Showing posts with label Vajracchedikā. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vajracchedikā. Show all posts

20 December 2013

Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'?

Lines from a Buddhist Sutra
British Library
Most Buddhists will be familiar with the problem of finding two different translations of a text they are inspired by and discovering that the two are inexplicably different. This experience was partly what motivated me to learn Pāli and then Sanskrit (and to dabble in Chinese) in the first place. I remember reading the Bodhicāryāvatara in two translations and being puzzled at the differences. I did not realise at the time that one was a direct translation of the Sanskrit and the other was a secondary translation from the Tibetan translation, which helped to explain some of the major differences. 

If we aren't motivated to learn a scriptural language in order to see for ourselves what the text is saying, presuming it is possible to understand it, then we have limited choices. What most people seem to do is make an aesthetic judgement on which English rendering appeals more. I often hear people say that they prefer this or that translation with no reference to the source language. A monoglot Buddhist will say that some translation captures the meaning and some other translation more literal, with no apparent irony. How does one assess the success, let alone the literalness of a translation when one cannot read the language it was translated from?

Another approach I commonly see is to seek out as many translations as possible and hope to triangulate what the underlying text says. One sees quite elaborate attempts at new renderings of texts with no reference to the Sanskrit or Pāḷi, for example. I've even seen these referred to as a new 'translation'. An old friend used to study the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta by giving each participant in the study group a different translation to read from. Sometimes this is successful and other times not.

Thus we Buddhists make choices between translations on superficial and subjective bases, and we probably think of the translation we are familiar with as "the text". Do we ever stop to wonder what "the text" means if "the text" can be rendered 20 different ways in English? Aren't the different translations in fact different texts?

Critical Editions

But the situation is almost unimaginably worse than this scenario. Because most translations are from critical editions. In the process of making a critical edition one collects up all the surviving 'witnesses' (manuscripts, inscriptions, and earlier editions) and examines each one, possibly correcting scribal errors. Typically each witness is different from all the others, even when they are copies of the same 'original'. Scribes inadvertently introduce errors, large and small, and editors deliberately make amendments, subtractions and additions. Then choosing the best manuscript (best can be judged on any number of bases) one notes all the variations from the best one in the other manuscripts. Traditionally this is first done on a large grid. To produce a critical edition one selects from the variations to produce a text that is consistent and coherent. And if this does not produce a comprehensible or likely reading an editor can suggest an unattested reading that fits better (hopefully with notes to explain the logic of their choice). The editor tries to reconstruct the text as it was first transmitted, or as the author intended it to be. The result is a single text with all the variations footnoted and usually extra notes on amendments (though one of the great problems of Indian textual studies is the practice of silently amending non-standard Sanskrit forms thus obscuring dialectical variants).

And it is these critical editions which end up being translated. In the case of the Heart Sutra for example, Conze consulted more than two dozen sources all different from each other. And he made a number of decisions about the author's intention that in retrospect look doubtful at best or were simply wrong (as discussed in my series of essays on the text earlier in 2013). So each translation hides complexity, sometimes vast complexity, and an industrious process of simplification that is fully subject to human foibles. 

But still worse, some Indian texts can now only be understood by reference to commentaries, often centuries removed from the composition of the text and written by sectarians. Again in the case of the Heart Sutra the commentaries disagree on how to interpret the text along sectarian lines.For example tantrikas treat the text as tantric because it contains a dhāraṇī. And more often than not the commentary itself must undergo textual criticism in order to reconstruct the author's text because it too is subject to all the processes of change that affect a text. 

There is no Diamond in the Diamond Sutra.

Take the Sanskrit Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as an example. For a start the title ought not to be translated as Diamond Sutra or even Diamond Cutter. This was a choice made by Max Müller in 1884 and has been slavishly repeated ever since. But as Conze remarks in the notes to his 1957 edition, the word vajra was very unlikely to be understood as meaning "diamond" by its audience. In that milieu vajra almost certain meant 'thunderbolt' (that wonderfully unscientific word that combines thunder and lightning). Really, we ought to translate vajra as 'lightning bolt'.

Chedikā is from √chid 'to cut off, amputate; cut, hew, split'. A noun form is cheda 'cutoff; cut' and the adjective is chedaka 'cutter, cutting' and in the feminine chedikā. Sandhi rules dictate that initial ch is doubled to cch when preceded by a vowel. Then we ought to ask what kind of compound vajracchedikā is.  Other compounds with -ccheda suggest that it is the first member of the compound which is cut off - i.e. guṇaccheda 'cutting the chord' or dhyānaccheda 'interruption of meditation'. These are tatpuruṣa compounds. Monier-Williams lists no other compounds ending in the feminine -cchedikā. Since "cutting off the lightening" is an unlikely rendering and it is in the feminine gender following prajñāpāramitā which is also feminine, we must suspect a bahuvrīhi compound (i.e. it is an adjective describing prajñāpāramitā): "the perfect wisdom that cuts like lightening". I think this is probably what it means. So really we should refer to it as the [Cuts likeLightning Sutra, though it's extremely unlikely that the facts will result in a change. 

The Manuscript Tradition and Editions.

Paul Harrison and Shōgo Watanabe have provided us with a detailed account of the history of editions of the Vajracchedikā (Vaj). There are now ten published editions, including Harrison & Watanabe. The first of these was produced in 1881 in Devanāgarī by the redoubtable F. Max Müller. Müller had four witnesses of which two were copies of the same original and two were Chinese block prints. All of these witnesses post-date the composition of Vaj by at least 1500 years. They are copies of copies of copies and each copying introduced errors. It was Müller who introduced the system of breaking the text into sections. His numbering has been retained in subsequent editions, but they do not occur in any manuscript.

Not long after Müller produced his edition a number of manuscripts of Vaj were found and began to be published. Aurel Stein discovered a Central Asian ms. in 1900 that was published by F. E. Pargiter in 1916 (P). This manuscript is thought to date from the late 5th or early 6th century (though dating on palaeographic grounds can be doubtful). Five of the nineteen folios had been lost and many others were poorly preserved. The Pargiter text appears to be similar to the Chinese translation by Kumārajīva (401 CE).

A partial manuscript was found in 1931 as part of a cache of texts discovered near Gilgit (G). The seven surviving folios are dated to the 6th or 7th century. This ms. was not published until 1956 in a Roman script edition. A facsimile edition was published in 1974. Another Roman script version was published by N. Dutt in 1959 which used portions of Müller to fill in the gaps. However none of the Roman script editions were entirely reliable and in 1989 Gregory Schopen published a new edition which corrected the many mistakes. Schopen's edition is available online from the Gretil Archive.

Amongst several editions of the complete Vaj brought out after these finds, only Conze's 1957 publication has attracted any attention. Conze based his edition on Müller's, but presented it in Roman script and included amendments based on the published versions of P and particularly G. Conze introduced a number of innovations such as western punctuation and hyphenated compounds. "However, Conze did not use M consistently as his base text, occasionally making changes to the wording in which he conflated his various witnesses arbitrarily. He also failed to list the differences in his witnesses exhaustively." (Harrison & Watanabe 92). Never-the-less Conze's edition has become, as it were, canonical and most subsequent studies and translations have been based on his edition and this means, for example that "philosophical questions have also been addressed on less than solid foundations..." (92). 

In 1961 P. L. Vaidya produced yet another edition based on Müller but, as per Conze, with "improvements" based on G as it was then (unreliably) published. This text is widely available on the internet via the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon and the Gretil Archive for example. And yet Harrison & Watanabe conclude it "can safely be set aside" (92). Similarly the edition by Joshi simply rearranges the text of previously published editions. 

Finally we have an incomplete ms. (MS 2385) discovered in the Schøyen Collection dated to the 6th or 7th century, and recently published by Harrison & Watanabe  (2006). This text is missing it's ending. Fortunately the Schøyen ms. (S) is very similar in character to the Gilgit ms. (G). Indeed S and G are closer to each other linguistically than either is to the edition of Pargiter (P). Both contain a number of similar Prakritic features (see Harrison & Watanabe (97-99) S contains sections 1-16c; whereas G contains sections 13b-14e and 15b-32b. And thus, while they are not identical where they overlap, together G and S make up a reasonably consistent single text (see below).

In addition a total of twelve identifiable fragments of Vaj have been discovered in Central Asia. Other texts have been catalogued but are presently lost somewhere in the Nepalese National Archives it seems!

