuited conclusions about the world, they include minimally counter-intuitive elements that make them interesting and memorable. Figures like founders of religion are often essentially human, but capable of miracles or other superhuman feats for example. The main myths that I have identified are:
  • The myth of a just world
  • The myth of an afterlife
  • The myth of paradise
  • The myth of the golden age
  • The myth of the immortal founder
  • The myth of eternal truths
My project for the last few years has been focussed on demythologising and demystifying Buddhism. In short I have attempted to show that these myths no longer make sense of Buddhism in the light of what we currently know and understand about the world we live in. As of yesterday (Thur, 11 Feb 2016) we live in a universe permeated by gravity waves and direct detection of blackholes. Part of my project has been showing that the intuitive concepts that underlie religion are not true; that many of the ideas that seem intuitively right to us, are in fact wrong. Unfortunate many religieux struggle to understand science, especially those who write books and blogs about Buddhism and science. One of the problems for science communicators is that the new knowledge is frequently counter-intuitive or at least quite difficult to understand (look at the comments section of any newspaper coverage of the LIGO announcement of gravity wave/blackhole detection. Very few lay people really understand Quantum Mechanics for example, though it frequently (and almost inevitably erroneously) comes up as providing confirmation of Buddhist philosophies. This, combined with the weight of our established beliefs, means that many of us are reluctant to accept the new knowledge on face value, except in rare cases when it seems to confirm our beliefs (though in many cases the apparent confirmation amounts to wishful thinking). 

As time has gone on I have found more and more holes in the Buddhist account of the world, while at the same time finding the Buddhist account of experience more compelling. Buddhists get the world almost entirely wrong, but they get experience almost entirely right, and combine this with a number of techniques for exploring experience (though let's be clear there is nothing scientific about this exploration). The opinion about the world makes some people say that I am not really a Buddhist, since for them Buddhism is primarily about assenting to a set of dogmas; the latter opinion is for me the crux of the matter and why I am still a Buddhist. 

"Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience."

- Satyapriya
I was having a discussion with a friend and mentor recently and he mentioned one of his conclusions about what Buddhism is. He said, "Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience." I concur. The problem Buddhism sets out to solve is that we seek happiness without any clear idea of what happiness is or what might make us happy. And thus we go about it all wrong. The basic assumption of civilisation is that happiness is achieved through maximising pleasurable experience and minimising painful experience. And yet it has been clear for at least 2 millennia that this does not work. Part of the problem is civilisation itself. We evolved desires to motivate us to perform certain behaviours: desire motivates us to seek out food, after consuming it we experience satiation and sense of reward (so the behaviour is reinforced). Under modern conditions, finding food entails almost no effort, we always have access to food, and it is laden with sugar, salt, and fat. Since we don't eat to satiate hunger, but for pleasure instead, we seldom experience satiation and reward is connected to consumption itself. As a consequence more and more of us are fat and getting fatter. The desire for food, the reward of eating it, and the sense of satiation all seemed to be fundamentally warped by civilisation. The same can be said of sex, work, and almost every other facet of life. So Buddhism (at least originally) set out to disrupt these habitual responses leading to hyperstimulation through prolonged periods of withdrawing attention from sensory experience, and to discovering that there is life beyond the world of the senses.

We might contrast this with a Tantric approach to Buddhism. In the words of David Chapman: "It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality." I'm intrigued by Chapman's writing about Tantric Buddhism (in this and a number of recent related blog posts) and his argument that perhaps Tantra would form a better basis for "lay Buddhism" than renunciation. On face value this is an intriguing proposition, since in fact even many dedicated people are not practising renunciation and the practised associated with it. I'm going to look into this, however, at present I'm not convinced that a turn toward experience is viable because most people are habitual hedonists (motivated by pleasure seeking). To my mind there is too much evidence from outside of Buddhism that supports the idea that our basic problem is seeing happiness in terms of pleasure. Arguing that an habitual hedonist will escape this trap by turning toward experience is a bit like arguing that an alcoholic can be cured of their addiction by turning to the bottle. Like many Tantrikas, I still think that renunciation and reordering of our relationship to experience is a prerequisite to turning towards experience.

A third possibility which interests me at the moment involves re-examining the context of addiction. In his book Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari describes a new approach to addiction which focusses nor on the chemical properties of the drug, or the character of the addict, but looks at the environment of the addict. People who are well embedded in a social context, who experience the love and support of friends and family, and who live in a conducive physical environment, do not, in most cases, get addicted. Most people (Hari suggests 90%) use recreational drugs without getting addicted, just as most people drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. So why do only 10% become addicted. Hari argues that it is because of their social context, that people become addicted because they are isolated or alienated from a supportive social context. Alienation is, of course, a feature of modern urban life. With respect to intoxication with experience this would mean focussing not on experience itself, but taking an indirect to the addiction to sense pleasure by working on environmental factors that support addiction. As far as I know, no one has applied this kind of logic to the problem that Buddhists are trying to solve, though many of us are concerned with creating supportive contexts for practice (saṅgha). One of the issues that Hari seems not to deal with is the problem of people who may not be addicted, but who none-the-less make poor choices and decisions while influenced by drugs.

As interesting as these other approaches may be this essay is going to continue to explore my main theme: turning away from experience qua source of happiness. 

When we sit down to meditate we may well still be seeking experience, or we may well still see mediation as focussed on experience. But the acme of meditation—emptiness—is an end to experience. From the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas (MN 121, 122, see also SN 41.6) through into the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras there has been this powerful theme of practices in which we bring all experience to an end. We stop experiencing our body and the physical senses, and then we stop having mental experiences; and simply dwell in what remains. We do not experience ourselves as a self or the world as a world, or any distinction between the two. However, in this state of emptiness we continue to be and to be aware of being aware. This approach to emptiness, in which emptiness is more than simply a critique of experience or an ideal, but which is instantiated as the absence of experience seems very promising. My view is that the (earlier) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are attempts to put this experience of no experience (or perhaps an experience with no content) into words, to use metaphors and abstractions to explain what the absence of experience is like and what the consequences of it are like. But one cannot experience this absence of experience while seeking an experience. One must allow experience to die away, or as my friend put it, die to experience. And there is no doubt that this is far more difficult than it sounds. Many people find it terrifying because from one's first person perspective, one ceases to exist, or at least discovers that one's existence was always contingent and that when one stops paying attention to the conditions that underlie it, self stops arising.

