Showing posts with label Translating. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Translating. Show all posts

13 October 2017

Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar".

When I mention to anyone that I work on the Heart Sutra, there is a better-than-even chance that that person will declare that they like Red Pine's book on the text (2004). This small book purports to be a translation from the Sanskrit along with a commentary. However, Pine is not very good at Sanskrit and there are a load of mistakes in his book, and his commentary is sectarian, to say the least. My Amazon UK review of his book suggests that it is "a facile book on modern Japanese Zen rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra." I say this whenever his name comes up, but his reputation survives intact. The response is usually along the lines "We trust him, we don't trust you (so fuck off)". The last may be sotto voce, but sometimes it is expressed just like that.

Facts don't necessarily win arguments or establish reputations, and nor do falsehoods necessarily lose arguments or destroy reputations. No one alive today can doubt this truism. Nevertheless, I still try to deal in facts and here are some facts about Red Pine's attempts to understand the Heart Sutra.

One of the characteristics of Pine's approach is his outright rejection of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China.
"... we are shown no proof that the Heart Sutra was originally composed or complied in Chinese, that any part of the first half was extracted from the Large Sutra or any other Chinese text, or that the mantra was added later."  (2004: 23)
Pine instead proposes a "lost manuscript thesis". That is to say, he argues that the Heart Sutra quote from the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is from a (now lost) sūtra with the same name, and with the same meaning, but written in an entirely different Sanskrit idiom from any other Prajñāpāramitā text. In other words, he believes that the Indian sūtra existed in at least two prose versions, which paraphrased each other; meaning that one of them was in the standard idiom of all other Prajñāpāramitā texts, and one was in an idiom unknown except for the passage in the Heart Sutra. The fact that the Chinese Heart Sutra is coincidentally identical to Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati is apparently irrelevant (note: it is T250 that is character for character identical; T251 has a line removed in the middle and a couple of key terms changed). 

In taking this perverse approach, Red Pine is asserting that the Sanskrit text is original and authoritative and that the Chinese text is just a translation. But as we will see, this is not what he believes in practice. I draw your attention to Section VI of Conze's edition and to Red Pine's "translation". 

The mystery of Section VI

Conze's edition chops up the Heart Sutra into sections to make it easier to comment on. The earliest manuscripts of the Heart Sutra do not have sections. In fact, they don't even have sentence or word breaks. They have no punctuation at all. In Conze’s edition the passage reads:
VI. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo Prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ.
This section has already been examined in detail by Huifeng (2014), but there is work to do yet on the Sanskrit. I am about to submit a short article tackling the mistake introduced by Conze, and am working on another article which tackles what went wrong with the original (back)translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. Here, I just want to look at Red Pine's approach and what it reveals about his methods.

The second sentence in particular is puzzling. Jan Nattier notes that it seems "abbreviated at best", but doesn't seem to clock why. Others seem to gloss over the problems. What Pine says is this:
“I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta” (2004: 137)
If we look at the Sanskrit text it is apparent that there are problems with this passage. The two words viparyāsātikrāntaḥ and niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ are both bahuvrīhi compounds or compound adjectives. The two words in the compound work together to describe a noun: "one who has overcome delusion" and "one whose extinction is final". But there is no noun for them to describe. Nor does the sentence have a verb or anything that might substitute for one - and just as in English, a sentence without a verb is a contradiction in terms.

A compound cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces under any circumstances. It is never allowed.  There is nothing vague about this rule. For one thing, were we to do that to viparyāsātikrāntaḥ, as Pine does, we would leave  viparyāsa with no case ending and thus no relationship to the other words in the sentence (grammar is all about relationships between words). The role of the compound in the sentence is entirely determined by the second member of the compound, which does have a case ending (in this case masculine nominative singular).

The passive past participle atikranta cannot function as a finite verb under any circumstances. The root verb ati√kram does not mean "see through", it means "go beyond, transgress, transcend". Given the Prajñāpāramitā idiom, it probably ought to be samatikranta, which cannot be construed as "transgress", but that is a another story.

Pine has misread the sentence and, in asserting that there are any "vagaries" here, has gone completely off piste. The problem, as my forthcoming article will show, is that Conze has incorrectly put a full stop (US "period") in the middle of the sentence, stranding the three adjectives (atrastaḥ is the third) apart from the noun they describe, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ. Note that the Chinese text in the CEBTA version of the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka has a semicolon at this point, rather than a full stop. Conze had little or no facility with Chinese and never checked the Chinese texts when preparing his Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts.

This is completely obvious to anyone educated in Sanskrit: adjectives taking the case of their noun is very basic stuff (you probably learn this in the first or second week of study).