So to sum up the most widely used edition of the Sanskrit Vaj is unreliable; the most widely available to those outside academia is also unreliable. An important problem in the history of this text is that the sources available to Müller are considerably longer than P, G or S. Do we treat this as one text that was added to, or do we treat this as one text in at least two recensions, one shorter and one longer? 

One of the weird things about Vaj is that it suggests that anyone who recites "even one verse of four lines" (catuṣpadikām api gāthāṃ) stands to benefit. But this text is not in verse. There's no evidence that it ever was in verse except this phrase. Is it a stock phrase that was used unthinkingly? Or did the text once exist as verse? As far as we know only one Prajñāpāramitā text is in verse: the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā.

So far we have a Sanskrit text, available in multiple recensions and versions which may well not point back to a single point of origin, and known far and wide by the mistranslated title. The situation in Chinese is almost as complex with seven different translations of texts which vary in length and quality. 

The Text in Translation

When we read a translation it is almost always the case that this background complexity is completely suppressed or at best highly compressed. 

When it comes to translations we are similarly blessed with many options. Max Müller published his translation in 1894. Conze has published three versions of his English translation with only the most recent being widely available. As with the Heart Sutra, Conze's edition has become standard amongst Buddhists, but when examined it is problematic. My preliminary assessment is that Conze's translation of Vaj suffers from his beliefs getting in the way, just as in his Heart Sutra. Conze in particular embraces paradox and nonsense because it fits his preconceptions about Prajñāpāramitā, but this causes him to mistranslate and to obscure the ways in which the text does make sense.

Schopen has published both a translation of the Gilgit ms. and a complete translation. And translations have also appeared by Mu Soeng, Red Pine  and Richard H. Jones. Now we can add the translation by Harrison of the combined S and G manuscripts. Apart from Schopen and Harrison all the available translations are based either on Müller's or Conze's Sanskrit editions with all their faults. As one might expect there are a number of translations from Chinese also, mainly from Kumārajīva's translation.

Unfortunately the translation by Harrison is relatively inaccessible, though it is based on by far the most carefully constructed edition. There is in fact one interesting and useful presentation of the translation on the web based at Oslo University's Bibliotheca Polyglotta. Though the website in theory makes the text available to everyone, I don't think many Buddhists will find the site, and many won't feel comfortable with the presentation in multiple languages and versions, it is not formatted for easy printing for off-line study, and it lacks all the extensive discussion and notes from the publications mentioned. It would be advantageous to have a popular publication with the Sanskrit text and Harrison's translation (with notes) side by side.

One development mentioned briefly above is worth drawing attention to. Promoted as "a new translation" (it is not) the Diamond Sutra website, by one Alex Johnson, is an extreme example of using English translations found on the internet to try to triangulate the underlying text and produce something more comprehensible, though in this case he has singularly failed to find the text. What the author has done, essentially, is to produce a collage of all the versions. No attention is paid to which text has been translated into English - though translations from Chinese are invariably from Kumārajīva's version and from English from Müller or Conze. At times it strays very far from the Sanskrit and/or Chinese text as the elaborations of previous translators are incorporated to produce a rather bloated and turgid rendition of little doctrinal or literary merit (though clearly Johnson has laboured long to produce this, he'd have been better to spend his time learning Sanskrit or Chinese). Nor is any attention given to the context of the sutra. A single example should suffice: in Section 5 he has the Buddha say, "When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature." But "Buddha nature" is entirely anachronistic and out of place here. It is never mentioned in the text. This late Buddhist idea has been crowbarred into the text in a most inelegant way. The Sanskrit text here is "hi lakṣanālakṣanataḥ tathāgato draṣṭavyaḥ" (Harrison 115). This says: "For a Tathāgata should be seen from the non-characteristic of characteristics.” [As ever arguing against naive realism and reification of sense data] Reconciling Johnson's purple prose with this statement is impossible, and I would say, pointless. And yet if you search "Diamond Sutra" what do you find? 


The purpose of this account based on the examination carried out by Harrison & Watanabe is to highlight how complex the manuscript traditions are and how the processes of textual production in the present suppress complexity at every stage, thus to some extent falsifying the witness statements. Vaj is actually not a complicated case, but it highlights a problem that Buddhists simply don't think about. As I said with respect to the Heart Sutra, it is not so much a "text" as a tradition with multiple, competing, variously unreliable, texts. I don't want to go down the road of post-modern textual criticism and deny the existence of the text altogether. For one thing I don't know enough about post-modernism to be credible. But we are obliged to think more about what we mean by "the Diamond Sutra". The production of the text we read is a process in which various scribes and editors have been involved. Many decisions have been made to prune the tangled mass of the tradition in order to present us with reading matter and ideas as homogeneous and simple as possible. Reality is somewhat different:
"... we ought to expect multiple branching of the manuscript tradition, with enlargement and other textual changes not fully present in some of the branches, despite the late date of their witnesses. This presents the editor of texts like this with considerable problems which cannot be gone into here, but to put it in a nutshell, the idea that the wording of any Mahāyāna sūtra can be restored to some original and perfect state by text-critical processes must be abandoned: all lines do not converge back on a single point." (Harrison 240. Emphasis added)
So according Harrison there might not be a (discoverable) single point of origin, a single authoritative text. And this is an argument against criticisms of Conze. That fact that Conze's version is popular with Buddhists is what makes it authoritative, however uncritical those Buddhists have been. Perhaps we have to consider that his version, with all it's faults, is no less valid than other versions? But wouldn't this be rather too defeatist? Ought not errors of reading and translation be repaired? Awkward and infelicitous, not to say inaccurate, translations can be improved on. Though experience does suggest that given the choice Buddhists will cling to a familiar corrupt text rather than embrace a repaired new one.


In the last twenty years I have gone from naive follower to engaged reader, to published scholar. I've discovered along the way that editors and editions can be unreliable. In my education as a Buddhist I was inculcated with the greatest respect for Dr Conze. My Buddhist teacher dubbed him one of the great Buddhists of the 20th century. But as a scholar his methods left much to be desired and his particular Buddhist beliefs seem to have hampered his scholarship. Most of his work is problematic and all of it needs redoing. I hope to do this for the Heart Sutra in the English speaking world (by formally publishing the material I've been blogging) and clearly Harrison, Watanabe and Schopen have done so for the Diamond Sutra. The Sanskrit edition of the Aṣṭasāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra is apparently good enough, so we only require a re-translation of that text (several partial translations have been produced, but as yet no one has undertaken the whole task).

But all of this is simply to play the same old game and something about it nags me. A standardised text is almost a lie. It rests on the idea, drawn from Classical scholarship, of a single author sitting down and composing a text that was then corrupted by scribes over time. But Buddhist texts don't seem like this. They almost always seem to be the product of local traditions (plural) preserved in local dialects and languages.

Clearly Buddhist texts are not like Vedic texts. They are not revelations of eternally unchanging texts. They have not been preserved with the kind of fidelity that Vedic oral texts have. Given that we live 800 years after Buddhism died out in India, the home of Sanskrit text production, we must wonder how much or how little of the variation has survived the burning of Buddhist libraries. If we have this many variations now, how many more were lost? 

Buddhists are often fundamentalist when it comes to texts. We have a 'cult of the book' as Gregory Schopen terms it. The book itself becomes an object of worship (I know of at least a couple of Buddhist shrines that have never-read books on them). The book itself symbolises knowledge, but is in conflict with the anti-intellectual injunction against the written word as definitive. In this view, wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox. So even though the Diamond Sutra is a sacred text, it need not be read, though it is chanted from memory in many monasteries and widely studied

The Buddhist tradition is strangely hostile to complexity at times. We are always trying iron out wrinkles, usually with unintended consequences. It begins to seem a little quixotic to insist that our texts are unitary phenomena. Was the Vajracchedikā composed as single text? Did it once stop at what Conze calls "The First Ending" (§13a) only to be restarted by a latter author? How did the later authors justify adding words, lines and sections? Were they like Alex Johnson, i.e. well meaning but incompetent editors trying to resolve textual variations without really understanding the text? If Harrison is right and the lines do not converge then which Vajracchedikā do we take to be authoritative. In China it's usually the translation by Kumārajīva that is authoritative if there is a choice (though as discussed, this is not true in the case of the Heart Sutra

Practising Buddhists often resolve these conflicts and contradictions by changing the frame of the discussion and invoking the authority of personal experience. Which is to say they sidestep the textual issues by trumping the authority of the text with a higher authority. Only in doing so they retain the text as object of worship as the (ultimately faulty) encapsulation of "perfect wisdom". On the other hand historically merely hearing the Vajracchedikā is said to have brought about miraculous conversion: in ancient times for example for Huineng the patriarch of Zen and in modern times by Sangharakshita who, aged 17, both realised he was a Buddhist after reading an early translation from the Chinese and also had a series of mystical experiences that shaped his approach to Buddhism (and indeed to life) subsequently. 