I've written about this before in an essay from 2008 on communicating the Dharma. In two suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 45.11 and 45.12) the Buddha is describing spending time reflecting on his awakening. He says:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
"I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening."
In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā).
So evaṃ pajānāmi... chandapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chandavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāpaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāvūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca avūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca avūpasanto hoti, saññā ca avūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca vūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca vūpasanto hoti, saññā ca vūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; appattassa pattiyā atthi āyāmaṃ, tasmimpi ṭhāne anuppatte tappaccayāpi vedayitan ti.
"I know this... the condition of desire is experienced, the condition of the suppression of desire is also experienced; the condition of thinking is experienced, the condition of suppression of thinking is also experienced; the condition of perception is experienced, the condition of the suppression of perception is also experienced. There is suppression of desire, and thinking, and perception and on that account there is experience. There is stretching out to attain the unattained, and in this also experience on account of the unattained."
I surmise that this experience with no content was probably also known to Brahmin meditators. They described it in Sanskrit as saccidānanda, i.e. being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). But they associated this state with Brahman, the absolute consciousness of the universe. Absolutes are problematic. Modern day Advaita Vedantins will still argue on the basis of belief in an absolute, that there is no free will. If there were free will it would undermine the absolute. Partly influenced by Sāṃkhya philosophy they see the world as māyā—a creation of mind—and as such it has only relative existence. In the absolute sense it does not exist, only Brahman exists. It's important to remember that existence in ancient India (including in Buddhism) was always associated with permanent, unchanging existence. Temporary, contingent, or mutable existence are all contradictions in terms. If something is temporary, contingent, or mutable then "existence" does not apply. And this in turn also seems to have influenced Buddhists who were trying to mitigate the turn to Realism in the Abhidharma project, giving rise to the idea of Two Truths (the word satya has strong ontological implications and can just as well be read as reality as truth). In Sāṃkhya thought there are two basic conditions: puruṣa which is passive, permanent, and real; and prakṛti which is active, impermanent, and unreal. The world of experience is prakṛti (literally "nature") and it is māyā, a creation of mind. It is not real. Buddhists called this pole of experience samvṛti-satya, usually translated as "relative-truth" though more literally saṃvṛti means closure or concealing (so it could mean "concealed reality"). Progress is made by rolling up manifestations of prakṛti and leaving only puruṣa as a passive observer. Buddhists called this paramārtha-satya or "ultimate-truth" (or "revealed reality"). Again the Sāṃkhya may well be informed by the experience of emptiness, but interpreted as a kind of absolute. Very few accounts of Indian philosophy tie it to experience and this is a catastrophic mistake which leads to confusion.

Where Buddhism is different from Sāṃkhyā, Vedanta, and Advaita Vedanta, at least some forms of Buddhism, is that it rejects the very idea of absolute existence (this is made explicit, for example in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, SN 12.15, extant in Chinese and Sanskrit versions, as well as quoted by Nāgārjuna and his commentators). Everything we experience arises and passes away and therefore cannot be absolute or related to an absolute. This is one reason why I have a problem with the Two Truths Doctrine. It appears to contravene this more fundamental Buddhist axiom. What Buddhists seem to believe, at least originally, was this state of no experience achieved temporarily in meditation could be made permanent in the afterlife. Nirvāṇa meant not being reborn, not being reborn meant possessing no sense faculties, therefore having no experience. Nothing comprehensible arises. Thus questions about what a Tathāgata experiences after death are avyākṛta "undetermined". As I've pointed out the Mahāyāna eventually rejected this as an ideal because by necessity a Buddha was uninvolved in our lives post-parinirvāṇa. They redefined the goals of Buddhism (See my alternate history of Mahāyāna).

This is an important role that the myths of religion play, i.e. as interpretive frameworks for experience. On the basis of apparently similar experiences, someone raised in a Vedantic tradition comes to very different conclusions to someone raised in a Buddhist tradition. The versions of religious myths we internalise form the basis of how we interpret the experiences we have as a result of doing religious exercises. And this seems to be the case even for people who have insights into the nature of experience - they see their experience as a confirmation of their belief system. In this sense, the intellectual context within which we practice is very important. We know that it is entirely possible to draw the wrong conclusions from individual experience. In fact it is probable that we will do this, all the time. We all do this with respect to pleasure for example. We enjoy it and so we unconsciously think more of it will lead us towards happiness. But it doesn't. 

Some of the received myths now seem counter-productive. The strong ontological dualism involved in the myths of an afterlife, for example, might lead one to think of one's mind as a more real and permanent phenomenon than is either true or helpful. Absolutes always seem to be a bar to further progress. Once one believes oneself to be in contact with an absolute then the motivation to change or make progress almost by necessity ceases. One can go no further than the absolute. The fact that an absolute ought to be, by it's very definition, out of the reach of the human organism is avoided by the narratives surrounding mysticism. To touch the absolute one has to have a mystical experience. In this we invoke a capacity for experience which is not related to our relative senses or mind - another twist in the story of ontological dualism. Something absolute must reside in us (an ātman in other words) which is able to appreciate and perceive the Absolute in the universe. This kind of talk ought to have no place in Buddhism, which rejects all absolutes, though it does appear and not simply in the Vedanta inspired Tathāgatagarbha, but in the most embarrassing places (Triratna Dharmacārins will know what I mean). We have to place all such dualisms in a basket labelled, "false conclusions and generalisations from experience" and move on.

