24 April 2015

Avalokiteśvara & The Heart Sutra

Huntington Archive
Avalokiteśvara (aka Guānyīn, Kannon, Chenrezik) is probably the best known Buddhist deity after the Buddha. Avalokiteśvara makes his first appearance in Buddhist literature as one of two bodhisattvas flanking Amitāyus in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras and continues to play roles associated with the qualities of Amitābha, particularly karuṇā or compassion. He is one of the first mythic figures who has no discernible basis in an historical person, but emerges as a Buddhist value (karuṇā) personified. He (or indeed She in China) was and continues to be one of the most important figures in the Buddhist pantheon, both in Asia and in the West.

This essay will be particular concerned with the name Avalokiteśvara. We most commonly read that this name means something like 'Lord Who Looks Down'. This is how Conze reads the name in his Heart Sutra commentary and it's also a feature of the commentarial literature on the Heart Sutra . We'll see that the name changed, perhaps in the 6th or 7th century, and that the etymology alone is insufficient to fully understand what the name means and how to translate it. 


In Sanskrit we find two forms of the name: Avalokitasvara (avalokita-svara) and Avalokiteśvara (avalokita-īśvara). The name Avalokitasvara does not appear in any complete Sanskrit manuscript, but is found on fragments of an old manuscript Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra (Studholme 53). The form is confirmed by the Chinese translation with 音 yīn which means 'sound' (discussed in more detail below). 

The first part of the name avalokita is usually interpreted as something like 'looked down'. This is a deceptively literal reading of the etymology. Avalokita is a passive past participle from ava + the verbal root √lok. The root does mean 'look', and the prefix ava- can mean 'down'. A quirk of Sanskrit is that past participles such as avalokita can take on an active meaning (Studholme 2002: 55). Thus we can understand how translators such as Conze get "looks down" as the translation. This is often how the tradition has understood the name. As I comment in my forthcoming article on the Heart Sutra (JOCBS 8) :
This is confirmed for example by the Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan, viz. “Because he looks down on all sentient beings at all times and in all ways with great love and compassion, he is the one who looks down (avalokita)” (Lopez 1988: 43); “Because he is superior and is the lord who looks down, he is called the ‘Noble Lord Who Looks Down (āryāvalokiteśvara)” (Vimalamitra in Lopez 1996: 52). Looking down on the world and its inhabitants is one of the prominent characteristics of this figure in Buddhist mythology. 
Studholme suggests that the name might be understood as "sound viewer", or "sound perceiver" which he ties to the mythology of Avalokiteśvara, the one who responds to the cries of the suffering (55-56). This is a theme in the myth of Amitābha as well, with whom Avalokiteśvara is closely connected: calling his name results in an intervention, usually at death, so that the supplicant is reborn in Sukhāvati, the Pure Land of Amitābha. This practice is known as nāmānusmṛti 'recollection of the name'. In the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, the efficacy of the mantra oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ is explained as a form of nāmānusmṛti, since maṇipadma is a coded form of the name of Avalokiteśvara, though here the supplicant is reborn in one of the worlds which occupy the hair pores on Avalokiteśvara's body.

As my forthcoming article says, the closely related verb vyavalokayati (vi + ava + √lok) does not mean 'look down' but 'examine', still with a visual connotation. Which suggests to me that the ava in ava√lok does not mean in a downwards direction, but more like to look closely, to narrow down one's field of view, either by concentrating or by physically getting close to the object.

The problem here is that we have a mixed metaphor, a jumbling of sensory modes. The idea of seeing sounds is not found in early Buddhist texts which assert that only the eye can see forms and only the ear can hear sounds. Studholm also notes this synaesthesia and does what we all do, he changes the sense of avalokita from a visual one, to a general sensory perception. While this certainly solves the problem, I'm not convinced that it is justified because ava√lok is specifically a visual verb. However, we have no better explanation and the Buddhist tradition has also used this solution.

There is another potential solution. Peter Alan Roberts (2012: 236-7) points out that the word avalokita has a different meaning in the Mahāvastu, which contains two sub-texts both called Avalokita Sutra (See Jones Vol. II: 242-253) [I'm grateful to Richard Gombrich for pointing out this article to me]. Curiously, amongst the audience for the texts are two devas called Īśvara and Maheśvara, two epithets traditionally associated with Śiva. According to Roberts, because the Mahāvastu is the product of the Lokavattarin branch of the Mahāsaṅghika sect, it may well represent a kind of proto-Mahāyāna view of what the word means. 
"In the Avalokita Sūtras, avalokita does not refer to a being, but means that which has been seen by those who have crossed over saṃsāra, and is therefore a synonym for enlightenment." (237)
Roberts' observation helps a bit with the earlier form of the name: avalokita-svara where svara means 'sound, noise' and the whole must mean something like 'the sounds perceived by the enlightened'. Unfortunately I don't quite see why Roberts thinks avalokita means "that which has been seen by those who have crossed over saṃsāra". I have looked at the Avalokita Sūtras and as far as I can tell they don't actually comment on this issue, they merely contain episodes in the biography that makes up the Mahāvastu

The situation improves somewhat with the change of the bodhisattva's name. As Studholme discusses, in his study of the Kāraṇḍavūyha Sūtra, Avalokiteśvara converts the god Śiva to Buddhism and in the process seems to assimilate some of Śiva's iconography, including especially the epithet īśvara 'Lord' (Studholme 2002: 37ff.). For a Lokottaravādin, according to Roberts, "whatever the actual etymological origin of the name may be, it would inescapably have had the resonance of meaning 'Lord of Enlightenment'." (2012: 237). It may be that reading the Mahāvastu in Sanskrit reveals something about the word avalokita that the translation does not, but since it is 100 pages of translation, the reading becomes a fairly major project in itself for little reward.

The association with the Avalokita Sūtras however opens up the possibility of another way of understanding avalokita-īśvara.  It might mean 'Īśvara of the Avalokita', i.e. the Īśvara who was in the audience of the Avalokita Sūtra. But this may be too simple and obvious to appeal to many people.

Translations of the name into other languages, particularly Chinese, shed further light on the name. The Chinese forms are particularly useful because texts in which Avalokiteśvara appears were translated from early on, which in this case means from around the late 2nd Century CE onwards. 

Chinese & Tibetan

As in Sanskrit, there are two forms of the name in Chinese. Avalokiteśvara is known in Chinese by the name 觀世音 Guānshìyīn. Literally 'look-world-sound' or 'watching the sounds of the world'. This is apparently a translation/interpretation of the name Avalokita-svara. Note that the Chinese translators preserve the synaesthetic idea of seeing sounds. 

Although 觀世音 was used by earlier translators, it was the translations of Kumārajīva, in the early 5th Century CE, which popularised this form of the name. The name is regularly shortened to 觀音 Guānyīn, though there is no evidence for doing so until around the sixth century (Studholme 2002: 53). It is this shortened form of the name by which Avalokiteśvara is known in China down to the present. The shortening is sometimes said to be because of the death of the Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty (唐太宗; 599-649) to avoid uttering one of the characters in his personal name 李世民 Lǐ Shìmín. This is a traditional form of Chinese taboo, but that it applies in this case is disputed. Indeed the word 世 'world' is so common it would be hard to avoid it completely.

Buddhist Chinese routinely abbreviates words, so that prajñāpāramitā is transcribed as 般若波羅蜜多 bōrěbōluómìduō, but just as often, and routinely by Kumārajīva, the last syllable is dropped. So in some respects 觀音 is an unexpected form of the name. If it were an abbreviation in this style, we might expect 觀世. Studholm, apparently following an argument made by Lokesh Chandra, seems to suggest (2002: 57) that 觀音 might have been the original form of the name in Chinese, since there is no Sanskrit equivalent of 觀世音 containing the word 世 which in Sanskrit is loka, i.e. we do not find the form avalokita-loka-svara. (this claim is repeated without caveats on Wikipedia). However this is not entirely convincing because it is not backed up by evidence for the existence of earlier texts without 世.

It might be more plausible to suggest that 觀世 conveyed avalokita by combining a word meaning 'to see' with one that suggested 'loka'. Digital Dictionary of Buddhism associates 觀 more with verbs from the root √paś and √īkṣ than with √lok. In other words 世 was not intended as a standalone character, but as one which modifies 觀 phonetically. The principle of phonetic and semantic radicals pervades the construction of complex Chinese characters from simpler elements. Indeed the character 觀 guān is made up from two radicals:  雚 guàn is a phonetic element which suggests how the word is pronounced and 見 jiàn 'see' is a semantic element suggesting what the word means. This trend continues with Modern Mandarin frequently employing two characters to both avoid ambiguous homonyms and to expand the range of meaning carried by single characters. 

In my other writing about the Heart Sutra, I've noted that the first sentence in Sanskrit contains two visual verbs meaning roughly 'to look' and 'to see', the first being vyavalokayati and the second being paśyati. In Chinese these both tend be covered by 見 and related words.  So, in the Chinese Heart Sutra, instead of Avalokiteśvara looking and seeing as he does in the Sanskrit, we find the puzzling phrase 照見. This is variously translated as "illuminated and saw" or  "illuminatingly saw/clearly saw", since 照 means 'illuminate, shine' and it is ambiguous as to whether it is intended as a second verb (illuminated) or as an adverb (illuminatingly). Since we now know that the Chinese preceded the Sanskrit, and we can infer that the first translator of the Heart Sutra was better informed about Chinese than Sanskrit, we can assume that for that translator,  照見 conveyed both looking and seeing, since that is how they chose to translate it. The shift of perspective provided Nattier (1992) provides us with valuable insights into these small textual or linguistic problems.  