The other frame change we like to invoke is to cite "the Absolute", a term drawn from German idealism but applied to Buddhism especially by Conze. Sometimes the term non-dual is used instead though the meaning is more or less the same. Modern Buddhists frequently believe that there is a viewpoint that stands outside the framework altogether and sees things as they are - though heaven forbid that we call this the god perspective! The Absolute is beyond words and concepts and yet encompasses all words and all concepts. And crucially the Absolute can be invoked to resolve all doubts and all disputes. If one cannot think through a problem to a satisfactory conclusion that is because not all problems are amenable to thought or reason. Some problems and doubts are only resolved by adopting the godlike perspective of the Absolute.  This is the viewpoint which insists that wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox.  Unfortunately credibility is strained at times when people who clearly do not have access to this perspective, use nonsense to silence questions and stifle discussion. 

So, is there any such thing as 'a text'? I spend my time reading and studying and creating texts. However, the sacred Buddhist text as a unitary object with well defined boundaries is a fiction. With a tradition like the Prajñāpāramitā we have a number of texts which represent the tradition in different ways at different times, but are themselves far from stable or fixed. The modern day obsession with fidelity of transmission does not seem to have been shared by our Indian antecedents. Texts were changed as expedient. Mistakes were as likely to be conserved as correct readings were. Better to think of a text as a sketch of a tradition from a particular place and time, seen after several generations of copying. It may be clear and focussed and relatively helpful in understanding the tradition which produced it, or it may be obscured and blurred and unhelpful. Sometimes it's hard to know which. Most Buddhist texts in fact seem to continue to be composed over a considerable period of time that may only have stopped with the destruction of Buddhism in India.


15 November 2013

The use of Negation in Vajracchedikā

Paul Harrison
This essay will reproduce and, to some extent, critique an argument put forward by my countryman, Paul Harrison, in his 2006 English translation of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā or Diamond Sutra. My thanks to David Welsh for bringing this article to my attention and providing me with a copy of it. 

The Vajracchedikā was first translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva in ca. 402 CE (one also sees the date given as 401 and 403). The text that Kumārajīva translated was somewhat shorter than the one edited by Max Müller in 1881, suggesting that the text continued to change after it was first composed. The dating of the initial composition of Vajracchedikā is now disputed. Conze had argued that it belonged, with the Heart Sutra, to the period ca. 300-500 CE which follows the expansion of the basic text from 8000 to 100,000 lines. We now know that the Heart Sutra is a special case and was composed in the 7th century in China. Some scholars now argue that Vajracchedikā belongs to the earliest strata (see Schopen 1975: 153, n.16; Williams 1989: 42). According to one source cited by Schopen "...the latest date of establishment of the Diamond Sutra will be 200 AD or probably 150 AD" (153, n.16). It may be that, contra Conze, Vajracchedikā predates Aṣṭasāhasrikā (Schopen n.17). Jan Nattier has proposed that the Vajracchedikā was composed in a very different milieu (2003: 180, n. 18) "one of many reasons" is the difference in terminology: where Aṣṭa prefers experiential terms like na saṁvidyate 'is not found' and nopalabhyate 'is not obtained, Vajracchedikā is more confident using the verb 'to be' (asti, nāsti). For Nattier, this suggests that the Vajracchedikā is more at ease with ontology. Another of the quirks of Vajracchedikā is that it never mentions śūnyatā or svabhāva, which is odd for a supposedly late Prajñāpāramitā text.

In his notes to the revised edition of the (partial) Gilgit ms., Greg Schopen (1989) has listed the many problems in Conze's Sanskrit edition of Vajracchedikā (1957), along with previous editions. Conze has been too eclectic with his source materials and paid insufficient attention to chronology. His notes also leave much to be desired. We have reason to be suspicious of Conze's edition and thus of his translation of, and commentary upon, this text.

In 2006, Harrison & Watanabe published a new (partial) edition of the Vajracchedikā based on a manuscript (probably) from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and held in the Schøyen Collection.  Like the edition by Schopen, this new edition is considerably shorter than previously published editions and close in content to the Chinese translation of Kumārajīva. In the same publication Harrison combined the Gilgit and the Schøyen partial manuscripts to create a single hybrid which represents the text as it circulated in Greater Gandhāra (roughly Northern Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan) in the 6th or 7th centuries. This hybrid manuscript was then the basis of a new translation (Harrison 2006). The text and translation (sans Harrison's extensive notes and comments) are available online via Biblioteca Polyglotta at the University of Oslo.

In his notes, Paul Harrison tackles the vexed subject of paradox. His very interesting contribution is to provide a detailed argument for reassessing the idiom which is so particular to the Vajracchedikā, which he sums up as "X is non-X; hence it is called X." In particular, Harrison cautions against reading "some kind of mystical subversion of language" into this idiom. Richard H. Jones also resists the conclusion that the text was illogical or not meant to be understood, an idea which he says is "...frankly baffling and insulting to the ingenuity of the authors of this and other Perfection of Wisdom texts" (190, 220-3). I go along with this.

The mystification, even obfuscation, of Perfection of Wisdom texts has been actively pursued in some quarters. Correcting such misreadings will no doubt take time and will probably be resisted by those who enjoy the status quo. I put Harrison's case here, slightly modified with insights from Jones, in the hope that it will cause the more thoughtful amongst us to reconsider the Perfection of Wisdom. My own agenda is to try to demonstrate that the Vajracchedikā is another text which makes more sense when read using what I have called the hermeneutic of experience.


Buddhists will be familiar with the idea that prefixing a- (or an- for words beginning with vowels) to a noun or adjective negates it. (However, I have argued against the popular perception that this is the function of the syllable 'a' that gives it a central place in Prajñāpāramitā. See The Essence of All Mantras). Harrison begins by pointing out that such negated words can be treated as compounds of either of two types: as a karmadhāraya (not-X, no X, non-X) or as a bahuvrīhi (X-less, Lacking X, having no X). In his example the word aputra can be read as describing a person who is 'no son', with the possible implication of being unworthy of his parents; or the person might be 'sonless' or 'have no children'. Either reading is possible and only context can tell us which reading applies in any given case.

English translations of Vajracchedikā and other Prajñāpāramitā texts almost always opt for the karmadhāraya reading. Thus in Conze's (1975) translation we find:
And this world-system the Tathāgata has taught as no-system. Therefore it is called a 'world system'. (52; §13c)
I think everyone agrees that this is nonsense, even if we disagree on the significance of such nonsense. See, for example, Shigenori Nagatomo (2000) for an attempt to make "make intelligible the logic that is used in this Sutra in which a seemingly contradictory assertion is made to articulate the Buddhist understanding of (human) reality" (213).

There exist at least four Sanskrit variations on this sentence, 8 Chinese translations, and one Tibetan. The Gilgit Sanskrit manuscript reads:
yo 'py asau lokadhātur adhātuḥ sa tathāgatena bhāṣitas tenocyate lokadhātur iti | (Harrison 137)
We've mentioned that the English practice is to treat the compounds as karmadhāryas ("no-system"). Harrison points out that the Chinese also read karmadhārayas, because they negate the terms using 非 fēi rather than 無  (cf the negations in the Heart Sutra which all use 無). What interests Harrison is that the Tibetans treat the compounds as bahuvrīhi (X med pa or X ma mchis pa) and that this seems to be the better reading. In the case of lokadhātu/adhātu we might, with the Chinese, construe this as 'the world system (or realm, sphere, element, etc.) is not a system'; or ' a non-system'; or ' no system at all.' However, we may also read it as saying that lokadhātu lacks a system or that there is no system in it (138). Harrison translates:
"Any world system there is has been preached by the Realized One as systemless. Thus it is called a world-system" 
The obvious question is whether we can chose either option arbitrarily? Harrison thinks not. He thinks we must chose to read these compounds as bahuvrīhis, i.e., as adjectives of the unnegated term. In this case, adhātu is an adjective describing the substantive lokadhātu. In order to show this, he first lists all thirty of the terms that are negated in the text. In each case what is negated is the second part of the compound: where we have a compound of the form XY, the negative is almost always aY, though sometimes aXY with an implied negation of Y. For example, lokadhātu > adhātu; puṇyaskandha > askandha; ātmabhāva > bhāva and so on.