Over the centuries different approaches to insight into the nature of experience have developed. Some schools emphasise the dangers in seeking emptiness through concentration techniques. These techniques produce bliss and rapture as early side-effects and these can be intoxicating in themselves. The argument is that spending a lot of time in dhyāna is analogous to weaning people off alcohol by giving them heroin, it's counter-productive. So some schools eschew the development of concentration and instead try to look directly at the arising and passing away of experience. There's no doubt that this can be an effective method, but it usually works best when the meditator has a good deal of concentration practice behind them, enabling them to have a relative stable and happy mind and not to simply get lost in habitual distraction without noticing it.

On the whole most Buddhists have found some balance between samatha and vipassanā approaches to meditation work best. Samatha stabilises the mind and gives us a sense of well-being that is not dependent on circumstances. And insight undermines our sense of self in relation to experience and our sense of a subject/object duality (though again I think the word "reality" is out of place in this discussion). Samatha enables us to pursue insight more effectively than a one-sided approach.

On the other hand how many Buddhists are seriously pursuing insight in this way? One in a thousand? What proportion of Buddhists are genuinely awakened people? A small handful at best? To die to experience goes against every instinct and to even get the point where we commit to doing so is rare. Most of us are still "doing research", as they say in AA. We're researching the possibility of achieving happiness through pleasurable experience, the way an alcoholic researches the possibility of happiness through drinking booze.

Someone who is not only willing to, but actively trying to die to experience and die to themselves may not really need all the myths and mumbo-jumbo. Emptiness, the experience of no experience, is it's own reward. Though observation suggests that insight doesn't liberate anyone from confirmation bias. On the other hand the rest of us are still wallowing in intoxication with the senses. We eat too much, drink too much, and stimulate our senses too much to ever attain the depths of concentration required except perhaps on long retreats (and even then our retreats are often quite indulgent). So we need to tell motivational stories based on the myths. The Pali Canon is full of stories of people seeing the light while the Buddha is telling an edifying story. They refer to it as gaining faith (saddhā) in the Tathāgata. Sometimes the stories are logical discourses on the progress one makes through rigorous practice culminating in liberation; sometimes the stories are motivational accounts of other practitioners who have done what needed to be done. And so on. But all of these stories reference the religious myths of Buddhism.

Any thoughtful person is dissatisfied with modern life. Civilisation is a two-edged sword. We benefit in so many ways from civilisation, but it also makes us sick by skewing our perceptions and our relationship to experience. Look around at the obesity epidemic, the drug and alcohol problems, the rising levels of mental health problems. The downsides of civilisation began to be apparent in India right around the time that the second urbanisation was getting going (ca 7th Century BCE). Civilisations in many places in the world gave rise to similar conditions it seems. Prophets began to pop up who basically criticised the pursuit of happiness through pleasurable experience. Some turned puritanical, urging us to spurn pleasure and torture ourselves as an alternative (early forms of Jainism fit this mould). Some responded with hedonism. Some regarded the whole world as an illusion which ought not to be taken seriously. Many variations of dissatisfaction were expressed as new sets of values; new variations on the religious myths.

It so happens that in India religious seekers had discovered meditative techniques which culminated in this state of emptiness and this powerfully informed their approach to religion. But emptiness is not easy and it never was a practical path for 99.9% of the population. Sub-optimal options had to emerge for those who bought into the rhetoric but who had already committed themselves to family, career, and ownership - i.e. to success in ordinary human terms of having a spouse, offspring, and material comfort that could be passed on to the next generation. And versions for the peasants who might aspire to having a family, but who would never be successful materially and whose families were locked into poverty by social conventions that ensured that the wealthy retained control of their wealth. Different versions of the Buddhist myths emerged to cater for people in different walks of life.


In this essay I've tried to show the role that our foundation myths play in Buddhism. However I've also tried to show how these myths are also a liability for Buddhism because they are based on false conclusions based on intuition. We certainly still need to employ our critical faculties, even with respect to the awakened, or especially with them as they most likely feel they have "direct confirmation" of their beliefs and are more firmly trapped in confirmation bias than most people. Most essentially, we need to be on guard against any form of absolute. We ought to insist that we are investigating experience and we are not investigating "reality", keeping in mind what these terms meant in the context of Buddhism in India. Statements about reality that are generalisation from meditative experience are untrustworthy, and probably wrong (no meditator ever predicted gravity waves for example). Where myths score highly is that they do sometimes communicate values more effectively than non-symbolic modes of story telling. Generally speaking, values need to be embodied and enacted to have meaning. We need to see what it is like for our values to inform how we live. Ideally our mentors will be doing that. 

I've argued that Buddhism seeks a change in our values system so that we move away from seeking happiness through experience and move towards what my friend has called "dying to experience". There's nothing in experience that will make us happy. We can usually be persuaded of the logic of this statement with a little nudging, but most of us are still committed to researching the possibility that it is wrong. Although some of the myths of Buddhism help to communicate this new system of values, many of them are unrelated to it. Legacy beliefs in an afterlife and a just world seem to be a hindrance to communicating these values.


15 January 2016

Translating Pāḷi "Asuññataṃ"

(looking east)
My Pāḷi reading group is starting off this year by looking at the Cūḷasuññatasutta (MN 121). There's quite a lot of commentary on this text, a number of translations and commentaries, but even before we began to read the text we discovered a quandary in the word asuññataṃ, which only occurs in this sutta. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001) translate the word as "non-voidness" but I don't think this makes sense.

As analogues of the Sanskrit adjective śūnya (empty) and the abstract noun from it śūnyatā (emptiness), we find the Pāḷi suñña and suññatā. However in addition, and in the title of the text no less, we find another Pāḷi form suññato or suññataṃ, which is not found in Sanskrit dictionaries, though some counterparts are found in Sanskrit Buddhist texts. This form is often glossed over in translations as "emptiness", presumably because it is so similar to the abstract noun that the translators don't notice the difference.