The form 觀自在 Guānzìzài ('watching one's existence') was introduced by Xuánzàng and used, for instance, in the translation of the Heart Sutra attributed to him. My friend Maitiu has written in to point out that
"自在 means 'free', 'unrestrained' or 'independent'. It has the sense of 'sovereignty' and it's used to translate īśvara more generally than just Avalokiteśvara's name."
Thus 觀自在 ought to mean 'Watching Lord'. Studholme suggests that the timing of this new form coincides with the change of the last element of the name from svara to īśvara (2002:56-57). However, though Xuánzàng's translations are acknowledged to be more faithful to the Sanskrit, where a translation by Kumārajīva exists it has always remained more popular that Xuánzàng's (with the sole exception of the Heart Sutra and this is take as evidence to doubt the attribution). And so it is with the name. In fact even Xuánzàng's followers, his biographer Huili, continued to use the older form of the name.

The Tibetan version of the name is སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས i.e. spyan ras gzigs (pronounced Chenrezik). Romanisations for this name vary and I have adopted that used by the Dictionary of the Tibetan & Himalayan Library. The name is translated literally as 'sees with eyes'. The word spyan means 'eye' and is frequently used to translate words related to Sanskrit cakṣu or sometimes netra both meaning 'eye'; and spyan ras can mean "penetrating vision, observation". Gzigs means 'to see, gaze, perceive, realise' etc, and is used to translation Sanskrit words from √īkṣ 'to see' and √paś 'to see'.  As we can see, the Tibetans resolved the difficulty of the different sensory modes in their translation of the name in favour of the visual sense. This in itself is interesting since it must have been a source of cognitive dissonance for the Tibetan translators, who are usually very faithful to the Sanskrit. Studholme suggests that spyan ras gzigs is "an honorific form of the Sanskrit Avalokita" (2002: 58).

The Heart Sutra

One of the differences between the two short versions of the Heart Sutra in Chinese, T250 and T251, is the name they use for Avalokiteśvara. The former uses 觀世音, consistent with being translated by Kumārajīva; while the latter uses 觀自在, consistent with being translated by Xuánzàng. As we recently saw (Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions),  the attribution of these translations to these translators is now plausibly disputed, because the facts of history, such as they are, conflict with the traditional authorship. Now that we also know the text was composed in China it also alters the landscape. The scholarly consensus is that Kumārajīva did not translate or compose T250. Nattier makes a good case for Xuánzàng not being the translator/composer of T251 (See Nattier 1992: 184 ff.). Both texts seem to be later creations, based on some earlier text, that have been edited to look like authentic productions of the two famous translators. Indeed Nattier shows that T250 has most likely been altered to look more like《大智度論》Dàzhìdù lùn (*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa; T1509 ) a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra attributed to Nāgārjuna, also translated by Kumārajīva. 

However, since 觀世音 as the translation of Avalokiteśvara both predates Kumārajīva and is the standard form he used in his translation of Prajñāpāramitā texts (from which the Heart Sutra certainly draws its core) then we can assume that the ur-text of the Heart Sutra used this form of the name also.

In his translation of the Heart Sutra, Edward Conze takes the odd step of carving up the name Āryāvalokiteśvara into its constituent parts: ārya, avalokita, and īśvara. He then takes īśvara to be an epithet like ārya and translates "Avalokita, the Holy Lord". There is simply no way to construe ārya as qualifying īśvara here. Although it is true that some texts, notably the Bodhicaryāvatāra, use the name Avalokita, Avalokiteśvara can only be read as a compound with an implied syntactic relationship between the two words, because avalokita is undeclined. Ārya then qualifies the whole name. Indeed in this period of Buddhism it was typical to add ārya to names of people and texts as a mark of special status. Perhaps "holiness" is not too far from the mark, though we can refine it to mean 'connected with awakening'.

In China Avalokiteśvara took on a female form, partly through syncretisation with the myth of Miaoshan (妙善)  (Guang 2011). Though scholars differ on when the sex-change took place, it seems to have begun to manifest by the Tang Dynasty. This covers the likely period of composition of the Heart Sutra. However, as far as the Sanskrit text is concerned, Avalokiteśvara is a grammatically masculine name, as is the alternate Avalokitasvara.  We can assume therefore that at least the translator from Chinese into Sanskrit thought of the deity as masculine. 

The question is frequently raised as to what a deity associated with compassion is doing in a sutra about wisdom. Various theories have been put forward to explain this disparity. However, given what we now know and can deduce about the history of the text, it was composed or collated by an early medieval Chinese monk who saw nothing strange about worshipping Guānyīn and studying Prajñāpāramitā. By the seventh century the geography of Chinese Buddhism was very different than its Indian forms. Boundaries shifted or disappeared. Elements that might have seemed distinct—Pure Land Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism—became mixed and recombined to form native Chinese sects. Indeed Xuánzàng dealt with the Prajñāpāramitā texts from a Yogācāra perspective as did his main disciples 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696).

Thus, even if the association of Avalokiteśvara still strikes us as incongruent, we must accept that it did not seem so to the author/composer. The failing is on our part. Perhaps because of monotheism or perhaps because European Christian churches dealt with heresy so viciously, for so long, we find syncretism difficult to fit within our paradigms of religion. At best "syncretism" is pejorative, at worst dismissive. However, it was the norm in both ancient India and China and their culture spheres in Central and South-East Asia. Synthesis is just as common and accepted as schism is. I've explored this also in my critiques of the tree as a metaphor for evolution. Which is not to say that there are no arguments over orthodoxy and orthopraxy, only that these arguments seldom seemed to generate quite the hostility that we find in European religion. And this situation has changed in modern India, perhaps under the influence of European values, certainly in reaction to colonialism and its aftermath.

It is a curious feature of history that some details seem to become so well known that we stop explaining them, and they are subsequently lost without possibility of recovery. If the early Mahāyāna Buddhists puzzled over the name Avalokiteśvara they did not record their thoughts. Nor does any justification for the name change survive. Attempts to reconstruct ancient knowledge from minimal clues is a fascinating endeavour and I'm grateful to the people at the coal face, the various experts, whose work makes my kind of writing possible. 


Guang Xing (2011). 'Avalokiteśvara in China.' The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 12, 2011 
Jones. J. J. (1952) Mahavastu. (Trans.) Vol. II. Luzac & co.
Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707
Roberts, Peter Alan. (2012) ‘Translating Translation: An Encounter with the Ninth-Century Tibetan Version of the Kāraṇḍavyūha-sūtra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 2: 224-242.
Senart, Émile (1882-1897) Mahavastu-Avadana. 3 vols. Paris.
Studholme, Alexander. (2002) The Origins of Oṃ Maṇipadme Hūṃ: A Study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. State University of New York.

Note 8 Jun 2015

Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? ––– The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.
ARIRIAB XVIII (2015), 113–162.

"An illustrative example of this sort of misunderstanding is Avalokitasvara and Avalokiteśvara. There are at least eight old Sanskrit fragments from Central Asia which bear the name Avalokitasvara, as well as one fragment from Kizil, which has (Apa)lokidasvara. These older forms agree with the early Chinese renderings “One, who observes sounds” and “One, who observes sounds of the world” (闚音, 現音聲, 光世音, 觀世音), which were made between the 2nd and 5th centuries, [114] while the newer form Avalokiteśvara, which first appears in a Mathurā inscription of the Gupta year 148 (467/468 C.E.)1 and later in the Gilgit manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, dating back to the 7th century, agrees with the newer Chinese renderings “One who observes the sovereignty of the world” and “One who observes sovereignty” (觀世自在,觀自在) from the 6th century onwards. We cannot say for certain that the older forms are “corruptions” of the newer ones.2"
1 Cf. IBInsc I 686~687.
2 The most recent example of this misunderstanding is found in Saitō 2015. I assume that, in the language (probably Gāndhārī), in which the verses of the Samantamukha Chapter of the Lotus Sutra had been composed originally, svara (or śpara) might have meant both “sound” and “thinking” (= Skt. smara), and the composer of the verses himself may have understood *Avalokitasvara (or Avalokitaśpara, *Olokitaśpara or the like) as “One, who Observes Thinking”. Much later, when this -svara (or -śpara) was no longer understood as meaning “thinking; memory”, people probably began to regard it literally as “sound”. Thus, the composer of the prose portion of the same chapter understood the Bodhisattva’s name in this way, which was shared also by the early Chinese translators. I assume, also, that the Gāndhārī form *Avalokitaśpara could have been incorrectly sanskritised later to Avalokiteśvara by somebody who knew the development Skt. īśvara > Gā iśpara. Cf. Karashima 1999 and 2014a.

17 April 2015


Reality is a slippery concept. I hesitate to even mention it. Science fiction author Philip K Dick said, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away". Reality is that which has the quality of being real. However, "real" is only ever defined circularly. Real is actual, existent, true: each of these words defines the others. The word comes from Latin res, but this word has an uncertain origin. I'm going to try to avoid scare quotes, but in fact if any words deserves them all the time, then real and reality do. 

This essay will look at reality by beginning with experiences that people would say are not real. This is also an awkward proposition. The unreal experience can seem to be real, can seem to be more real than real. Aren't we always in the position of the Zen master who could not tell if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man? And what do I mean when I emphasise that an experience is real or unreal as opposed to saying that we have an experience of something that is real? Can we have real experiences of unreal objects? Or vice versa? With these questions in mind, let's begin with hallucinations!