Reading the Negations in Vaj

The key to understanding this idiom, according to Harrison, is in the phrase nirātmāno dharmā 'dharmas are selfless', which is found in the Vajracchedikā (17h) but echoes an Āgama phrase. It's also expressed anātmakāḥ sarve dharmāḥ, 'all dharmas are selfless'. The Pāli counterpart of this phrase, sabbe dhammā anattā, is more ambiguous and is frequently read as 'all dharmas are not-self'. However, Harrison argues that the ambiguity is not present in Sanskrit, so that a term like nirātma must be read as a bahuvrīhi (i.e., as self-less, rather than non-self).
"Thus nirātmāno dharmā means that all dharmas lack a self or essence, or to put it in other words, they have no core ontologically, they only appear to exist separately and independently by the power of conventional language, even though they are in fact dependently originated" (139)
I'm largely in agreement with Harrison. One of the key features of Prajñāpāramitā thought is a trenchant critique of substance ontologies which became a feature of Buddhist Abhidharma thought in North India around the beginning of the common era.

However, I differ from Harrison in attributing the problem to "appearance" and "conventional language". Clearly, we do have experiences. This is not a matter of appearance or convention. The use of the term "illusions" (indicating that experience is not real) is itself an aspect of the shift of attention from dharmas qua experience to dharmas qua reality. The latter leads to the necessity to split reality into relative and absolute (or conventional and real). If we do not go down the path of real dharmas the issue of conventional vs real language does not arise. In other words, the split of language into conventional and real is dependent on framing the discussion in terms of real or unreal. The early Buddhists deny the validity of this dichotomy with respect to experience (e.g., Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12.15) and thus imply that the conventional/real split is not valid, either. Thus, if we accept the early Buddhist argument, and I do, then we need not invoke conventional language and illusions. 

The Buddhist model of cognition itself shows why this is so: cognition (vijñāna) is always sense-object, sense-faculty and sense-cognition working together. "Direct knowledge of objects" is simply not possible in this model as sense-cognition is always part of Buddhist knowledge production. "Reality" gets crowbarred into Modern Buddhism, but in early Buddhism there seems to be no concept that corresponds to our concept of reality. Early Buddhists accepted no noumena behind phenomena. The Buddha was always concerned with experience and understanding the nature of experience.  

Thus, the problem is not one of "appearance", but one of interpretation. The naive realist feels themself to be in direct contact with reality. And, as part of this interpretive framework, the sense of self is also interpreted as real (giving rise to a number of false notions such as disembodied consciousness; pure subjectivity; a true self; i.e., a substantial entity behind what feels like subjective experience; and persistence of consciousness after death). When we understand that these ideas were meant to be applied to the domain of experience, rather than the broader domain of reality, then we eliminate a great deal of confusion both in language and in metaphysics. 

This difference aside, Harrison's proposal to read negated compounds like adhātu in the Vajracchedikā as bahuvṛhis is very interesting and useful. In the case of a term like prajñāpāramitā we get the negated term apāramitā. As he says, prajñāpāramitā "does not contain any perfection [pāramitā] within itself, it is devoid of perfectionhood, so to speak, which would constitute its essence."

So the form of the first part of the argument is now: Any X kind of Y is Y-less according to the Buddha. In other words, just because we can talk about various kinds of dhātu (loka-dhātudharma-dhātumano-dhātu etc) does not make dhātu a thing; does not make dhātu real; does not imply a substantial entity. There is no dhātutva or dhātu-ness, no noumena lurking in the background to give our experiences the qualities of permanence, satisfactoriness or substance.

Final Affirmation

Harrison's explanation of the final affirmation ("thus is it called Perfection of Wisdom") I find less convincing, precisely because I'm unconvinced by the arguments about so-called conventional language.
"If there was perfection in the perfection of insight, then perfection would exist apart from the perfection of insight, and we would have two things, not one, and we could no longer speak about anything as the perfection of insight... However, there is no perfection existing as an entity in and of itself apart from the perfection of insight..." (139-40).
This approach echoes discussions in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and does draw out an important aspect of the critique in the sense that it is critical of essence or noumena. However, I think Jones does better. The form of the affirmation in Sanskrit is:
tenocyate lokadhātur iti; i.e., (without sandhi) tena ucyate "lokadhātuḥ" iti.
Jones points out that the tendency of previous translators to render tena as 'hence, thus, that is why' introduces a paradox. He argues that in fact no paradox is implied (222). What translators, including Harrison, it seems, are doing here is making the final statement a direct logical consequence of the previous: XY is Y-less, therefore it is called XY. But as we have already observed, this inference is not logical. The fact that a world-system is not a system does not logically infer that we should call it a world-system. In this case the word "therefore" seems out of place, to say the least, and this raises the question of how we translate tena.

Conventionally, tena in this position can be translated as "therefore". Apte's dictionary sv. tad has "...tena the instrumental of tad is often used with adverbial force in the sense of 'therefore', 'on that account', 'in that case', 'for that reason.'" Jones is arguing that tena does not have adverbial force here. Jones construes the sentence as being in the form: "XY is not a (real) Y. The word 'XY' is used this way." 

The iti following lokadhātuḥ is equivalent to putting the word in quotes. The Sanskrit: lokadhātur iti corresponds to English [the word] 'World System'. The verb ucyate is a third person singular passive from √vac, 'to say, to speak'. Here, the passive requires the weakest grade of the root vowel and √vac undergoes samprasaraṇa to become uc; and ucyate means 'it is said, it is spoken'. And here we understand that it is the word lokadhātu (in the nominative) that is being spoken. With a passive verb the agent will be in the instrumental case and tena is the only word in the instrumental case. Thus, here we can take tena 'by him' to be the agent of the verb rather than an adverb. The use of the pronoun tena would usually refer to a previously mentioned agent, in the previous phrase i.e. tathāgatena 'by the Realised'.

So the phrase reads: 
tena ucyate lokadhātuḥ iti
by him / is said / "lokadhātu"
The word 'lokadhātu' is said by him [i.e., the Realised].
Jones argues that this means that the Tathāgata uses a word like lokadhātu always keeping in mind that there is no substantial, really existent kind of 'dhātu'. This is emphasised later in the text: a bodhisattva perceives no ātma, satva, jīva, or pudgala, which here translate roughly as 'substance, essence, soul or homunculus' (Vaj §6 ). Or, to put it another way, the names we give to persistent and repetitious experiences cannot hide the truly ephemeral, unsatisfactory and insubstantial nature of experience. I've argued before that this is only true (or only straightforwardly true) when the domain under consideration is experience. Hence, I see a continuity here with one of the most important threads of early Buddhist thought that is epitomised by the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) and the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

The Role of Translator

I think what both Harrison and Jones are getting at is that the translator is also an interpreter. A translator assumes that the text made sense to the author and tries to understand the sense and communicate it in another language. Conze's interpretations unconsciously colour every line of his translations. However, he frequently choses unclarity precisely because it suits his interpretation (this was, for example, how I understood his misreading of the first sentence in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra resulting in a simple grammatical error). Faced with a sentence that presents a difficult reading, the translator's job is to try to get across what they think the author was getting at. Slavishly sticking to a literal rendering of the words is seldom helpful, especially if one also uses the foreign syntax. Buddhist authors use both the Sanskrit language and sectarian Buddhist idiom to convey ideas; the text is embedded in the context of a worldview. It's not sufficient to translate an idiom literally because idioms are not used literally. Consider English idioms like "I'm going to see a man about a dog", or "he'd lose his head, if it wasn't screwed on". Literalism only leads us astray and yet Conze admits he has translated as literally as possible to the point of reproducing the Sanskrit syntax. This approach has marked Conze as a leading exponent of what has been called Buddhist Hybrid English.