Why is it so obvious in this case? Because the noun nirvāṇa is invariably neuter (nominative singular nirvāṇaṃ), but in the Heart Sutra it has a masculine ending, -nirvāṇaḥ. The only time this is permitted is when a word is used as an adjective for a masculine noun, in the nominative singular: adjectives take the gender, case, and number of the noun they describe. Thus niṣthānirvāṇaḥ can only be a bahuvrīhi compound, an adjective, and can only be related to a masculine noun in the nominative singular, and could not be anything else. The only candidate noun within 20 words in either direction is bodhisatvaḥ, in the previous "sentence". When we remove the full stop we have one perfectly good Buddhist Sanskrit sentence.

Conze blunders again and the whole (Buddhist) world blindly follows him off the cliff.

The essential problem, then, is that cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ is not a well formed sentence. It's just a qualifier and three adjectives, with no verb, no subject, and no noun to be described. When we remove the full stop, and merge it with the previous sentence, we supply all three. That is why Pine is struggling, but he doesn't see it. And rather than take the simple and obvious solution he abandons Sanskrit grammar altogether and claims that Sanskrit grammar itself is "vague". Given that he has abandoned grammar, why does he choose the particular configuration he does? If he is abandoning the rules of grammar then he might have opted for any combination of words. The answer lies in the Chinese text.


The text that everyone in Asia considers to be the Heart Sutra is T251. It differs from T250 at this point, but only in a minor way (I will deal with this in the article, but not here). The Chinese parallel to the Sanskrit phrase cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in T251 is:
A word for word translation would be:
unattached (無罣礙) because (故),there is no (無有) terror (恐怖),going beyond (遠離) delusions (顛倒) [and] illusions (夢想 ),final (究竟) nirvāṇa (涅槃).
Here the particle 故 gives the first word the same sense as the Sanskrit ablative of cause, it is a qualifier meaning "because, since". The previous sentence concluded that "[the bodhisatva's]  mind 心 is unattached 無罣礙". So the qualifier links the two phrases, in the manner of "; because of that...". Then we have a statement that appears to logically follow from it, i.e. "because he is unattached, he is without fear". Then we have a verb "he goes beyond" and it has a direct object "delusions and illusions" and an indirect object "final-nirvāṇa". So it says:
[his mind is unattached]; since it is unattached, [the bodhisatva] is not afraid; he goes beyond delusion and illusion to final extinction.
I want to draw your attention to two things here. Firstly the sentence structure of the Chinese is completely different to the received Sanskrit and some of the words are different. I've already pointed out that the second part of Section VI cannot be a standalone sentence in Sanskrit. But in Chinese, we do have a well formed sentence with verbs and nouns (the subject is implied, but it is the bodhisatva in the preceding phrase). Translating this we don't struggle, at least we certainly don't have the kind of problems thrown up by Conze's Sanskrit edition.

Secondly, compare how Red Pine has construed the Sanskrit text to make atikranta the verb (= 遠離), viparyāsa a standalone noun (= 顛倒), niṣthā an adverb (= 究竟), and nirvāṇa a standalone noun (涅槃). To make it plain, Red Pine has chopped up the Sanskrit sentence, abrogating the rules of Sanskrit grammar, to make it read (more or less) like the Chinese, but with a concession to his Zen ideology. The concession is that he takes niṣṭhā as an adverb, "finally", related to the "verb" atikranta, rather than part of the adjective "final-extinction". This allows him to construe the possibility of "finally seeing through nirvāṇa". Again, Sanskrit does not allow parts of compounds to come adrift and act independently, so this reading of the Sanskrit is wrong. I don't think it works in Chinese, either, though at a pinch it might be a plausible reading. A broader look at the phrase 究竟涅槃 in Chinese shows that it is always a single compound and not an adverb-noun combination. But Red Pine does not seem to know this.

The main point I wish to make here is that Red Pine prioritises the Chinese text over the Sanskrit (and not just here, either).

As I noted above, Red Pine says that he considers the Sanskrit text to be the authentic original Heart Sutra. The Chinese text is merely a translation. But when he meets a problem in the Sanskrit text he does not deal with it in Sanskrit (even though there is a simple and obvious solution to his problem); instead, he uses the Chinese text as a guide to butchering the Sanskrit, to make it read like the Chinese.

I discovered this some weeks ago and I still laugh out loud every time I explain it to anyone. Despite what he says in relation to the Chinese origins thesis, and despite claiming that he is translating from Sanskrit, in practice Red Pine treats the Chinese text as authoritative and translates from Chinese (on more than one occasion). 

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?" The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
Now, to give him his due, Red Pine is almost unique in admitting that he had any problem at all translating this part of the text. Most religious translators hide their struggles and their methods from their readers, giving the illusion of greater understanding than is humanly possible. In this case Conze's edition is unreadable and untranslatable. A sentence with just a qualifier and three adjectives is nonsense and nonsense cannot be translated into sense. But strangely enough all the English translations seem to make sense. How does that happen? 