What is an hallucination? At first, in the early 16th century, the word just referred to a wandering mind. Only in 1830 did French psychiatrist Jean-Étienne Esquirol use it to refer to what until then might have been called "apparitions". An hallucination is, generally speaking, a perception arising in the absence of any external stimulus. But crucially what distinguishes an hallucination from a misperception or imagination is that we believe that the perception does arise from an external stimulus. By this definition, hallucinations are difficult to distinguish from dreams. The world we interact with in dreams does seem external to us. However, except for a few strange circumstances, which we'll mention below, dreams only occur while we are asleep. Hallucinations are waking experiences. It is of course possible to mistake one state for the other, but seldom for long. If one resists the "Guru Effect", the Zen master sounds confused rather than profound.

Hallucinations occur across all the sensory modes of the human sensorium, though visual and auditory hallucinations are by far the most common. Very often hallucinations take on a human form. When we see things that are not there, we often see faces (see also the phenomenon called pareidolia), or people; when we hear things we hear voices or music. Another common hallucination is to feel the presence of another person. Hallucinatory perceptions vary in their clarity and intensity. Some are merely vague feelings, such as an indefinable sense of dread before a migraine attack for example. Other hallucinations seem as real as reality, or in other words are indistinguishable from reality and there is nothing to alert us that we are not simply experiencing what is there. At other times hallucinations can be preternaturally vivid and hyper-real. We may see colours more vivid than any in reality, like a heavily saturated or "high dynamic range" photograph; or we may see colours which seem not to have any real world analogue (and after all Newton invented the colour indigo when he named the colours of the rainbow). The level of similarity to reality has a huge influence on how we interpret hallucinations, but before going further into this topic, we need to say something about the circumstances under which we have hallucinations.


Because of taboos surrounding hallucinations they tend to be under reported. In the infamous Rosenhan experiment several researchers presented themselves at psychiatric hospitals and said that they had heard a voice say to them "a resounding thud", but had not heard any voices since. They did not feign any other psychiatric symptoms. But all were diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, usually schizophrenia, prescribed antipsychotic medications and hospitalised for a period of some weeks. We fear being judged mad if we admit to perceiving things that aren't there, except under special circumstances that I will outline in due course.

Hallucinations may occur with sudden loss of sight or hearing. In Charles Bonnet Syndrome for example those who lose their sight hallucinate people that move around but do not interact with them. The hallucinations are compelling at first, but the sufferer usually realises quite quickly that they are not real. Phantom limb pain is an hallucination associated with loss of a limb and the felt sensations associated with it. Though some people born without limbs, due to birth defects, may also feel phantom limbs. Nor need the loss of sensory perception be organic. Spending time in a sensory deprivation chamber can also stimulate hallucinations. It is quite common to experience auditory hallucinations in anechoic chambers (spaces which do not reflect sound). Some types of meditation involve training the mind to withdraw attention from the senses and this may elicit the "visions" that some people have in concentrated states.

Many hallucinations are caused by an illness of some kind. People with Parkinson's Disease can have hallucinations associated with taking the medicine L-dopa. People who suffer from epilepsy can have a wide range of hallucinations. Migraine suffers regularly have distorted sense perception before the onset of headaches, and this very often involves so-called auras - lights in the visual field, often in characteristic zigzag patterns. Some however have more drastic symptoms. It is thought by some that Lewis Carroll suffered from migraine and some of the visionary aspects of his Alice in Wonderland stories are attributable to his hallucinations. People who have high fevers frequently hallucinate, as do those with extreme starvation or dehydration. The austerities pursued by various religious orders often involve extreme physical stress designed to bring on 'visions'. Other kinds of stress or shock can also result in hallucinations, from the intrusive memories of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to the very commonly felt presence of a loved one after they die. One study of the latter suggested that 50% of people felt the physical presence of the deceased, sometimes for weeks after the death. Stressful situations, such as accidents or surgery, can cause the common hallucination of being outside one's body. The so-called out of body experience is quite well studied. Another common category of hallucinations is the near death experience. These are less well studied in the sense of the mechanisms involved, but many of the narrative interpretations have been collected and published.

The other most obvious source for hallucination is altered states. Many drugs produce hallucinations and there are instances of humans using hallucinogens throughout recorded history and evidence stretching back into pre-history. Excessive use of a drug like alcohol can produce hallucinations, when moderate doses do not. Similarly suddenly stopping some drugs after heavy use can cause hallucinations. However there are other ways to disrupt the brain. We've already mentioned fever for example. Nowadays magnetic or electrical stimulation  have are used to disrupt brain functioning, sometimes producing hallucinations. Meditation is another way to get into an altered state, and as we've mentioned many people have hallucinations while meditating.

A major source of hallucinations is associated with sleep. These occur when dream states blend into waking states. Sleep related hallucinations may be hypnagogic or hypnopompic. The former occur in the transition from wakefulness to sleep, while the latter occur when going from sleep to wakefulness, though the distinction seems mostly semantic. One of the most common hypnopompic hallucinations is associated with sleep paralysis. While in a dream state the body is usually prevented from moving by a reflex - presumably it evolved to stop us falling out of trees when we dreamed. This is reflex is relaxed in sleep walking. In a classic sleep paralysis "nightmare" one wakes, but is unable to move or speak. And one feels the presence of someone or some thing. Very often because of being unable to move this feeling is accompanied by fear or even panic as the presence seem malevolent. Other kinds of dream type imagery can invade the waking state as well, especially with prolonged sleep deprivation.

Clearly there is a lot of scope for hallucinating and it seems likely that everyone experiences hallucinations at one time or another, without any suggestion of psychosis or mental ill-health. How we interpret these experiences seems to depend on a complex mix of factors including culture, religion, and the specific circumstances.

Interpreting Hallucinations.

Clearly from the medical perspective some hallucinations have valuable diagnostic value. If I have the visual disturbances typical of migraine then my doctor can make the appropriate diagnosis and recommend I avoid those foods known to trigger migraines and take specific medications either to prevent or mitigate them. Hallucinations make help to locate a brain tumour by their specific content - visual hallucinations might be caused by a tumour in the visual centre for example. Similarly for seizures. Persistently hearing voices may be a sign of psychosis (though many people who hear voices are not psychotic). And so on.

But the medical interpretation has its limitation both in applicability and attractiveness. For those who are not ill, the significance of their hallucination may range from a trivial annoyance, right up to a revelation from God. When hallucinations are particularly vivid or accompanied by feelings of bliss or well-being this might be more easily understood in religious terms. Hallucinations can be interpreted as windows onto another reality. The other reality may in fact seem more real than reality (hallucinations may appear hyper-real). 

How we interpret an hallucination will depend to some extent on how we think our testimony will be received. If I tell a doctor I hallucinated voices, I will most likely be diagnosed with some psychopathology or physical illness. If I tell my Buddhist friends I had a vision of the Buddha, I'll be encouraged and perhaps celebrated (my Buddhist Teacher's visions are celebrated as evidence of his holiness by some of his disciples). On the other hand, the person who believes that God speaks to them or that they were abducted by aliens is frequently a figure of fun.

However, we run into problems when we interpret private experience as public reality. When we extrapolate from private experience to public ontology we almost inevitably go astray. 

Towards Definitions of Realities

What hallucinations and other misperceptions show is that definitions of reality that depend on individual perceptions are weak because an individual can easily be fooled into perceiving things are we would not consider real. This points to the need for definitions of reality that are based on commonality. Indeed there seem to be two approaches to defining reality.

The first approach we can call "consensus reality". The image accompanying this essay is of a small blue glass sphere I've owned for many years. Most people, unless they are trained to think differently, are naive Realists. If I was a naive Realist I would take the perception of my blue glass sphere on face value. I would take my experience for reality. This approximation turns out to be a workable rule of thumb. Reality must be not too different from how we perceive it to be, or we would be constantly banging into things, falling over and getting lost. And in fact most of the time we avoid obstacles, stay on our feet, and navigate to the supermarket and back home without much trouble. Clearly the match is not perfect because sometimes our perceptions do mislead us, but most of the time we do pretty well.  I can toss my glass sphere from hand to hand quite easily and accurately (if I had three I could juggle them). For most people being a naive Realist is no great disadvantage. Now, when a bunch of naive Realists get together, because their maps of the world are pretty accurate, they can get a high degree of consensus about what the world is like, at least on a physical level. This is what I would call "consensus reality". It's real in the sense that it provides an accurate model for navigating the world. I'm not a believer in absolute reality in any case, but this consensus reality is contingent and relative. 

Things get more complicated if we are talking about culture - economics and politics are quite difficult to get agreement on. Britons are about to have a general election. Clearly public opinion is deeply divided in Britain at the moment. The likelihood is that no one party will have a majority in the House of Commons. Thus arguments about policies take on an added verve. Should we continue to have austerity in preference to all other economic approaches? Does it ring true that the proponents of austerity are currently throwing out uncosted election bribes every day, all of which contradict their so-called long term economic plan? Is Labour a credible alternative for those who want to remove the Tories from power? Does the fact that the former left-wing party now espouses Neoliberal economic policy put off traditional voters, or has everyone bought the Neoliberal propaganda? Given that no party will have a majority, what shape will the government take? Generally speaking once humans are involved then things get messy. Reality in this sense is more difficult to define. 

A feature of consensus reality is that it can be parasitised by beliefs that are based on psychological imperatives. For example almost all humans believe in life after death, not because they see regularly see people coming back to life, but because it seems preferable to the alternative (on the basis of this belief, some people have gone looking for evidence, but they set the evidentiary bar pretty low and suffer from strong confirmation bias). That said, belief in an afterlife is not trivial. People kill and die for their version of the afterlife; they create oppressive living conditions for themselves and others to try to ensure a good afterlife. The necessity of suffering in life is something that falls out of the metaphors we use to define the matter/spirit dichotomy (see Metaphors and Materialism).