Of course, for Conze, perhaps influenced by Suzuki and late Buddhist commentators, the quotient of nonsense in his texts seemed to give him a certain amount of pleasure. It gave him scope to play the gnostic and insinuate that he understood this text in a nonconceptual way through (deep) meditation, whereas his academic readers, approaching Buddhism intellectually, had to be content with illogical nonsense. There are constant digs at the plodding intellectual non-meditator in Conze's commentaries. As his memoirs make plain, Conze felt, with some justification, deeply aggrieved at his treatment by the academic establishment of the UK and USA and was contemptuous of most of his colleagues. Conze is thus a complex figure and his work is complicated by such factors as well.


Thanks to Harrison and Jones, we now have two possible interpretations of this and similar passages: one which conveys nonsense and implies occult profundity; and one which conveys some sense and is no less profound but in a more obvious way.

Taking the whole sentence again:
yo 'py asau lokadhātur adhātuḥ sa tathāgatena bhāṣitas tenocyate lokadhātur iti |  
The Tathāgata taught a world-system that is without a [noumenal] system, the word 'world-system' is used this way by him.
I think it's worth repeating that this statement is not less profound than Conze's gnostic interpretation or more mystical readings. That fact that we can understand the statement does not make it less valuable.

Of course, whether we can experience a "world-system" is moot. With cosmological terms like lokadhātu we are in an abstract realm. Even in modern cosmology everything we know about the universe is inferred rather than experienced. The object of the senses here is an abstraction formed in the mind on the basis of sense data; i.e., it is an object of the mind-sense (manas). The Vajracchedikā is, in fact, equivocating on this element of Buddhist cosmology. "OK," it is saying "even if you believe in a world-system (or any other cosmological or metaphysical entity), your experience of it is still subject to the laws of experience: impermanence, disappointment and insubstantiality." Whatever categories, abstractions, ideas, entities you can come up with, your experience of them is subject to these constraints because it is only through experience that you know anything at all. Here the relatively unsophisticated Buddhist approach to psychology has distinct advantages. By lumping all mental experience under the heading of manas we are less likely to get caught up in finessing the details of the aspects of humanity that make us feel special. Our ability to think abstractly is remarkable, but to Buddhists it's just another kind of experience about which we make epistemological mistakes. 

Whatever ontology we might subscribe to, there are always these epistemological constraints that leave us off balance. Though we might make apparently valid ontological inferences, commitment to any particular ontology as an individual is always premature because knowledge proceeds from experience, not from reality, and experience is always a co-creation (pratītya-samutpāda) of objects, our sensory apparatus and our mind. This is directly contradicted by Buddhist mystics, who sometimes claim that direct knowledge of reality is the goal of Buddhism, but it is what the Buddhist texts say over and over; and it is also what my friends who go deep into meditation also say. In this view the problems of human existence are due, in effect, to epistemological errors which can be corrected by careful observation of experience under controlled conditions and the guidance of an experienced mentor. The problems addressed by Buddhist practice are, on the whole, not caused by ontological errors. With some caveats, what we experience is not an illusion, but we do have illusions about what we experience. Of course, we do make ontological errors, but the Buddhist texts do not seem overly concerned with this type of error, which is relatively easily corrected.

I've said that ontological commitments based on individual experience are always premature. However, we can get around this by pooling our resources. One of my frustrations with philosophy and, in particular, Buddhist philosophy, is that it always seems stuck in the point of view of an absolutely isolated individual and takes no account of our collective endeavours. In fact, we social primates almost always work in teams. We can have reliable knowledge about the world around us through comparing experiences, though even when this collaborative effort is coordinated and formalised (as in the sciences) most knowledge is still considered provisional, because there is always the possibility of a "black swan event". Most importantly, by communicating with others we do know that objects exist apart from our perception of them, even though we might be slightly fuzzy about the details of that object. One only has to watch the heads at a tennis match - turning this way and that as they follow the action - to know that the ball is not something that we alone are perceiving. The only way to maintain that objects do not exist, is to artificially disallow the evidence of others.

But the whole focus of the Buddha's teachings is away from the objects and on the experience itself. And in experience neither 'real' nor 'unreal' apply. Even if the object were permanent, the experience itself would still change because it relies partly on us - our sense organs and sense cognition. These simple facts can be used to direct our practice of Buddhist techniques in an effective direction. The Prajñāpāramitā teachings continue this focus.

As a final aside aside, Jan Nattier has an interesting take on this type of negation: "[In the Aṣṭa and the Vajracchedikā] the initial negations are directed not at 'dharmas' or at things in general, but at the bodhisattva and the practices in which he is engaged. It is my strong suspicion that this 'rhetoric of negation' first emerged as a tactical attempt to undercut the potential for bodhisattva's arrogance, and was only later generalized to what came to be considered to be a new (anti-abhidharma) ontology" (2003 135-6, n.62). Hopefully in the future Nattier will collect her thoughts on the Vajracchedikā and publish them.



Conze, Edward. (1957) Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. Serie Orientale Roma XIII. Roma. 
Conze, Edward (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. 2nd Ed. George Allen & Unwin.
Harrison, Paul. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra', in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.
    Harrison, Paul & Shōgo WATANABE (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā.' in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p. 89-132.
    Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and Other Perfection of Wisdom Texts. New York: Jackson Square Books.
      Shigenori Nagatomo. (2000) 'The Logic of the Diamond Sutra: A is not A, therefore it is A.' Asian Philosophy, 10(3): 212-244
        Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
            Schopen, Gregory. (1975) 'The phrase ‘sa pṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet’ in the Vajracchedikā: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahāyāna.' Indo-Iranian Journal. 17(3-4): 147-181.
              Schopen, Gregory. (1989) 'The Manuscript of the Vajracchedikā Found at Gilgit,' in Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts, ed. by L. O. Gómez and J. A. Silk, Ann Arbor, pp. 89-139.
                Williams, Paul. (1989) Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. London, UK: Routledge.

                  01 November 2013

                  The 'Act of Truth' in Relation to the Heart Sutra

                  I've now mentioned the saccakiriyā (Skt. *satyakriyā) or 'act of truth' several times in relation to the Heart Sutra and its protective function. The text itself claims that the efficacy of prajñāpāramitā comes from samyaktva and amithyātva; i.e., from truth and non-falseness or from rightness and non-wrongness. It has long been my intention to write something on the saccakiriyā for this blog, because I think it sheds important light on the ancient Buddhist worldview that is hidden from modern Buddhists of all stripes. In this essay I'll provide an outline of the saccakiriyā and try to show how it might inform the Heart Sutra, in particular, and Buddhist sūtras, in general.

                  There have been a number of articles on saccakiriyā over the years, though mostly they are quite old now. They cover the subject in some breadth and depth, but I have never been entirely satisfied with their account of the saccakiriyā because, on the one hand, the key authors describe the saccakiriyā as 'Hindu' when they mostly use Buddhist sources; and, on the other hand, they try hard to link it with Vedic attitudes to truth without finally acknowledging that the saccakiriyā is primarily a Buddhist phenomenon that has no Vedic counterpart.

                  The Power of Truth

                  In his 声字実相義 Shō ji jissō gi [= The Meanings of Sound, Word, and Reality], Kūkai quotes  a passage from the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā that, for him, shows that the speech of the Buddha, i.e., mantra, has five characteristics: "it is true, real, tells things as they are, does not deceive, and is consistent"(Hakeda 241). The Chinese version, produced by Kumārajīva (T 8.235) in 403 CE, reads:
                  Rúlái shì zhēn yǔ zhě, shí yǔ zhě, rú yǔ zhě, bù kuáng yǔ zhě, bù yì yǔ zhě.
                  The Tathāgata is a speaker of reality, a speaker of truth, a speaker of things as they are, an honest speaker, and not a deceitful speaker.
                  The passage in Vaidya's Sanskrit is more or less identical (Vaidya 1961: 81. Section 14f):
                  bhūtavādī subhūte tathāgataḥ, satyavādī tathāvādī ananyathāvādī tathāgataḥ, na vitathavādī tathāgataḥ ||
                  Subhūti, the Tathāgata is a speaker of reality, a speaker of truth, a speaker of things as they are, an honest speaker, and not a misleading speaker.
                  Here 語 means 'speech' (Skt vāda) and 語者 means 'a speaker' and corresponds to Sanskrit vādin. A vādin (masculine nominative singular: vādī) is someone who speaks a particular way, a professor, or someone who holds a particular view or ideology. We find the same term at the end of sectarian names like Theravādin (the ideology of the elders) or Sarvāstivādin (the ideology of ultimate existence).