I begin writing this, it is not at all clear to me how asuññataṃ derives and how to translate it. In this essay I will survey the uses of the term suññato and try to establish how it ought to be translated in order to shed light on the word asuññataṃ. My sources are the Pāḷi Nikāyas and Aṭṭhakathās (or commentaries), the counterparts of the Cūḷasuññata preserved in Chinese《小空經》(MĀ 190) and Tibetan མདོ་ཆེན་པོ་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་ཅེས་བྱ་བ། (D.291), plus a few Sanskrit fragments.  

The Cūḷasuññatasutta

The passage that alerted us to this problem comes early on in the text. In Pāli it goes:
Seyyathāpi, ānanda, ayaṃ migāramāt-upāsādo suñño hatthigavassa-vaḷavena, suñño jātarūpa-rajatena, suñño itthipurisa-sannipātena atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ
Before attempting to translate this, let me break procedure by giving the gist of what it says. This is the first part of an analogy designed to illustrate a procedure for gradually emptying the mind of sense impressions and thoughts with the goal of attaining the suññatāsamādhi "integration of emptiness" or suññatāvihāra "abode of emptiness". These seem to be equivalent to saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpatti or "the attainment of the cessation of perceptions and sensations" and thus also with nibbāna. This very important and interesting state I describe as "consciousness without content". One is alive and aware, but there is no content to one's experience. The ancients had no concept of a resting state network in the brain, so they struggled to make sense of this state. I imagine, for example, that something similar gave rise to the Vedic idea that Brahman could described as saccidānanda or being (sat), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). Dwelling in the state of emptiness one experiences only being, consciousness and bliss. Those who write about this state tend to assert that it does get any better than this. 

In this illustration of the process, the Buddha and Ānanda are sitting having a discussion in a palace or perhaps on a terrace (upāsāda), in the eastern part of Sāvathī (which places it near the river that formed the eastern boundary of the old city). This palace formerly belonged to someone who is almost always known as Migāra's Mother (migāramātā). Her name was Visākhā and she was actually Migāra's wife (that story is outlined in the DOPN). In any case it appears that the palace is given over to the bhikkhusaṅgha for their use.

The Buddha points out that the things one would normally find in such a place, i.e. livestock, wealth, and people etc., are absent, but instead only the the bhikkhusaṅgha is present. Buddhaghosa points out in his commentary that this refers to the bhikkhus as a corporate entity, not to the individual bhikkhus. This example of the palace and the bhikkhus is an analogy for the ascetic meditating in the wilderness (arañña). The ascetic notices that their mind is empty of the sights and sounds of the village and its inhabitants, and all that is present is perceptions of the wilderness which have a sort of uniformity. The perturbations of the mind caused by village life are absent, and only the perturbations due to the wilderness are present.

The question is, how do we translate asuññataṃ and ekattaṃ? Some comments on how to translate ekattaṃ can be found in Schmithausen (1981: 233-4, n. 122). I concur with Schmithausen's argument for treating ekattaṃ not as Sanskrit ekatvā "oneness, unity", but as ekātman "having a single nature" or "uniform". Buddhaghosa seems also to agree with Schmithausen at MNA 4.151 in his gloss on bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭiccāti. In fact I take it to be an adverbial neuter. This essay will focus on asuññataṃ beginning by looking at the apparent source, suññato


PED offers the following definition:
Suññata (adj.) [i. e. the abl. suññato used as adj. nom.] void, empty, devoid of lusts, evil dispositions, and karma, but especially of soul, ego.
Here "adj. nom." means "an adjective in the nominative". The -to suffix is one way to indicate the ablative case. PED argues that suññato is an ablative of suñña (empty) that has been treated as a masculine noun and declined accordingly. This would make asuññataṃ an adjective in the accusative, going presumably with bhikkhusaṅghaṃ, and/or ekattaṃ.

Also PED sv. suñña defines the word in its neuter form suññaṃ "abl. ˚to from the point of view of the 'Empty'". Suggesting that suññato can still have an ablative sense mean "from the point of view of someone dwelling in emptiness". As we will see below this is apparent in some contexts as the word usually occurs with a verb of seeing. 

The primary sense of the ablative is from where or when an action proceeds, sabbato āgacchanti "they came from all sides"; pāsādā oloketi "he looks out from the palace". Very often this relationship is conveyed in English with the preposition from. In the precepts we abstain from certain types of action, and the actions are in the ablative case, i.e. pisunāya vācāya veramanī "abstaining from speech which is slanderous". The concept of separation (as in "apart from") is also conveyed by the ablative case. It is also used to indicate cause or reason for an action, e.g. sīlato naṃ pasaṃsanti "they praise him for his virtue". And just to complicate matters the cases are somewhat flexible in Middle-Indic languages, so the ablative sometimes merges with and can be used to convey an instrumental sense (with, by, through).

But why is an ablative treated as a nominative? In order to try to understand how this might have come about let us begin with a survey the use of suññato in the Nikāyas. It doesn't occur that often, so we can be comprehensive.

Occurrences in the Nikāyas

DN iii.219 Aparepi tayo samādhī – suññato samādhi, animitto samādhi, appaṇihito samādhi.
Furthermore there are three samādhis: empty samādhi, signless samādhi and desireless samādhi.
This is from the Sangīti Sutta (DN 33) which is a long list of numerical lists. Walsh (486) translates suññato samādhi as "concentration on emptiness" (i.e. he appears to ignore the case endings). Now the three words here—suññato, animitto, appaṇihito—all appear to be the same form so we can usefully look at the other two to see if they shed light on the derivation. The etymology of nimitta is given by PED as uncertain, though possibly related to √ 'measure'; but PED also tells us that the gender is neuter. Sv. nimitta in BHSD it is also neuter. But if nimitta is neuter then it should not form a nominative singular in -o, but in -aṃ. Is nimitto therefore another ablative in -to, possible from nimita (past participle) from ni√mā? I'm not sure.

If suññato and nimitto are ablatives then suññato samādhi might be "the samādhi [that comes] from [being] empty". Which is admittedly awkward.

By contrast paṇihita is very clearly a past participle from paṇidahati (pa+ni√dhā) "to put forth, put down to, apply, direct, intend; aspire to, long for, pray for." We can understand apaṇihita as a bahuvrīhi, "without longing", as opposed to a karmadhāraya "undesired". Unfortunately this breaks up the pattern. So it looks like each word, though superficially similar, might derive the -to ending via a different route.

A variation on this occurs at SN iv.360 in the Suññatasamādhi Sutta (SN 43:4):
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo? Suññato samādhi, animitto samādhi, appaṇihito samādhi.

And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? The empty samādhi, signless samādhi and desireless samādhi.
Here Bodhi (2000: 1373) translated suññato as "emptiness", i.e. as though he is translating the abstract noun suññatā. However, the feminine noun suññatā cannot take an -o ending, so something is wrong with this.

MN i.302 "Saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpattiyā vuṭṭhitaṃ panāyye, bhikkhuṃ kati phassā phusantī" ti? "Saññāvedayitanirodhasamāpattiyā vuṭṭhitaṃ kho, āvuso visākha, bhikkhuṃ tayo phassā phusanti – suññato phasso, animitto phasso, appaṇihito phasso"ti.
However, lady, rousing from the attainment of cessation of perceptions and sensations what feelings do those bhikkhus come into contact with? Friend Visākha, those bhikkhus come into contact with three sensations on rousing from the attainment of cessation of perception and experience, namely contact from/with that which is empty, contact from/with that which is signless, and contact from/with that which is desireless.
This is from a discussion between Dhammadinā and her former husband, Visākha, in the Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44). This is a very interesting passage about going into and emerging from cessation and the way that experience fades out and in. The question is literally "What contacts do they contact?" Phasso is in the masculine nominative singular. Here suññato as ablative case, perhaps overlapping with the instrumental may make sense and I've hedge my translation to indicate this. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi again translate suññato as the abstract "voidness" (2001: 400). This passage recurs at SN iv.294 where suññato is translated by Bodhi as "emptiness" 

MN i.435. So yadeva tattha hoti rūpagataṃ vedanāgataṃ saññāgataṃ saṅkhāragataṃ viññāṇagataṃ te dhamme aniccato dukkhato rogato gaṇḍato sallato aghato ābādhato parato palokato suññato anattato samanupassati.
One regards as impermanent, disappointing, a disease, a tumour, an arrow, a calamity, an affliction, as other, as disintegrating, as empty (suññato), and as unsubstantial anything that is connected with form (rūpagata), sensations, perceptions, volitions, and cognitions.
The ways that one should regard dhammas are all ablatives in -to. And the context suggests we read them as meaning "as". So that te dhamme suññato samanupassati should mean "he regards those dhammas as empty". Here suññato cannot be construed as the abstract "emptiness". An important point here is that the cognitive action is taking place in a state of jhāna.

Perhaps here we can take te dhamme aniccato samanupassati to mean "he regards these dhammas from the point of view of impermanence"? We might argue, for example, that if anicca was an adjective here, then it would take the plural, annice, to go with the noun dhamme in the plural. Therefore aniccato which is singular is not an adjective and is not describing the dhammas, but is indicating from whence the verb of seeing proceeds. Thus this could be see as an example of suññato having an ablative sense.

This passage is reflected in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. At SN iii.167 the question is asked to what dhammas a virtuous monk should pay attention. The answer is:
Sīlavatā... bhikkhunā pañcupādānakkhandhā aniccato... suññato yoniso manasi kātabbā.

A virtuous monk should pay attention to the five underlying apparatus of experience as impermanent... as empty... etc.
Again Bodhi reads the text as saying that the khandhas should be seen as impermanent... as "empty" (2000: 970). Here the word pañcupādānakkhandhā is a nominative plural and Bodhi is tacitly reading aniccato as a nominative singular and the sentence as a simple apposition. Note that here also the verb is one in which one regards or pays attention to the khandhas. Buddhaghosa glosses sattasuññataṭṭhena suññato (SNA 2.333) i.e. "with the meaning of 'empty of a being'".

There is a Sanskrit fragment that parallels this (Thanks to Dhīvan for pointing this out to me):
(ani)tyataḥ duḥkhataḥ śunyataḥ anāt[m]ato manasikarttavyāḥ. (Anālayo 2013: 11)
[Something]... should be attended to as empty etc.
This passage recurs at AN ii.128 and AN iv.423, where is is again associated with the cultivation of jhāna and AN ii.129 associated with the brahmavihāras. Here the one who does these practices has a pleasant rebirth that is not shared with worldings (Ayaṃ, bhikkhave, upapatti asādhāraṇā puthujjanehi.).

Finally the word occurs in the Suttanipata Sn 1119 (mentioned in the PED definition of suñña):
"Suññato lokaṃ avekkhassu, mogharāja sadā sato;
Attānudiṭṭhiṃ ūhacca, evaṃ maccutaro siyā;
Evaṃ lokaṃ avekkhantaṃ, maccurājā na passatī" ti.
View the world as empty, Mogharāja, always mindful;
Having destroyed self-vew, one may cross over death;
The King of Death does not see the one who views the world this way.
(My translation more or less follows K.R Norman here).
Norman was the leading authority on Middle-Indic languages and particularly in his translation of the Suttanipata paid close attention to the meaning of every word. So the fact that he reads suññato lokaṃ as "the world as empty" is significant. However, he does not discuss this choice in detail in his notes, but instead refers readers to E.J. Thomas (1951: 218) who simply says that suññata is an adjective meaning "void". Note that here lokaṃ is an accusative singular and the verb once again involves seeing. Here, as above, I'm inclined to take the ablative as representing a point of view. To me this suggests seeing the world from the point of view of the suññatavihāra (as in the PED definition cited above).

So the modern translators seem undecided on how to translate suññato. Depending on unknown factors, since it is never discussed, suññato can represent the abstract (though the morphology is all wrong for this) and be translated as "voidness, emptiness"; or it can represent the adjective and be translated as "void, empty", sometimes with the sense of "as empty". In combination with verbs of seeing it can be thought of as "from the empty point of view". In order to understand how ancient Theravāda commentators might have understood the word we can look at the glosses in the Aṭṭhakathās.

Commentarial glosses

DNA 3.1003. Maggasamādhi pana rāgādīhi suññatattā suññato, rāganimittādīnaṃ abhāvā animitto, rāgapaṇidhiādīnaṃ abhāvā appaṇihito ti
However the samādhi of the path is empty (suññato) because of the emptiness (suññatattā) of passion etc, is signless from the nonexistence of signs of passion etc, is desireless from the nonexistence of desire for passion etc.
Here the abstract noun suññatatta (suññatattā is the ablative of cause) is telling. It points quite strongly to Buddhaghosa constructing this sentence with suññato meaning "empty". The samādhi under discussion lacks rāga, dosa, and moha or attraction, aversion, and confusion and lacking these is said to be empty (suññato) giving it the quality of emptiness (suññatatta).

MNA 2.366/ SNA 3.97 suññato phassotiādayo saguṇenāpi ārammaṇenāpi kathetabbā. saguṇena tāva suññatā nāma phalasamāpatti, tāya sahajātaṃ phassaṃ sandhāya suññato phassoti vuttaṃ. animittāpaṇihitesupieseva nayo. Ārammaṇena pana nibbānaṃ rāgādīhi suññattā suññaṃ nāma, rāganimittādīnaṃ abhāvā animittaṃ, rāgadosamohappaṇidhīnaṃ abhāvā appaṇihitaṃ. Suññataṃ nibbānaṃ ārammaṇaṃ katvā uppannaphalasamāpattiyaṃ phasso suññato nāma. animittāpaṇihitesupi eseva nayo.
Taking up the phrase "empty contact" (suññato phasso), it should be explained according its own qualities (saguṇena) and according to its basis (ārammaṇa). According to its own qualities, it is the attainment of the fruit called “emptiness” (suññatā). Coinciding with that [emptiness], contact with reference to it, is called “contact that is empty”. Animitta and apaṇihita are inferred in the same way. 
However, according to its basis, nibbāna is named “empty” (suññaṃ), because of emptiness of attraction (rāga) etc; [named] signless because of the absence of signs of attraction etc, and desireless because of the absence of desire for attraction, aversion, and ignorance. Having made a case that nibbāna is emptiness, the attainment of the arisen fruit is called "contact that is empty". Animitta and apaṇihita are inferred in the same way.
This section of commentary is looking at MN i.302 mentioned above. The subject is what someone who has attained the cessation of perceptions and sensations comes into contact with when they rouse themselves (vuṭṭhitaṃfrom the attainment. For them contact is empty or absent. In Buddhaghosa's view their attainment is nibbāna and they don't experience the world the way ordinary people do any more. Contact for them is empty, signless and desireless. Here Buddhaghosa uses suñña and suññato synonymously and suññatā as a synonym for nibbāna. Again we see words like suññato and suññatā being used to indicate absence. 

A short gloss is found at MNA 3.146: nissattaṭṭhena suññato "with the meaning without a being (nissatta)." Another as ANA 2.334 sattasuññataṭṭhena suññato, "with the meaning of emptiness of a being", confirming that nissatta should be read as "without a being" rather than with PED "powerless". The sense here is that empty means the absence of a being (satta).

Buddhaghosa, then, is more consistent in treating suññato as synonymous with suñño, and both as meaning "empty of [something]" or that the object is absent.

Sanskrit Udānavarga

We've seen one fragment that uses the Sanskrit equivalent of suññato, i.e. śunyataḥ. Skilling (1981: 226) gives a more substantial example. He notices that in the Udānavarga (a Dharmapada text) there is a series of verses that are counterparts to the Pāli Dhammapada vs 277-279, whence the well known triplet sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, and sabbe dhammā anattā. Compare the Udānavarga (Uv 12. 5-8; first lines only) 
anityāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [5]
duḥkhāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [6]
śunyataḥ sarvasaṃskārāṃ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [7]
sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ prajñayā paśyate yadā... [8]|
When he sees with insight all constructs as impermanent...
When he sees with insight all constructs as disappointing...
When he sees with insight all constructs as empty...
When he sees with insight all experiences as insubstantial...
Compare the Dhp 277 where the first line is sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā ti yadā paññāya passati. Here "that which is seen" is given as a nominal sentence followed by the quotative particle. In Pāḷi sabba is a separate word, declined as a pronoun (nominative plural), whereas in Sanskrit sarva is undeclined and compounded with the noun it qualifies, though there is no change in meaning in this difference. In the Uv 12.5 and Uv 12.6, what is seen with insight, e.g. anityāṃ sarvasaṃskārāṃ, is in the accusative plural, making it the patient of the verb of seeing. Note that word order is not important here, so the fact that the two parts of the apposition, e.g. anityām and sarvasaṃskārāṃ are not the same order as in Pāḷi, i.e. saṅkhārā and aniccā is not significant. As Dhīvan pointed out in an email, in Bernard's edition of the Udānavarga on Sutta Central, Uv 12.6 begins duḥkhaṃ hi sarvasaṃskārāṃ with duḥkha in the singular. Dhīvan suggests that we treat this as nominal, as in the Pāḷi, "When one sees with wisdom all constructions indeed are disappointing...". However saṃskāra is masculine and the -āṃ ending is unequivocally accusative plural. So perhaps "When one sees with insight all the constructions that are indeed disappointing..."? 

Now in Uv 12.7 the Sanskrit word is śunyataḥ (with śūnyataḥ given as an alternate reading) = Pāḷi suññato. One way to explain the short u might be that this is a loan word from Middle Indic which has not been fully assimilated to Sanskrit morphology rules that demand a long ū i.e. śūnyataḥ. Despite grammatical problems with Uv 12.8 (see below) the general outline here seems to be that all constructs are identified with a series of qualities, particularly: impermanence, disappointment, and insubstantiality. So we expect 12.7 to fit this pattern. We expect śunyataḥ to be just like the other adjectives: anitya, duḥkha, anātman. But it isn't. Whichever case we take śunyataḥ to be, (ablative and nominative are possible) it simply does not fit the pattern because it is singular and the noun it is describing is plural (though cf. the Bernard Ed. of Uv 12.6 which is singular). Adjectives take the case, number and gender of the noun they describe; predicates have to at least be in the same case. To qualify sarvasaṃskārāṃ we expect śunyataṃ. It appears that something has gone wrong in adding this line to the text. 

Lastly in 12.8 the grammar is mangled. Perhaps echoing the Middle-Indic syntax, here sarvadharmā anātmānaḥ are in the nominative plural (matching the Pāḷi equivalent sabbe dhammā anattā ti). In Sanskrit grammar this would make them the agents of the verb, which would be nonsense. Pāḷi avoids this by adding the quotative particle. The correct grammar, matching 12.5,6 would be sarvadharmāṃ anātmanaḥ. This error might be scribal - a missing anusvāra and an incorrectly lengthened vowel are certainly common scribal errors, but that they would make the exact mistakes in two consecutive words that would accurately change them to be the same (wrong) case seems unlikely.

Unfortunately this Sanskrit example does nothing to clarify the situation. Nor does Skilling add any comment on this point, indeed he talks as if the text has śūnyatā instead. The grammatical mistake in 12.8 makes us doubt the text. But clearly the person who added the verse at Uv 12.7 understood the sentence to be the same form as 12.5,6 and likely 12.8 as well (error notwithstanding). The only way I can see to make sense of this is to treat śūnyataḥ as indeclinable. It does not change case to match the noun because it cannot. But this is far from satisfactory because it conflicts with what we already know.

Having more or less exhausted the relevant Indic language sources, we can now turn to the versions of the Cūḷasuññata Sutta preserved in Chinese and Tibetan.

The Chinese Text

The Cūlasuññata Sutta has a counterpart in the Chinese Madhyamāgama, i.e. MĀ 190 《小空經》 The Lesser Emptiness Sūtra. The parallel passage in Chinese is:
阿難!如此鹿子母堂,空無象、馬、牛、羊、財物、穀米、奴婢,然有不空,唯比丘眾。(T1 737a9-10)
Ānanda, 阿難 it is like 如此 this palace 堂 of Migara’s 鹿子 mother 母,is empty 空無 of elephants 象、horses 馬、cattle 牛、sheep 羊、money 財物、rice grain 穀米、male and female slaves 奴婢,however 然 it is 有 non-empty 不空,of only 唯 the bhikṣu-saṃgha 比丘眾
The character for both empty and emptiness is 空, however we also see here the use of 空無 which can also just mean "empty, emptiness", but which might also mean "empty and without". Where our Pāli text has asuññataṃ the Chinese has 不空 which we would expect to mean "non-emptiness" and reflect Sanskrit aśūnyatā. But the lack of clear information on inflexions in Chinese leaves considerable room for doubt. Skilling notes that the Chinese and Tibetan versions are closer to each other than either is to the Pāḷi, so next (with a little help from my friends) we can now look at the last source on the list, the Tibetan version of the Cūḷasuññata Sutta.

The Tibetan Text

Amongst the very few Tibetan translations of Nikāya/Āgama texts are the two Śūnyatā texts (Skilling 1994, 1997; also Degé vol. 71: 250a.1-253b.2).  My thanks to Joy Vriens and Maitiu O'Ceileachair for help with understanding the Tibetan. The parallel passage in the Tibetan is (though see Skilling 1994 critical edition for variant readings):
kun dga' bo 'di lta ste | dper na ri-dags 'dzin gyi ma'i khaṅ bzaṅ 'di glaṅ-po-che daṅ | rta daṅ | ba laṅ daṅ | lug daṅ | bya gag daṅ | phag gis stoṅ ziṅ nor daṅ | 'bru daṅ | 'gron bu daṅ | gser gyis stoṅ la | bran daṅ | bran mo daṅ | las byed pa daṅ | zo śas 'tsho ba dag daṅ | skyes pa daṅ | bud-med-daṅ | khye'u daṅ | bu mo dag gis stoṅ yaṅ 'di na 'di lta ste | dge sloṅ gi dge 'dun kho na 'am | de las kha cig la brten nas mi  stoṅ pa yaṅ yod do || (Skilling 1994: 150)
Mṛgāra Mother's Mansion is empty of elephants, horses, cows, sheep, roosters, and pigs. It is empty of wealth, grain, money and gold. It is empty of man-servants and maid-servants, of workers and dependants, of men and women, of boys and girls. But with regard to one thing there is non-emptiness, that is, the community of monks alone. (Skilling 2007: 234)
Compare the translation of the last sentence found in Skilling (1997: 349) "there is still the assembly of monks, or whatever depends upon it, that is not absent".

Skilling explains, "here the Pāḷi has paṭicca ekattam, the Tibetan has kha cig la breten nas, suggesting *pratītya ekatyam, with the Buddhist Sanskrit ekatya [Pāḷi ekacca; "someone, anyone" BHSD] where one would rather expect ekatva—perhaps a wrong Sanskritisation" (1997: 349-350). This leave Skilling at a loss for a translation, but as I have already pointed out above, Schmithausen argues convincingly that Pāḷi ekattaṃ reflects Sanskrit ekātman which would I think would solve Skilling's problem. In a note (1997: 349, n.49) offers a tentative reconstruction of the Sanskrit 
dge sloṅ gi dge 'dum = bhikṣusaṃgha; kho na 'am = eva vā; de las kha cig = tato ekatyaṃ; la brten nas = pratītya; mi stoṅ pa = aśūnya; yaṅ = api (ca, tu); yod do = asti
i.e. asti ca eva [idaṃ] aśunyaṃ tato bhikṣusaṃgha pratītya ekatyaṃ
C.f. Pāḷi atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ
Despite this, the Tibetan translator has evidently read an adjective here which he translates as mi stoṅ pa suggesting that his Sanskrit text had aśūnya at this point. Seemingly the unknown Sanskrit translator understood his text to be using an adjective. Unfortunately no Sanskrit ms. of this text survives to enable cross-checking. Sanskrit aśūnya would be consistent with the Chinese 不空.

The only thing we can take from this is a stronger sense that, contra Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi (2001) the abstract of "non-voidness" sense is not intended here. 


Now I have to attempt to summarise a great deal of information that is often contradictory. Before looking at asuññataṃ we need to state again that suñña means "empty", and in this context something that is referred to as suñña is absent. So when the Buddha says to Ānanda, ayaṃ migāramātupāsādo suñño hatthigavassavaḷavena "this mansion of Migāra's Mother's is empty of elephants etc.", he means that there are no livestock present, no livestock to be seen. Contrarily if something is asuññata then we can take this to mean that something is not-absent or present. 

There seem two most likely ways to arrive at the morphological form asuññataṃ. Firstly we can take suññataṃ it as an accusative singular of the abstract noun suññatā. Various translators do treat suññato as "emptiness". But as some texts point out, the word suññatā in this context really applies only to the attainment of the goal, i.e. to nibbāna. In this view asuññatā would mean something like "presence" (an abstraction from "present"). However the abstract "presence" does not quite fit the context. 

Secondly we can derive suññataṃ from the ablative suññato. It seems that this word was originally combined with verbs meaning to see, i.e. √paś or consider i.e. manasi√kṛ with the sense of "as" - dhammā suññato passati "to see dhammas as empty" or "to see dhammas from the empty point of view" or a point of view that is empty of defilements or perhaps, according to Buddhaghosa, empty of a being. The word suññato was then lexicalised, that is to say it was treated as a word in its own right rather than a declined form, with the meaning "empty; absent" and treated as a nominative singular with an accusative singular in suññataṃ. (Which I admit is more or less what PED says, but now we know why it says that and that it is correct which is a bonus where the PED is concerned). The two derivations produce the same accusative singular, suññataṃ.

The etymological meaning of asuññataṃ would be "non-emptiness" or "not-empty" and as far as I know every translator has opted for something along these lines. However I suggest we can be a bit lazy about this kind of morphology in Pāli. We don't always think about what the word really means. A negated term often has a positive value and need not be slavishly translated as not-X or without-X. In this case asuññataṃ clearly refers to something present (in contrast to absent) or visible or something along these lines. To insist on using a word that preserves the Pāḷi morphology is no more sensible than preserving the Pāḷi syntax (a practice dubbed "Buddhist Hybrid English" by Theologian Paul Griffiths). I think we have to translate the word as "present" or "presence".

Coming back to the passage under consideration, the Buddha points out to Ānanda first what is absent and then what is present. What is present at the mansion are only bhikkhus, and because there are only bhikkhus they have a sort of uniformity (ekattaṃ = ekātman) when considered with respect to what one would expect to find in a mansion, including livestock, people, and wealth. As above I think we have to take ekattaṃ as an adverbial accusative.

However, as my friend Sarah has pointed out, idaṃ is a neuter pronoun. Later when asuññataṃ is replaced in the same sentence structure by the feminine noun in the nominative case darathamattā the associated pronoun changes to ayaṃ which is also feminine nominative. This suggests that the word asuññataṃ is a neuter nominative in this sentence and the only way we can think of this happening is if it is an adjective or adjectival compound that is forced to change gender to fit a noun or pronoun, i.e. a bahuvrīhi compound a-suññatā meaning "without emptiness". So, despite everything, idaṃ asuññataṃ must mean "this presence". 

Thus I would argue that our sentence ought to be translated this way:
Seyyathāpi, ānanda, ayaṃ migāramāt-upāsādo suñño hatthi-gavassa-vaḷavena, suñño jātarūpa-rajatena, suñño itthipurisa-sannipātena atthi c'ev'idaṃ asuññataṃ yadidaṃ – bhikkhusaṅghaṃ paṭicca ekattaṃ; evameva kho, ānanda, bhikkhu amanasikaritvā gāma-saññaṃ, amanasikaritvā manussa-saññaṃ, arañña-saññaṃ paṭicca manasi karoti ekattaṃ. 
Ānanda, just as livestock, wealth, and people are absent from this palace of Migāra's Mother and there is only this presence, uniformly dependent on the community of monks; just so, Ānanda, a monk doesn't pay attention to perception of the village, or people, but uniformly pays attention to the perception of the forest. 
Note that in the last phrase manasi karoti ekattaṃ the ekattaṃ naturally functions as an adverb of the main verb manasikaroti to mean "uniformly paying attention".

A few lines on, the bhikkhu who applies this practice comes to understand
Iti yañhi kho tattha na hoti tena taṃ suññaṃ samanupassati, yaṃ pana tattha avasiṭṭhaṃ hoti taṃ "santamidaṃ atthī"ti 
Thus, that which is not there (tattha na hoti) he perceives that as absent (suñña); however that which remains (avasiṭṭhaṃ) is there (tattha) and he knows "there is this present" (santamidaṃ attthi).
We can see the practice as like progressively applying a set of filters on experience, so that what we are aware of is gradually diminished until we are aware of nothing, or there is just absence. It's not that the world ceases to exist, but that we narrow our world of perception down until nothing is presenting itself to our conscious mind. Nothing disturbs the mind, nothing disturbs the deep equanimity of being in this state. And this, the texts tell us, is what Nibbāna is like.



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Satyadhana. The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review.

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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