The contingency of consensus reality is what makes it unsatisfactory, especially in an age where empiricism has lent clarity and accuracy to other domains. 

The second approach I'll call "empirical reality". If we come back to the blue glass sphere I own, and we apply scepticism and close observation we can come to somewhat different conclusions to naive Realism. Close observation for example shows that the light source and spatial relationship with the object affect how we see it. In the photo the sphere is lit from behind by an LED torch against white background. The dynamics of the camera lens and sensor, not to mention the Instagram processing, also affect how the picture comes out. We start to realise that the way the sphere looks is partly due to physical properties that are not obvious. For example, careful experimentation would show that because the glass has a high lead content (it is heavy for it's size) gives it a high refractive index compared to other transparent objects and this gives it a distinctive appearance. We might also discover that doping the glass with a small amount of some salt of copper or cobalt gives it that deep blue colour. We might discover the though it feels smooth the surface is minutely textured. And so on. 

One of the most important features of this approach is that it relies on confirmation. An empiricist looks for repeatability before announcing their discovery. And it is only accepted by the wider community once it has been confirmed by other empiricists. This is why the announcing of one-off results to the news media is so irksome to serious scientists - it undermines the process and since one-offs often turn out to be anomalies, it casts unnecessary doubt on empiricism as a method. Careful empiricism is the most successful knowledge generating activity we've ever known. It has transformed our understanding of the world and our place in it, though often with unforeseen consequences. Empirical reality is also less liable to parasitisation by beliefs. Empiricism has antibodies for false beliefs. False beliefs do sometimes take hold, but the practitioners of empiricism are motivated in various ways to disprove current beliefs and so false beliefs get rooted out eventually. 

What empiricism shows us is that although consensus reality is OK to be getting on with, there is a deeper reality, or perhaps that a deeper understanding of reality is possible. And over some centuries what we discover is that reality seems to have many such layers. Naive Realism is accurate enough on the human scale. But at the nano level we can talk about atoms and molecules to give a much more accurate picture. Atomic theory allows us to manipulate materials and invent new ones with great precision. On the appropriate scale atoms are real, it's just that on much smaller scales or at energy levels sufficient to break the atom into its constituent parts we find that a more accurate description involves sub-atomic particles. At a deeper level these particles are made up from quarks. And beyond that we think in terms of fields, which may well be the smallest scale reality in our universe. Going in the other direct we find that we can describe the universe pretty well until we start dealing with very large masses or very high velocities, then we must use relativistic descriptions to predict how matter will behave. 

Compared to consensus reality we may call these deeper realities, "empirical realities". The plural must apply because at the appropriate scales of mass, energy and length, for all intents and purposes they are real. For example one could never observe a quark in a kilogram of matter, taking up 1000cm3 of space, at 20°C. Quarks don't really exist as separate entities under these conditions. To get any evidence of quarks at all we have to change these conditions by many orders of magnitude, i.e. to smash single protons together at close to the speed of light and observe the decay products. It may be that the Standard Model of physics is accurate enough for most purposes, but we know that it cannot hold at time = 0 in the universe because it implies infinities that are impossible. Those infinities tell us that something else is going on at the moment of the Big Bang, something we have yet to understand, though there are several plausible conjectures being explored at present. 

All Together Now.

So is there are ultimate reality? It may be that there is, but as far as I know we've not found it yet, nor any evidence for it. Reality depends to some extent who is looking, what they are looking for, and how they look. The idea that there is one reality and that all else is unreal is a dichotomy driven by theological legacies that I would trace back to monotheism. Monotheism creates all or nothing situations. Either you believe in the one god or you don't. Traditionally you are either for god or against; destined for heaven or for hell. It's a hermeneutic that pervades the minds of those whose cultures are now, or were until recently, in the grip of monotheistic religions.  

So is my blue glass sphere real? If I threw it at your head you would certainly know it. It's dense and heavy enough that it would probably injure you. Thrown hard it might well kill you. That suggests a certain level of reality. Several times I've sat it on a table and asked a group to describe it. I've found that they all agree that it has certain physical qualities (spherical, blue, cool to touch etc). If it wasn't real at some level, then how would a group of people agree on it's description? If the qualities were not intrinsic to the object then how could multiple sensing subjects perceive the same qualities? If the object itself was not coordinating the shared perception by having intrinsic properties, we'd have to invent some other entity or force to explain the coincidence of perceptions. And that other coordinator would never be as simple or plausible as a real object.

Common or shared perceptions are typically left out of arguments about reality, especially by Buddhists. Buddhists will go to extraordinary lengths to assert that everything is connected, but then argue about perception as though there is only one person in the world. This is similar to the simplifying assumptions that macro-economists make so that they can use micro-economic concepts like supply and demand. Macro-models of supply and demand literally make the assumption that there is only one consumer and one product, selling for one price. In any other field, except Buddhism or economics, a requirement for an assumption as gross as this to validate the model, would contrarily be seen as falsifying the model. But all of Buddhist psychology argues as though there is a single mind, having sensory experiences one at a time, without reference to other minds.

In the Yogācāra context we often get the example of disciples arguing over where the flag moves or the wind moves. In thinking about this we must remember that in India "wind" (vāyu) is the principle underlying all movement. The master tells the disciples, "it is your mind that moves". Which on face value sounds profound, but points to a form of unhelpful Idealism that often ties unwary Buddhists in metaphysical knots. In terms of how to do meditation this is fine. But Buddhists often take it to be statement of ontological truth. The more interesting observation, for my money, is that all the disciplines and the master are agreed that there was a flag. This simple fact is something Idealism struggles to explain. If it was the minds of disciples that were moving, then what was it made them all see a moving flag at the same time? If it was not the flag itself, then what was it?

Of course perception is something that happens in our brains. In reality we do not see a blue sphere or a waving flag. What happens is that streams of photons are refracted, reflected, selectively transmitted and absorbed, and arrive in the retina where they are absorbed by light-sensitive cells that send electro-chemical signals to the visual centres of the brain, where a process we don't presently understand interprets the signals as shapes and colours in the world.

By comparing notes on the same object we get information about our sensory apparatus. And by comparing notes on different objects perceived by the same subjects, we get information about objects. Empiricism from multiple points of view produces knowledge about the world that is independent of observers as well as knowledge about how the observers produce knowledge.

However, while we can gain knowledge of the world, we have to question whether reality, in the sense of ultimate reality, is even a useful concept. We can certainly argue that atoms are more fundamental than macro-scale objects and quarks are more fundamental than atoms and fields more fundamental than quarks. But so what? We cannot normally perceive other scales and what happens on those scales does not affect our day to day decision making. Quantum mechanics is frequently invoked in this context, but quantum effects can only be observed in extremely unnatural circumstances. I can get to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread without ever consciously invoking QM. It is true that computers have now automated the supermarket side of things, but it all worked before computers.

In Practice

Buddhists are often quick to point out that this kind of discussion about reality has no impact on practice. I think this is short sighted. Clarifying some of these details is vital for practice. Because at the very least it helps to clarify the object of our meditation. For example many Buddhists seem to believe that through meditation they will gain insight into ultimate reality. But thinking about reality makes this seem very unlikely. Ultimate reality is clearly not going to be understood through an individual's experience, since our ability to know anything is strictly limited. In order to have knowledge of reality as posited by Buddhists we would need a reality detecting faculty which is neither the five physical senses nor the mind. No such faculty is ever postulated by Buddhists. Nor is it conceivable. When we go back to the early Buddhist texts, they seem to agree that reality is nothing to do with the Buddhist goal. Buddhists look at and gain insight into experience rather than reality. Thus there is no need to postulate a special sense faculty required for knowledge conducive to liberation. 

This distinction is important in focussing the mind of the meditator. If we are examining experience then that it a relatively straight-forward task, we have methods for doing so, and the process can be undertaken systematically and deliberately. However if what we are looking for is insight into the nature of reality then this cannot be undertaken systematically. Somehow reality will make itself known to us, we just have to rely on a kind of grace (I'm paraphrasing narratives I've heard my colleagues and others use). Seeking reality through meditation is a very different activity from seeking to understand experience. In fact as a passive process it can hardly be called an "activity" at all. Some schools of Buddhism completely excise the possibility of awakening-directed activity. One can only rely on external agents and forces in some forms of Pure Land Buddhism for example.

A classic example of the difference is to be found in my forthcoming article in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (due out in May 2015) on the first sentence of the Heart Sutra. Conze, the "modern gnostic" as he styles himself, has Avalokiteśvara floating above the world engaged in mystical practices that by mystical powers afford him insight into the reality of the skandhas. In fact, and the Chinese and Tibetan versions bear this out, what Avalokiteśvara is doing in the Sanskrit manuscripts, is examining his experience using a skandha reflection and he sees that experience is not reality at all, that experience is contingent on reality and the mind overlapping. There is of course nothing new in this observation since it pervades early Buddhist texts as well. 

The trouble with the mystical approach is that it removes Buddhism from the human sphere. Only a few individuals will ever be blessed by insight. The rest just have to take it on faith. On the other hand, if insight arises from the deliberate and systematic examination of experience, then this is literally open to everyone. When we invoke the concept of the "nature of reality" in the Buddhism we cut most people off from the goal of liberation. And we confuse many people about what the practices are and do. So in my view this is a discussion we urgently need to have.