                  Combined with this we firstly have 真 zhēn and 實 shí which were discussed in a previous essay in relation to samyaktvāmithyātvāt and yathabhūta-jñānadarśana. They mean 'real' and 'true', respectively and here correspond to bhūta and satya, respectively. Next comes 如 , where 如  corresponds to tathā, 'thus', which is related to tathātā, 'thusness'. The word tathā is a compound of tad (the stem form of the neuter third-person pronoun 'it, that') with the modal suffix -thā and as a particle means 'so, thus, accordingly'. Note the same Chinese character appears in the epithet 如來 rúlái, i.e., tathāgata. Then 不誑 bù kuáng. The basic meaning of 誑 kuáng is deceit, and 不 is, like Sanskrit a-, a negative particle, so 不誑 means 'not deceitful' or 'honest', corresponding to ananyathā (i.e. an-anya-thā 'non-other-wise' from anya 'other'). Lastly 不異 bù yì where 異  means 'different, weird, other' [as in other than true] and 不異 corresponds to na vitatha which derives from vi + tathā (and thus means 'not-not-thus' i.e. na vitathā = tathā).

                  The five qualities are: bhūta (real), satya (true), tathā (thus), ananyathā (un-false), na vitatha (not incorrect). It's debatable whether there is any real distinction here as these terms are all synonyms. Buddhist texts initially seem to list synonyms for emphasis, only to have later exegetes tease out distinct meanings for each synonym.

                  We again see here the distinction between truth and non-falsehood: both qualities are important to Buddhists. Of course, what is true is, ipso facto, not false, but Buddhists value both sides of the equation.  This distinction was made in an earlier essay contrasting satya and mṛṣā discussed alongside samyaktva and mithāyatva. Here what is false is not-true (vi-tathā) or other than true (anya-thā), and what is true (bhūta, satya, tathā ) is also not-false (na anyathā) and not-not-true (na vitathā).

                  This is how Kūkai understood the efficacy of mantra. Mantra is potent because it is the direct speech of the Dharmakāya, which is truth itself. Indeed, the Chinese/Japanese translation of mantra is 真言 (Jap. shin gon; Chin. zhēn yán) 'true words' which in Sanskrit would be bhūtavācana. However, there is a general principle here as well. Buddhavācana is powerful because it contains the speech (vācana) of the Buddha which is always true (bhūtasatyatathā, etc). Words in Buddhist texts are considered by Buddhists to be true in the sense that they align with the nature of reality (though here I would substitute "experience" for "reality"), and this is what the term samyañc (Pāli sammā) is getting at. Thus we say samyag-dṛṣti means 'right-view'. A view that is samyañc conforms to the way things are (or how experience is), and seeing clearly how things are causes us to alter our behaviour to 'go with' (samyañc) instead of 'going against' (mithyā) this vision. In the first instance, it may well involve getting your facts 'right', but right-view reorients the viewer; it changes our gestalt, and our relationship to sensory experience and to the experience of selfhood. The difference might be likened to a sailor in a storm who is being buffeted by huge waves and turns their boat to head into waves. Side-on, the waves constantly threat to roll the boat over, from the rear they threaten to 'poop' the boat (i.e., over-flow the rear of the boat and cause it to founder) but, heading into the waves a small, but well-designed, boat can survive even the huge waves of a storm on the open ocean.

                  Thus, reciting a Buddhist scripture is always a multi-layered experience for a believer. At one level they simply rehearse the teachings in order to learn and remember them. At another level, the words begin to guide their gaze towards the nature of experience and, perhaps, help to gain glimpses of that nature. On yet another level, they participate in the true nature of experience, because they enunciate the truth of the nature of all experiences (which importantly includes the experience of selfhood). Such words are Holy, a word which comes from Old English and means 'healthy, whole, inviolable'. It was adopted as a translation of Biblical Latin sanctus, hence the connection also to 'sacred'. The saccakiriyā is a special case of this Holiness.

                  The Truth Act or Saccakiriyā

                  In brief, the textual examples saccakiriyā (an extensive list of examples is found in Burlingham, 1917) involve stating aloud something which is is true about oneself (usually a virtue that one possesses or exemplifies) and making a request on the basis of this truth that something in the world changes. The change that is accomplished is almost always secular, or in Buddhist terms is not aimed at the goal of awakening. The saccakiriyā typically aims at using truth to gain mastery over nature and/or one's fate.

                  Most authorities follow Burlingame (1917) in placing the locus classicus in the Milindapañha (See Horner 1963: Vol.1, p.166ff). This post-canonical text has the most extensive explanation of the way a saccakiriyā functions and what can be achieved by it (the list includes rain-making, extinguishing fires, and detoxifying poison). In the Milindapañha, Nāgasena uses a variety of traditional stories to illustrate the workings for the King. For example, the Jātaka story of King Sivi, who gives his eyes to a beggar but is presented with divine eyes (dibbacakkhu) by Indra as a reward for his selflessness. Nāgasena says:
                  Yathā, mahārāja, ye keci sattā saccamanugāyanti 'mahāmegho pavassatū'ti, tesaṃ saha saccamanugītena mahāmegho pavassati, api nu kho, mahārāja, atthi ākāse vassahetu sannicito 'yena hetunā mahāmegho pavassatī'ti? 'Na hi, bhante, saccaṃ yeva tattha hetu bhavati mahato meghassa pavassanāyā'ti. 'Evameva kho, mahārāja, natthi tassa pakatihetu, saccaṃ yevettha vatthu bhavati dibbacakkhussa uppādāyāti.' 
                  Just as, your Majesty, some adept* recites a truth [then says] 'let the clouds shed their rain' and by that recital the clouds shed their rain. So, Majesty, is there a cause for rain already existent in the sky that causes the rain? No, Bhante, the truth itself is the cause for the cloud shedding its rain. Just so, Majesty, there is no ordinary cause (pakatihetu) for that, the truth itself (saccam yeva) is the ground (vatthu)... 
                  *CST has sattā but the PTS edition has siddha which fits the context better. Cf Horner (1963: 168 n.3).
                  There are saccakiriyā's in the Nikāyas and, of all of them, I think Aṅgulimāla deserves close attention. Aṅgulimāla is a wonderfully ambivalent figure. The mass-murderer who becomes an arahant. The arahant who is confronted by his own unripened evil karma. And, in this aspect of his narrative, the speaker of truth who has to carefully consider just what is true in order to help someone in distress.

                  Returning one day from his alms round, Aṅgulimāla sees a women having a difficult childbirth (itthiṃ mūḷhagabbhaṃ vighātagabbhaṃ. MN ii.102). On reporting this to the Buddha, he is instructed to  go back to her and say:
                  'yatohaṃ, bhagini, jātiyā jāto nābhijānāmi sañcicca pāṇaṃ jīvitā voropetā, tena saccena sotthi te hotu, sotthi gabbhassā'ti 
                  "Noble woman, since my birth I am not aware of ever having intentionally deprived a living being of life; by this truth may you and your baby be well."
                  Apparently, the Buddha has forgotten that he is speaking to a mass murderer and Aṅgulimāla has to point out that he has indeed harmed many beings. The Buddha amends the statement to:
                  'yatohaṃ, bhagini, ariyāya jātiyā jāto, nābhijānāmi sañcicca pāṇaṃ jīvitā voropetā, tena saccena sotthi te hotu, sotthi gabbhassā'ti.
                  "Noble woman, since my aryan birth I am not aware of ever having intentionally deprived a living being of life, by this truth may you and your baby be well."
                  Authorities are divided on whether 'from my noble birth' (ariyāya jātiyā) represents Aṅgulimāla's ordination or becoming an arahant, though I think the latter must be intended. In any case, he goes to the woman and says this, and all was well with the woman and her birth/fetus was well. (Atha khvāssā itthiyā sotthi ahosi, sotthi gabbhassa). The word 'well' is Pāli sotthi, equivalent to Sanskrit svasti (compare the svastika symbol) which comes from the phrase su asti 'it is good'. Svasti refers to good luck, fortune or auspices. It is fundamentally a superstitious concept. It is concerned with maṅgala or luck, and the people who relied on such means were sometimes referred to by the Buddha as maṅgalikā 'superstitious' (e.g., Cullavagga, Vin V.129, 140). Of course, it is said that bhikkhus ought not to be maṅgalikā, but the story of Aṅgulimāla shows the Buddha encouraging Aṅgulimāla to use magic to create good fortune. On the other hand, we can see Buddhists attempting to redefine the concept of maṅgala in terms of the values and abstract ideals of Buddhism in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta of the Suttanipāta (Sn 258-269). So, at best, the early Buddhist texts are ambivalent about magic, sometimes seeming to want to suppress or downplay it, sometimes trying to redefine it, and other times openly embracing it. It is significant that in the Buddhist parts of Sri Lanka, the Aṅgulimāla will be chanted for mothers in childbirth for their protection. The protective function of suttas is an important aspect of the history of Buddhist ideas.

