Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

01 June 2018

Review of Ji Yun's 'Is the Heart Sutra an Apocryphal Text? A Re-examination'

This essay is a critical review of the article Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination by Professor Ji "Michael" Yun of the Buddhist College of Singapore, first published in Chinese in 2012 and translated into English in 2017 by Chin Shih-Foong (who uploaded the article to

Ji's article is long, covering 68 pages, and very mixed in content and method (sometimes there is no apparent method). Unfortunately, this means that my review is also long (11,000 words). It's unreasonable to expect people to read something like this online. And most people won't, but there was a lot to say

Ji is sceptical about and critical of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed/compiled in China, though he is curiously naïve and credulous about other scholars, especially Conze and Fukui. I will argue that his methods are unsound and his conclusions largely invalid. For example, many of Ji's assertions rely on literal and entirely uncritical readings of traditional texts. As such, Ji's article on the Heart Sutra is consistent with those by Ishii Kōsei and Kazuaki Tanahashi. All three authors seem willing to believe almost anything rather than accept the inescapable conclusion. Ji's article is also characterised by his patronising attitude toward Nattier and the use of rather clumsy strawman arguments.

Ji's original article was published prior to publications by Matt Orsborn (Huifeng 2014) and myself (Attwood 2015, 2017, 2018) and does not anticipate our discoveries or our arguments. Nor does he anticipate forthcoming articles of mine.

There are minor errors of spelling and grammar on every page of the translation and it would have benefited by being proofread someone more skilled in English. Though, on the whole, the article is readable, I cannot speak to how accurate the translation is. I proceed on the assumption that it is a good representation of the original and if it is not then perhaps someone will draw this to my attention.

Ji uses simplified Chinese characters in his article (the norm in Singapore where he teaches). In my discussion, I have used traditional characters and where I have quoted Ji directly, I have supplied the traditional characters.

Ji's Article: Section by Section

Ji begins with an anecdotal forward (Section 1), but soon settles into a long recapitulation (Section 2) of Nattier's main argument based on a comparison of four texts: Sanskrit and Chinese versions of both the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañc) and the Heart Sutra (Ji 2012: 3-17). His summary is mostly accurate and his comments do not detract too much. One sees the strength of the argument for composition in Chinese based on an extract from Kumārajīva's translation of Pañc, i.e., T223.

Section 3
Ji spends pages 18-34 reviewing the career of Edward Conze and his, often faulty, opinions on Prajñāpāramitā. Ji does not critique Conze; instead, his praise of Conze is effusive. This is curious from a contemporary scholar, since it is common knowledge that Conze made many mistakes in his Sanskrit editions and that his translations are inaccurate a good deal of the time.

Ji includes some digressions such as comparing the Svalpākṣarā and the Sanskrit Heart Sutra which is intended to show that a short text like the Heart Sutra is not unique. Many short prajñāpāramitā texts were produced, though these were typically much later. For example, the Svalpākṣarā was translated into Chinese during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) and the earliest Sanskrit manuscript is dated ca. 1000 CE. The Svalpākṣarā is an overtly Tantric text, while the Heart Sutra harks back to a much earlier pre-Tantric period.  Therefore, the Svalpākṣarā most likely post-dates the Heart Sutra by quite a bit. This is one of several times that Ji seems inattentive to the importance of chronology, a fault that I also noted in my critique of Ishii Kōsei's article on the Heart Sutra.

It is not entirely clear what is achieved by this long section of the essay, covering three more pages than the summary of the thesis Ji sets out to criticise. Conze's work is surely well known by the intended audience for this article and it has little or no bearing on the matter at hand, i.e., the question of whether the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal text or not.

Moreover, Conze's work is now severely dated and almost all of his editorial work needs to be redone due to careless mistakes. Ji does not notice the mistakes in Conze's edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra (See Attwood 2015, 2018). These mistakes are now a useful yardstick against which to measure the work of scholars of the Heart Sutra. If they do not notice simple grammatical mistakes in the Sanskrit text, then they are not in a position to comment.

Section 4
Section 4 gives a cursory review of the volume of Prajñāpāramitā essays edited by Lewis Lancaster in honour of Conze. Leon Hurvitz (rightly) gets most of the attention, as he translated the introductions to T256 (See my essay Taishō 256: The Other Chinese Heart Sutra). Nothing here is relevant to the Chinese origins thesis.

Section 5
Ji continues his review of historical research with a brief discussion of the first of Donald Lopez's two books on the Indian commentaries of the Heart Sutra (1988). The second, and better, book with complete translations (1996) is not mentioned. Ji proposes that Nattier benefitted from Lopez's observation that according to Conze 's chronology there is a 500-year gap between composition and the first Indian commentaries (Chinese commentaries appear a century earlier). By not referring to Nattier's use of Lopez (1988), while suggesting that it has been a major influence on her work, Ji seems to imply that Lopez is an unacknowledged influence. This is certainly not the case. For example, Lopez (1988) is prominently cited on the first page of Nattier's article (153) as well as elsewhere. This is the first of many examples of this type of argument. 

This apparent gap between composition and the emergence of commentarial texts is discussed by Nattier (1992: 173-4) at which time she again cites Lopez (1988) as a source (Nattier 208: n.39). Nattier further points out that all Chinese commentaries (ancient and modern) are on T251, while all of the Indian commentaries discussed by Lopez are on the extended Sanskrit Heart Sutra. Not only did the surviving Indian commentaries emerge a century later, they all used a text that has been altered to conform to Indian norms for sutras. See also Nattier's discussion of what constitutes authenticity in China, India, and Tibet (1992: 195-8). However, neither the apparent gap nor the question of what constitutes textual authenticity is central to the Chinese origins thesis. These are side issues. That said they make more sense if the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese in the 7th Century.

Section 6
This section gives us a deeper glimpse of the work of the late Fukui Fumimasa on the Heart Sutra (he died in May 2017). It seems that Ji is working from Chinese translations of Fukui's Japanese publications. Although Fukui has been very influential on Japanese academia (and on Zen Buddhist commentators) in rejecting Nattier's thesis, to date the relevant work has not been translated into English. As we will see, Nattier does cite his earlier work on several occasions (she taught at Soka University, Tokyo, 2006-10 and can read Japanese). Indeed, as with Lopez, Fukui is cited on the first page of Nattier's article (153).

Ji gives us considerably more detail than has previously been available of Fukui's argument that the title, 心經, should be read, not as Heart Sutra, but as Dhāraṇī Scripture.

According to Fukui, the title 《心經》 only becomes standardised as recently as the 14th Century. Before this it was routine to use the title 《多心經》 in catalogues and other literary references to the Heart Sutra (Ji 37-8). Fukui examined the Chinese Heart Sutra texts found at Dunhuang and recorded nine variations, each with 多 somewhere in the title, although the relationship varies (Ji 37). The relationship is not always obvious. For example, one variant was《多心經般若》where 般若 stands for prajñā(pāramitā), suggesting that 多 does not.

It is not clear what 多 signifies and Ji does not discuss this. He does point out that in Kumārajīva's day prajñāpāramitā was transliterated as 般若波羅蜜 (Middle Chinese banya baramiet), noting that 蜜 had a final dental sound ( /miet/ ) and could thus dispense with an extra character to present . By Xuánzàng's time, the final consonant of 蜜 must have been dropped, as in Mandarin, necessitating the addition of a final dental sound for which 多 (Pinyin duō) was the standard choice. From this Ji concludes that any reference to 多心經 must be to T251. However, this assumes that the 多 was related to 般若波羅蜜多 for which no evidence is forthcoming and, as Fukui's collection of titles show, it may not have been the case. Ji is not thinking critically at this point, but giving way to confirmation bias.

Ji does not consider, for example, that 多 has an independent meaning in Chinese. 多 has the basic meaning "many" (Digital Dictionary of Buddhism). For example, Xuánzàng uses it in the expression 多人 to mean "many people" (T 2087.867c.2). According to Kroll's (2015) definition 2, it can mean: "exceed, surpass; be greater than, superior to. a. make much of; deem important, significant, or valuable; highly esteem or praise." In other words, 多 can be a general superlative in Middle Chinese. And we know that Buddhists frequently used such superlative prefixes (e.g., mahā-, ārya-, brahma-) to mark names and words as important. One of the Sanskrit terms that 多 can stand for in Middle Chinese is mahat, or as a prefix, mahā-. Even though 大 is far more common for mahā-, the point is that there is at least one other plausible interpretation of 多 in this context. Ji does not consider alternatives, except where it will undermine Nattier's thesis. Ji is completely passive in accepting the arguments of Fukui. I see no evidence for taking 多 to represent 般若波羅蜜多 and some to the contrary.

Ji points out that there are one or two exceptions to this trend of referring to the text as 《多心經》, the most interesting being the reference to the Heart Sutra in the biography of Xuánzàng 《慈恩傳》by Huìlì 慧立 in 688 CE (24 years after Xuánzàng died). This biography twice refers to the 《般若心經》where 般若 is an abbreviation of 般若波羅蜜多 or prajñāpāramitā, and 心經 means Heart Sutra. Note that by 《慈恩傳》Ji seems to mean T2053, i.e., 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》Biography of Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery (c.f. Li 1995). Xuánzàng's own travelogue seemingly never mentions the Heart Sutra.

Without having come to any resolution on the meaning of 多, Ji segues into a discussion of 心.
"Fukui found that 心 ("heart") was interchangeable with 咒 (vidyā), 陀罗尼 or 真言 (dhāraṇī), and he concluded that 心 had in fact the meaning of mantra (pp. 22-25). Fukui also found that in scriptural catalogues, dhāraṇī sūtra 陀罗尼经 and heart sūtra 心经 were interchangeable terms." (Ji 37)
Note: 经 = 經 "sūtra"; 陀罗尼 = 陀羅尼 is a transliteration of dhāraṇī; 真言  "true word" is the standard translation of mantra in Chinese and Japanese Tantric Buddhism.
Fukui, like Ji, here seems inattentive to the importance of chronology. I have shown how the character 咒 changes its meaning over time (Attwood 2017). Vidyā is translated in the 5th Century by Kumārajīva as a binomial word 明咒. The early meaning of vidyā is "experiential knowledge", particularly the knowledge gained through meditation. In my essay Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation, I argued (on the basis of a single passage) that perhaps dhāraṇī also had the sense of the "ongoing transformation" that results from peak meditation experiences. Thus, dhāraṇī and vidyā may both have the sense of encapsulating the insights gained in meditation. This may also explain why the two words became interchangeable despite having different denotations.

However, by the 7th Century, 明咒 is seen as two words, "bright dhāraṇī" (cf. Beal's 1863 translation with no influence from Sanskrit texts). In T251 明咒 is reduced to just 咒 in all but one case and is understood as dhāraṇī. As far as I can tell, 咒 has never been used to represent vidyā in this context. Contrarily, I have noted at least one occasion when 明 represents vidyā, i.e., in the translation of the Ratnaguṇa-samcayagāthā (Attwood 2017). The use of dhāraṇī as 'magic spell' predates the emergence of Tantric Buddhism in the second half of the 7th Century in India.

As Ryūichi Abe points out (1999: 151 ff), Tantra is a context within which other elements can be interpreted. Dhāraṇīs and even mantras appearing out of context are not Tantric. In other words, Tantra becomes established after the Heart Sutra takes its standard form. 咒 does not take on the meaning of mantra until Tantric Buddhism becomes established in China in the 8th Century. Although there is some evidence for Tantric Buddhism earlier in China (See Jeffery Kotyk's blog After Xuanzang: Monk Wuxing and Early Tantra in India), it does not become firmly established until the arrival of Śubhakarasiṃha (637-735) and Vajrabodhi (671–741) in Changan in 716, and  in 720 CE, respectively. As we will see, Ji makes a meal out of  one of the earlier translations, but he goes far beyond the evidence when doing so. Notably, the two late 7th Century commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk, mentioned later by Ji, show no knowledge of Tantric Buddhism and see the Heart Sutra solely in terms of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.

If Fukui has been fairly represented by Ji, then he is also guilty of collapsing centuries of linguistic change when he conflates vidyā, dhāraṇī, and mantra. It is difficult to show exactly when vidyā and dhāraṇī became conflated, but it had not yet happened when the Large Sutra was composed. Note also that T250 is not called 心經 at all, but 大明呪經, i.e., Mahāvidyā Sūtra, where vidyā is used in the sense of "knowledge" rather than as "incantation". Prajñāpāramitā frequently represents the aim of Buddhism as a superlative kind of knowledge: prajñā-pāramitā, sarvajñā, mahāvidyā, etc.

Section 7
In this section, Ji outlines some findings published in Chinese by Shen Jiu Cheng (i.e., 沈九成, Chén jiǔchéng - in this case, I will follow Ji in referring to 沈九成 as "Shen"). Shen seems to be, like me, an independent scholar working outside academia. I can find no other mention of him, he has no internet presence that I can detect. Ji describes him thus:
"Shen has displayed some obvious errors in his writing, or some lack of rigour to say the least, due perhaps to his lack of academic trainings [sic]. This article also shows the author's lack of necessary knowledge in foreign languages, and his imfamiliarity [sic] with studies done overseas." (39)
At this point, I think it is fair to note that while Ji works for an institution, its main executive and teaching staff are Buddhist monastics (Ji is not) and the student body are also either monastics or in training to be monastics. When "academics" are signed up members of the Buddhist establishment with all the commitments and built-in biases that this implies (see Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power) we have to be especially cautious about their views. The capture of Buddhism Studies by monks tends to shift the focus from critical thinking towards religious apologetics. And Ji's article can be seen as an apologetic for the authenticity of the Heart Sutra rather than as genuine critical scholarship.

Shen apparently pointed out that the Chinese Heart Sutra texts T250 and T251 are vidyā 咒 rather than sūtra 經 (note as above that 咒 does not mean vidyā). However, Ji gives us only the conclusion, not the reasoning behind it. Given Ji's comments about Shen's lack of training and skill, this conclusion seems more like luck than perspicuity. Where is Ji's scepticism in this case?

Ji makes a great deal of the fact that Shen found a mantra at the end of Xuánzàng's collection of Prajñāpāramitā texts that is very similar to the one in the Heart Sutra. The mantra as it appears in Taishō (7.1110a) is on the right. My transliteration of the Siddham is
tadyathā oṃ gate gate paragate parasagate bodhi svāhā
There is an error in the scanned image of Taishō 7.1110a accompanying the CBETA reader (clear in the extract, right). Ji either has a revised edition or he has silently amended parasagate to the expected parasaṃgate (Ji 40). It is a simple, even common mistake to leave off an anusvāra (Attwood 2015), so amending it is fair enough, but a scholar is bound to say when they make amendments to cited texts, especially canonical texts. 

Ji writes about this as "an important discovery" (Ji 40), going to a lot of trouble to reproduce (and correct) the Siddham text from the Taishō page in his article. At the same time, he argues against Shen and for a different source of the Heart Sutra "mantra" (one already mentioned by Nattier and credited to John McRae: 211 n.52 and 53). Now, if Ji is right about the source of the dhāraṇī, then this "discovery" by Shen is incidental rather than important. Ji's argument is that Shen is not only a poor scholar in general, but that he is wrong about the source of the mantra. 

In Attwood (2017), I showed that the incantation in the Heart Sutra was not a mantra, but a dhāraṇī. Mantras begin with oṃ. They reference deities or ritual actions. And, as already mentioned, they occur within the context of the abhiṣekha ritual (and sādhana based on it). Dhāraṇī do not start with oṃ (until they are wrongly conflated with mantra) and they are often just repeated sounds with variations. Dhāraṇī don't mention deities, though they do often contain Sanskrit words with changing prefixes, i.e., gate, paragate, parasaṃsgate. Dhāraṇī also have a strong preference for the Prakrit nominative singular ending -e (cf here and here). Dhāraṇī always end in the Vedic word svāhā, while mantras sometimes end in svāhā, but more often end with seed syllables or words (particularly hūṃ and phaṭ). Mantras of some Tantric deities, e.g., Tārā are hybrids of the two approaches, oṃ tāre tuttare ture svāhā.

Moreover, I showed in an essay in 2009 that the inclusion of tadyathā is a mistake along the lines of an actor saying the stage directions on their script out loud. It means "in this manner". The inclusion seems to occur because the reciter cannot understand Sanskrit. Sanskrit studies were alive and well during Xuánzàng's lifetime, if only within an elite of the monastic community. So this mantra must post-date the composition of the Heart Sutra by decades if not centuries. It has nothing to do with Xuánzàng and appears to be the product of a culture in which Sanskrit is no longer understood.

Shen also does some rather ad hoc reasoning (Ji 40-1) about which texts had Sanskrit sources. He concludes that "it is not inconceivable that there is first the translation from Chinese into Sanskrit, and later (back-translation) from Sanskrit into Chinese." (Ji 41). However, Shen does not examine any Sanskrit sources, so he is at best guessing about the relationship between T250 and T251 (which he credits to their traditional authors, confusing the chronology).

As Ji portrays Shen, he lacks credibility and his observation was not based on solid "cross-lingual" evidence but was an opinion based on interpreting Chinese texts alone, Crucially, he was wrong about the source of the mantra. This section seems to be included solely because Ji claims that Shen anticipated one of Nattier's observations, though there is no sign that this was based on sound reasoning and indications that it was not.

Section 8
This section is lengthy and broken up into many unrelated sub-sections. I will continue in the same fashion taking each subsection as a unit.

Section 8.1
After a seemingly pointless digression, Ji gets back on track with a discussion of the Chinese practice of copying sutras (41-5). In some historical references, the Heart Sutra is included in the category of 抄經 (chāo jīng) "copied sutra" or "sutra extract". According to Ji, the practice of making sutra extracts was first noticed by the Buddhist bibliographer 僧祐 Senyou (445–518 CE) in his catalogue of translations (though the term does predate Senyou according to CBETA). Senyou disapproved of the practice but he was ignored: 
"... for generations, the act of copying parts of a lengthy work, either for ease of circulation or for worshipping needs, was an important religious practice." (Ji 43)
This observation allows us to place the Heart Sutra in the context of a widespread practice of copying parts of translations in just the way that we can see has happened with the Heart Sutra itself. Far from being unusual, the Heart Sutra is just one example of a broad cultural trend happening in China. This jibes well with Paul Copp's (2014) observations about the use of dhāraṇī in early medieval China. Of course, we also know that the opposite happened, and previously independent texts were absorbed into larger texts. What Ji does not say is that there was no such parallel trend in India.

The Heart Sutra is not a unique Indian attempt to condense the voluminous Prajñāpāramitā literature into a single page of text. Instead, it is part of a commonplace Chinese tradition of extract copying and dhāraṇī writing. Nattier's assertion that "the Heart Sutra is—in every sense of the word—a Chinese text" is bolstered by this observation. Curiously, Ji does not discuss the significance of this insight for the Chinese origins thesis at all. His eye seems to be on another goal that becomes apparent in Section 8.3 (Ji 49), i.e., the applicability of the word apocryphal.

Ji then moves on to discussing the opinions of Xuánzàng's two chief students Kuījī and Woncheuk (I have used my preferred Romanisation of these names throughout). Ji fails to acknowledge previous work in this area by Dan Lusthaus (2003). The two commentaries in question are both now available in English translation (Shih and Lusthaus 2006; Hyun-Choo 2006). However, note that Nattier has already made this point in her article:
... we must assume that the core of the [Heart Sutra]—as East Asian Buddhist scholars have long been aware—is an excerpt from the [Large Sutra]. (1992: 169. Emphasis added)
This leads to a note which discusses precisely the contributions of Kuījī and Woncheuk.
"In sum, the statement of both Kuījī and Woncheuk indicate that at least some Buddhists, already in the 7th Century CE, considered the Heart Sutra to be not a separate sermon preached by the Buddha, but an extract made by certain "sages who transmitted the Dharma" from the Large Sutra of Kumārajīva" (1992: 207 n.33. Emphasis added).
Ji does not acknowledge that Nattier pre-empted his discussion of this facet of the Heart Sutra, even though he cites exactly the same passage from Kuījī's commentary (compare Nattier 206 n. 33 with Ji 44). What Ji does cite is another note (210 n.48) in which Robert Buswell privately proposed to Nattier that the Heart Sutra might be an example of a ch'ao-ching or "condensed sūtra". Though Nattier's article does not supply the Chinese characters for the Wade-Giles romanisation, they are 抄經, i.e., "copied sutra" or "sutra extract". Buswell has (erroneously, I think) translated 抄 as "condensed" rather than "copied" or "excerpted" (cf Kroll 43) giving the impression that he is talking about something else when he is making the same point. Again, we find Ji simply not paying attention to the article he is criticizing.

The omission here is egregious because note 48 takes us back to Nattier's discussion of Fukui in the body of her text. Following on from the passage cited above:
"Since the text was intended for ritual use (that is, as a dhāraṇī to be chanted) rather than to impersonate a genuine Indian sūtra, it is no surprise that the author(s) of the text have not tried to cloak their product in foreign garb" (Nattier 1992: 176).
Ji does not acknowledge his own debt to Nattier (or to Fukui even) but presents this section as original research. This is all the more surprising given how eager he was to show Nattier's debt to her predecessors. But note what Fukui is saying here, via Nattier: the Heart Sutra was never a sutra. And note that Ji explicitly agrees with this conclusion.

Nattier emphasises that it is only the core section that is extracted from the Large Sutra, something that Ji overlooks. Conze suggested that as much as nine-tenths could be traced to the Large Sutra, though some of his tracings are to only vaguely similar Sanskrit passages rather than to Chinese passages (1967: 166). However, I have shown that at least some other parts of the Heart Sutra were composed very much on the model of Kumārajīva's Large Sutra (e.g., Attwood 2017). There is an argument for borrowing beyond the core section, but this also happened in Chinese.

I agree with the conclusion of section 8.1, that we should classify the Heart Sutra as a "sutra extract" (not as a "summary", a "condensation", or any other form of essentialization) and we should, as Nattier has done, credit Fukui for this characterisation. I disagree that this "has long been known"  because, as the next section shows, the knowledge was lost or deliberately obscured before the end of the 7th Century. Ji deserves credit for summarising the research of others, but that is all. 

Subsection 8.2
This section reviews how various catalogues treat the Heart Sutra. This is a useful contribution because we see that the Heart Sutra as Chinese 抄經 "sutra extract" is rapidly obscured and the text is treated as an authentic sutra translated from Sanskrit. 

The Neidian Catalog (T2149) is the first bibliographical work to attribute the Heart Sutra to Xuánzàng. Compiled in the year of Xuánzàng's death, 664 CE, the 《大唐內典錄》Dàtáng nèidiǎn lù or Great Tang Catalog of Texts, by Daoxuan 道宣 (596-667 CE), lists the Heart Sutra several times under different categories, including texts translated by Xuánzàng and another category titled, 失譯經 or "sutras with unknown translators". This appears to be the first time there is any suggestion that Heart Sutra is a translation (from Sanskrit). However, the catalogue also lists the Heart Sutra as an anonymous text.

In another moment of credulity, Ji argues that "we should have no reasons to doubt the accuracy of Daoxuan's records in his catalogue" (46). He has just finished proving that the Heart Sutra is not a translation at all. Ji appears to favour the view that the attribution to Xuánzàng  is accurate and is therefore left explaining the anonymous Heart Sutra as an anomaly. Ji never gets to grips with the fact that the same text is attributed to different translators by Daoxuan. Even if he doesn't accept his own conclusion that the Heart Sutra is a 抄經 "sutra extract" rather than a translation, Ji must also be aware of the scholarly consensus that Xuánzàng cannot have translated T251.

So the real question here goes begging. Why two attributions? Why attribute the text to Xuánzàng at all? Rather than weighing the evidence, Ji accepts the answers that best fit his existing belief.

The next catalogue, chronologically, is the《東京大敬愛寺一切經目錄》"The Eastern Capital, Greatly Beloved Temple, Catalogue of All Sutras" compiled by 釋靜泰 Shì Jìngtài in 666 CE. Note that 東京  "the Eastern Capital" is a name for the city of Kaifeng 開封 during the Later Han period (947–951). This catalogue unequivocally attributes the Heart Sutra translation to Xuánzàng. That is to say that within two years of his death, Xuánzàng is credited with translating a text that Ji has convincingly argued was not a translation at all. This contradiction in his presentation never seems to occur to Ji who goes on piling up "evidence" that the Heart Sutra was translated by Xuánzàng (though, in the end, he comes back to this conclusion that it was not a translation).

The next development in what we must begin calling "the myth of the Heart Sutra" comes in the Kaiyuan Catalogue《開元錄》compiled by Zhisheng 智升 in 730 CE. Previous catalogues had only listed one title,《多心經》(though under different categories). In the Kaiyuan, T250 appears under its conventional title, i.e.,《大明呪經》, and is wrongly attributed to Kumārajīva for the first time (an observation by Fukui cited by Nattier 214, n.71), and T251 is again wrongly attributed to Xuánzàng. The Kaiyuan also lists T250 as "the first translation" (Ji 47). For the first time, a non-existent version is attributed to Bodhiruci (fl. early 6th Century).

In summarising the catalogue evidence (Ji 48), Ji makes two curious statements. The first is, "Therefore, we can be completely certain that the Kumārajīva version is a late addition." A late addition to the cataloguing tradition? This much seems obvious. Does Ji mean something more? Is he, for example, claiming that T250 post dates T251? Has something been lost in translation here?

The second statement is, "This fact has enabled the Kumārajīva version to achieve wide circulation." However, "the so-called Kumārajīva version" (i.e. T250) has never had wide circulation and still doesn't. T251 was and is the only version of Heart Sutra in Chinese to have had any circulation, let alone wide circulation. All known commentaries in Chinese, from Kuījī and Woncheuk onwards, have been on T251. Other versions still exist because they were collected in the anthologies that became the Chinese Canon. 

After this, Ji notes that 慧琳 Huìlín (737-820 CE) in his 810 CE work《音義》"Meaning of Sounds" mentions a different set of three translations and mixes up the authorship of the texts. Ji spends a page discussing this confusion but it doesn't add anything to the main discussion.

Although I think Ji has overlooked or ignored important conclusions from the material he has presented in Subsections 8.1 and 8.2, it is nonetheless interesting and valuable evidence in the history of the Heart Sutra. Evidence from the catalogues shows us that the traditional narratives of the Heart Sutra as an Indian sutra were already being formed even while Xuánzàng's living students, Kuījī and Woncheuk, were acknowledging the fact of the (so-called) Heart Sutra being a sutra extract unrelated to Xuánzàng (see also comments from Ji 53, para 3). Unfortunately, Ji fails to join the dots here, but I think this is because he is assembling evidence for a peculiar argument that surfaces in Subsection 8.3, which we can now tackle. 

Subsection 8.3
Subsections 8.1 and 8.2 are a lead up to a rather pedantic discussion on the applicability of the term "apocryphal". It is based on the assumption that the Heart Sutra is, in fact, not a translation of an Indian Sutra, but one of many sutra extracts composed in Chinese and was recognised as such by the earliest Chinese commentaries. 

Ji has given us ample evidence that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, but an example of a 抄經 "sutra extract", and that this knowledge was lost (or deliberately obscured) before the end of the 7th Century. Ji doesn't notice that his argument is poorly founded on his own account.

It may well be ultimately true that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but everyone in the world (including Ji himself) refers to it as the Heart Sutra (or whatever the local equivalent is). The OED definition of "apocryphal":
1. (of a story or statement) of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.
If everyone believes a text to be a sutra, but it is not a sutra and therefore of doubtful authenticity, then the word "apocryphal" is precisely the right term. I have noted before that there seems to be a horror of this word apocryphal in the world of Buddhist Studies (i.e., religious scholarship conducted by Buddhists as distinct from Buddhism Studies, which is the academic study of Buddhism).

Subsection 8.4
This section is a discussion of the Chinese term 心 "heart" and its Sanskrit analogues citta and hṛdaya. Another argument against considering our text to be a sutra is that the surviving Sanskrit texts don't call it a sutra. But titles are so variable that no two manuscripts (or Chinese versions) share the same title. And as Ji has already pointed out, the title did not settle in Chinese until after the 14th Century. Titles are an unreliable source of evidence for this type of argument. This seems to be another section which has information unrelated to the task at hand, i.e., a review of the Chinese origins thesis.

Subsection 8.5
Ji begins this subsection with a list of references to Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra, presented without scepticism or critique. The fact is that references to Heart Sutra in texts by or about Xuánzàng are rare. Since we know that Xuánzàng did not translate the text and that his contemporary Daoxuan was wrong about this in the Neidian Catalogue, we might begin to wonder about the provenance of all of these references. The Heart Sutra doesn't seem to be mentioned in Xuánzàng's own travelogue 大唐西域記 (T2087), at least not under the title《心經》, nor is any similar text incorporated into his huge collection of Prajñāpāramitā translations. So all the references connecting Xuánzàng to the Heart Sutra are second-hand and seem to be part of a hagiographic project. I believe that Jeffrey Kotyk is looking into this issue by comparing religious and secular historical sources on Xuánzàng and we can expect an article in due course.

Ji introduces a pet theory, namely that the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra came from a text translated by Xuánzàng's contemporary, 阿地瞿多 Skt. Atikūṭa (or perhaps Atigupta). This is his counter-argument to the one in Section 7 where he presented the idea that Shen had discovered the source of the "mantra" at the end of T220. Atikūṭa translated the《陀羅尼集經》Skt. Dhāraṇīsamuccaya-sutra (or perhaps Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha) into Chinese (T901) in 654 CE (Shinohara 2014: 29).

A Chinese preface asserts that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is only a small section of a much greater work, though Shinohara (2014: 30) notes that this larger work may never have existed. Indeed, the evidence is that the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya was created in China from extracts of multiple existing texts. However, there is also a lot of material that "does not exist elsewhere in independent translations" (31). Ronald Davidson (2012) has asserted that the text contains "Indian elements" though the extent of these is unclear.

Ji notes that "Atikūṭa‘s Dhāraṇīsamuccaya includes a dhāraṇī with the rather dubious [sic] title: Bore boluomita daxin jing《般若波羅蜜多大心經》(T18.804c-805a)," [NB. This "sic" is the translator's, not mine. J]. There is no explanation for why the title is "dubious" but it may be because it doesn't look like the Heart Sutra 心經 he knows. Ji has already endorsed Fukui's theory that 心 often substitutes for dhāraṇī, so it's not clear why such a usage would surprise him. That said, this dhāraṇī is an interesting short Prajñāpāramitā text which, without my having studied it in any detail, looks similar to many other such texts, for example, those translated in Conze's collection of short Prajñāpāramitā texts (1973).

However, it is another dhāraṇī (T 18.807b.20) that is the target of Ji's interest (Ji 54). It is identical to the dhāraṇī at the end of the Heart Sutra, although it includes tadyathā. This is certainly interesting, but as the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya is roughly contemporary with the so-called Heart Sutra, and it appears to have been assembled in Chinese from pre-existing texts (even if some of them were ultimately Indian), we are, therefore, looking for some evidence of the direction of borrowing. But Ji has none as he admits:
"Therefore, although we have no extant historical records to show that Atikuṭa did have a direct influence on Xuánzàng, we can still infer that the two were somehow connected because both were translating in Changan at the same time; both were probably having an influence on each other's religious interest, and Xuánzàng's Heart Sutra had sourced its mantra from Atikūṭa's work." (Ji 54. My Emphasis).
Ji has already proved that T251 was not translated by Xuánzàng and he acknowledges this in the very next line by referring to it as "the so-called Xuánzàng Heart Sūtra" [My emphasis]. Also, there is the modern consensus that Xuánzàng had nothing to do with T251. This ongoing contradiction in Ji's presentation is very problematic. This means that, even if we could infer a connection between Xuánzàng and Atikūṭa, it would still have no bearing on the origins of the Heart Sutra since Ji tells us that Xuánzàng wasn't involved in composing it

From a complete absence of evidence, we can infer precisely nothing. Ji's inference here is simply him flattering his own theory. By contrast, as Paul Copp (2014) has subsequently shown, dhāraṇī was very important and prominent in Xuánzàng's milieu. Indeed, Ji's own comments about dhāraṇī and copied sutra extracts support the same point. The chanting and inscribing of dhāraṇī were central Buddhist practices of the pre-Tantric, early medieval period: the sight of inscribed, and sound of chanted, dhāraṇī in 7th Century Changan were surely ever-present. To argue that Xuánzàng was influenced to translate them by one man rather a whole culture requires specific evidence. We would be looking for Xuánzàng or Atikūṭa to mention each other in surviving texts and letters, for example. No such evidence is forthcoming from Ji (and I can find none). We don't even seem to have a second-hand account of their meeting. So the evidence for this idea is very much weaker than most of Ji's rather underwhelming argument. Ji seems to join in the myth-making that surrounds Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra rather than standing back and considering what his sources tell him.

It is equally plausible that the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra came from elsewhere or was simply made up along the lines of similar dhāraṇī, and was then copied into the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya. We lack sufficient evidence to decide this issue, but this does not keep Ji from coming to his conclusions.

Subsection 8.6
This Subsection is further subdivided into three.

Subsection 8.6, part 1, opens with an outright error regarding Nattier's understanding of the presence and role of Avalokiteśvara in the Heart Sutra:
"Nattier offered no explanation for this role reversal, nor any suggestions on what it reflects in terms of the time or background when the text was composed." (Ji 54-5). 
However, compare this from the middle of Nattier's discussion of the frame section:
The presence of Avalokiteśvara is not at all unexpected, for this figure was by far the most popular bodhisattva in China at this time as attested by both textual and artistic evidence... Thus the choice of Avalokiteśvara as the central figure in a newly created Buddhist recitation text would be perfectly plausible in a Chinese milieu. (1992: 176)
Ji is reduced to making strawman arguments against Nattier. Ji goes from bad to worse, as in reflecting on the origins of the Heart Sutra he abandons any pretence of accepting the Chinese origins thesis and discusses the history of Prajñāpāramitā in India (Ji 55). He prefaces a rambling digression into Nāgārjuna and Conze's deprecated chronology with the phrase "I shall now return to the main discussion". The article seems to be falling apart at this point.

Without coming to an obvious conclusion, Ji segues into Subsection 8.6, part 2, which argues for a close relationship between "the personified Prajñāpāramitā and Avalokiteśvara" (57). However, again Ji seems to lose track of the chronology by relying on Tantric sources that must post-date the composition of the Heart Sutra. Through a rather tortuous argument based on the figures who appear in the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya he comes to the rather startling and obviously false conclusion that "in Tang Dynasty, or since then, Avalokiteśvara held a very unique place in Prajñāpāramitā sutras." This is startling because, as is completely obvious, Avalokiteśvara has no place at all in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras until after the composition of the Heart Sutra. After the late 7th Century, then yes, Avalokiteśvara does show up again. But the more obvious explanation is that this is an influence from the Heart Sutra, not on it. This is so obvious I cannot believe I'm having to spell it out. 

Ji then lurches sideways into a consideration of the etymology of the name Avalokiteśvara and the gender of the bodhisatva. Of course, the feminisation of Avalokiteśavara in China is a subject of some interest to historians of ideas, but it has no bearing on the subject at hand. Nor does Ji shed any light on Avalokiteśvara in China.

Subsection 8.6, part 3 considers the role of Śāriputra in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, bizarrely characterising him as "the villain". Śāriputra, who plays a major part in both Aṣṭa and Pañc is certainly a foil for Subhūti, asking patsy questions and admiring the answers he gets, but he's hardly a "villain". Again, one wonders if something has been lost in translation. But yet again we see Ji attributing ignorance and "surprise" to Nattier:
"Therefore, we need not share Nattier's surprise in wondering what role Śariputra has in the Heart Sutra and why he is involved at all." (Ji 59)
This is a strawman argument, also with no reference to Nattier's article. What Nattier does express surprise over is that the Buddha is absent from the Heart Sutra (157). Equally, it is odd that Subhūti is absent since in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, Subhūti is the main expounder of the Prajñāpāramitā point of view and the Buddha simply backs him up (cf. Nattier 1992: 157). The presence of Śāriputra is not commented on "with surprise". Śāriputra's rather passive role in the Heart Sutra is entirely in keeping with his role in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, generally. And thus elicits little or no comment from Nattier. No one familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā literature would find anything unusual about Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra

The odd absences from the Heart Sutra listed by Nattier at p.157 are repeated in the discussion of the frame sections (174 ff), but again the focus is on the absence of the Buddha and the presence of Avalokiteśvara. Śāriputra is not mentioned. Nattier never expresses the "surprise" attributed to her by Ji.

Section 9
The article concludes with Ji's summary of his arguments combined with some other ideas thrown in at random that seem to have no relation to the information presented (Ji 59-63).

1. Ji emphasises that the text is a copied extract and/or a dhāraṇī (Ji 59-60). And that therefore the term apocryphal does not apply. However, when one continually refers to a text as a "sutra", which Ji does even in this concluding paragraph, then the fact that a text is not a sutra makes it the very definition of apocryphal. Ji cannot have his cake and eat it. He either needs to accept his own conclusion and refer to the text by some other name or accept that, qua sutra, the Heart Sutra is apocryphal. I also pointed out that though some early commentators seem to be aware of the true nature of the text, on the evidence that Ji presents, this knowledge is lost before the end of the 7th Century. Knowledge lost for 13 Centuries can hardly be seen as integral to the received tradition.

2. Ji concludes that T250 "was not translated by Kumārajīva" (Ji 60). However, we knew this because Nattier had already explained the reasons for this conclusion. Ji repeats his speculative conjecture about the text borrowing its dhāraṇī from Atikūṭa's Dhāraṇīsamucaya, only now it has become an unqualified fact. He also implies that the dhāraṇī was borrowed independently by T251 (i.e., independently from T250 which just happened to borrow the same dhāraṇī). This may be a problem with the translation, but scholars need to be careful to avoid unintended implications.

3. T251 is "not a translated text, Even if it is, it could not have been done by Xuánzàng himself." (Ji 60) This is certainly the modern consensus, but it does not flow from Ji's argument and at times he has seemed to contradict this, as when he uncritically accepted Daoxuan's attribution of the text as a translation by Xuánzàng. Ji repeats the traditional myth of Xuánzàng's association with the Heart Sutra as unqualified fact. He wrongly refers to it as a "tantricized text" and attributes the popularity of the text to this imagined process. There is nothing tantric about the Heart Sutra.

4. Ji concluded that "later" versions (i.e., all but T250 and T251) are translations (Ji 60). No evidence whatever is presented for this conclusion in his article, but it is certainly the modern consensus and has been for many decades.

5. Ji acknowledges that "the Sanskrit Heart Sutra has indeed been influenced by Chinese grammar and aesthetic taste which shows that is very 'likely' to have been a back-translation from Chinese." (60) However, Ji also believes that he has somehow cast doubt on this conclusion in his article. I cannot imagine how he imagines this to be the case and he does not cite any specific examples.

Next, Ji casts doubt on Xuánzàng as the perpetrator of back-translation. This issue seems to exercise the Japanese commentators as well. To be clear, Nattier discusses the possibility and leaves it open. What he says next is barely credible:
"But even if we can prove that the extant short-form Sanskrit Heart Sutra is in fact a Chinese back-translation, we still cannot logically rule out compteltely [sic] the probable existence of a Sanskrit original. (Ji 61. Emphasis added)
This is tooth-fairy agnosticism gone mad. Note that, despite having no evidence whatever and, in fact, having more or less proved that it cannot be the case, Ji still considers it probable that a Sanskrit "original" existed. Ji likens the situation to the Vimalakīrtinideśa in which, he claims (but does not reference) a Sanskrit back-translation from Tibetan was known long before a Sanskrit manuscript was found. Even if this were the case, the situation is not analogous because the Heart Sutra is not a sutra. It is a sutra extract, specifically an extract from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Sutra. Ji has failed to come to terms with this despite arguing for this conclusion. It is exactly the copied portion of the text that proves that the Heart Sutra had its origins in Chinese. If the extract had a Sanskrit "original" then the extracted portion would be similar to the extant documents of the Large Sutra, or at the very least use the idioms of Sanskrit texts. But it isn't.

What Ji is suggesting here is that, as well as a Chinese Heart Sutra that used an extract from the Chinese Large Sutra (T223), there must be a lost Sanskrit Heart Sutra which used an extract from a Sanskrit Large Sutra. Why would (a) Chinese author(s) decide to reproduce a Sanskrit original via the laborious procedure of copying exactly the same extract, but using T223 instead of a Sanskrit Large Sutra? Why would they not simply translate the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese as so many other Chinese Buddhists did (and with so very many texts)? Finally, there simply is no parallel tradition of sutra extract copying in India: a Chinese sutra extract is plausible, but a Sanskrit sutra extract is not. Ji has just not thought this through.

Ji justifies this poor reasoning by saying that "I just feel prudence is never a bad thing in academic research". This claim to scholarly prudence appears to be a Trojan Horse for a religious attitude of horror towards the idea that Heart Sutra is an apocryphal sutra (i.e., not a sutra at all). This is a bizarre argument because Ji's whole point, following Fukui and Nattier, is that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra. To spell it out, if the text is not a sutra, then the existence of an Indian text to authenticate it is neither here nor there. Only sutras have to be authenticated in this way. 

This part of the conclusion then drifts back to considering Xuánzàng as a potential back-translator. To be clear, I think this is a red herring, both in Nattier's article and in all the subsequent ink spilled over it. Xuánzàng's reputation was that he had mastered Sanskrit, while the so-called Heart Sutra was produced by someone clearly unfamiliar with the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā. Ergo, it was not Xuánzàng.

6. Ji expresses an opinion on the extended Heart Sutra which he calls "long-form" (Ji 62). But note that the subject did not come up in his article. His opinion here is simply an ad hoc statement, no case is made for it. It is a matter of broad consensus that the added parts were added in Sanskrit. It is something that Nattier, as noted above, did comment on.

A note here on the relationship between language and geography. Nattier's argument is that the Heart Sutra was composed in a Chinese language. Not that it was composed in China. Ji argues that the extended Heart was composed in India. In fact, we do not know anything about where it was composed, only that in all likelihood it was composed in Buddhist Sanskrit.

7. Ji argues that the Heart Sutra appeared when Tantra was "widespread" (Ji 62) and treats the Heart Sutra is a tantric text. I think this is an error. Atikūṭa was an early adopter and Tantra did not become widespread until the 8th Century. In 672, when the first physical evidence of the Heart Sutra appeared (in the form of the Beilin Stele), Tantra was in its infancy in India. It did not become established, let alone "widespread", until the arrival of Śubhakarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi in Changan in the early 8th Century. Recall that Ji could not find evidence of communication between Atikūṭa and Xuánzàng, no evidence of their having met. His idea that one influenced the other was just a supposition that seemed attractive because it supported his pet theory.

On the other hand, I have argued (Attwood 2017) that the Sanskrit text must have been translated from Chinese in a milieu of Tantra because the character 咒 meaning dhāraṇī could only have been mistaken for mantra under such circumstances. Thus, the Chinese composition and the Sanskrit translation happened at different times and/or in different milieus.

Ji is confused about what constitutes Tantric Buddhism. The use of dhāranī in non-Tantric settings is established as early as the 2nd Century CE. We can compare this with the Theravāda practice of partita, the chanting of Pāḷi suttas as magical protection from misfortune and bad luck. This practice is first mentioned in the Milindapañha dated before the Current Era. Simply chanting magic spells is not Tantra. Tantra is centred on a specific ritual (abhiṣeka) based on the anointing of kings. It involves combinations of mantra, mudra, and maṇḍala representing the body, speech, and mind of Mahāvairocana as he communicated buddhahood to Vajrasattva. None of this is visible in the Heart Sutra. Instead, the Heart Sutra looks back in time to the Large Sutra and its milieu, with a focus on the exercise of withdrawing attention from experience (anupalambhayogena) aimed at entering a contentless (animitta) awareness called "emptiness" (śūnyatā). In other words, Ji has fundamentally misunderstood the message and the practice outlined in the Heart Sutra.

8. Although Ji himself has not examined the Sanskrit text, he praises comparative studies in the philological approach to Buddhism Studies. He may have summarised Nattier's discussion of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra but has himself only examined and commented on Chinese texts. He praises Seishi Karashima as the leading light in this field of cross-lingual studies. Fair enough, Karashima is certainly one of the leading scholars of Buddhist texts in our time and his work is invaluable. However, he is, of course, not the only scholar working to compare Chinese texts with Indic texts in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Gāndhārī. And he has not published anything that directly relates to the Heart Sutra (his facsimile edition of the Gilgit manuscript of the Large Sutra appeared in 2016, four years after Ji was writing).


Unfortunately, most of Ji's article is either obvious and uninteresting (e.g., a completely uncritical review of Conze's oeuvre) or irrelevant to the question of the origin of the Heart Sutra. Even when the evidence is interesting, the arguments about it do not seem cogent or coherent. Ji is reliant throughout on Chinese texts, ignoring the Sanskrit texts except when summarising Nattier's article.

The title of Ji's article translates as Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination. I took this as a statement of intent on Ji's part and read his article accordingly. However, his article was not a re-examination of the evidence per se; it was an attempted refutation of Nattier disguised as an objective appraisal. For example, Ji is only critical when considering Nattier's work. In other cases, especially when dealing with the work of Fukui and with traditional sources which support his presuppositions, he appears overly credulous and even naive. Because he does not evaluate his sources, but simply accepts them at face value, he does not draw the right conclusions from the evidence he presents. 

Worse, for example, when conjecturing about a relationship between Xuánzàng and Atikūṭa, in which Atikūṭa supplies the dhāraṇī for the Heart Sutra, Ji apparently accepts his own suppositions as historical facts.  Accounts of Tang Dynasty Changan describe a city of approximately one million people within the walls and another one million without, a city with 93 Buddhist temples and numerous other religious institutions and tens of thousands of monks. Could two monks live there and never meet? Certainly, they could. So where is the evidence that they did meet? Where is the evidence that Atikūṭa was a lender rather than a borrower of the dhāraṇī at the end of the Heart Sutra?

At other times, Ji is aware of the need to stand back from conclusions and acknowledge doubts. But he misuses this requirement for objectivity to argue for the probable existence of an "original" Sanskrit Heart Sutra without presenting any evidence whatever for this conclusion. A "Sanskrit original" is important, as Nattier points out (1992: 196) because in China this was (and is) the single most important criterion for the authenticity of a Buddhist sutra. It is apparent that some modern Mahāyāna Buddhists rather desperately want the Heart Sutra to be authentic by traditional standards. If the Heart Sutra is not "of Indian origin", then a foundation stone of many of the surviving Buddhist sects in Asia is unable to bear the load placed on it. As Fukui has been quoted as saying, “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (Tanahashi 2014: 77). 

At times, Ji appears to be patronising Nattier. Her article is also long, but her scholarly apparatus (notes and citations) are impeccable. Any such article is heavily reliant on other scholars but if Nattier is relying on someone else's work she says so. Indeed, Nattier is notably generous in her acknowledgement of other scholars. But Ji ignores the actual attribution of ideas and peppers his commentary on the research with phrases like:
  • "It was Conze's editorial work... that provided Nattier with the very important basis of her research. (33)
  • "This part of the particle [sic] has been rather fully utilized by Nattier..." (35)
  • "a comment, I think must have been very inspirational for Nattier..." (35)
  • "Nattier has also benefited from... Lopez 1988" (35).
  • "...this observation has been [sic] very inspirational for Nattier." (36)
  • "Another academic source that has exerted a relatively major influence on Nattier's work comes from Fukui Fumimasa..." (36)
Ji does at times acknowledge that Nattier went further than any of these men; however, he seems to attribute the success to "cross-lingual study" to them rather than to Nattier. Normally if a scholar relies on a contribution from someone else we credit them with it. While it is a truism of scholarship that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, a scholar does not usually spend so much time speculating about who has influenced another scholar over and above their stated sources unless there is clear evidence of borrowing without attribution, i.e., plagiarism or fraud. Nattier fully acknowledges her intellectual debts in the usual way and there is no call to speculate about who "inspired" her.

The whole of Section 7 on the Chinese outsider, Shen Jiu Cheng, seems to be pointless. Ji thinks he was wrong on one hand and on the other that he sort of preempted Nattier on the idea of a "back translation" almost by accident while considering only Chinese texts. If Shen was correct about the Sanskrit text being a back translation, then Nattier was correct, and Ji should simply admit this.

Moreover, at least two of the final conclusions have no supporting evidence or argumentation in the article. They are simply added in an ad hoc fashion. Ji simply appears to repeat widely held scholarly opinions without ever considering the evidence. 

Towards the end of Section 8, Ji slips into presenting strawman arguments that sink far below the usual standard of academic discourse.

Ji is right to attempt to find flaws in Nattier's argument. I have noted one or two small points of dispute with Nattier, as have Lusthaus and Orsborn. We all make errors. New information comes to light and can make existing conclusions untenable. This is progress. But Ji seems completely uncritical with regard to any other scholar (including himself). There is no real weighing of the evidence. Where there is confusion he simply sides with the traditional narrative.

There are at least two glaring examples of faulty logic. For example, despite a scholarly consensus that Xuánzàng was not involved in the production of T251 (a point which is completely obvious to anyone who has compared the relevant section of his translation of the Large Sutra in T220 with T251), Ji proceeds to take references to Xuánzàng as translator of the Heart Sutra on face value. However, he then concludes that Xuánzàng was not the translator. The second example is that he argues for a probable Sanskrit original when the evidence he has presented proves that the extant Sanskrit text is a back-translation from Chinese (per both Shen and Nattier). Nothing presented here suggests that the source was anything other than the Large Sutra in Kumārajīva's translation (T223) and the imagination of an early medieval Chinese Buddhist monk familiar with Kumārajīva's text. This is discussed at great length in my own work, both published and blogged.

Anything which supports the Chinese origins thesis is assessed critically, anything which undermines it is not assessed at all but presented uncritically. As Mercier and Sperber (2017) have shown, confirmation bias is usually present when one is trying to make a case but is not present when one is critically assessing someone else's case. Ji shows exactly this pattern; therefore, he is arguing for a case, not assessing someone else's case.

This article falls well below the standards expected of academic authors: it is tendentious, biased, poorly argued, and draws ad hoc conclusions. It is not just Ji that is at fault. Named prepublication readers, journal editors, and peer reviewers have a role in ensuring that conclusions flow from the evidence presented, that obvious biases are addressed, that the tone of the article is suitable for academic discourse, and that assertions are referenced. The article should never have been published in this form. 

Ji manages a moment of magnanimity at the end: "Nattier's studies has also [sic] shown that a cross-lingual approach is able to exhaustively expose existing blind spots of issues [sic] that would otherwise be glossed over by an intra-lingual approach" (63). However, Nattier seems not to have exposed Ji's blind spots. Indeed, we can say that Nattier is directly in Ji's blind spot.


NOTE: 5.6.18. I received a cordial email from Ji Yun acknowledging my criticisms, but slightly horrified that I took him to be patronising Jan Nattier. He says "I’m not sure it’s out of the translation or your reading ,there’s a huge misunderstanding , actually ,I’m a huge fan of Jan ." I accept that I might have misunderstood his intentions and I hope that there are no hard feelings. More crucially, Ji conveyed to me something that I had overlooked which is that a stone inscription of the Heart Sutra was recently found which is dated to 661 CE, three years before the death of Xuanzang. And this may be evidence that Xuanzang was indeed involved in its production somehow. I will need to look into this. See for example


Abe, R. (1999) The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York : Columbia University Press.

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online:

Attwood, J. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48.

Attwood, J. (2017). 'Epithets of the Mantra' in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Attwood, J. (2018). 'A Note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇa in the Heart Sutra.' Journal of the Oxford Centre For Buddhist Studies, 14: 10-17.

Conze, E. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. Modified version of Conze (1948).

Conze, E. (1973). Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. Totnes, UK: Buddhist Publishing Group.

Copp, P. (2014) The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Columbia University Press.

Davidson, Ronald M. (2012) 'Some Observations on an Uṣṇīṣa Abhiṣeka Rite in Atikūṭa's Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha.' in Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond (Ed. by Keul, István): 77-98.

Hodge, S. (trans). 2003. The mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. London : Routledge Curzon.

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. 6: 121-205.

Ji Y. (2012) 纪赟 —《心经》疑伪问题再研究. Fuyan Buddhist Studies, 7: 115-182. [Trans. Chin Shih-Foong (2017). 'Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination.' Singapore Journal of Buddhist Studies, 4: 9-113. pdf 2018ūtra_an_Apocryphal_Text_A_Re-examination]

Karashima, Seishi, et al. (2016) Mahāyāna Texts: Prajñāpāramitā Texts (1). Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives of India Facsimile Edition Volume II.1. The National Archives of India and The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, Tokyo.

Kimura, Takayasu. (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin, 2007. Online: [Input by Klaus Wille, Göttingen, April 2010].

Kroll, P. W. (2015). A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Brill.

Li R. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translations and Research.

Lopez, D. S. (1988) The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, D. S. (1996) Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University press.

Lusthaus, D. (2003) The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi. International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.

Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

Nattier, J. (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online:

Shih, H. C. & Lusthaus, D. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

Shinohara, K. (2014) Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals. Columbia University Press.

Tanahashi, K. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.

27 May 2011

Gautama Buddha : Book Review

Gautama Buddha - VishvapaniI WAS VERY PLEASED to receive a review copy of Vishvapani's (i.e. Viśvapāṇi) new book on the life of of the Buddha. I was involved in several email exchanges with the author during the writing of the book, earning me a mention in the acknowledgements as making "perceptive comments". I also provided a detailed critique of the map provided in the front of the book (more on this below). Vishvapani, a long time member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, is known to listeners of BBC Radio 4 as the Buddhist contributor to Thought for the Day; and edited a previous book: Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough. He has played important roles within the Triratna Movement in publishing, and in communicating change. Vishvapani is an excellent communicator, and so I dived into this book with interest.

An enormous amount of research and effort has gone into this book, as the huge range of texts cited shows. Vishvapani has made himself thoroughly familiar with translations of the Pāli biographical literature, which is no easy thing given how large and yet fragmentary that literature is, and how variable are the translations. The book combines narrative and commentary, if not seamlessly, then at least appropriately and often to good effect, pausing to consider the historicity of various legends. The story is so well known and almost tells itself, though Vishvapani does highlight many details that may have escaped others - particularly in the area of conflicting versions of the story.

This book can be seen as an update of biographies like Ñāṇamoli's The Life of the Buddha which focus on the Pāli Canon as an historical source, but which are almost entirely uncritical. What Vishvapani has tried to do is retell this story for Buddhists, but to inform his retelling with the historical insights of scholars such as Professors Richard Gombrich and Johannes Bronkhorst. For most readers, with little or no access to this kind of scholarship, the book provides valuable perspectives on ancient India. We see that the Buddha's biography is a composed narrative, as opposed to an historical record, and Vishvapani is a Buddhist who is retelling the story for other Buddhists. As such the book retains an element of hagiography; the Buddha is not reduced to a mere human being - human, but not too human - but retains his mystique. I imagine most contemporary Western Buddhists will find the balance between Reason and Romance appealing.

The audience for this book is most likely the average practising Buddhist - someone with a passion for the Buddhist religion, but without much access to Buddhological scholarship. Although Gombrich's most recent book was published at a reasonable price, Bronkhorst's books often exceed £100 and are bought only by University libraries. Barriers to the scholarly literature are many: it requires knowledge of multiple languages (ancient and modern); those who lack training in the various disciplines struggle with the jargon and conceptual frameworks; physical access to primary and secondary sources is often very limited - though Pāli texts and resources are a happy exception with a great deal being available online and for free. The average Buddhist relies on people like Vishvapani to open a window into this world for them. Unfortunately Vishvapani, though highly intelligent, well read, and articulate is not entirely at home in this world - he does not know Pali or Sanskrit for instance - and this has hampered him and lead him into difficulties at times.

The following criticisms are from a point of view which I do not imagine many of Vishvapani's readers will share - but they made considerable impact as I read the book. I was very disappointed to see that, despite my opinion being asked on the subject, that Vishvapani and his publisher had settled on not using diacritics when transliterating Sanskrit (saṃskṛta!) and Pāli. For me this creates an ongoing dissonance and distraction while reading. It certainly detracts from the credibility of the book as a work of scholarship - no bona fide scholar deliberately spells badly! I've published my own books, and I know that it is in fact very easy to include diacritics these days - there really is no excuse any more.

Sometimes Vishvapani's lack of linguistic knowledge shows, for example, when he says of Nirvana [sic] that "it is a verb, not a noun: a way of being rather than a fixed state, and certainly not a place to which one might travel." (p.89) and "...'Nirvana' which is the 'act of blowing out'" (p.94). Nirvāṇa is a past-participle, indicating an action already completed: it literally means 'blown out'; and it can, in fact, be used as a noun or an adjective just the way that another past participle, buddha, is. The act of blowing out - the present indicative - in Sanskrit would be nirvāti; though the causative nirvāpayati might also be used - the root is √ 'to blow' but there is some overlap with words from √vṛ 'to cover'. C.f. PED sv nibbāna, nibbāti, nibbāpeti, nibbāyati and nibbuta. The metaphor, therefore, is of a state achieved rather than a process in the present: in nirvāṇa the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are 'blown out, extinguished, quenched, snuffed out'; and suffering is eradicated. I can see what Vishvapani was getting at, but if one is going to make doctrinal points through grammar in a serious way, then one needs to know what one is talking about, or consult someone who does. There are a few examples of this type scattered throughout the book.

A further dissonance I experienced was the use of Sanskrit translations of Pāli names throughout. This was made worse by being inconsistent, and by several consistent mis-spellings. So, for instance, despite referring almost exclusively to Pāli sources, the biography is of Gautama (Sanskrit), rather than Gotama (Pāli). And it features characters such as Kashyapa [sic] and Shariputra [sic]. When I encountered the names Adara Kalama and Udraka Reamaputra [sic!] I was initially puzzled until I realised he meant Aḷara Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. Note that Rāmaputta is not Sanskritised Reamaputra, as Vishvapani has done throughout, but Rāmaputra - ea is not found in any Sanskrit transliteration scheme. Similarly the names of the Buddha's five companions are Sanskritised except Bhaddiya (Sanskrit: Bhadrika) who retains the Pāli form (p.105). Place names were mainly Sanskritised (e.g. Uruvilva for Uruvela, and Rajagriha [sic] for Rājagaha) except Sarnath (Hindi) and Isipatana (Pāli = Sanskrit ṛṣipatana) - though to be fair Sarnath is a modern town without an ancient name.

Other language oddities include using shravaka (i.e. śravaka) and savaka in the same sentence (p.120) and the spelling of the word puthujjana as patthajana which is neither Sanskrit (pṛthagjana) nor Pāli. There is a glossary in the back of the book which enables the reader to find bowdlerised versions of the Pāli names - i.e. without diacritics - but otherwise the reader consulting the sources cited will be confused because the names simply do not match and there is no discussion in the book, anywhere as far as I could see, explaining why. For me this was all very distracting.

The problem here, for the scholar, is that we get no insight into the process or deliberation that has gone on behind the scenes - we get the result of weighing things up, but not enough sense of the measures against which facts are weighed. Although citations to the Pāli sources are frequent (though some are not referenced, bottom of p.123) there are no footnotes which tell us why something has been interpreted one way or another. And although Vishvapani does bring in some of the insights of scholars in the text, we don't really get a sense of the controversy and argumentation that surrounds and suffuses the scholarly discourse. For instance any sense of the intellectual batterings that Bronkhorst has given Gombrich, and Gombrich's elegant ripostes, are absent. Many of these issues are not settled by any means. and Bronkhorst's revisions of Indian history have yet to be tested (though Geoffrey Samuel has independently confirmed many of Bronkhorst's conclusions). I would have expected, at the very least, a justification for translating into Sanskrit when the sources used were overwhelmingly Pāli, and a justification for the lack of diacritics. A separate discussion of the problems of treating Buddhist texts as historical documents would have been a real advantage.

I noticed another, more subtle, problem which plagues Sangharakshita's followers. Early on Sangharaksita, like many other Buddhists of his day, adopted the language of German Idealist philosophy: e.g. 'Transcendental', 'Reality', even 'Absolute Reality', etc., These terms don't really have Pāli or Sanskrit equivalents but came to dominate the way we talk about Buddhism. We are familiar, for instance, with the idea that the Buddha's awakening "transcended language" (p.99), even though almost every sutta speaks of the result of that experience being some form of knowledge, which of course does not transcend language and makes up the content of the scriptures (e.g. at AN 11.2 vimutti is the condition for the arising of vimuttiñāṇa). However more recently Sangharakshita has moved away from that kind of language, and begun talking more in terms of 'experience'. Vishvapani tends to alternate between writing about "the true nature of reality" (p.94) and Gautama's knowledge being a "revelation, not a cool acquisition of knowledge" (p.91); and a more phenomenological language: "Directly confronting his experience was a different kind of challenge from that of attaining mystical states..." (p.73).

Vishvapani is also sometimes ambivalent about aspects of the story when there are variations in the texts: the forest, for example, is both a frightening and dangerous place (p.73ff) and a peaceful retreat (p. 100). Perhaps it was both, but the two ideas need sorting out and some commentary to resolve what seemed to me to be an obvious contradiction.

There were one or two instances of Buddhist-speak. When Vishvapani writes that Bahiya was instructed "to focus on direct, unmediated perception" (p.12), I found myself wondering what that could possibly mean. It's the sort of statement that used to go under my radar, but now I realise that I don't understand such language, and never have. What's worse is that, as I understand the processes of perception, there could be no such thing as 'unmediated perception' - perception is mediation. My own exploration of the Bahiya Sutta goes in an entirely different conceptual direction (In the Seen. 22 May 2009).

I mentioned the map in the beginning of the book, and this also has problems. Sarnath and Vāraṇāsi are, contra the picture the map gives, very close together and on the same side of the Gomati River. The Ganges River does not cease at the confluence with the Yamuna! Perhaps I would not be complaining, but I was specifically consulted on this matter. For instance I said:
"Bodhgayā is on the western bank of the Falgu/Narañjanā. And these days is just a little south of the fork in the river (and on the western fork). Took me a while to figure out Uruvilva (aka Uruvela!) - is there a reason to think it is not Bodhgayā? My impression is of two names for one place (since the name Bodhgayā is not mentioned in Pāli AFAIK). "
The map is probably intended to give a broad overview, but some of these problems - like the 200 mile gap in the Ganges River caused no doubt by an opaque background for the word 'Varanasi' - could easily have been corrected. Such things matter to me.

I'm quite aware that these criticisms will be seen as nit-picking by most of Vishvapani's readers, and perhaps by the author himself. But nitpicking of this type is what I do - these are the kinds of comments I was making in my emails to Vishvapani during the writing process. I'm not a style guru, or a literary critic - I'm a philologist. I'm very much concerned with accurately conveying what's in the early sources, in light of contemporary scholarship, in order to show how these sources contribute to a modern understanding of Buddhism. My perception is that Vishvapani was engaged in something similar with this book, so I do think my criticisms are relevant and valid. I wanted very much to like this book, Vishvapani is a friend and colleague. But in the end if found the constant pricking of the kinds of difficulties outlined above left me feeling more frustrated than pleased. This has not been an easy review to write!

I imagine that for those who know no Pali or Sanskrit, and who have no access to the recent Buddhological scholarship, that this book will be very well received. The reviews on Amazon UK, one by a fellow order member, are so far glowing. It fills a gap in the market for a considered retelling of the life of the Buddha in a modern idiom, concerned to communicate to a relatively sophisticated contemporary Buddhist readership. I think Vishvapani knows his audience pretty well, and speaks to them. And to be fair I'm not really a member of the intended audience. Despite my criticisms I respect the care and thought that has gone into the book over a period of years. As far as I can judge, and apart from the negative points I have made, the book is well written - Vishvapani's 'voice' is serious and thoughtful, though never pedantic (more's the pity!). The many citations will allow readers to consult the translations themselves (allowing for the confusions caused by the sometimes inconsistent Sanskritization), and since he mainly sticks to recent, currently in-print translations these should be easily accessible to those who care to go looking (all of them are on my bookshelf). I think the price of £25 for the hardback, handsome though it is, will have put off many of his target audience, but once a more affordable paperback edition comes out I expect that it will become a popular and widely read book.

Vishvapani Blomfield.
Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One.
Quercus, 2011.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 409 2.
388 p.
RRP £25.


31/5/11 I note that my 'frank' review has provoked a response from Elisa Freschi on reviews more generally (see also the comments).

27 November 2009

New Articles on Dhāraṇī

Kharoṣṭhi Alpabet

Gāndhārī Alphabet in
the Kharoṣṭhī script
It was with some anticipation that I began to read Ronald Davidson's new review article in the Journal of Indian Philosophy on the meaning of dhāraṇī in Mahāyāna Buddhism - a subject in desperate need of an overhaul. However Davidson seems to have misunderstood crucial aspects of the system of practice in which early dhāraṇī was located. My comments will mainly concern his understanding of the Arapacana alphabet, especially as it occurs in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, [1] however I flag up wider concerns as well.

Davidson proposes the idea that the main point of the words associated with the Arapacana is to draw attention to how the letters can support (carry √dhṛ) meaning - thus linking dhāraṇī with the type of esoteric speculation in the early Upaniṣads and Tantric Buddhism. He explicitly denies the other and more natural possibility that the letters are mnemonics for words and concepts. His contention seems to be that the relationship must be this way around because in some texts different words are associated with the letters. The existence of variations on the theme in different texts surely suggests a technique widely used in different contexts, rather than incoherence or simple polysemy.

There are two main objections to Davidson's thesis. He argues that the words indicated by the syllables are intended to help the student remember the alphabet. Even if we put aside the fact that the Gāndhārī alphabet continues to be used even when the rest of the work is composed in Sanskrit, and can therefore be of little practical use for learning there are deeper problems with the idea that the Arapacana developed in this way. Davidson uses same example already put forward by B.N. Mukherjee, though he seems unaware of this: a is for apple, b is for bear etc. But stop and think about this. A in the Arapacana, even in the very early versions, is for anutpannatva. This is an abstract noun from anutpanna (not-arising) meaning 'not-arising-ness'. In fact this is one of the most complex abstract ideas of Indian philosophy which cannot be easily understood outside the context of many years of instruction in Buddhist thinking. The other 4o odd letters stand for equally complex abstract concepts. Can Davidson really believe that such an abstruse abstract notion would be of use to a learner trying to memorise the alphabet? Surely this would be an impediment rather than a helpful mnemonic device! When we teach the alphabet we use concrete examples. I note that the children's Devanāgarī chart I picked up last time I was in India uses concrete examples as well: e.g. a is for anāra (pomegranate) and bha is for bhālū (bear).

It makes much more sense to think of the letters as a mnemonic for the concepts, not the other way around. Davidson suggests that literacy in the India world at this time was low, but even if literacy was low in the rest of the world generally, Buddhist monks in Gandhāra probably all learned basic reading and writing, since the reading of texts had by then become a fundamental monastic skill. Indeed Buddhist monks were the primary vector for literacy in most of Central, Southern and South-East Asia as the persistence of Brahmī derived scripts testifies!

More broadly the very presence of such lists and this level of abstraction speak of a written rather than oral culture. I've written about the probable Persian influence the alphabetical list, and that was a literate culture without any doubt, and their writing formed a model for the Kharoṣṭhī script [see: Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism]. However here I'm particularly thinking of the characteristics of oral cultures enumerated by Walter Ong - "an oral culture has no vehicle so neutral as a list... [oral cultures are] situational rather than abstract, unavoidably using concepts but again within situational frames of reference that are 'minimally abstract'." [2]

The other objection is broader. If we look at the words indicated by the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and most other versions of the Arapacana [3] then we see that they are all related to śūnyatā - the notion that experiences are neither existent nor non-existent, that they have no independent existence (svabhāva). This is the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom approach to practice. Indeed taking the Arapacana in context with other statements in the sūtra [4] we can see that they form the basis of a insight meditation practice - by reflecting on various aspects of śūnyatā one comes to see the true nature of experience, and is liberated. The texts emphasise the sameness (samatā) of each of the syllables, not because of the inherent polysemy of letters making them interchangeable which they plainly are not, but because the concepts which they stand for show the practitioner the truth about experience being śūnyatā - śūnyatā is the common characteristic (i.e. the basis for the sameness) of all experience. Davidson seems to have lost sight of Nāgārjuna's polemics against ontology, not to mention the Buddha's.

What I think Davidson is doing is reading the texts with a particular result in mind, specifically that the word dhāraṇī can best be understood as meaning code/coding. I wholeheartedly agree that other contemporary writers have erred in emphasising the mnemonic function of dhāraṇī generally or in maintaining the fiction that dhāraṇī are somehow 'summaries' of the text they appear in. The mnemonic function is restricted solely to the Arapacana context, though it clearly is a mnemonic in this context contra what Davidson says. I do not believe that I have seen any dhāraṇī that comprehensibly summarises a text - though of course this has not stopped people producing ad hoc/post hoc exegesis on the basis that dhāraṇī are somehow summaries. Witness the many and varied readings of the Heart Sūtra mantra for instance - most of which are mutually contradictory!

A far better attempt, though more limited in scope, was published by Paul Copp in 2008. [5] Copp explores the way the word is used in Chinese translations of the Bodhisattvabhūmi and the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Dazhidu Lun (大智度論). Copp shows that the basic meaning of the word dhāraṇī in these contexts can best be understood as 'grasp' - used in the sense of grasping the meaning, holding in memory, keeping in mind, etc. I concur. Just as the various meanings dharma (which I explored in Dharma - Buddhist Terminology) can be understood in terms of 'foundation' used literally, abstractly and metaphorically. It remains for Copp to show how his ideas fit into a much broader context, but his views seem more promising. I certainly prefer Copp's method of working from the texts to see what the word must mean in context, than Davidson's reading the meaning into the text.

From the point of view of a practitioner Davidson's error is perhaps an understandable one. For him the ideas do not seem to be tied into the practical use that is made of them: Buddhism is an intellectual system to be studied and understood in contemporary Western terms. No doubt he understands that Buddhists practice Buddhism, but the deeper implications of this pragmatism are not apparent. The impracticability of teaching an alphabet with recondite abstractions is only the most obvious sign of this.

One useful thing in Davidson's article is his survey of the history of the Western commentary on dhāraṇī - this threw up a few references I had not come across before. But that history is a bit depressing - it is a history of misunderstandings and the clash of Western preconceptions with Buddhist preoccupations. We're still trying to disentangle ourselves from that train wreck and in my opinion Davidson is pulling in the wrong direction.

  1. The Large PoW Sutra was translated by Conze but for variety of reasons the translation is less than satisfactory: for instance Conze was not working from an edited text and freely used passages from other versions in 18,000 and 100,000 lines where his manuscript (which itself has many faults) let him down. He also rearranged the text to suit subject headings from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Dutt's edition of the Sanskrit is flawed in the Arapacana sections with some doubling of syllables (which may be why Conze did not use it). Dutt was editing the text in the years before Salomon demonstrated that it was a real Alphabet. KIMURA is bringing out an edited Sanskrit text (see below) but the crucial part with the Arapacana is in the volume which has not yet been published. However some other related passages are available and I am working on translated them with my rather haphazard Sanskrit. - return to article
  2. [my italics] Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy, cited in Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness, p.33. - return to article
  3. The Arapacana in the Gandhavyūha Sūtra is the major exception. In this version the keywords do not relate to the alphabet at all indicating that the point of the exercise has been missed in this case. In this case the exception proves the rule. - return to article
  4. See for instance passages at p.162, 488-9, and especially p.587 in Conze's translation. I wonder if these scatter references were once more closely associated? - return to article
  5. Davidson may have been writing before Copp published, but does not seem to be aware of the article. - return to article

  • Conze, Edward (trans.) The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press, 1975.
  • Copp, Paul. Notes on the term Dhāraṇī in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Thought. Bulletin of SOAS. 71 (3) 2008: 493-508.
  • Davidson, Ronald. 'Studies in Dhāraṇī Literature I: Revisiting the Meaning of the Term Dhāraṇī'. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 37 (2) April 2009: 97-147.
  • Dutt, N. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: edited with critical notes and introduction. London, Luzac & Co, 1934.
  • KIMURA Takayasu : Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 1986. Vols II-V (vol I forthcoming) Online:
  • Lopez, Donald J. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton University Press.
  • Mukherjee, B. N. 1999. Arapacana: a mystic Buddhist script in Bhattacharya, N. N. (ed) Tantric Buddhism. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p.303-317.
See also my Arapacana bibliography.