One thing one often hears, especially from Baby Boomers who had access to LSD in the 1960s and 1970s (when tabs were much stronger!) is that their experience of tripping opened doors to another reality, or affected how they viewed reality. The psychedelic experience can certainly be a compelling one. But let us think for a minute what is happening. LSD is thought to interact and interfere with brain systems that use the neurotransmitter serotonin (migraine also does this). It's not that suddenly a new reality external to the mind comes into existence or that we gain access to it. This is at best a metaphor. Changes in the way the brain processes information alter the way users experience of the world. The fact that the changes feel profound is simply one of the changes. If we interpret an experience as being "profound" then the profundity is simply another aspect of experience. The sense of profundity may be ascribed an intrinsic value over and above the experience which accompanied it. But we know that a sense of profundity can be switched on and off. People with depression, another phenomenon associated with serotonin, often have the sense that nothing has meaning, that nothing is beautiful. That everything is the opposite of profound.  So too with bliss and all the other aspects of religious or mystical experiences. The mystic is not in touch with, not in, another reality. They simply interpret experience differently and it is peculiar to them (and thus fits the definition of an hallucination). In fact Aldous Huxley was right to refer to the "doors of perception" which is one way the Buddhist texts refer to the senses (i.e. indriya-dvara).

Once I was talking to a Buddhist teacher about his experience of the breakdown of subject/object duality. For him this was a more profound experience than insight into the contingency of self. I pointed out our perceptual situation, that I was sitting facing the door and that he had his back to it. He had to admit that even with no sense of subject/object that his point of view was unchanged - he could not see the door without turning his head. Thus we have to take the "breakdown of subject/object duality" as a metaphor. It's tempting to say that his experience is subjective, but in Buddhist terms all experience is by definition both subjective and objective.

Metzinger's model of the first-person perspective has three target properties:
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
As Metzinger's own work shows it is possible to interrupt these target properties and thus disrupt the first-person perspective. Meditation can do this too. But the resulting experience is not more real. It sounds as though it can be more satisfying, though of course sometimes the disruption of the first person perspective can be devastating and debilitating. In part the narratives about reality in this context are attempts to valorise experiences. By referring to religious experiences as more real, we raise the value of the experience and the charisma of the person who experienced it. In other words this kind of discourse about reality is highly motivated.

Reality is Over-rated.

Many religieux, especially Buddhists, seem excited by the idea that science proves their religious beliefs. Though this is usually accompanied by an excited rejection of science that disproves religious beliefs. Quantum Mechanics is invoked all too frequently - I've dealt with this fallacy on two occasions: Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics (2014) and Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. It reinforces the idea that religieux are only interested in proving what they believe, and not in truth per se. Religieux believe they know the truth already and simply want confirmation that they are so knowledgeable. Even if we exclude the blatantly mystical and fantastic from Buddhism, which many Western Buddhists do as a matter of course, we still find our beliefs challenged by science and even more so by history. But in fact Buddhists have no special insights into reality, let alone the nature of reality. Most of what Buddhists believe runs counter to the best explanations we have of reality. However this seems to me to be because we take insights about personal experience and try to use them as ontological theories. Buddhists are pretty good on the subject of experience. Buddhist practices are still useful for exploring experience. Used judiciously Buddhist theories are useful for understanding experience. Reality is not at all as Buddhists describe it, except that it is changeable, but then as I've said elsewhere: Everything changes, but so what?

So it seems to me that "reality" is a concept with limited value. To some extent we do need to discuss what we can agree on and what we cannot. To some extent deeper concepts of reality enable engineers and scientists to work more efficiently. I don't need a very sophisticated concept of reality to jump on my bike and head down to the shop to buy a loaf of bread. Arguing about the inflated price of housing in the UK might take a more sophisticated version of reality, although this discussion is highly polarised because of the influence of ideologies. Making a modern computer requires a very precisely specified reality. But when it comes to religion, our ideas about reality become inflated and speculative. As far as Buddhism goes, speculation about reality seems to be a distraction, a hindrance. If we are to encourage everyone to explore their experience, which seems a laudable goal, then we need to reframe our narratives of what Buddhism is about and how it works to reflect this. 


Further reading:

'The brain treats real and imaginary objects in the same way'. Science Blog. 6 Mar 2015.
Sacks, Oliver. (2012) Hallucinations. Picador.
Cima, Rosie. 'How Culture Affects Hallucinations'. Priceonomics.com. 22 Apr 2015.

6 Jan 2015. For an interesting account of the self-induced hallucinations encountered in meditation, see:
Eveleth, Rose. (2014). The Ancient, Peaceful Art of Self-Generated Hallucination. Nautilus, 19 Mar. 

10 April 2015

Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?

Over the last couple of years Tenzin Gyatso, aka the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan people has been dropping hints about the tradition of his reincarnation. When China joined in the conversation it was briefly mainstream news, covered by, amongst others, the BBC and the Economist. Some of the news coverage is sort of neutral in a bemused way. The world is still intrigued by a religious leader who has charisma. Some of it (like the Economist editorial) is openly hostile to the Chinese and passionately in favour of the Tibetans and the religious traditions of Tibet.

In answer to the question "Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?" we must, of course, say, "sorry, but no such thing is possible" (See There is No Life After Death, Sorry). The facts of death are not entirely relevant to the question, however, because the continuity of wealth and power is more important than the metaphysics. The wealth and power associated with the office of Dalai Lama is such that without a reincarnation a serious crisis would ensue as contenders sought to fill the power vacuum and control the wealth and property associated with the office - including that in Tibet and elsewhere.

The Tibetan word tulku (sprul sku) means something like "incarnation body". It refers to a select group of Tibetan individuals who are said to have the ability to reincarnate.  That is, they are not simply forced by the logic of the Buddhist doctrine of karma to undergo rebirth in which the connection between the dead and the reborn beings is one of conditionality. Instead, the same being is reborn with their personality. Beings able to do this are thought to be bodhisattvas of the highest order, who come back time and again "to help beings". The fact of Tibet's previous policy of isolation never really comes up in definitions of these compassionate beings who for centuries only reincarnated in Tibet. This is because the myths and superstitions surrounding the institution hide a far more mundane purpose. 

My view has long been that there is nothing particularly "spiritual" about this phenomenon. Apart from the fact that it violates the Buddhist metaphysical rules of life after death (by maintaining a continuity where none can exist), it is more obviously related to political and economic problems faced by a celibate clergy who amass wealth and power. The Catholic church forbade marriage and progeny to its priests in order to prevent the watering down of Church wealth and power by seeing it leak away to progeny. In Japan the opposite happened, with once celibate monks marrying and passing on control of monasteries to their oldest male child (primogeniture is another way to prevent the dilution of wealth through generations). Just so, it is the continuity of power that drives the tulku system. Not only is there personal continuity, but tulkus retain ownership of property.

It might be worth re-emphasising that Buddhist monks and monasteries have historically accumulated enormous wealth and wielded considerable political power. Buddhists benefit from a culture of donations to monasteries and clergy and from tax exemption. Occasionally this has bankrupted the state in which Buddhists function. Historical research also shows that far from being passive recipients of cash, monks were almost always involved in commerce and usury. The quaint myth of monks not handling money is a good story, but in fact any long established monastery is probably very wealthy and the current crop of monks are in charge of using that wealth and the power it represents for good or ill. Once wealth accumulates, there are inevitably disputes over who controls it and how that control is passed on from generation to generation. It is in this light that we must see the tulku system in Tibet.

Until the Chinese invasion of Tibetan the monasteries controlled a huge majority of the land and capital in Tibet. Tibet was a religio-feudal state. According to one newspaper report:
"Until 1959... around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world's largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country's wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their eyes or severing their hamstrings." The Guardian. 11 Feb 2009
The idea that Tibet was some kind of paradise when the Chinese invaded is a Romantic fantasy. Which is not to say that the Chinese approach was desirable either. According to the same article, life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950 to just 60 years. Indeed the inequity of life in Tibet was one of the excuses given by the Chinese for invading and sacking the monasteries of Tibet. In this we see reflections of the great Tang purges of the mid 9th century or the similar program in 16th Century Britain. While there is no excuse for the cruelty and violence of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, it will help to see it in the context of historical conflicts between religious institutions and governments. 

The wealth of the Tibetan nation was tied up in monasteries run by an elite of men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy was strictly patriarchal). Wealth on such a scale poses serious succession problems when the owners die. Since the stakes in terms of influence and power are extremely high, the machinations that would go with succession were particularly complex. The Tibetans solved this in a unique way. In its mature form what happens is this: after a leader dies, their estate (land, personal property, and notional charisma) is held in trust for them, usually a designated alternate from amongst the elite takes control, or in some cases a regent is appointed to administer the estate (or in the Dalai Lama's case the state) in the mean time. After 3 or 4 years have passed a search begins, guided by divination and other superstitious methods, for a precocious infant boy born at the right time. The infant must pass some tests, though anyone familiar with children of this age and the role of double blind testing will be able to surmise how the chosen child makes the "right" choices. 

The selected child is then cloistered and rigorously (and to some extent ruthlessly) trained for about 20 years to literally become their predecessor. Because of the psychological conditioning involved in the training, and since the curriculum is always the same, it tends to produce the same kind of individual: one well suited to being in charge of the wealth of Tibet. Just as the Francis Xavier is thought to have said "Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man", so the Tibetans rely on the power of conditioning to shape early promise into just the right kind of ruler. 

One moving account of the harsh training endured by tulkus can be found in the biography of Dhardo Rinpoche (see Suvajra. The Wheel and the Diamond : The Life of Dhardo Tulku. Windhorse Publications, 1991). Of course not all boys make it through the training and become the right kind of man. But those who don't are generally treated with kindness and allowed to retire quietly. In the past the tulkus operated like kings and barons; now they operate like Vatican officials. 

As it happens this is kind of religious totalitarianism was a very efficient form of government and created relatively stable political conditions in Tibetan, and certainly allowed the monks to wield an almost absolute control over the populace that Communist China could only dream of. However, no system is perfect and we know from the present Dalai Lama's own biography that power-struggles occur. The dissension of Kelsang Gyatso against the rest of the Gelugpa Order is an example that has been much studied and commented on in the West. And indeed the succession problems within his movement, the New Kadampa Tradition, or even in the organisation founded in American by Chögyam Trungpa, make for interesting reading. 

The present Dalai Lama is the product of this political system. Negotiations having broken down, the Communist Chinese invaded and annexed China in 1949-50. Gyatso was handed the dictatorship of Tibet aged just 15 because a leaderless Tibet was too vulnerable. However, after nine years of tense collaboration, there was an uprising and subsequent purge of the Tibetan government. Gyatso fled Tibet and became the leader of the Tibetan diaspora. He is still revered as a god in Tibet, however, and this continuing worship of him has been a bone of contention between the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities. It is true that in recent times Gyatso has tried to hand political power to the Tibetan refugee community, instituting elections for the government in exile, but he continues to be the only Tibetan politician known to the outside world, both a figurehead and spokesman for the Tibetan Liberation campaign. He is also the head of the Gelug order and thus controls its extensive property and wealth. 

As time has gone on and it has been increasingly obvious that China is not planning to hand Tibet back to the Tibetans, and that world governments have no interest in getting involved except to complain about China's human-rights record from time to time. China routinely ignores such passive interventions as they know that the world has no leverage with which to make them change. In a sop to the exiles, the UN offered to recognise the same ecclesiastical titles for Tibetan leaders that representatives of the Roman Catholic Church use. Thus devotees now routinely refer to the Dalai Lama by the Pope's traditional title of His Holiness while other important clergy are referred to as Cardinals, i.e. His Eminence.  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso has tried various strategies to shift Chinese intransigence on Tibet: attempts at cajoling, shaming, and finally negotiation and compromise all failed. China has nothing to gain by negotiating.

Tenzin Gyatso has aged well and lived to a ripe old age, but he is now old and will soon die. And with increasing age has come the realisation that his death will either trigger the traditional search for his replacement. The Tibetan community in exile has experimented with non-Tibetan tulkus with decidedly mixed results. The Spanish toddler Osel Hita Torres was "recognised" as important Tibetan leader, Lama Yeshe, by the Dalai Lama and along with the training had many special powers attributed to him as befits a saint. But he balked at the rigorous training and ended up dropping out. Many of his inherited disciples apparently still believe he is Lama Yeshe, though its not entirely clear how they rationalise his apparent indifference to what they believe. 

Over the last five years or so Gyatso has made a number of passing statements about this reincarnation and produced a document outlining the variations on the tradition that might apply (for example this statement from 2011). He has toyed with reincarnating in the West (less often since "Lama Yeshe" crashed and burned), with reincarnating as a woman, and other variations. However, in the last year his message has come into focus on the question of whether he will reincarnate at all. He has hinted that he might not. The hints appear to be testing the water to see how his idea plays out in various spheres. Why would the man/god who has come back to spread compassion amongst all beings for 14 lifetimes, suddenly decide to stop? Is the world now so full of compassion that it does not need any more? Or is it that the Tibetan people no longer need his leadership. Sadly the reasons appear to be far less "spiritual".

It's been obvious for years now that with the Chinese ensconced in Tibet they can and do control who is chosen as a tulku and what training they receive. This was the case with the Panchen Lama, of whom there were two incarnations, one acknowledged by the Tibetan community in exile and one by the Tibetans in Tibet and Chinese government. The former candidate disappeared. A similar thing happened with the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu Order, who also goes by the Vatican title His Holiness. It is apparent that when Gyatso dies that there will be at least two candidates for the post of Dalai Lama. One will be found in Tibet proper, endorsed by the Chinese, and installed in the Potala Palace; and another will be found, probably in India amongst the diaspora and denounced by the Chinese as an imposter. The people of Tibet, being rather superstitious, will be in a difficult position to say the least. They worship the Dalai Lama as the living embodiment of their religion, as a god in effect if not in reality. If the boy who takes over is raised by the Chinese to be open to continued Chinese rule then Tibet loses hope of independence for generations to come. Only the complete collapse of China could undo such a development. Remember that no other world power is even willing to acknowledge Tibet's right to independence, let alone willing to come to their assistance in resisting the Chinese occupation.

We get some sense of how unlikely the suggestion that the Dalai Lama will not reincarnate is likely to be taken. Dhardo Rinpoche also said that he would not reincarnate and his wealth is strictly small beer. But this did not stop the Tibetan establishment from seeking out and installing a boy as his successor. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the Tibetan establish or the Tibetan people would accept the end of the institution of the Dalai Lama. 

This is the situation facing the ageing Tenzin Gyatso. With him will die all hope of independence for his people precisely because he is an embodiment of a bizarre system of religious governance that invests him and his successors with an almost absolute power, not to mention considerable wealth. We can easily imagine that he now curses, albeit it in a kindly and jovial way, the centuries of tradition that has left him in this position. Few of the 14 Dalai Lamas are interesting enough to be remembered as individuals, but he will be remembered as the last before the total control of Tibet by the Chinese. Many people find the Dalai Lama an inspiring figure. He certainly has grace under pressure and embodies many of the values that Buddhists hold dear. But the tradition will mean that the world will treat his reincarnation with all the respect he has earned. And that successor will almost certainly be a Chinese puppet. 

An interesting side-issue is that Tibetan Buddhism is once again becoming popular in Mainland China as restrictions on religious observances are relaxed along with economic strictures of Maoism. Thus, not only will the government control the Tibetan people by proxy, but it will also mean that they retain control over Buddhists who give allegiance to the Dalai Lama. It is this question of loyalty to the state that has undone many of the minor cults that have sprung up over the years, with Falun Gong being a stand-out. For any state, the problem with religious people, of any sort, is where their allegiance lies (the same concern is regularly articulated here in Britain and in the coming election immigration is a major issue). China expects and demands allegiance to the state. Not only is this a Communist doctrine, but it fits with centuries old Confucianist doctrine of filial piety as well. If they are smart, the Communists will be paying attention to history, and in particular how the emperors of the Sui and Tang periods used Buddhism to legitimise their absolute power. Control of the Dalai Lama means his unwavering endorsement of and support for their government. 

Almost everyone will have noted the irony of the government of China insisting that the Dalai Lama reincarnate per the religious traditions of Tibet. I doubt anyone has failed to grasp why they have weighed in on this matter. For all that the political system of pre-invasion Tibet was oppressive by modern standards and rife with inequalities of all kinds, no one would have wished the devastation wrought on Tibet by the Red Army still full of revolutionary zeal, nor the China-wide catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. The carnage was on a par with the worst ravages of 19th century European imperialism in the Americas, Africa, India and Polynesia. And that is saying something. The continued economic imperialism from China and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture continue to be a source of misery and discontent for some Tibetans. History shows that people's who are colonised and become dispossessed fair very badly. So in criticising traditional Tibet, I am in no way endorsing Chinese rule.

That said, one cannot deny that in this latest move the Chinese are playing the politics of Tibet in a masterful fashion. Compared to the clusterfuck that is modern Western imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese have been very astute in biding their time and preparing the ground for a take-over of the office of Dalai Lama, which will cement the relationship between the two countries. The Chinese have played the long game and are about to win a generational victory. They will almost certainly never have this kind of control over the Uighurs for instance, because there is no single point of leverage like the Dalai Lama. The unique form of government used for centuries in Tibet to maintain almost absolute power over the Tibetan people has been their undoing. It is precisely ability to mould a promising infant into a leader that the Chinese government will exploit to control Tibet in the stead of a dictatorship of Buddhist monks.

When Buddhist countries (and I think we can include China in this) conceive of such anti-liberal, anti-democratic forms of government, it must give us pause to think about whether the goal of a Buddhist world is really worthwhile pursuing. As I've pointed out previously, Buddhists countries all too often have authoritarian, dictatorial, not so say, militaristic governments. At the very least Buddhist countries are no less likely to be dictatorships that those infused with other religions. In practice Buddhism seems to have very little to offer in terms of governance, at least going by historical manifestations. Having studied the history of Buddhism, I find myself strongly in favour of secular democracy (with proportional voting) as the least worst form of government. 


03 April 2015

Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions

One of the important conclusions of Jan Nattier's 1992 article on the Heart Sutra was that the traditional dates ascribed to its composition could not be correct and that it is more likely that it was composed in the 7th century, a time period which coincides with the life of Xuánzàng (602 – 664 CE) and his activity as pilgrim and translator. This coincidence allows Nattier to speculate that it might even have been Xuánzàng who translated the text from Chinese into Sanskrit. The speculation is bolstered by the fact that Xuánzàng has form in this area. He is known to have translated the Chinese authored 《大乘起信論》 (Dàshéng qǐxìn lùn) or Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna into Sanskrit.

In this essay I will rehearse Nattier's arguments about chronology and attribution of the Chinese translations as a prelude to discussing the challenge to them published by Dan Lusthaus. Lusthaus (2003) draws attention to two Chinese commentaries on the Heart Sutra, one of which appears to refer to alternate versions of the Heart Sutra in a way that Lusthaus claims poses "serious problems" for Nattiers conclusions about the chronology of the Heart Sutra. As one of the few scholars to engage critically with Nattier's thesis in print, Lusthaus's article is interesting both for the new information it presents and for the test it provides for the Chinese Origin thesis.

Another reason to rehearse this aspect of Nattier's thesis, is that that the popular Zen inspired commentaries seem to struggle with it. Red Pine, Mu Seong, and Kazuaki Tanahashi all seem to be in denial about the evidence. As such, most modern readers are given the impression that Nattier's argument is weak or improbable. But this is not the case.

In this essay I favour the Pinyin Romanisation of Chinese characters. Lusthaus and Nattier both use the Wade-Giles system. Additionally, Lusthaus uses McCune–Reischauer for the name of the Korean monk 원측, and the Revised Romanisation of Korean proposed by the South Korean government is now standard. I silently emend their Romanisation to fit my own preference (and recent scholarly convention). In particular I change the names:
  • 玄奘: Hsüan-tsang > Xuánzàng
  • 원측: Wŏnch’ŭk > Woncheuk
  • 窺基: K'uei-chi > Kuījī

Nattier's Comments on the Authorship and Dates of The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra exists in three short versions in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. This essays focusses on T250 and T251 attributed to Kumārajīva (334–413 CE) and Xuánzàng respectively. T256 is now thought to be attributable to Amoghavajra (705–774) and directly influenced by the Sanskrit text. The main argument for this is in Japanese, but a summary can be found in Tanahashi (2014: 68).

As Nattier points out, the attributions of T250 and Y251 first appear in an 8th century catalogue of Buddhist texts called 《開元釋教錄》Kāiyuán shìjiào lù (T2154) long after both men were dead (1992:174). This raises the question of why this very popular text failed to be associated with either in their lifetime, especially when we consider the explicit links between Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra in his biographies. The simplest answer is that neither was involved in the creation of these versions. As we will see this is also the most plausible answer.

The catalogue of Buddhist texts in China 《綜理衆經目錄》 Zōnglǐ zhòngjīng mùlù (compiled in 374), itself now lost but reproduced in 《出三藏集記》 Chū sānzàng jíjì, compiled around 515 by Seng-yu (僧祐; 445-518), records two texts considered to represent lost versions of the Hṛdaya in Chinese. The two titles mentioned are:
Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn
Great Perfection of Wisdom Vidyā in one scroll
bōrěbōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn
Perfection of Wisdom Vidyā in one scroll
These titles are certainly similar to the Chinese sutra titles:
T250 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》
Móhēbōrěbōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng
T251 《般若波羅蜜多心經》
Bōrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng
T256 《唐梵翻對字音般若波羅蜜多心經》
Táng fàn fān duì zì yīn bōrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng
Tang [i.e. Chinese] Transcription of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra.
However the similarity itself is suspicious, because it was Kumārajīva who introduced the transcription 般若波羅蜜 bōrěbōluómì for prajñāpāramitā. Nattier points out that earlier translations of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra do not use this terminology. For example:
T221 《放光般若經》Fàngguāng-bōrě-jīng, by Mokṣala (291 CE)
T222 《光讚經》 Guāng zàn jīng, by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE
    However early translations of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra use 般若bōrě for Sanskrit prajñā, and one uses 摩訶 Móhē for Sanskrit mahā. Eg.
    T224 《道行般若經》Dàohéng-bōrě-jīng, by Lokakṣema (179 CE).
    T226 《摩訶般若鈔經》Móhēbōrěchāo-jīng, by 竺佛念 Zhúfóniàn (382 CE).
      I think this undermines the argument that the title is anachronistic. Nattier's dismissal on the grounds that the two supposed early texts containing the term 神咒 shénzhòu because "both are clearly intended to be construed as mantras based on - or at least associated with - the Prajñāpāramitā corpus." (1992: 183) is less convincing because mantras did not come into Chinese Buddhism for some centuries after the supposedly early period of the texts. On the other hand the use of the phrase 神咒 may itself be anachronistic. Mantras were non-Buddhist until after this period, but dhāraṇī and vidyā (along with Pāḷi parittas) were not. The idea that the Heart Sūtra is itself intended as a dhāraṇī is one that Nattier herself discusses (1992: 175-6). On the other hand, another early translation of Aṣṭa, 《大明度經》Dàmíngdù-jīng (T225) by 支謙 Zhīqiān (225 CE), uses the character combination 神呪 (or possibly 神祝, the editions disagree) to represent Sanskrit vidyā, and Xuánzàng apparently employs 神咒 for the same word. So the titles of the two "lost translations" are not so unusual after all. But it is possible that the catalogue was edited at a later date to include texts that could not have existed at the time, and it's also plausible that a no-longer extant text predates both T250 and T251 because of their variations (and differences between them and the Sanskrit mss.). I do not think that T250 or T251 are a plausible ur-text.

      If they did exist, the two texts are now lost and we cannot draw any hard and fast conclusions about them, however ambiguous the evidence. We certainly ought not to join Red Pine in taking their existence on face value.

      Kumārajīva & T250

      Having decided that we must set aside non-existent texts, Nattier then turns to the ascription of T250 to Kumārajīva. This was already in doubt as Conze attributed it to Kumārajīva’s pupils (1978: 20). Nattier summarises the consensus view:
      "...it seems clear that the students of Kumārajīva (in particular, Sēngzhào) read and commented on the core passage of the Heart Sūtra found in Kumārajīva's version of the Large Sūtra [ie. T223]. There is no evidence, however, that they were aware of the existence of the Heart Sūtra as a separate text, nor is there any evidence that Kumārajīva himself had any role in the production of the 'translation' associated with his name." (1992: 184)
      It is precisely this consensus of informed opinion that Tanahashi (2014) rejects when he refers to T250 as the "α-version", doing his readers a disservice. There is simply no way that T250 is the ur-text for the Heart Sutra. It clearly dates from after Kumārajīva's death and has been edited by third parties unknown. It's interesting to note also that Sēngzhào (ca. 378—413 CE) is associated with the establishment of Madhyamaka, whereas Xuánzàng and his students were instrumental in establishing Yogācāra thought in China.

      That the Heart Sūtra is based on Kumārajīva's translation T223, or perhaps on the version found embedded in 《大智度論》Dà zhì dù lùn (= *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa; T1509), is not in doubt. The similarity between the two is too great to be a coincidence. That the Heart Sutra is based on the large Perfection of Wisdom text is also evident in some of the Nepalese Manuscript titles. For example the new Hṛdaya manuscript (EAP676/2/5) I described in 2014: is titled Ārya-pañcaviṁśatikā-pajñāpāramitā-mantra-nāma-dhāraṇī which translates as The Dhāraṇī named The Mantra of the Noble 25,000 Perfection of Wisdom.

      The argument against attributing T250 to Kumārajīva is complex (Nattier 1992: 184-189). Where T250 has two passages of extra characters, these can be traced to T223. Nattier asserts, not entirely convincingly I think, that it is unlikely that the parallels would have been translated identically by Kumārajīva and that the exact correspondence argues for a plagiarism. The argument would be stronger if we had some concrete examples of this actually happening. I can supply an example of Kumārajīva's inconsistency from his translation of the Aṣṭasahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, i.e. 《小品般若經》 T227. At 8.542.b5-6 Kumārajīva translates vidyā as 呪術 zhòu shù, while a little later at 8.543b25-29 he translates first as 明呪 míng zhòu, and then simply as 呪 zhòu. More examples would be needed to establish a pattern, but it lends plausibility to Nattier's assertion.

      Nattier further points out that the initial equation of form and emptiness conforms not to T223, but to T1509 《大智度論》. The combination of observations leads Nattier to propose that T250 is based on, or has been made to conform to, T1509, rather than T223. Thus, the earliest possible date (terminus post quem) for T250 is the date of the translation of T1509, ca. 406 CE (1992:188).

      Nattier's next step is to point out that, unlike Kumārajīva's other translations, which eclipse Xuánzàng's in popularity even to this day, T250 was never popular in China. Unlike T251, T250 is not craved into stone, copied, or printed. Not only are all the Chinese commentaries on the Heart Sutra on Xuánzàng's version, T251, but they do not date from earlier than Xuánzàng's lifetime, whereas Kumārajīva was active 250 years earlier. Thus the attribution of authorship of the Heart Sutra to Kumārajīva rings hollow. And in fact Kumārajīva is frequently apocryphally given as author or translator when it is clear that he is not.

      Xuánzàng & T251

      However the attribution of T251 to Xuánzàng is also problematic. Xuánzàng was a prolific translator. His compendium of Prajñāpāramitā texts (T220) takes up vols. 5-7 of the Taishō edition of the canon, each of which is thicker than Vol. 8 containing all the other Prajñāpāramitā texts translated by all the other translators. If Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra why was it not attributed to him in his lifetime, and why was his translation not included in T220? Why does the legend of his association with the text speak of him receiving the text from a sick man if he composed it or translated it from Sanskrit?

      Curiously T251 largely sticks to the terminology found in T250 (and thus in T223/1509). But three key terms: the names Avalokiteśvara and Śāriputra, and the Sanskrit word skandha, are written in a way that is distinctive to Xuánzàng. A text containing 觀自在, 舍利子, and 蘊 can only have been completed during or after the work of Xuánzàng. Nattier concludes that Xuánzàng did indeed receive a text and made minor amendments. T250 seems also to be an amended text, which suggests to me an ur-text of which both T250 and T251 are revisions. This is supported by the Sanskrit text which is significantly different in places from either of the two Chinese versions, in particular it has no equivalent of 度一切苦厄 in the first sentence. That the Sanskrit translator would drop this phrase is less plausible than that at some later date it was added to the Chinese text. This is because everywhere we look, Buddhists add words, phrases, and chapters to their texts, but we very seldom see them subtracting. Indeed in light of recent scholarship, Conze's view that the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya and Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā represent 3rd or 4th Century condensations of the Prajñāpāramitā texts seems unlikely. Vaj is now thought to be contemporary with Aṣṭa and the character of Hṛdaya is not a condensation, but simply a quote or two.

      Either way the Heart Sutra as we know it can be no older than the early 5th century, i.e. after Kumārajiva's translations of the Pañcaviṃśatisahāsrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and/or Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa because it is an extract of one or both of them. Another part of the text that is cited word for word from the same source is the passage with epithets of prajñāpāramitā, found at T223, 8.286b28-c7 and many other locations: see Nattier (1992 footnote 54a) and my forthcoming article for JOCBS.

      So the catalogues which list earlier texts are most likely forgeries. And on this basis Nattier proposes that the Heart Sutra was composed in or near the 7th Century in China. The close association with Xuánzàng suggests that he may have been involved in the translation of it into Sanskrit, though given how botched the translation is, it was presumably well before his work on 《大般若波羅蜜多經》(T220). My view is that the translator from Chinese to Sanskrit was more at home in Chinese than in Sanskrit, and not very familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā literature in Sanskrit.

      Woncheuk's Commentary.

      Xuánzàng’s students 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696) produced commentaries on the Heart Sutra in the late 7th century (Nattier 1992: 173). These have both been translated into English: see Shih & Lusthaus (2006) and Hyun Choo (2006) respectively.

      Lusthaus (2003) cites four passages from Woncheuk's commentary 《般若波羅蜜多心經贊》 (T1711), which he says lead us to two main conclusions: 1. that versions of the text once existed that were different from the extant versions; and 2. that these versions were older than the extant versions. And thus Nattier's preference for a later composition date is seriously challenged.

      The first passage comments on Xuánzàng’s use of the form 觀自在 Guānzìzài for the name of Avalokiteśvara Woncheuk comments:
      若依舊本名觀世音 (T1711, 33.543b.21)
      "This is what the old text(s) named Guānshìyīn" (Lusthaus 2003: 82)
      Quite a lot of Lusthaus's argument rests on his conclusion that it is "natural in this context to understand this as a reference to older versions of the Heart Sutra" (82). Hyun Choo (2006) concurs, he translates the passage "According to the old version of the translation [of the Prajñāpāramita-sūtras]" (138). However, as is well known Avaoliketśvara does not appear in any other Prajñāpāramita sūtras, so this is an unlikely interpretation. In fact, Woncheuk's commentary immediately proceeds to a discussion of the deity and the name 觀音in Buddhist literature, a discussion that does not include any Prajñāpāramitā sūtras or mention of the
      Heart Sutra, but does include the Avalokiteśvara-sūtra (觀音三昧經), Avalokiteśvara-bodhisattva-mahāsthamaprapta-bodhisattva-sūtra(觀音授記經), and the Larger Sukhāvatīvyuha-sūtra (無量壽經). If we are talking about "natural" conclusions then Woncheuk's reference to 舊本 'old texts' appears to reference these other named texts.
      The next passage concerns the first sentence of the Heart Sutra:
      或有本曰 「照見五蘊皆空」 雖有兩本。後本為正。撿勘梵本有等言故後所說等準此應知。(added punctuation for clarity)

      There is another version of the text 或有本 which says "illuminatingly, he saw the five skandhas, and so on (), are all empty." Although there are two versions of the text 有兩本, the latter text is correct. An examination of the Sanskrit text [梵本] shows that is has the word "and so on" (). Hence the 'and so on' stated by the latter (text) should be understood to be the standard." (Lusthaus 2003:83, emphasis added)
      By 'and so on' we can probably interpret Sanskrit ādi. T251 here simply has 照見五蘊皆空 without the extra character 等. Given that the text does list the skandhas and other lists such as the dhātus and āyatanas this interpolation is not wrong. However, as Lusthaus concedes, ādi doesn't appear in any known Sanskrit text. Nor does any extant Chinese text have 等 here. The mention of a Sanskrit text with a different wording here is interesting of course, but the manuscript tradition of the Heart Sutra is widely variable - so much so that editing it proved very difficult for Conze and led him to make several errors (See my forthcoming article in the JOCBS 7). No two manuscripts of the Sanskrit Hṛdaya are identical, even the oldest manuscript (the Hōryūji Manuscript; probably from the 8th century) is obviously corrupt in many places.

      Next, Lusthaus cites this passage:
      又解此經自有兩本 一本如上。一本經曰受想行識亦復如是。所言者準下經文有六善巧。謂蘊處界緣生四諦菩提涅槃。(T1711, 33.546.13-15)
      "Further, for interpreting this sutra we have two texts (自有兩本). One text is as above 如上 (i.e. Xuánzàng's version, which says 'vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāras, and vijñāna are also like this'). The other text of the sutra says: 'vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāras, vijñāna, and so on , also like this.' The word 'and so on' [deng] indicates what is [discussed] below in the text of the sutra, i.e. the six skill in means, the aggregates, āyatanas, dhātus, pratītysamutpāda, the four truths, Bodhi, and Nirvāṇa." (Lusthaus 2003: 84).
      From this we infer that Woncheuk has at least two texts in front of him. Possibly two Chinese texts and at least one Sanskrit text. And one of the Chinese texts again has 等 (= Sanskrit ādi) at the end of a list of skandhas, seeming to indicate the other lists that follow in the sutra. Again no extant Chinese or Sanskrit text has this additional feature, but it is not inconceivable, in the light of the manuscript tradition, that it could have been added by a scribe or editor.

      Woncheuk's contemporary and rival, Kuījī, also wrote a commentary on the Heart Sutra and also seems to have a text with 等, and does not problematise it in the way that Woncheuk does, suggest that he only had the one text and it included 等. And this raises the question of why we do not find it in the text attributed to their teacher Xuánzàng. Lusthaus avoids the conclusion from Nattier's study, that the text of T251 was at best edited by Xuánzàng, or more likely by his later students, rather than being a translation he produced.

      Finally in relation to Chinese versions corresponding to the Sanskrit passage "cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānam", which in Chinese becomes:
      心無罣礙;無罣礙故,無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想 ,究竟涅槃。(T251)
      His mind is not obscured, since it is not obscured he is not afraid, far from upside-down dreamlike thinking, he finally attains nirvāṇa. (My translation).
      Lusthaus observes that Woncheuk's two texts differ and that Woncheuk favours the one that says 遠離一切顛倒夢想 "far from all upside-down dreamlike thinking." And in this case the T250 has 離一切顛倒夢想苦惱. Lusthaus says "Unfortunately for Nattier's thesis, the alternate version this time is recognisable. It is Kumārajīva's version". Except that it is not. T250 does not include the character 遠 and adds two characters 苦惱. The difference Lusthaus is highlighting involves the interpolation of just two characters, 一切 (literally 'one cut'; figuratively 'all'), so having three other differences is significant. Certainly the two are similar, but then all of these Chinese texts derive have similarities. In fact we have reference to yet another version of the text here which is not the same as either T250 or T251.

      One possible good to come out of this is that in looking for parallels in the wider Canon for the last passage, which to my knowledge has not previously been identified with any existing text, we now know to look for alternate readings, though a preliminary search did not turn up any parallels for any of the variants.


      On the point about the dating of versions of the Heart Sutra referred to in Woncheuk's commentary we need first to address the issue of "older texts". Crucially, Lusthaus says earlier in his article,
      "We have no dates of other background information on when or where the two commentaries were written... We don't know for certain even if these commentaries were written before or after [Xuanzang's] death, though my sense is that they were written after." (2003: 66: emphasis added)
      The conjecture by Lusthaus that the commentaries he is discussing were written (i.e. composed) after the death of Xuánzàng is important in assessing his claim that the alternate readings found in them amount to a text from a much earlier period, particularly contemporary with Kumārajīva in the early fifth century.

      We've seen that when Woncheuk mentioned old texts" (舊本) he was in fact directly referring to a number of other sutras in which Avalokiteśvara plays a prominent role. So Lusthaus's conclusion that it would be "natural" in this context to conclude that this referred to the Heart Sutra looks wrong. We've also seen that his attempt to connect Woncheuk's text with Kumārajīva fails. Lusthaus's challenge to Nattier's theory falls well short of its mark.

      What we're left with is evidence of multiple versions of the Heart Sutra, probably around the time of, or not long after, the death of Xuánzàng. No texts with the readings evinced by Woncheuk, in either Chinese or Sanskrit are extant. Thus there is no good case for pushing back the date of composition of the Heart Sutra before Xuánzàng. On the other hand, the evidence for multiple versions at this time is intrinsically interesting in terms of the history of the text. And in drawing attention to these early commentaries. Lusthaus has made an valuable contribution.

      Nattier's thesis on the origins of the Heart Sutra certainly has stronger and weaker points. However, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Heart Sutra per se began life in China as a compilation of extracts from Kumārajīva's《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》(T233) or possible the commentary on it 《大智度論》and probably other texts including the Mahāmegha Sūtra (possible source of the dhāraṇī). And her arguments about the attribution and dates of T250 and T251 largely stand. Neither seem to be the product of authors to which they were attributed in the 8th Century.


      Conze, Edward. (1978). The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Tokyo, The Reiyukai.
      Hyun Choo, B. (2006) 'An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch'uk's Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra)' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. February 2006, Vol.6, pp.121-205.
      Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) 'The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.
      Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707
      Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.
      Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014) The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambhala.

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