                  As we know, many Mahāyāna Sūtras spend considerable time saying that reciting or copying the sūtra brings practically infinite benefits to the pious. Indeed, in some cases, there is so much of this extolling of reciting and copying that it seems as though this is the whole message of the text - just copy the words saying "copy me" and you will be protected from misfortune (like a bizarre chain letter). Some also contain more explicit references to saccakiriya, though in slightly different terms (see below). 

                  The key words that make a saccakiriyā are 'by this truth' (tena saccena) or 'by this truth-speaking' (etena saccavajjena). This is accompanied by a verb in the imperative, a command essentially. The saccakiriyā is used for a variety of recorded purposes including: healing, rescuing, overcoming obstacles, and protection. It is a also apparently used for showing off, as when Binudmatī, a prostitute, demonstrates to Asoka that she can use a saccakiriyā to make the river Ganges flow backwards in the Milindapañha. Her saccakiriyā depends on her even-handedness with those who pay for her services. She acknowledges no differences in those who can afford her price. There is a subtext here which seems to have been lost on previous commentators. Failing to make social distinctions based on class is an implicit criticism of the hierarchical social order of the Vedics. Like the Buddha himself, Bindumatī does not acknowledge the hierarchy imposed on India by Brahmins. And it is precisely in rejecting caste that Bindumatī, portrayed as a rather lowly and despised figure, aligns herself with reality and gains the power to make the Ganges flow backwards. The miracle is dependent on the Buddhist rejection of caste, and the fact of Bindumatī's being a prostitute is probably a rhetoric slap in the face to Brahmins.

                  The Perfection of Wisdom tradition also contains truth acts. For example, in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (Skt. Vaidya 1960: 189-190; trans Conze 1973: 228-9) and the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras (Skt. Kimura 5:3; trans. Conze 1975: 433), the bodhisattva is able to use the saccakiriya to test a prediction (vyākṛta) to Buddhahood delivered to him in a dream. If he takes a stand on the truth (satyādhiṣṭhāna) and is able to, for example, extinguish a fire in a town by speaking the truth truthfully (tena satyena satyavacanena), then he can be sure of eventual Buddhahood. If, however, the fire continues to consume the town then he must have some residual karma (karmopacitaṃ) blocking his progress. The bodhisattva is also able to exorcise ghosts in the same way (this episode follows on from the previous one in both Aṣṭa and Pañcavimśati). This is one of many continuities with pre-sectarian Buddhist thought that is found in Prajñāpāramitā texts. (For other Mahāyāna references and relationship to mantra see Chisho).

                  Studies of the Saccakiriyā

                  Burlingame had already identified that many of the saccakiriyās in his catalogue relied on virtue for their efficacy. The saccakiriyā often relies on truthfully stating that one possesses a virtue, as in the case of Aṅgulimāla. However, he struggles to fit all of his examples into this framework. Bindumatī, for example, is deliberately portrayed as lacking in virtues (she is a thief, a cheat, etc.), though from a Buddhist point of view rejecting caste distinctions is a virtue! Burlingame also notes one or two non-Buddhist sources: one in the Mahābhārata and one in the Rāmayāna where stories cross over Jātaka stories. Had Burlingame distinguished Buddhism from Hinduism, he might have pondered how a story could appear in both traditions and explored the provenance. However, he did not. Given that the great majority of saccakiriyā are Buddhist, the most likely scenario is that they are a Buddhist form that was carried over into the Epics along with a few other fragments of Buddhist narrative. 

                  Unfortunately, the next scholar to take a major interest in saccakiriyā, W. Norman Brown (1940), also crudely conflates Buddhism and Hinduism. His main idea is that saccakiriyā can be understood as an extension of the Vedic focus on ṛta (cosmic order) and satya (truth) which are at times almost synonymous. This argument is hampered by his failure to find a single credible example of a saccakiriyā of the Buddhist type in the Ṛgveda. The Sanskrit equivalent of Pāli word saccakiriyā, i.e., satyakṛiyā, is not found in any Sanskrit text. If the idea is Vedic then, as he says, it must be "well concealed" (42). However, note that even in Buddhist Sanskrit texts the key word becomes satyādhiṣṭhāna. Brown's main contribution is to highlight common features which had escaped Burlingame, thus giving a common basis for all saccakiriyā. To do this, he invokes the idea of socio-religious duty (dharma) which is so central to Hinduism. Here, we have cause for dissatisfaction, since dharma as "duty" is never particularly important in Buddhism. Virtue (sīla), purity (suddha) and merit (puññā) are all far the more important concepts with respect to obligations imposed by the religious life. Brown's citation of a passage of the Bhagavadgīta which states that "it's better to do one's own duty badly than to do the duty of another well" is completely at odds with the spirit and the letter of Buddhism. Technically, Buddhist monks walk away from class (varṇa) and caste (jāti) and all the associated notions of duty when they are ordained (cf comments on Bindumatī above). Brown takes two more bites at the saccakiriyā apple in 1968 and 1972, but he never manages to distinguish Buddhism from Hinduism and thus does not explain saccakiriyā in Buddhist terms, even though the vast majority of his texts are Buddhist. 

                  However, Brown's error contains some truth and points us in the right direction. According to any social code of conduct, Aṅgulimāla's mass murder is reprehensible. And when he joined the saṅgha he repudiated his dharma in the sense of social duty in the Vedic or Brahmanical use of the term. He cannot be said to meet Brown's criteria of fulfilling his duty in any sense. But in becoming an arahant he has aligned (samyañc) himself with dharma in the Buddhist sense. Thus, Aṅgulimāla's ability to use a saccakiriyā only makes sense within a Buddhist framework and specifically does not make sense in a Hindu or Brahmanical framework. 

                  George Thompson (1998) takes up the theme of saccakiriyā in light of Pragmatics (an application of Philosophical Pragmatism to language). Thompson goes as far as to say that the saccakiriyā is "a central Vedic institution" (125) despite still failing to find a single straightforward example of a saccakiriyā in a Vedic text. Thompson's approach to Brown's analysis is hampered because he only cites the last of Brown's three articles on this subject; the importance of the first article cited above is thus lost. Thompson's analysis of saccakiriyā is in the Pragmatic terms of J. L. Austin and his interpreter John Searle. There are certainly arguments for this approach. As a performative or "illocutionary" speech act, the saccakiriyā is at least taken seriously by Thompson. However, his approach remains reductive and never really comes to grip with the magical aspect of saccakiriyā. Though the Pragmatic approach is more interesting than, say, the Semantic approach of the late Frits Staal, in the end it does not give us insights into the Indian Buddhist mind. We may come to understand saccakiriyā in Pragmatic terms, but the people who composed the texts did not think in these terms, so it does not shed light on the emic understanding of saccakiriyā, i.e., on the worldview of ancient Buddhists who used magic (On emic/etic see this explanation).

                  Of course, my own application of Glucklich's work to understanding Buddhist magic, and mantra in particular, suffers, to some extent, from the etic/emic problem. Glucklich's framework is etic. However, as I hope I have shown, the crucial concept of interdependence is also part of the Buddhist worldview and, thus, Glucklich's approach enables us to build bridges that make for understanding in emic terms without a commitment to the emic worldview. 