What goes through the mind of the translator faced with a text that doesn't make sense, but who wishes to be known as an expert in understanding that text?

Presumably the demands of status mean that these translators simply lie about understanding the text, and then lie to themselves about having lied. And do a lot of hand waving to distract anyone from seeing the lies. They feel safe in the knowledge that very few of their readers bother to learn Sanskrit and that scholars play no corrective role in the process.

And they do get away with this cheating, this intellectual fraud. Time after time.

Surely the publisher of Red Pine's book, Counterpoint Press, also has some responsibility (as do other publishers of non-fiction books)? Counterpoint Press edited the book and presumably sub-edited the English in it. Why was the Sanskrit not sub-edited? No one seems to have bothered to check a dictionary at any point. It seems that they did not do any fact-checking or due-diligence, such as having an expert read the manuscript. At best, the complacency of the publisher has facilitated the ongoing deception. 

We expect religieux to fudge things from time to time because they have an agenda that includes overriding ideological concerns. We understand this and, while we may not endorse it, at least it is no great surprise to find that a religious translator has manipulated a text to make it fit their preconceptions; or told us what they think it ought to say, rather than what it actually says (especially in cases where they demonstrably do not understand it, as here). We expect religieux to have exaggerated reverence for a printed text and not to think about how the text might be wrong (Thich Nhat Hahn is the sole exception to this that I'm aware of but, as I explained, his solution is to hide the problem by manipulating the translation. This is just an exercise in hand waving). 

What of academia? Many of the people who have studied, translated, and commented on this text were academics of quite high standing. Conze's first edition (1948) was published in a prestigious journal, where it was supposedly peer-reviewed. How did all of these experts in Sanskrit, miss the fact that the neuter noun nirvāṇa was in the masculine gender in this text and not see the implications of this? Any undergraduate student could spotted this and have told us what those implications were. 


The fact is that Buddhists have been poorly served by religious teachers and academic experts alike. In the case of the Heart Sutra, huge, possibly irreparable, damage has been done by D T Suzuki and Edward Conze and their Theosophy inspired nonsense. Yet both are almost deified and occupy a kind of pantheon of Buddhist Modernism. Conze has been described by Sangharakshita as "one of the great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century". He was a poor editor and translator, and while his views were influenced by Buddhism (amongst other things), I'm not convinced he was a Buddhist at all.

Red Pine's popular book is full of egregious errors and, as we now know, a degree of deception, inconsistency, and hypocrisy. At best it is a facile book on modern Japanese Zen ideology, rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra. But there is no doubting that it is popular. So it too has done huge damage.

Where we might have expected correctives from the supposedly objective scholars based in universities, dispassionately studying the languages and documents of Buddhism, we simply see more of the same in most cases (with a few notable exceptions). The most basic level of scholarship has been left incomplete, while scholars pursue ever more obscure objectives. I'm told by insiders that this might be so that they can avoid confrontation with anyone else in the field. Criticism that might affect anyone's career prospects is scrupulously avoided and even suppressed as journals refuse to publish it. Still, Conze has been dead for 43 years, I can't see how criticising him is going to hurt anyone.

Another problem, of course, is that the field is tiny and funding for it in the West has become scarce. Most of the major projects are based in Asia, under the guidance of Buddhist organisations and funders, meaning that scholarship is beholden to those with strong religious ideologies. Dissent is not really possible under such conditions.

The Heart Sutra is frequently referred to as "the most popular Mahāyāna text in the world". Most undergraduates in Buddhist Studies read it. Probably many of them read it in Sanskrit. So actually what I said about any undergraduate spotting the mistake is probably wrong, because several generations of them have not spotted it, or they spotted it and stayed quiet. And so simple grammatical errors have persisted in the most popular Buddhist text for almost 60 years (the anniversary of Conze's edition is in 2018; he died in 1974). 

I'm repeating myself in complaining about Buddhist Studies as a discipline (if "discipline" is the right word). But, here I am, working systematically through the shortest text in popular use (260 Chinese characters and about the same number of words in Sanskrit) and still finding mistakes in the text and trying to figure out how anyone could have translated the resulting mess. Something is deeply wrong in the world, if an autodidact, amateur, independent scholar is the one finding these fundamental problems. They should have been ironed out by academics decades ago. Conze should never have been allowed to publish his critical edition with errors in it for a start, but they should have been corrected long before now. 

Ironically, in the final analysis, this set of circumstances can only stand because Buddhists themselves are complacent and not paying attention. Perhaps we are in a kāliyuga after all?



Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

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

Huifeng, Shi. (2014). Apocryphal Treatment for Conze's Heart Problems: "Non-attainment", "Apprehension", and "Mental Hanging" in the Prajñāpāramitā. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.

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

Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.

04 March 2016

Thich Nhat Hanh's Changes to The Heart Sutra.

I've written close to thirty essays on the Heart Sutra since I read Jan Nattier's 1992 article and attempted to précis it. In rediscovering this text that I've known for more than twenty years, through studying the manuscripts and Chinese canonical versions, I have very seldom been tempted to write about modern English translations or commentaries. The translations are mostly awful and the commentaries all about what the exegete wants the sutra to say, not about the sutra itself. This essay is, however, about a modern translation that is also to some extent a commentary.

In 2014, the popular Zen priest, Thích Nhất Hạnh (TNH), produced a new translation of the Heart Sutra. You can see it alongside the previous, more standard translation, here. Whenever someone like him does something like this, the result is usually greeted with a wave of sycophantic over-praising (the same happens in my own Buddhist movement). TNH's own website refers to the translation as "profound and beautiful". This is really not true. Only a disciple of the man, suffering from lack of perspective, would say this. To an outsider, the new translation looks turgid and peculiar. In some ways this is no surprise, because the Heart Sutra is tightly packed Buddhist jargon that doesn't translate easily. See also David Chapman's content analysis of the Heart Sutra.

A lot of new translations are motivated by vanity or a desire to establish one's credentials as a "Zen master". They add nothing to our knowledge of the text, and make no contribution to the field of literature, either. They are usually the worst kind of Buddhist Hybrid English. For example, many translators, TNH included, try to imply that the Heart Sutra is in verse by laying it out like a poem. The Heart Sutra is not in verse. It's not a poem. The Heart Sutra is prose. In fact, there is only one Prajñāpāramitā text in verse and that is the bridesmaid of the genre, Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (not even translated into Chinese until the 10th century).

In this case, the translation is motivated by something more serious. THN's office tells us that:
"The reason [TNH] must retranslate the Heart Sutra is because the patriarch who originally recorded the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skilful enough with his use of language. For this reason, it has caused much misunderstanding for almost 2,000 years."
Of course, the Heart Sutra is nowhere near 2000 years old, it is perhaps 1300 years old. Obviously, TNH is either unfamiliar with, or rejects, Jan Nattier's Chinese origins thesis, which by contrast I take to be established beyond reasonable doubt. The single most important piece of modern scholarship on the Heart Sutra has yet to penetrate Plum Village. The idea that a "patriarch" recorded it badly is certainly novel and we could dwell on this idea of a perfect sutra, imperfectly recorded, but I want to move on to the main point. The problem according to TNH is that there is a contradiction in the Heart Sutra. I independently identified this contradiction only recently and given the Buddhist establishment's reaction to any suggestion of imperfection in their scriptures I was both surprised and intrigued to find TNH fessing up, albeit via a spokesperson. So what is the problem?
"...the mistake doesn't rest in the formula, 'form is emptiness'; rather, it resides in the unskillfulness of the line, 'Therefore in emptiness there is no form.' "
The trouble is that the two statements are contradictory in a way that cannot be swept under the carpet as some kind of paradoxical crypto-wisdom. If one is saying that "emptiness is form" in one breath and in the next saying "in emptiness there is no form", then that is not paradoxical, it is simply contradictory. As TNH says: "This line of the sutra can lead to many damaging misunderstandings."

So all credit to TNH. He's found a(nother) mistake in the Heart Sutra and gone public about it. Buddhists are typically strongly averse to admitting such things. We really ought to pause and allow this to sink in before considering what TNH did in response to this discovery.

While it is radical of TNH to admit finding a mistake in a Buddhist text, his response is an anticlimax. He characterises the problem as an imperfect recording of the text by some ancient "patriarch" and, in response, changes the wording of the text so that the problem simply disappears. TNH appears to believe he has insight into the intended meaning and the ability to correct the wording to convey this.

Now, TNH likes to cite the Sanskrit text, because he still believes that this is the original, most authentic version of the text. As I say, he appears to reject the Chinese origins thesis. But, as I will show, he is, in fact, translating from Chinese and only citing Sanskrit in order to add gravitas to his words. (Compare Nattier's comments on which Mahāyāna texts have become popular in the WEIRD world). It seems a bit disingenuous, but appears to be standard procedure in the world of Zen translations.

Like other commentators, TNH sees the line: rūpam śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam as the heart of the Heart Sutra. He translates this as (I preserve his formatting)

Listen Sariputra, this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.

There are two things to say about this. Firstly TNH has inverted the order of these pairs of statements from the Chinese text of T251 (the best known version of the Chinese text, attributed to Xuanzang). Judging by other features of his translation, TNH is apparently translating from the Chinese, but here he has used the order found in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. The order in T251 reflects the order in the source text T233, Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, which, in turn, reflects the word order in the Sanskrit version of that text in surviving manuscripts. So, in fact, T251 is the more authentic version of this passage and the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is the odd one out. It is not necessarily more authentic to adopt the reading from the Sanskrit, especially when one is translating from Chinese.

The second thing to say is that translating rūpa as "body" in the context of the five skandhas is peculiar. It is normally taken to mean "form" as a representative of the kinds of objects with which the sense faculties can collide to produce experience. The Heart Sutra itself spells this out when it places form alongside sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles and mental objects (dharmas). And "form" is what was originally used by TNH. It's not clear why he now translates this as "body". Sue Hamilton does suggest that rūpa refers to the "locus of experience", but this is a bit more complex than just "body". TNH seems to depart from the mainstream in this choice for reasons that are far from clear. 

This formula "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" is, for most people including TNH, the central idea in the Heart Sutra. And TNH's project is to rehabilitate the sutra so that this part of it stands. And thus, he changes the wording of the conflicting part of the sutra, from:
Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perceptions, nor mental formations, nor consciousness. (Plum Village Chanting Book, 2000)

That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

What the Sanskrit text says is Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyām na rūpam... i.e., "Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form, etc" or "with respect to emptiness there is no form". The Sanskrit word for "emptiness" (śūnyatā) is in the locative singular case (śūnyatāyām) and can be read either as "in emptiness" or "with respect to emptiness". In either case, it is saying that there is no relationship between form and emptiness, whereas the earlier line states that the two are identical. A flat contradiction. TNH gets around this by changing the text so that it now says that the skandhas are not separate entities. This is by no means bad doctrine, from a Mahāyānist point of view, but it is also not what the text says. So TNH's "translation" is something that he has made up to solve an apparent problem (a post hoc rationalisation).

I find it fascinating that TNH feels he is able to change the text to resolve this conflict. It is, by far, the most interesting detail across the whole modern fascination with this text that I know of, and perhaps the only one worth writing about. Apparently, when sutras don't make sense, we can simply change them! Most commentators fail to even notice the contradiction, so they are not interesting at all. However, having stepped into the light, TNH fails to live up to his promise because he immediately sweeps the problem under the carpet. But at least he has acknowledged that there was a problem.

My own approach to this problem has been blogged about and at some point I hope to get it published in a journal. (See Form is EmptinessParts I, II, and III). I employed a method developed by Jan Nattier and Nobuyoshi Yamabe, which was to track the quotation back into the source texts of the Heart Sutra, i.e., the Prajñāpāramitā texts. And in doing so I discovered that someone in ancient times had tampered with the text of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhastikā or 25,000 text. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā or 8000 text, the line is:
na hi anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva māyā | māyaiva rūpam | 
Illusion is not one thing and form another. Form is only illusion. Illusion is only form. 
This is a reference to an old Buddhist simile, that form is like an illusion. The simile becomes a metaphor: form is illusion. And the metaphor is reified to "form is an illusion". The problem is that the editor who substituted śūnyatā for māyā made a grammatical blunder. The form of this statement in the Heart Sutra simply doesn't make sense: it's bad grammar and it has broken a perfectly good metaphor. There are other examples of poor editing in the Heart Sutra that I detail in Part III of my essay Form is Emptiness. So, my argument is that, if there is a problem in the Heart Sutra, it is with this part. The fact is that that statement "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" is nonsense. This does not take away that fact that the statement has symbolised something important for Buddhists for many centuries. Many Buddhists felt, and still feel, that what they were trying to do was inconceivable (literally beyond the conception of the unawakened mind). And as Mahāyānism became more and more theistic, mystical, and magical, it served Mahāyānists to embrace paradox as an expression of this inconceivable goal. And the formula, being paradoxical, gave scope to exegetes of all schools who could claim to understand and interpret this phrase for the rest of us. Though, of course, ultimately, we have to have insight to understand it. I no longer see this line of reasoning as useful or meaningful.

Contra TNH, I take the second phrase with śūnyatāyām to be a reference to śūnyatāvihāra or śūnyatāsamādhi, i.e., a (meditative) state of emptiness, described in the Pāḷi Suttas (MN 121, 122) as one in which no experiences arise. The skandhas are the processes by which experience arises. In the state of emptiness these processes seem to be suspended. In emptiness, therefore, there is literally no rūpa, no vedanā, no saṃjñā, no saṃskāra, and no vijñāna. There's no paradox here. It is a simple description of a meditative state. And note that if rūpa meant "body", then the traditional interpretation would suggest that the body disappears in śūnyatāvihāra. Of course, from the point of view of the meditator their body does disappear. But this is not an objective fact. The meditator in emptiness has no way of stepping outside the experience to be objective, because "outside" and "inside" cease to have any meaning in samādhi.

So, my solution to the problem is very different to that proposed by TNH. I take "form is emptiness" to be nonsense created by a zealot who mindlessly mangled a perfectly good simile that can be found intact in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. And I take "in emptiness there is no form" to be descriptive of what goes on in the (meditative) state of emptiness. This is unconventional, since most commentators find little connection between the Pāḷi word suññatā, which usually means something like "absence", as in the absence of experience, while the Sanskrit word śūnyatā is a quality ascribed to dharmas, e.g., sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā, "all dharmas are characterised by emptiness", though it can also refer to the absence of essence or svabhāva. I suspect that allegiances will play a major role in deciding what facts are most salient to this issue, and that this will determine which solution sounds more plausible. 

Since I'm looking at this translation, I want to make a few more comments on it. I will focus particularly on the first paragraph. This is the part of the text I know best and is the subject of my published article on the Heart Sutra (Attwood 2015). The problems evident in this brief section will illustrate my wider point about the value of this translation as doctrine and as literature. This is what TNH came up with for a translation.

while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.

There is much that is awful about this. Like the other recent Zen inspired "translations" the method seems to be to spell out in phrases what is meant by words and pad out the text, thus making it rather turgid. It turns the text into a kind of commentary. The layout hints at free verse (short lines without rhyme or meter), however, as I say, the Heart sutra is not a poem. It's a short extract from a longer work in prose.

The Heart Sutra is simply impenetrable to someone who is not versed in the context. Even some aficionados do little more than wallow in their confusion with regard to this text. No translation that is faithful to the source text is going to be easily comprehensible. The sutra is mostly jargon. Padding it out with expository phrases that are themselves jargon, is not going to improve the situation and makes for rather turgid prose (or pseudo-verse, or whatever).

I said that this translation is primarily from the Chinese. How do I know? Because no Sanskrit witness to the Heart Sutra in manuscript or inscription, nor any Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā text, has an equivalent of the phrase 度一切苦厄 "overcame all suffering". It breaks down as: 度 "overcome" (sometimes used to translate pāramitā); 一切 "all", 苦厄 duḥkhatā or states of suffering. The inclusion of this phrase tells us that TNH was looking at the Chinese text. The other hint of this can be seen later in his translation in the phrase, the "most illuminating mantra". Which is an interpretation of 大明咒. The Sanskrit has vidyāmantra, which cannot be interpreted in the same way. I have blogged on how the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā parallels of this phrase all have vidyā translated (by Kumārajīva) as 明咒 (See Roots of the Heart Sutra 15 Aug 2014). Later, when Buddhists had taken up the use of mantras, it seemed more natural to take the two characters as two words "shining mantra". This is further evidence in support of the Chinese origins thesis - the discrepancy is difficult to explain any other way.

The phrase "the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore", with its strange use of capitalisation, is TNH's translation of the Chinese 般若波羅蜜多 or Sanskrit prajñāpāramitā. There is much for which we can castigate Conze, but in this case, "perfection of wisdom" is adequate and has the advantage of being widely used and understood. Prajñā doesn't mean "insight". In most English speaking Buddhist circles, "insight" is used to translate vipaśyanā. Prajñā is then the product of insight. Choosing an idiosyncratic translation when there is a widely used and accepted translation is usually a bad choice for a translator, because it places a burden on the reader. A weird phrase like "the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore" only makes a text worse, because now the reader has to parse this strange phrase and pause to consider what it might mean. Likely as not, we end up translating it back into something familiar. As I've said, this is not a text that one can make accessible to non-specialists using long expository phrases in place of jargon terms. One is condemned to spend years learning to understand the jargon or remaining ignorant. In the latter case, one most likely resorts to the magical thinking that characterised the original milieu of the Heart Sutra and is often the modern response to a confusing text.

The first part of the text in Chinese reads: 觀自在菩薩 行 深 般若波羅蜜多時 It we break down we see: 觀自在 Avalokiteśvara 菩薩 bodhisatva 行 practice 深 deep 般若波羅蜜多 prajñāpāramitā. The particle 時 on the end suggest that this is an ongoing action and we usually translate it as "while" or "when". TNH reads 深 as an adverb of 行 "practicing deeply" [with American spelling] whereas most translators understand  as an adjective of prajñāpāramitā. That is, it is the prajñāpāramitā that is deep (gambhīra), rather than the practice. Typically, in Middle-Chinese we would expect an adverb to be placed immediately before a verb that it modified (so say my grammar books). In this case, the character 深 comes immediately after 行. So reading it as an adverb is doubtful. The Sanskrit is: gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo. Here gambhīra is clearly an adjective, but it does seem to apply to carya 'practice', i.e., the deep practice of perfection of wisdom. In fact, it appears to be an adjective in the Chinese, as well, though an adjective of 般若波羅蜜多 or prajñāpāramitā. As a point of English grammar, an adverb also usually precedes the verb it modifies, so "practising deeply" ought to be "deeply practising", but this is subordinate to the observation that here "deep" is unlikely to be an adverb.

THN has interpolated that Avalokiteśvara is not "practising the deep prajñāpāramitā", but he is "practising deeply with prajñāpāramitā". So he's arguing that prajñāpāramitā, itself, is not a practice, but a substantive, and that Avalokiteśvara has it. The Sanskrit contradicts this with prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ, 'the practice of perfection of wisdom'. TNHs translation appears to be incorrect. According to TNH, Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva, is "practising  with   prajñā-pāramitā". Weirdly, THN then inserts another adverb "suddenly" that has no counterpart in any version of the text in Chinese or Sanskrit. Avalokiteśvara "suddenly discovered that that all of the five Skandhas are equally empty". But Avalokiteśvara is a fully formed bodhisatva, "with prajñāpāramitā", and is thus quite conversant with the emptiness of the skandhas. It's not something that a bodhisatva like Avalokiteśvara can "suddenly discover", because part of being a bodhisatva with prajñāpāramitā is that he already knows it. So this would seem to be quite a serious error in understanding what is going on. Either Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisatva, or he "suddenly discovered that that all of the five Skandhas are equally empty", but not both. Nor does either the Chinese or the Sanskrit allow for the verb to be "discover". The former has 照見 which I will discuss in the next paragraph, while the latter has paśyati sma "he saw".

This adverb "suddenly" appears from nowhere. The Chinese text has the phrase 照見, which is quite unusual. Allow me to quote my own discussion it from my JOCBS article (Attwood 2015: 119):
"照見 zhàojiàn, a difficult term corresponding probably to vyavalokayati sma, but incorporating paśyati sma, i.e., both looking and seeing. 照 can also have a sense of “reflecting”, or “illuminating”, or perhaps “comparing”; while 見 just means “to see”; and on its own would usually correspond directly to paśyati. The two characters can be read like a verbal compound “illuminate and see”, or 照 can be adverbial, giving meanings of the type “clearly see, distinguish”.  In Yu (2000) several experts in Chinese literature with varying knowledge of Buddhology approach the Hṛdaya as literature and are split on how to interpret this phrase. Stephen F. Teiser (Yu 2000: 113) translates 照見 as “illuminating vision” (照 as an adverb), while Stephen H West (116) opts for “Shining upon and making manifest” (照見 as a verbal compound). Michael A, Fuller does not translate, but expresses the ambiguity: “I encounter a metaphor when it would have been simpler not to have one: why zhao [i.e. 照]? What is the lore here? Does the wisdom emit light? That is, is such wisdom an active use of the mind that engages the phenomena of the world, or is it simply receptive?"
So in this case the position of 照 immediately before 見 does allow it to be read as an adverb. The problem is that 照 doesn't mean "suddenly" and 見 doesn't mean "discover". So again, TNH has not simply translated the text, he has changed it.

Next TNH translates 五蘊皆空 as "all of the five Skandhas are equally empty". Again this is problematic. 皆 is, in fact, an adverb meaning "all, the whole, each, every" and the phrase means "the five skandhas are all empty" or less likely "all the five skandhas are empty". So we most likely do read the character 皆 as an adverb, but it's not the adverb he was looking for. It's quite meaningless to add the "equally" to the phrase "all the five skandhas are empty". Emptiness is not a question of degrees. If something is empty, then it is empty. The slightest presence means it is not empty. 

Lastly, TNH translates 度一切苦厄 as "he overcame all Ill-being". I was surprised to find that "Ill-being" is a word at all. It is an Americanism (it's in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but not in the Oxford). I suppose we cannot complain about Americanisms when the bulk of a man's followers are American. But to me this is an ugly expression. Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but most of the rest of this paragraph is so badly translated that it is at least worth pointing out that an obscure term like "ill-being" is just as bad as a Buddhist jargon word for the reader. It still makes them stop to comprehend the word.

So many problems in such a short passage. Almost every phrase is mangled in some way. What TNH has done here is not so much a translation as it is a paraphrase of the text. As someone familiar with the text in Sanskrit and Chinese my opinion is that he has not done anything to clarify the text and, in many cases, he has made it less clear, either through an incorrect translation, an unhelpful interpolation, or just poor English grammar. Where TNH may have succeeded is in clarifying what TNH thinks the text means. Which is fair enough, it's just that he's wrong about what the text says.

I could go on to critique the rest of the translation, but I think the point is made and I don't want to labour the point. There's nothing profound or beautiful about this translation. It's awful on many levels.  


While having little literary merit and despite positively obscuring the underlying text, Thich Nhat Hanh's new translation is none-the-less interesting for the boldness with which the man changes the text in response to perceived problems. And this in a world where most new translations are vanity projects which paraphrase without adding anything. Some of TNH's changes are trivial, such as padding out the text with extra adverbs, or turning a word into a long expository phrase so it conveys the views of the expositor, but in dealing with the problem of the two conflicting statements TNH has attempted to make a more substantial contribution. Not only this, but he has had to weigh up the merits of the conflicting statements and choose between them. Since the Heart Sutra is a product of generations of just such interference with written texts, it is interesting to see this process continuing in the present.

Commentators have always interpreted the Heart Sutra with a massive dollop of confirmation bias. To each (and, more or less, every) translator the Heart Sutra represents a kind of epitome of their existing worldview, be it Yogācārin, Mādhyamika, Tāthāgatagarbhikā or Tantric. The importance of the Heart Sutra in this enterprise is that it is a canonical text that therefore authenticates and legitimises the view of the exegete, whatever the view happens to be. All Buddhists do this, but in the case of most modern exegetes they are reluctant to edit the text itself to conform to this view. We know that the text has been edited in the past. I've given links to examples of this. But consider that not only is each Sanskrit manuscript uniquely different from all the others (though sometimes this is only because of superficial scribal errors), but the three versions of the short text Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka are also different from each other in non-trivial ways (see also Variations in the Heart Sutra in Chinese).

TNH's new translation is also interesting because it illustrates the procedure that a Buddhist might take upon discovering a mistake in their texts. The problem identified by TNH is a genuine one. It is not a matter of exegesis or interpretation, there is a flat and unambiguous contradiction in the Heart Sutra that has long gone unnoticed, but which TNH has noticed. I also noticed it, but he beat me to it by a couple of years, so all credit to him. My approach to this mistake is to highlight the problem and foreground it. I want the tension generated to create a change in perspective on texts in Buddhism and this requires holding the tension rather than seeking a resolution.

As it happens, the problem in the Heart Sutra seems to be the result of an historic shift in emphasis in Mahāyānism that was inexpertly interpolated into existing texts some time in the early centuries of the Common Era (at least by 179 CE, when Lokakṣema translated Pañcaviṃśati). Thus, the conflict is also important as a signpost to changing Buddhist values and attitudes. Again, it is only by acknowledging the mistake and allowing it to stand that insights into the history of ideas in Buddhism come into focus.

TNH acknowledges the problem and then "fixes" it by creating a translation that does not contain the problem. He doesn't just translate the text as a neutral observer, but actively changes the text to ensure a reading consistent with his views on Buddhism. He does not completely obscure the history of the text, because in a separate document he acknowledges the problem. But in simply changing the text he removes the tension that might motivate a shift in perspective. He is preserving the status quo. But then this is what we expect of establishment figures, even those who are eccentric translators.

Another legitimating practice TNH uses, which we see quite often in Western Zen commentators on the Heart Sutra, is the invocation of Sanskrit to authenticate a translation from the Chinese. This can only happen in ignorance or rejection of Jan Nattier's Chinese origins thesis. It is supported by the general ignorance of Sanskrit amongst modern Buddhists. Sanskrit is an admittedly difficult language to learn, but the lack of knowledge of it means that commentators can make statements about the Sanskrit text that most of their audience will never question, nor have the skills to investigate. In my experience, commentators like Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi who say they are translating from Sanskrit are pretty poor Sanskritists and heavily reliant on unnamed third parties (probably writing in Japanese) and the Chinese text. TNH's tries to imply that he was using the Sanskrit text, but clearly he was translating the Chinese text from T251.

Just as I would foreground any textual problems, I would like to highlight these practices for dealing with them. It is, I think, a distinctive feature of Mahāyānism that, despite the canonisation of texts, they are still open to being changed. It's quite evident from the Chinese Tripiṭaka that this went on a good deal in India. On the other hand, I know of no similar example from the field of Pāḷi studies. So this is a fascinating insight into the world of Buddhist textual production and transmission. Active editing, fixing perceived problems, is practised, right up to the present. Though, of course, TNH has not edited a text in a canonical language; the source text remains the same, but the process of translating the text provides an opportunity to make corrections that monolingual transmission does not.

In the final analysis, the new translation by TNH is not very good, either at representing the canonical text, or as literature. The new "translation" is, in fact, a palimpsest, a new text written over the top of the old. Not an interpretation, so much as a new composition which reflects the teachings of the author, rather than the teachings of ancient patriarchs.

The Heart Sutra is a bunch of lines taken out of context, mangled by scribes and editors, and elevated far beyond original competency as magical amulet to protect from demons and misfortune. The content of it continues to baffle, but the bafflement itself symbolises something essential for many Buddhists: their bafflement with the world, with Buddhism, and with how Buddhism makes sense of the world (or doesn't). 


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

Yu, Pauline, et al. [eds] (2000) Ways With Words: Writing about reading Texts from Early China. University of California Press.

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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