                  Thompson, like many recent scholars of Buddhist mantra (e.g., Lopez 1990), makes reference to the series of essays presented in a volume called Mantra, edited by Harvey Alper (1989). There is no doubt that the essays in this book are fascinating, and they open up new ways of thinking about the Vedic approach to mantra, especially by employing Pragmatic paradigms (though Staal is highly critical of the Pragmatic approach in his contribution to the volume). If they mention Buddhist mantra, they do so only in passing, and Buddhist mantra seems to be a different topic, which employs an entirely different paradigm. So we not only have the problem of an approach which is determinedly etic, but also one which ignores Buddhism as a distinct tradition. The same applies to Jan Gonda's oft cited 1963 classic The Indian Mantra. It is a highly useful and insightful study of mantra in the Vedic/Hindu context that almost entirely leaves Buddhist mantra aside. So little effort has gone into the study of Buddhist mantra on Buddhist terms that there is precious little research to refer to. In my opinion, the best guide to Buddhist mantra is the works of Kūkai, translated by Yoshito Hakeda in Kūkai: Major Works. Referring to this book, we can see that the understanding of mantra in the Buddhist milieu went in entirely different directions from the Vedic/Hindu milieu. A thorough study of Buddhist mantra in Buddhist terms is an urgent desideratum for Buddhist studies. My own book Visible Mantra only scratches the surface.

                  This is an all too brief overview of this often overlooked magical tradition within Buddhism. I think this framework of truth-magic is integral to understanding the value and power of the Heart Sutra and, especially, the dhāraṇī within the sūtra. As almost every work which discusses the Heart Sutra will remind the reader, this text is chanted daily in monasteries, temples and shrine-rooms across the Mahāyāna Buddhist world. But none of these sources really gets to grips with why this is so. That magic might play a part is obscured by modern bias: we don't want to see the magical side of Buddhism.

                  The text is also studied and commentaries continue to be produced from a variety of worldviews and viewpoints. One of the things that fascinates me is that the Sanskrit text has been established for so long and yet has received so little critical attention. Nattier makes some comments, almost apostrophes, regarding the Sanskrit, but the most popular Mahāyāna Buddhist text has not been studied in anything like enough depth. Recent important contributions From Lopez, Nattier and Silk have made little impact in the world of Buddhist practice.

                  Saccakiriyā as Magic

                  One last task remains, which is to tie the saccakiriyā in with Glucklich's views on magic. In Indic languages the root sat means both true and real. Thus, to say that an utterance is satya (Pāli sacca) 'truth', is also to state that it is reality and not merely as a reference, but reality itself. Similarly, for words like bhūta and tathā. In ancient India one knew that the eyes were not always trustworthy, so the ears were the gateway to reality: hence, Buddhists are śravakāḥ 'hearers' and the learned are  described as 'śrutavat' 'possessing what was heard'. Hence, also, the sūtras begin evaṁ maya śrutam... "I heard it this way". In the Buddhist worldview I'm describing (spanning the Pāli nikāyas, Milindapaña and the main Sanskrit Prajñapāramitā texts), words that conform (samyañc) to reality have the power to invoke real-world changes. The underlying metaphysic here is that what is real on one level is real on every level and there are connections (bandhu) between levels (despite my earlier comments, this worldview comes from the Vedic milieu). In Glucklich's terms, if we have lost the sense of interconnectedness that is vital to our well being, then we can restore it by partaking in some aspect of the real on another level. Because of universal interconnectedness, we can access macro or cosmic interconnectedness via micro or local interconnectedness, with the right attitude. In this view reciting a sūtra, dhāraṇī or mantra does precisely that.

                  In the saccakiriyā one states a truth or reality or, in fact, one states that one is, oneself, in harmony (samyañc) with truth (satya), in order to restore order external to oneself. And this has often been the main use of the Heart Sutra. Legend tells us that Xuanzang, for example, recited the text to ward off evil spirits while crossing the Gobi desert. Certainly, a feature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in East Asia has been the belief that chanting sutras is a valid response to misfortune, whether personal or national. Japan was (and still is) highly vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, floods, and fires (in towns built from wood). One early Japanese Emperor effectively bankrupted the Japanese economy in a frenzy of temple building and the sponsoring of monks to chant texts in his response to repeated calamity.

                  Chanting texts for protection seems to date from very early in Buddhist history. The paritta ceremony is mentioned in the Milindapañha and continues down to the present, and most Mahāyāna texts promise protection to anyone who propagates them. And, interestingly, this has a direct parallel in the medieval monasteries of Christian Europe. The cycles of daily prayers were central to the existence of the monks, and these were kept up to try to ensure the wellbeing of king and country.

                  The saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience.
                  I think Brown and Thompson are right in detecting a relationship with Vedic metaphysics here, but the form of expressing that ability to exploit samyañc when a protagonist says etena saccavajjena... hotu 'by [the power of] this truth-speaking... may [something]  be!' to change reality is simply not found in Vedic contexts. The saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience. This is what Aṅgulimālā does, for example. In many Jātaka stories featuring a saccakiriyā, the restoration of samyañc often allows a protagonist to complete their task in the face of some obstacle. Thus, the saccakiriyā throws light on the importance of the distinction between samyañc and mithyā, which is at the heart of the Eightfold path. And note that, though the eightfold path as a substantial existing entity is denied in the Heart Sutra, the quality of samyaktva/amithyātva is affirmed. As far as I can tell, no one uses a saccakiriyā in order to break out of saṃsāra. The magic is primarily a secular cultural phenomenon which has been incorporated into the Buddhist mix because it is part of the milieu in which Buddhist writers lived. The parallel is modern Buddhist writers incorporating the attitudes and jargon of psychotherapy into their descriptions and expositions. However, in the Prajñāpārmitā literature the bodhisattva can use the saccakiriyā to test their progress towards bodhi.

                  We might also see this principle at work in other contexts. When we practice transferring our merit (pariṇāmanā), for example. The more we are samyañc, the more merit (puṇya) we have. And, being samyañc, we are able to have a positive influence. Giving our merit away only makes us more samyañc. Similarly, to the extent that our kalyāna-mitras are samyañc, they influence us to be less mithyā.


                  So this is the saccakiriyā or truth act. In some ways this is an obscure branch of Buddhist lore that may seem to have little relevance to modern Buddhism. Though plenty of Buddhists are credulous about magic in a broader context, it is generally excised from modern accounts of Buddhism so that superstition and magic are never seen as central to modern Buddhism. So we should not be surprised to find no mention of it in popular introductions to Buddhism or in the curriculums of modern Buddhist schools. However, it might interest my fellow Triratna practitioners to know that, though we never speak openly of it, we regularly recite a saccakiriyā in our version of the Tiratana Vandana (also widely used in the Theravāda)

                  N'atthi me saraṇaṃ aññaṁ
                  Buddho me saraṇaṃ varaṁ
                  Etena saccavajjena
                  Hotu me jayamaṅgalaṁ
                  There is no other refuge for me.
                  The Buddha is the best refuge for me.
                  By this truth-speaking,
                  May I have victory and good fortune! 


                  Alper, Harvey., Ed. (1989) Mantra. State University of New York Press.
                    Brown, W. Norman. (1940) 'The Basis for the Hindu Act of Truth.' The Review of Religion, V. 36-45.
                      Brown, W. Norman. (1968) 'The Metaphysics of the Truth Act (*Satyakriyā).' Melanges d'Indianisme a la Memoir de Louis Renou. Paris 170-177.
                        Brown, W. Norman. (1972) 'Duty as Truth in Ancient India.' Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 116(3): 252-268.
                          Burlingame, Eugene Watson. (1917) 'The Act of Truth (Saccakiriya): A Hindu Spell and its Employment as a Psychic Motif in Hindu Fiction.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28: 429-467.
                          Chisho Mamoru Namai. On Mantranaya [sic]. 
                          Conze, Edward (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
                            Conze, Edward. (1975). The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: With the Divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass: 1990.
                              Gonda, J. (1963). The Indian Mantra. Oriens (Leiden). 16, p.244-297.
                                Hakeda, Y.S. (1972) Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York : Columbia University Press. 
                                Lopez, Donald S. (1990) 'Inscribing the Bodhisattva's Speech: On the Heart Sūtra's Mantra.' History of Religions. 29(4): 351-372.
                                Takayasu Kimura: Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā V. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 1992.
                                    Thompson, George. (1998) 'On Truth-acts in Vedic'. Indo-Iranian Journal. 41: 125-153.
                                      Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute, 1960.
                                      Vaidya, P.L. (1961) Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṃgrahaḥ, Part 1. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute.