15 December 2017

Bodhisatvas in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā

This is another in a series of reflections on the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as I read through it in Sanskrit with a friend. Despite the central importance of this text in Mahāyana it is curiously neglected. Only one complete English has been published, though several partial translations exist. No modern commentary has been produced, though there are a handful of book chapters and articles (and one book which is a collection of such). The Chinese translations seem to have had more attention. It would be a great shame to lose sight of this most important Mahāyāna text. 

I noted in an earlier post that the nidāna of Aṣṭa tells us that there are ((13 - 1/2) * 100) or 1250 arhats present for the action. Although Lokakṣema's translation (ca. 179 CE) includes some bodhisatvas. None of the other versions of the text mention bodhisatvas being present. And yet, most translators seem to think that the Buddha asks Subhuti to "explain to the bodhisatvas". 

One of the translation problems is that the action begins with the Buddha saying to Subhūti:
tatra khalu bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtiṃ sthaviram āmantrayate sma - pratibhātu te subhūte bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ prajñāpāramitām ārabhya yathā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur iti || 
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Subhūti, from perfect understanding of practitioner-aspirants, explain the way that practitioner-aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
The Gāndhārī text is fragmentary, but for comparison reads
[tatra ho bhag̱ava aïśpa suhuti amaṃtreti paḍi]‐ [1-03] + + + + + + + + + mahasetvasa prañaparimidu aradhya yasa bosisatve mahasa[tv]e [1-04] + + + +1 [mi]dae ṇiyayae  
Conze translates this as:
The Lord said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings go forth into perfect wisdom! 
What he has done, and my friend concurs with this, is that he has read the genitive plurals (bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ) as dative plurals: i.e. as "to" or "for" instead of "of". There was a tendency for the dative plural and genitive plural to merge in Pāḷi - the genitive form being used with a dative meaning. But this is not true in Classical Sanskrit. In fact in Sanskrit, for nouns in -a, it is the dative and the ablative that begin to merge. The language of Aṣṭa is more or less Classical Sanskrit. Just to complicate matters, the Gāndhārī appears to have a genitive singular (mahasetvasa).

Reading -ānām as Dative

For the sake of argument, let us accept the dative reading for the moment. The Buddha asks Subhūti to explain to the bodhisatvas how the bodhisatvas have gone forth. Apart from the fact that no bodhisatvas are present, why would the bodhisatvas need to have being a bodhisatva explained to them? One implication might be that our definition of bodhisatva is in error. In this view, the arhats present are the bodhisatvas.

Recall that our text was composed in the very earliest times of Mahāyana. (See my overview of recent research on this topic: Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong. 03 July 2015). I cited David Drewes summary
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010: 59)
So perhaps we need to be wary of the later definitions of bodhisatva. The Pāḷi word bodhisatta was already in use for an aspiring Buddha. Indeed in Pāḷi there is only one bodhisatta who is the Buddha before his bodhi. I'm unsure who first proposed this, but there is a theory that satta was wrongly Sanskritised as satva (and later by English editors as sattva). In other words there is an argument that the Pāḷi was not satta "being" but satta "committed, intent on" and ought to have been Sanskritised as sakta. Caveats aside, the idea is that bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta "committed to awakening", and it's possible that mahāsakta might have signified "one whose commitment is great".

The linguistic argument on its own is not very persuasive, but consider also that Jan Nattier, in her book A Few Good Men (1993), argued that bodhisatva referred not to mythical/magical beings, but to people who had committed themselves to attaining liberation. In other words people who sought to emulate the original bodhisatta. They were what we might call full-time practitioners in contrast to monks who were concerned with more mundane matters like running monasteries and doing magic for lay-people.

This distinction has sometimes been formalised as a split between forest dwelling anchorites and town dwelling cenobites (country monks and town monks). For example, Reggie Ray wrote about this in his book Buddhist Saints in India. However, the Ugraparipṛcchā (Nattier 1993) shows the bodhisatva monks living in monasteries alongside other monks. David Drewes has been critical of this thesis: 
"The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010: 61). 
We could, therefore, translate bodhisatva mahāsatva as "practitioner aspirant". However, we must stress that the wrong Sanskritisation can only have reflected the understanding of the day, i.e. those who began to use Sanskrit understood satta to mean "being". So the confusion is not simply a mistaken word choice, but evidence that the word had changed its meaning. And note that the Gāndhārī text, by far the oldest Prajñāpāramitā document unambiguously has satva

In this sense, an arhat who had been a aspirant to liberation might just qualify as being a bodhisatva. Or perhaps it trades on the distinction which occurred quite early on between an arhat and a buddha. However working out the metaphysics of all this is tricky. An arhat has escaped rebirth so cannot be reborn, but a bodhisatva must be born in order to fulfil his role. Early Buddhist accepted that winning the goal meant leaving the game, while Mahāyānists could not bear the thought of continuing without their key players, so forced them to rejoin saṃsāra as iterative messiahs.

Reading -ānām as Genitive

As I say, there seems no obvious reason to read these words as being in the dative case. Nor does it make sense to explain things to people who are not present. So the argument for reading this as genitive, "the perfect understanding of the bodhisatvas" makes more sense (to me anyway). Additionally there is no problem posting that bodhisatvas have Prajñāpāramitā which might be explained by Subhūti (to the arhats), whereas explaining it to them sounds wrong.

So on balance I still lean towards saying that Conze got it wrong. However, the second clause of the sentence is still awkward.

yathā bodhisatvā mahāsatvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur
For a start the connecting adverbial pronoun is yathā, which usually means something like "in that /which way", "just as", or "according to". It is a adverb of mode, i.e. describing how or the way something is done. Compare other modal adverbial pronouns: tathā "in that way"; sarvathā "in every way"; aññathā "in another or different way". And so on.

The verb is a third person plural past perfect from nir√i "go forth, depart". So it means "they went forth, they departed". Since we have an agent (bodhisatvāḥ) in the nominative plural this is fine: bodhisattvāḥ niryāyur means "the bodhisatvas have gone forth". The perfect tense is for actions that are completed in the past and in English usually involves "has" or "had" plus a past participle, i.e. "he has gone".*
* There are three kinds of past tense in Sanskrit: aorist past "I departed"; past imperfect "I was departing"; and past perfect "I had departed". Plus the passive past participle "departing was done by me". 
But what is prajñāpāramitā doing in this phrase? Well, it's a trick question. It cannot easily be explained as it stands. But in a later paragraph the whole sentence is repeated with the word prajñāpāramitāṃ in the accusative case and this does make sense, sort of. The accusative is used to indicate the object of the sentence (the thing to which the action of the verb is being done) or with verbs of motion, it can be the destination. So the whole sentence says:
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Explain, Subhūti, from the perfect understanding of the practitioner aspirants, the way that practitioner aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
So, that's what it says, but what does this mean?


The Bhagavan is asking Subhūti, the chief representative of the Prajñāpāramitā practice community, to explain to the arhats, the fact that bodhisatvas have perfect understanding and that they have gone forth to that perfect understanding. In Buddhism we are quite familiar with the language of going forth. Typically, Buddhist monks go forth from home (āgarika) into the homelessness (anāgarika). Or we might say that we go forth from false refuges to that we can go for refuge to the triratnāḥ or three precious gifts (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha).

The text is hinting, I suppose, that perfect understanding is a standalone refuge. That if one has perfect understanding, then one doesn't really need the other refuges. If this is what the text is saying, then it may have been be controversial. It still is.

Why the arhats need this instruction is far from clear. Aṣṭa does not have the disdain for arhats that developed later in some quarters of the Mahāyāna literature. Apart from having had a guide, there is nothing to distinguish an arhat from a buddha.

Before we can even take this in, we find that the first thing Subhūti does is to deny the very terms on which the Buddha has asked him to speak (i.e. he is correcting the Buddha). We more or less used to seeing Śāriputra as a Mahāyāna patsy, but less used to thinking of the Buddha in this role. Subhūti denies that he can see, apprehend, or perceive any such phenomena as a bodhisatva or prajñāpāramitā. In which case, he asks, "what perfect understanding would I teach to which bodhisatvas?" (katamaṃ bodhisatvaṃ katamasyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām avavadiṣyāmi anuśāsiṣyāmi?).

It turns out that precisely this is the teaching of perfect understanding, i.e. this denial that names apply to experience; or conversely the idea that just because you have a name for a phenomena does not make it real. This takes some reflection. But it helps to get a little of the context provided in the subsequent paragraphs.

Subhūti then proceeds to outline an idea that has been central to my own understanding of the Dharma for ten years: that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to experience. The language mirrors the Sanskrit version of the Pāḷi Kaccāgotta Sutta (SN 12:15) - see my translation of the Kātyāyana Sūtra. And as it happens I have already had a preliminary go at writing about this aspect of the sūtra: Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (26 June 2015).

But we can briefly say that the teaching given to Kātyānayana (or Kaccāna) is the teaching of perfect understanding. I believe I am the first person to make the connection quite so plainly. Though many people, not least David Kalupahana, have noticed that Nāgārjuna makes passing reference to the Kātyāyana Sūtra, I have not yet seen any reference to this much earlier (and defining) reuse of Kātyāyana. 

Its common to think of Mahāyāna as a radical departure from mainstream Buddhism. But this seems to be inaccurate. Instead we can think of the Prajñāpāramitā working out the implications of a much older way of thinking about Buddhism as evidenced by the Kātyāyana Sūtra. In other words they were a conservative group of meditators, focussed on experience, doing practices associated with states of emptiness (cf MN 121) or cessation (cf DN 9).  They were also resisting the metaphysical speculations emerging into mainstream Buddhist discourse by this time. It is sometimes said that Prajñāpāramitā is a rejection of Abhidharma, but Lewis Lancaster's PhD dissertation from 1968 shows that Aṣṭa contains some Abhidharma elements and gradually assimilates more as time goes on.

The importance of rejecting astitā and nāstitā is that it ought to prevent us from reading the text as  metaphysics. I say "ought", because clearly it never stopped some people, notably Edward Conze. If we cannot speak of existence or non-existence, then we are not talking about reality or truth either (the words are if anything more synonymous in Sanskrit). Instead we are talking about phenomenology and epistemology. And by calling into question the applicability of names for phenomena, Aṣṭa is inviting us to question the very basis of our knowledge about the world.

The way I understand this is that, if you attain cessation, it is experience that ceases, and while it is ceased, one dwells in emptiness.  And when one allows experience to start up again, it's like watching a boring film and not being caught up in it, but noticing how bad the acting, dialogue, and plot are.

A lot of fluff has built up around this basic idea, but this is the essence of Buddhist liberation. From the point of view of emptiness, there is nothing to hang a name on. Imagine that we have two states: one in which there is no arising and ceasing, and one in which there is. If we treat it as "reality" (which it is not) then the fact that is it unchanging from an experiential point of view is very misleading. It points in the direction of absolute being or absolute reality. But this would be a mistaken interpretation. Emptiness is not absolute. Nothing that we can experience is, or can be, absolute.

If this experience were common to meditators, and the techniques for attaining such states seem to have been quite widespread, then the contrast may well account for the dualism of Sāṃkhya-darśana and also the absolute being of the Upaniṣads. Indeed mystical speculations about this experience may well explain a good deal about India religion more generally.



Drewe, David. (2010). 'Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.' Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

Karashima, Seishi. (2015). 'Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.' ARIRIAB XVIII: 113–162. https://www.academia.edu/12854001/Who_Composed_the_Mahāyāna_Scriptures_The_Mahāsāṃghikas_and_Vaitulya_Scriptures

Nattier, Jan. (1993).A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Ray, R. A. (1994). Buddhist Saints in India : A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press.

01 December 2017

Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation.

We're making slow progress on the Aṣṭa, but both enjoying the process and nutting out some tricky passages. I want to highlight another passage from early on in chapter one. This part of the introduction seems to serve several functions. One of the main functions is that it addresses the perennial Buddhist anxieties over legitimacy and authenticity. The aim of the text here is to establish the principle that what the disciples of the tathāgata say is authentic because it ultimately derives from him. But it also does something more interesting.
1.4.1. atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir buddhānubhāvena āyuṣmataḥ śāriputrasya imam eva rūpaṃ cetasaiva cetaḥ-parivitarkam ājñāya āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – yat kiṃcid āyuṣman śāriputra bhagavataḥ śrāvakā bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti, sa sarvas tathāgatasya puruṣakāro veditavyaḥ | 
Then Elder Subhūti, with the authority of the Buddha, having known the form of the thoughts of Śāriputra with his own mind, said this to Śāriputra: “Elder Śāriputra, whatever the disciples of the Bhagavan say, instruct, teach, draw out, reveal, and illuminate, it is all to be understood as the work of the Tathāgata. 
1.4.2. tatkasya hetoḥ? 
What is the reason? 
1.4.3. yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ, tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti, tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkṛtya dhārayitvā yad yad eva bhāṣante, yad yad eva deśayanti, yad yad eva upadiśanti, yad yad evodīrayanti, yad yad eva [3] prakāśayanti, yad yad eva saṃprakāśayanti, sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham | 
Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata. Training in that instruction of Dharma,  they realise the nature of experience and carry [the realisation] along. Having realised that nature, whatever they speak, whatever they instruct, whatever they teach, whatever they draw out, whatever [3] they reveal, and whatever they illuminate, is all consistent with the nature of experience. 
What I want to focus on here is the sentence 1.4.3 (Chapter 1, Para 4, sentence 3). In this passage there is a series or succession of related phrases using different grammatical forms. 

yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ

"Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata." The tense is past, and the mode is passive as so often occurs with Sanskrit (deśita is a passive past participle). In the traditional guru/chela relationship it is the teacher who is active at this point, and the student is a passive recipient of the teaching. Or more literally the "pointing out", since √diś means "point". Not like modern ideas of education. Guru as we know mean "heavy", while cela means "cloth or clothes" (though it can also mean the "mere outward appearance", or "slave"). It's not clear how this word came to be used in the sense of "disciple".

Here dharmaḥ appears to mean the teaching of the Buddha. In other words they adopt a lifestyle and are taught to interact with other people; they are taught meditation techniques, and how to interpret their experiences of meditation in a particular theoretical framework, according to the ancient doctrines of Buddhism.

Note that the Dharma was taught by the tathāgata, the "one in-that-state". This is the basis of the claim to legitimacy of these ideas. Everything that enlightened Buddhists say or do is ultimately traced back to the the ultimate authority in Buddhism, the original tathāgata (thought note that what Buddhists mean by this shifts over time).

tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās

Edit. Dhīvan has reminded me that here tatra, is a logical connector - it means "with respect to this". A literal translation would be pretty clunky, even for me, so while I think some more about it, I'm going to leave it as is. Also note that the phrase before tatra is singular and after is plural.

"Training in that teaching of the Dharma." Here the tense has become present and the mode active (via the present active participle). Both the pronoun and the noun are in the locative case. The cognitive metaphor that comes to mind for an English speaker is that the teaching is a container; one trains in it. Almost as though one enters a special room which is set up for the purpose of practice. A virtual environment. Or even an abstract "sacred space". 

Śikṣā can mean learning, study, or training (i.e. both the more cognitive and the more practical elements of learning). The verb √śikṣ is from the desiderative mood of the verb √śāk "to be able, capable" (whence śākya). So śikṣā reflects a "desire to be capable". So we begin with learning as a passive activity and then proceed with the student or pupil as an active participant, trying to fulfil their desire for competence or capacity.

Incidentally, in early Buddhist texts these two phases have two different outcomes with respect to confidence. The outcome of  the passive phase of leaning is faith (saddhā), usually faith in the tathāgata; while the outcome of  active training is perfect clarity (aveccapasāda). So despite what mainstream Buddhists say, saddhā or śraddhā is precisely the passive faith of the newly converted. It carries us through into training, but is eventually replaced by one's own understanding. Faith is very much the right word for this initial phase of confidence in the teacher. It is blind in the sense that it has not been tested, but not blind in the sense that it cannot be tested.

te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. One gains personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and one carries it one (dhārayanti). It is not explained here what is meant by dharmatā. But we get this dichotomy that one is taught the Dharma and one realises dharmatā. The - suffix makes an abstract noun. These refer to ideas, qualities, and states that cannot be experienced with the five sense. So in a sense this is saying that by practising the Dharma one has a personal insight into the idea of the Dharma. 

The word I'm translating as "personal insight" is sākṣātkurvanti, a verbal compound sa-ākṣāt + √kṛ. The first part sa-ākṣa means "having eyes"; and is only used in the ablative of cause "from having eyes"; which is taken figuratively to mean "before one's eyes, evidently, in person, etc". And it is combined with a form of the verb √kṛ "do, make". A single word translation might be "realise", but it maintains the connotation of a personal insight. Something that has been seen with one's own eyes, as it were. As we know, seeing is a metaphor for knowing in both English and Sanskrit. "I see" means "I understand" in both languages. 

Of course, with an abstract noun the word must be metaphorical, since abstractions cannot literally be seen. So the student "sees" the nature (dharmatā). A lot of my recent published scholarship has involved infiltrating Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience into interpreting the Prajñāpāramitā literature as also being concerned with experience rather than metaphysics. Hence, I prefer to think of dharmatā referring to the nature of experience. This is exegesis rather than translation, but without the proper interpretative framework (or hermeneutic) a text like the Aṣṭa rapidly becomes incomprehensible. 

However, realisation itself is an experience and thus only fleeting. A true insight will change the "seer", or at least change their perceptions of experience. They may no longer feel any sense of experience being owned for example - there is a flow of experience for them, but they do not feel it is "my experience" (though it continues to be their experience and no one elses). The verb √dhṛ means, "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e. memorising)" or "maintenance". 

My reading is that the ongoing effects of the realisation are what is meant here, rather than any reference to remembering. One has an experience of (what we Buddhists call) "insight" and is left with an ongoing change in one's perceptions. What Jeffery Martin calls "on-going non-symbolic experience". 

One of the things that interests me here is that a century or two later, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra introduces the idea of the dhāraṇī as something to be attained, alongside samādhi. In other words the bodhisatva, by practising accumulates a range of samādhi and dhāraṇī. And this use of dhāraṇī has puzzled scholars, because it does not clearly relate to the other uses. I think that this early (and somewhat confusing) use of dhāraṇī might relate to the ongoing nature of the changes wrought by meditation on one's perceptions of experience. Other uses of the word dhāraṇī were tacked onto this basic idea; first as the mnemonic practice in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā—which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet as a reminder of a sequence of words, which in turn form the basis for a series of reflections on śūnyatā); and subsequently as the magic spells chanted for protection. 

I've already noted how the opening sentence of Aṣṭa has some dhāraṇī-like qualities. We see this again here in the sequence: bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti. Again if we made these nouns, with the -e ending, and added svāhā at the end, it would be indistinguishable from the type of dhāraṇī than began to appear in Mahāyāna texts a few centuries later. And there is evidence from the Chinese texts that the original phrase had just one verb, bhāṣante, and that the synonyms were added later. Another way of looking at these lists over synonyms is that they are a form of auto-commentary. The earliest version simply had bhāṣante "they speak" and then someone elaborated, by adding five synonyms, just in case we didn't get it. On the other hand √bhāṣ "to speak" is one of the most common verbs in Sanskrit, so it hardly needs explanation.

yad yad eva bhāṣante.... sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham

Finally, the text concludes that whatever is said—by someone who has been instructed in Dharma, practised it, and realised the idea behind the Dharma (dharmatā) and experienced ongoing shifts in their interpretation of their experience—is consistent with the nature of experience. The text goes on to say a little more about this and justify it, but we have the gist.

Here then is the justification for going beyond the ancient stories and legends of the Buddha. It is because the experience of a personal insight into the nature of experience is common between the Buddha (presuming he existed) and the contemporary teachers who bring new perspectives on the experience and new ways of explaining it. Having had a realisation, it is carried on and informs the teaching of the next generation. 

Of course not everyone accepted such arguments, but over about five centuries Mahāyāna gradually became the mainstream in Buddhist India and it was Mahāyāna that spread to most of Asia. Even the Theravādins in Sri Lanka, flirted with Mahāyāna briefly before purging it and taking a conservative stand on their own stories and commentaries.

This is a text that requires and benefits from a considerable amount of unpacking. And this requires an interpretive framework. It is better to consciously choose a framework, rather than relying on intuition; and it is better to choose one that is fruitful in terms of practical and actionable insights. I think the hermeneutic of experience is the best interpretative framework available to us. I didn't invent it by any means, but as I have applied it over some years now, I find it resolves paradoxes, creates sense from nonsense, and recasts the mystic in pragmatic terms. One of the main things we look for in our literature is suggests for practice. Metaphysical or mystic interpretations don't give us that. Even if this is not what the authors intended (though I believe it is), it is still the best way to approach any Buddhist text, because it informs approaches to practice that have long been confirmed by experience. 

My final comment is that Conze seems to get almost every sentence wrong in his translation. He obscures more than he reveals. The need for a new, accurate, and reframed translation is urgent. I cannot understand why this text has not been retranslated in the way that, for example, the Pāḷi texts have been retranslated. Of course, nowadays we have a partial Gāndhārī text (dated to ca. 70 CE) and we give a lot more weight to the seven Chinese translations (though not all equally). So, any study of the Pala Dynasty Sanskrit manuscripts would need to be accompanied by parallels from the Gāndhārī and Chinese versions where they shed light. It would be a major undertaking (and is beyond the scope of what I could achieve). 


24 November 2017

Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis

As I prepare material for my book on the Heart Sutra, I have been collating published responses to Jan Nattier's thesis that the text was composed in Chinese and (back)translated into Sanskrit (Nattier 1992). I suggested in a previous essay that the reception of Nattier's thesis in Japan has been and remains decidedly anti. New evidence of this has emerged in the form of an article by Ishii Kōsei (2015), translated by his English-speaking former student Dr Jeffrey Kotyk

Unfortunately, much of the research done in Japan is only ever published in Japanese and is thus inaccessible to the majority of Buddhist Studies researchers in the West. The linguistic burden is high in our field. I have varying levels of skill in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Medieval-Chinese, but adding modern Japanese just to get access to secondary literature is not feasible. A review article of the Japanese reception of Nattier's article by some qualified scholar is a desideratum, but since Prajñāpāramitā is a tiny niche in Buddhist Studies, it is unlikely ever to happen. 

Ishii is apparently writing in a milieu in which there have already been well-received attacks on Nattier's thesis of a kind that we have not seen in English. He cites publications by Fukui Fuminasa and Harada Wasō, but these apparently focus on the conjecture that Xuanzang might have been responsible for making the Sanskrit translation from Chinese. The conflation of the Chinese origins thesis with the Xuanzang as translator thesis is unhelpful. Nattier leaves open the possibility, but in the end does not commit to Xuanzang being the translator. On the other hand the evidence for Chinese origins is very strong. Ishii seems to think that it is because we Westerner scholars of Buddhist Studies are "not specialists in this respect" that we have fallen for Nattier's thesis, rather than the strength of her arguments.

Ishii thus see his article as contributing some details to an existing (Japanese)  consensus in the face of a general credulity and ignorance in the West. Without access to that consensus, we are forced to take his article on face value, which I'm sure does not do it justice. Be that as it may, I will briefly outline the main points of Ishii's article and then review his methods and conclusions. I may say that my own published research has touched on many of the issues that Ishii has raised and I am thus in a relatively unique position to comment. I am very much a specialist in this respect (see my list of publications).

A Precis of Ishii (2015)

Ishii begins by referencing Nattier's 1992 article with a focus on the idea that Xuanzang might have been involved in editing and translating it from Chinese to Sanskrit. The bulk of the article deals with the opening sentence of the Heart Sutra and with Nattier's translation of it, which Ishii suggests follows the Chinese text, largely on the basis that Nattier omits a word-for-word translation of svabhāva  (1992: 155). 

While Nattier is explicitly translating from a modified version of Conze's critical edition, Ishii refers only to the diplomatic edition based on several hand-copies of the Hōryūji manuscript, produced by Müller in 1884 (though he refers to this as a "critical edition", it is clearly not). In order to attempt to refute Nattier, Ishii launches into a lengthy exposition showing that the word svabhāva is present in the Sanskrit text, but absent in the Chinese, and that the passage overall has given translators some difficulty. He tries to establish a case for the word svabhāva being dropped by a Chinese translator (as it is dropped by Nattier). 

Ishii spends a good deal of time speculating on how to translate the Sanskrit text into Chinese, twisting it this way and that according to rules which may be obvious to his Japanese readers, but which are not at all clear to me. His point seems to be that one may, through a series of arbitrary changes, rearrange a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit, to fit the pattern of Chinese one finds in T251 (the standard Heart Sutra in East Asia). However, on face value the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are simply different. I am told that this may reflect the Japanese practice of rearranging Classical Chinese texts into the Japanese word order and only then interpreting them. A procedure known as  kaki-kudashi 書き下し.

A particular problem is that Sanskrit has three phrases, marked by the present participle caramāṇo "practising") and two verbs with meaning look (vyava√lok) and see (√paś) - both using the pleonastic particle sma indicating the past or the present-in-the-past tense. One of the problems in Chinese is that there are only two verbs in this sentence, i.e. "practising" (行) and "clearly-seeing" (照見). Ishii seems to be saying that the latter is in fact two verbs in two distinct phrases, but rearranged in a series of aesthetic changes so that the two verb characters are together at the beginning of the two phrases, in the order verb1 verb2 phrase1 phrase2

Ishii then discusses the 照見 combination in Chinese literature (two examples) and the vyavalokayati sma/paśyati sma combination in Sanskrit. However, he seems to show that  照見 is used as a binomial verb - the two characters have to be taken together, rather than as two separate verbs, which undermines his case. He argues that thought the phrase 照見五蘊皆空 ([he] saw the five skandhas were all empty") occurs nowhere else in Chinese, that translating it as two phrases does not make sense. 

Next Ishii brings up the commentaries of Kuījī (Ji in the article) and Woncheuk. Ishii notes that Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text and that he used a minor variant of T251, which has an extra character  等 (Sanskrit ādi = English "etc") in two places. Woncheuk was also aware of this variant, and finds ādi in his Sanskrit text, though, of course, his commentary is on the text of T251. It is very likely that these two commentaries established T251 as the authoritative text of the Heart Sutra down to the present. Neither man mentions the differences between the versions in the introductory section. As Ishii hints, had a Sanskrit text been available, it would have been incumbent on the commentator to comment on differences, if only because Sanskrit texts were considered authoritative (this was the entire rationale behind Xuanzang's journey to India after all).

Ishii reveals that his primary goal is still to criticise Nattier's omission of a word for word translation of svabhāva. He has spent 6 of the 8 pages of the article showing this. Though we may say that this is an obvious point and one that has little bearing on the larger issue of where and when the Heart Sutra was composed.

Having laboured this point, Ishii briefly discusses the phrase 真實不虛 "true and not false". The Tang dynasty commentators all take this as a standalone phrase, however Ishii claims that the Sanskrit manuscripts read "satyam amithyātvāt, prajñāpāramitā ukto mantra" which is the way Nattier translates it. Ishii uses the same method to translate the Sanskrit into Chinese, producing something different than the present Chinese text. Ishii seems unaware that Nattier is following Conze's edition, and that Conze's edition gives this passage as:
Tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro’ samasama-mantraḥ, sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatvāt. Prajñāpāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ. 
On this basis, then, Ishii declares that Nattier's thesis is a mistake and untenable. Had I been reviewing this article prior to publication I would have argued that it need major modifications before being published. As it stands the argument is difficult to follow and the evidence does not support the conclusion. 

Critique of Ishii (2015)

Core of the Thesis

Nattier's thesis mainly revolves around the core section of the Heart Sutra, which is a quote from Kumārajīva's text of the Large Sutra (T223). The Chinese Heart Sutra, especially T250 is identical with T223. T251 is identical, but missing a line at the beginning and one in the middle; and a few technical terms are "spelled" according to innovations introduced by Xuanzang. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra by contrast is a strangely unidiomatic paraphrase of the Sanskrit Large Sutra (compared to either the Gilgit recension or the later Nepalese recension).

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a number of words or phrases that are hapax legomena (one of a kind) whereas the Sanskrit Large Sutra has a string of stock phrases. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is unidiomatic in almost every place where it is possible to use a nonstandard synonym, that is, outside the settled technical vocabulary of Buddhist jargon.

There is no doubt in my mind, despite some minor slips on Nattier's part, that the thesis is accurate. I think I have the smoking gun for this, but have not yet had time to check all of the details and write it up. So far as I can tell the term sarvabuddhāḥ tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ "all the Buddhas existing in the three times" is a translation of a phrase that only ever occurs in Chinese. i.e. 三世諸佛. This is literally, "three time all buddha", but we would translate it as "all the buddhas of the three times". Sanskrit texts always use the wording atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ buddhāḥ instead, i,e, "past, future, and present buddhas". There is no way that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could be anything but a translation from Chinese, produced by someone unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I need to do a very thorough check on the various texts, but I think this conjecture will stand up to scrutiny and provide definitive proof of the Chinese origins thesis.

Whatever minor flaws we may find in Nattier's analysis, the main conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is already beyond reasonable doubt. While I would be interested to get more insights into the problems that Japanese scholars see, I cannot imagine how they think they have disproved the thesis. Ishii has certainly not done so in this article, though strangely he provides quite a good summary of the evidence presented by Nattier. However, Ishii does not even touch on this central problem or any of the evidence for it, but concentrates instead on peripheral and seemingly trivial issues that have no impact at all on the issues at hand.

Both of the passages that Ishii comments on are outside the core part of the text, i.e. not part of the quoted section, but part of the original composition that accompanies it. One in the introduction and one in the concluding passage.

Flaw in the Introduction

Before addressing Ishii's comments the introduction I need to point out that I have showed that Conze (and for that matter Müller) made a mistake in his edition. In the first (three phrase) sentence, pañcaskandhās is nominative plural and vyavalokayati sma is intransitive, both of which are nonsensical and make the sentence impossible to parse as Sanskrit. In fact, as some manuscripts allow, the noun should be in the accusative plural, pañcaskandhāṃs (simply add anusvāra to dhā). If we do this, pañcaskandhāṃs becomes the object of vyavalokayati sma. The result is a sentence that can be parsed and that does not require any punctuation (Attwood 2015).

Without solving this problem the Sanskrit sentence cannot be parsed or translated without fudging things. Both Nattier and Ishii fail to notice anything amiss here. But then so do all other scholars apparently.  In this respect the Heart Sutra is a curiously neglected text given its popularity. My next published article will identify and solve another simple error in Conze's edition (in Section VI) that has also gone unnoticed (the flaw is already outlined in my essay Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar" 13 October 2017, but the article will give the conjecture rigour).

The main problem that Ishii highlights, other than Nattier's failure to provide a word-for-word translation of svabhāva, is that the Chinese has two phrases and Sanskrit three phrases. If we assume that the Sanskrit is original, then we expect three phrases in the Chinese as well. In order to make three phrases, Ishii proceeds to rearrange the characters 照見 to make one verb into two verbs, each applying to two different parts of the sentence. 照 can in fact mean "inspect, regard" which is what vyavalokayati means, so in that sense this procedure makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Ishii's method seems to require us to believe that Chinese has no syntax rules. We know that Buddhist Chinese does follow syntax rules, albeit that it sometimes follows medieval Chinese and sometimes Indic rules. Ishii's method is a classic case of making the data fit the hypothesis. It is a post hoc rationalisation. His method is not sound, and not consistent with established principles of philology.

In all of this procedure it is never explained why a Chinese translator would omit the word svabhāva from their translation if it occurs in the Sanskrit text. Nor why they would condense three phrases down to two. Nothing is explained. 

Assuming that we ignore the overwhelming case of a Chinese origin for the core section, there is no way to establish precedence by comparing the number of phrases in a given passage outside the core. In my work on the epithets of the mantra (Attwood 2015) I showed that the number of epithets varied from 2 to 8 in unpredictable ways. Note also that Conze's English translation of his Sanskrit, has an fourth phrase as he struggled to turn his garbled Sanskrit into comprehensible English.

True and Not False

It is ironic that Ishii should bring up 真實不虛, because the Sanskrit is clearly a mistranslation of the Chinese. Although the combination of 真實 and 不虛 is common in Chinese, the combination of satya and amithyā never occurs in Sanskrit outside the Heart Sutra, where is is one of several hapax legomena. Although Ishii provides several examples of the use of 真實不虛 in Chinese, he never gives the Sanskrit equivalent. Since we know that it is not satyam amithyātvāt, it would be most interesting to see what the equivalent is. 

However the problem here is deeper: satyam amithyātvāt is nonsensical as it stands. Amithyā does not mean "false", i.e. it is not an antonym for satya, which would be mṛṣa or even asatya. Mithyā on the other hand is the antonym of samyañj, and it means "wrong" (as in, going about something the wrong way, against the grain, in the wrong direction). Worse, in fact 虛 isn't an antonym of 真實 "true" either, but instead means "hollow, empty; vain, pointless". The passage does not mean "true and not false" it means "true and not in vain". And amithyā cannot be construed as a good translation of this. And the word in Sanskrit that might correspond to this is tucchaka. A better English translation would thus be "true and effective". A better Sanskrit translation would be satyaṃ atucchakaṃ. Again I hope to publish something on this, but it is another case of something that ought to have been obvious to anyone who reads Buddhist Sanskrit texts. 

Syntactically, in Chinese both qualities are predicates of prajñāpāramitā (there is no suggestion that one is the cause of the other). It makes no sense at all, in Sanskrit, to take satyam amithyātvād with the following passage. Amithyātvād is weird: the wrong word in the wrong form in the wrong case. It is not the weirdest thing about the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but I find it hard to believe that it has not caused other scholars to scratch their heads.

Miscellaneous Criticisms.

It is strange that Ishii would use Müller's diplomatic edition than the critical editions by Conze. Despite being flawed in places, it is still the result of comparing many different manuscripts. At one point Ishii refers to "most of the extant Sanskrit manuscripts", but he does not cite any one of them. We have to wonder what sources he consulted, or whether he referred to Conze's notes in his edition? In which case why not use that edition as his Sanskrit source?

At one point Ishii makes a big deal of the Chinese translations of the extended version of the Heart Sutra T253, T254, T255, and T257. He must surely be aware that there is no dispute that these are translations from Sanskrit. The dates are clearly recorded in Chinese and that they come from a much later period. They have no bearing on the matter which language the text was composed in. Citing them doesn't help his case at all.

Thinking about Woncheuk's reference to a version with 等 (ādi) in it. Lusthaus (2003) also tries to make something of this. But so what? The version is no longer extant and was not canonised - no one saw it as important enough to preserve. And as before, it doesn't affect the main arguments. Ishii and Lusthaus both fail to see that although Woncheuk appears to have had a Sanskrit text, he does not treat it as authoritative. Rather, he comments on T251 as the authoritative version of the text. So does Kuījī. Under what circumstances does a Sanskrit "original" (as Lusthaus calls it) not trump a Chinese translation in early medieval China? In fact both Kuījī and Woncheuk were aware that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, and Kuījī at least knew it contained a quote from T223  (see Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). So this is not news. It is quite likely that it is precisely these two commentaries that establish T251 as the authoritative text in China and its cultural sphere. This is entirely inconsistent with the pair having a Sanskrit "original".


The text of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is so far from the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā Sanskrit literature, Buddhist Sanskrit literature, or any other kind of Sanskrit literature, that the fact itself is (or ought to be) remarkable. The Heart Sutra stands alone in the entire body of Sanskrit literature and is only related to the other Prajñāpāramitā texts by its use of jargon. This is not consistent with being composed in India. It is consistent with having been composed in China by someone proficient in Sanskrit, but without any great knowledge of idiom. This could not have been Xuanzang - who was more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom than anyone in China at the time. I think the mistakes highlighted by Huifeng (2014) also helped to cement the Chinese origins thesis. The translator has misread the Chinese text at times and has struggled to find the Sanskrit vocabulary to express the Chinese concepts at others. Again this is inconsistent with a monk in an Indian Sanskrit-using context. The translator was relatively isolated.

I admit, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging from Ishii and I found the article quite disappointing. He concentrates on peripheral issues and provides no refutation of the very strong evidence put forward already (and added to by Huifeng and myself in the last couple of years). The methods are not sound and the conclusions are weak and do not derive from the evidence presented. It looks like a tendentious throwing together of evidence to support a preconceived conclusion. "It is inconceivable that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, therefore it wasn't. QED." But this is hardly the standard of argumentation and reasoning we expect from a senior academic.

Like other scholars before him, Ishii has simply overlooked the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text, which I am less and less inclined to forgive in professionals. After all, professionals are, on the whole (with a few notable exceptions), very hard on me when I dare to encroach on their territory and do not meet their high standards. So yes, let's have high standards, but that includes not being duped into accepting simple grammatical errors in our texts. 

We should, of course, not judge Japanese scholarship more generally on the basis of this single example, even though Ishii is a senior member of the Japanese Buddhist Studies establishment. We can hope that the article does not reflect the state of the art in Japan. However, it is not a good sign that such a weak and confused article could be published in a peer-reviewed journal at all. 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. ​​Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017).  ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Ishii, Kosei. (2015) 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 ―ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う = ‘Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier's Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.’ Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu), 2015, 64(1), 499-492. (Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk).

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.

17 November 2017

All of them Arahants. Notes on Aṣṭasāhasrikā and Speech Acts.

I'm doing some preparation for reading Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) with a friend and have ended up making a load of notes. I'm mainly looking at the edition by Vaidya, but comparing it where possible with the Gāndhārī, and two versions in Chinese, one by Lokakṣema translated in 179 CE (the earliest), and one by Kumārajīva translated in 404 (the most popular). This will be too laborious to do for the whole text, but might help shed light on particular passages (we may well get a publication out of it at some point).

The first sentence is
evaṃ mayā śrutam ekasmin samaye bhagavān rājagṛhe viharati sma gṛdhakūṭe parvate mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdham ardha-trayodaśabhir bhikṣuśataiḥ, sarvair arhadbhiḥ kṣīṇāsravair niḥkleśair vaśībhūtaiḥ suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair ājñair ājāneyair mahānāgaiḥ kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair apahṛta-bhārair anuprāpta svakārthaiḥ  parikṣīṇabhava-saṃyojanaiḥ samyag-ājñā-suvimuktacittaiḥ sarvaceto vaśiparamapārami-prāptair ekaṃ pudgalaṃ sthāpayitvā yaduta āyuṣmantam ānandam ||
In this batch of notes, I will make some miscellaneous comments about numbers, dhāraṇī, and the absence of bodhisatvas. I then look at how speech act theory can inform translation, using one of these adjectives (in red) as my example.


In english we say that there were "twelve hundred and fifty bhikṣus". However, Sanskrit Buddhists texts say this differently, using the form "x hundreds-of-bhikṣus" (where hundreds-of-bhikṣus is a compound, bhikṣuśatāḥ). In this case the number of hundreds is ardha-trayodaśa or literally "half-thirteen". This means thirteen-less-a-half, or twelve-and-a-half. And "twelve and a half hundreds" = 1250. The significance of this number is unclear, but it crops up in other texts as well.


One of the overall things that strikes me about the string of adjectives (in red) is how much it looks like a dhāraṇī. There is the same kind of iteration and alliteration, e.g. suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair,  ājñair ājāneyair, and kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair. If change the instrumental plural to the standard eastern Prakrit nominative singular ending, it emphasises the similarity e.g. 
kṣīṇāsrave niḥkleśe vaśībhūte suvimuktacitte suvimuktaprajñe ājñe ājāneye mahānāge kṛtakṛtye kṛtakaraṇīye apahṛtabhāre anuprāpte svakārthe  parikṣīṇabhavasaṃyojane samyagājñāsuvimukte
Tack a svāhā onto the end of this and it could be a dhāraṇī as found in most Mahāyāna texts after about the 4th Century. It seems we could say that dhāraṇī make use of literary techniques already in use, such as the tendency to iterate adjectives, to double up (or higher multiples) in order to create emphasis. 

The form of this statement, using the instrumental plural is rare in Pāḷi, occurring only in the Samaya Sutta, recorded twice: in the Dīgha Nikāya (DN ii.252) and the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN i.25). 
Evaṃ me sutaṃ – ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sakkesu viharati kapilavatthusmiṃ mahāvane mahatā bhikkhusaṅghena saddhiṃ pañcamattehi bhikkhusatehi sabbeheva arahantehi; 
Thus have I heard: one time the Bhagavan was dwelling with the Sakyas in a large grove in Kapilavattu, together with a large congregation of five hundred bhikkhus, all of them arahants. 
The Pāḷi number idiom is slightly different. Pāḷi says "five measures (pañcamatta) of one hundred bhikkhus (bhikkhusata)." However, most of the other adjectives are familiar in one way or another. 

Note that Lokakṣema's translation doesn't have a list of adjectives and thus looks a lot more like the opening of the Pāḷi Samaya Sutta. It suggests that the adjectives were added after the original composition. This highlights that the Mahāyāna texts were not part of a Canon (a collection of texts in fixed form), even when written, but instead they were continuously added to over the centuries. 


Though this is a Mahāyāna text and the critical edition is based on relatively late manuscripts, with the oldest being from the 10th Century, there are no bodhisatvas present. This seems significant, because the presence of bodhisatvas seems to be an important feature of Mahāyāna.

However, when we look at the old translations we find a different story. Lokakṣema's translation from 179 AD, 《道行般若經》 (T224) says: 
[8.425.c06] 佛在羅閱祇 耆闍崛山 中,摩訶比丘 僧不可計,諸弟子 舍利弗 、須菩提等;摩訶薩菩薩無央數,彌勒菩薩 、文 殊師利菩薩  等。 
Once the Buddha was at Rājagṛha on the Vultures Peak with a huge congregation of monks, impossible to count, all of them disciples (弟子), including Śāriputra and Subhūti; and countless mahāsatva bodhisatvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī. 
This kind of hyperbole is what we expect from a Mahāyāna sūtra. By the way, the word "disciples" (弟子) seems to reflect an underlying śrāvaka, though we expect arhat here, and is probably a mistake. It may reflect the idea that arhat was the goal of the śrāvakayāna, whereas the bodhisatva was the goal of the bodhisatvayāna

Unfortunately the Gāndhārī manuscript (dated to 70 AD) is damaged and/or missing at this point. By the late 4th Century Kumārajīva's text (T227), while still considerably shorter than the later manuscripts, is completely conventional:
[537a25 - 26]  如是我聞。  一時佛在王舍城耆闍崛山中。與大比丘僧千二百五十人倶皆是阿羅漢。
Thus have I heard: one time the Buddha was staying at Rāgagṛha on the Vulture's Peak, with a great congregation of 1250 bhikṣus and all of them were arhats. 
Here the word arhat is transliterated as 阿羅漢 which in Middle Chinese was alahan. It may reflect a Prakrit original (cf Pāḷi arahant), but by Kumārajīva's time was fairly standard, though there were many variant "spellings" in Chinese, e.g.  阿盧漢; 阿羅訶, 阿羅呵; 阿梨呵, 阿黎呵. This was later abbreviated to lohan or louhan (these Romanizations represent modern Mandarin pronunciations)

So the text is seemingly quite different at different times, assuming that the Chinese translations accurately reflect their source texts. Nor are the differences explicable as a linear evolution. Lokakṣema has bodhisatvas present, whereas others did not. So was Lokakṣema's text different or he was taking liberties? We don't know because the Chinese did not preserve the Sanskrit originals of the Indic texts that they translated, and indeed very few texts survive from that period anywhere. The surviving Sanskrit manuscripts of Aṣṭa are on corypha palm leaves and date from about the 10th Century onwards. Note also that—especially in the earlier translations—the translators were working from single manuscripts that were most likely riddled with copying errors.

One of the things this brief comparison shows is that there is no single sūtra called Aṣṭasāhasrikā. I tried once before to bring out this with respect to the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'? 20 December 2013). Similarly, Jonathan Silk has recently called into question the applicability of traditional philological techniques of identifying the "original" text, (Establishing / Interpreting / Translating: Is It Just That Easy?), which I used as the basis of my essay, The Heart Sutra and the Crisis in Buddhist Philology (30 June 2017).

Effectively, the text of any give sūtra is different for different people at different places and times. And this is an argument for the prominent position that translations play in Western Buddhism, despite the fact that, as far as the Prajñāpāramitā literature is concerned, there are no good translations as yet. With the forthcoming book by Paul Harrison we may finally have a decent translation of the Vajracchedikā, but as my work has shown, we do not yet have a reliable source text from which to translate the Heart Sutra. An accurate translation of Aṣṭa would be a fine thing.

Speech Act Theory and Translation

In this short sub-essay I'll take a single example and examine how we should understand it in the light of speech act theory. 


Like most of the adjectives in our list, this is a compound. It combines kṣīṇā 'cut off' and āsrava 'inflow' ← ā√sru.*  Where √sru means "flow", but also "to flow out of, to gush forth". The addition of the ā prefix to verbs involving direction, usually reverses the direction, i.e. suggests as a first approximation "inflow, influx". We could translate kṣīṇāsrava as "inflows cut off". We could play around with synonyms such as "influx", or more traditional attempts at interpretation such as "taints, corruptions" or the wildly interpretive  "intoxicant biases" (Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary). But what does any of this mean? What precisely is "flowing in"? I've been a Buddhist for more than 20 years and I still draw a blank when I see these terms.
* the change from sru to srava is regular and expected. The root sru undergoes guṇasro, which is conceived as sr(ău). We add a to create an actions noun giving, sr(ău)a. This creates an internal sandhi which resolves as srava

Can we do better? I think we can. Many writers, not least Richard Gombrich, have pointed out that āsrava (Pāḷi assava) is a term taken from Jainism. In that context, actions (karma) cause an inflow (āsrava) of "matter" or "dust" (the Sanskrit word here is unclear) that sticks to the soul (jīva) and keeps it in saṃsāra. But the word āsrava might also be translated as "channel for acquisition of karma", i.e. the Jains see āsrava both as the flow and channel for flow of karma. Jains believe that suffering removes (nirjarā) karma from the jīva, thus liberates it from saṃsāra. Another way of thinking about it in Jain terms, is that āsrava is a way that the consequences of karma impinge on the person. An āsrava is a karma conduit.

So what might it mean to cut off the inflowing or channels for inflowing of karma? It means that the person concerned is not going to suffer the consequences of any past actions because the flow of karma has ceased. Nor will they create any new karma (conceived of as consequential actions that will result in rebirth) that might prevent from being finally liberated from rebirth. Someone who is kṣīṇāsrava does not create new karma and has no old karma waiting to manifest.

In other words to be kṣīṇāsrava is to be free of karma: free in the sense of not subject to any consequences of past actions; and free in the sense of not having to worry about what they do because they can no longer do actions that result in rebirth. Of course, Aṅgulimālā might be considered an exception, since he still has to suffer from past karma but he is still not making any new karma and won't be reborn.

Dictionaries are helpful tools, but to really understand a language one has to think beyond the dictionary, to see words in their cultural context. This is particularly important for Sanskrit which is used in a wide range of distinct contexts which may use the same words very differently. Similarly, etymology can tell us what the parts of a compound originally meant, but not how the individual words are used at a particular place or time, let alone the meaning of a compound.

Speech Acts and Translation

The theory of speech acts was developed in the USA in the 20th Century, largely by two men, John L. Austin and John Searle. Their analysis was part of a movement away from seeing language in merely semantic terms by applying principles deriving from pragmatism. Semanticists ask "What does language mean?", while pragmatists ask "What does language do?" Austin and Searle mapped out the kinds of things we do with language. They treated spoken sentences as "speech acts". In this pragmatic view, semantics must be subordinated to pragmatics, if only because of irony, i.e. when we say one thing, but mean something else. If I say "I love your new haircut" a semanticist can only analyse the words themselves and conclude that I do love your new haircut. A pragmatists also listens to my tone of voice and watches my face as I say it, and they might realise I don't like your new haircut at all and that I am mocking you. Semantics cannot cope with sarcasm or irony, because the same words are used as if I was sincere. Pragmatics doesn't just add a dimension to semantics, but shows that "sense" occurs in the context that goes well beyond word choices.

This is one of the problems of working with written texts. Written texts have no eyebrows or tone, we cannot tell how the author intended us to read their words. As literal truth, informative myth, entertaining legend, or some other interpretation. To take a real example, one of us might read a Buddhist text such as the Pāḷi Tevijjā Sutta as a parody, which changes its meaning entirely; while another dismisses the idea that Buddhists could portray the Buddha as having a sense of humour as projection and argues for a more literal reading. 

Speech act theory suggests that we can understand a communication in terms of what was said, what was meant, and what was understood. The technical terms for these are locution, illocution, and perlocution (and be aware that the technical definitions of all of these terms are a lot more sophisticated than how I have boiled it down here). The case of kṣīṇāsrava illustrates this very nicely. Obviously kṣīṇāsrava is a locution, i.e. it is a declaration about an arhat that helps to establish legitimacy and authority on several levels. It establishes the status of people present (who subsequently participate in the dialogues); it helps to establish the status of arhats as a class of people; and because the Buddha is surrounded by a large number of them, his authority and legitimacy is also established. Buddhists are obsessed with these political issues of status, legitimacy, and authority from the earliest records of their thinking.

Conze's attempt to translate kṣīṇāsrava is "their outflows dried up". This is a perlocution for Conze, it represents what he has understood, but it is also a new locution, something he is declaring. This is a feature of translation. The author composes a text and perhaps writes it down as a document. The translator reads the text, tries to understand it in the source language, then they compose a text in the target language which they hope will have the same illocutionary force. A translation is always a new locution. It's never the same locution.

Conze wants us to understand this thing about arhats: "their outflows dried up". This is similar to how Kumārajīva's translation team understood term, since they translate 諸漏已盡 "all leaks completely exhausted"

So contrary to the dictionaries and Jain usage, which clearly suggest that ā√sru means "in-flow", both Conze and Kumārajīva understand "outflow". One of the things about borrowed terms is that they are thoroughly decontextualised, so the knowledge that this word āsrava originally came from a Jain context was lost and not recovered until after Conze was writing.

I'm not sure about other readers but when I think of "their outflows dried up", I think of a leaky container, particularly a human body leaking fluid from various orifices (the Chinese 漏 "leak" only reinforces this!). I have a cold at present with a runny nose and sore throat. I have a lot of extraneous outflows that I wish would dry up. So what Conze seems to be saying, on face value, is that the leaking body fluids from the arhats have dried up. It certainly does not conjure any sense of what the term means in practice, or convey anything to me that I intuitively find meaningful.

By looking at how the word was used in its original context we have deduced that the illocutionary force of kṣīṇāsrava is that arhats are free of karma. And we can use this conclusion "free of karma" as our translation. To my mind, as a Buddhist who has explored Buddhist karma doctrines in some depth, this makes a great deal of sense; whereas, "their outflows dried up" doesn't communicate anything relevant to me (and produces a load of irrelevant associations). 

What I do not control is how the reader will understand this - the perlocution. For example there are many different ways of thinking about karma and I can't be sure that all of them will fit my conception. Some might take this to mean that the arhats are free from moral restraint for example, and able to act immorally with impunity. Though this would not be what I intended to say, not my illocution, it might be a perlocution for the reader.


This "essay" is really just a collection of notes with no overall theme except that they arise out of reading Aṣṭa and thinking about how to translate it. However, one of the major themes I've explored over the years is just how difficult translating really is. I've tried to convey how little confidence we should have in translated documents as representative of the author's intentions. The very idea of "the text" is much more fluid in our Buddhist milieu that it is for, say, Christians.

On one hand this ought to legitimate translations. We know that in most Asian countries, Indic texts were abandoned quickly once translations became widely available. Indic texts were not generally preserved in the long term, but remained theoretically important. On the other hand, the whole point of the story of Xuanzang going to India (and he was only one of many such pilgrims from China and Tibet) was that he felt the translations of Kumārajīva and others were not sufficiently clear or comprehensible. It is a little ironic then, that while his translations were generally considered superior by scholars, none of Xuanzang's translations ever become popular or replaced those of Kumārajīva in the popular imagination.

Translations are seldom really about translating individual words. The basic unit of meaning is the sentence. That is to say, it is how words are used in sentences that convey the authors intentions. A list of adjectives is a special case. But the single word example of kṣīṇāsrava does seem to highlight many of the problems with English translations of Buddhist texts. We are not there yet in terms of fully migrating to English as a medium for communicating the Dharma. We are still struggling with Buddhist Hybrid English and with incomprehensible word for word translations.

One of the problems we seem to have is that few scholars are going over the ground and bringing the light of new discoveries to familiar texts. I think this is partly a problem of how such work is funded now. Everyone is busy working on "new" areas and previously untranslated texts (which seem to become more obscure with each passing year).

Another text I've been looking at recently is Lewis Lancaster's unpublished dissertation on the Chinese translations of Aṣṭa which compares the versions - and delineates three periods of the text. I hope to write up some notes on this as well, because it is apparent that this 50 year old document has not had the kind of influence on the popular imagination of Prajñāpāramitā that it should have. It is  a great pity that in the 50 years since Lancaster's doctoral dissertation is that no one seems to have followed up on the doors that it opened. Certainly, no new translation of Aṣṭa has appeared to replace the faulty one produced by Conze. One bright spot is Seishi Karashima's glossary of Lokakṣema's Aṣṭa. Which ought to make a new comparative translation much easier. 


20 October 2017

The Horror of Apocrypha.

People often react positively when I say that I study the Heart Sutra. They often seem imagine that the holiness of the text must rub off on me (I wish!). In reality, I don't find the Heart Sutra particularly interesting, except as a case study in the history of ideas in Buddhism. Unfortunately I found a sixty year old mistake in Conze's edition as I was beginning to learn Sanskrit back in 2012 and for me that meant figuring our how to fix it (see Attwood 2015). But it also meant looking to see in what other ways it was broken. As much as anything, what fascinates me now is that people continue to translate the text even though it is broken in several ways, both by Conze and original translator. What goes on in the mind of a translator who stumbles on a passage that simply does not make sense, but publishes something anyway?

The English language literature on the Heart Sutra mostly celebrates irrationality and mysticism, which goes a long way to explaining why no one noticed that the text did not make sense. It reminds me of that popular formulation of the laws of thermodynamics (aka Ginsberg's Theorem), which I can paraphrase for our purposes as: you can't understand, you can't hope to understand, there is nothing you can do that will bring about understanding. Call this Conze's Theorem, though it could equally well be Suzuki's. If someone accepts Conze's Theorem then their chances of spotting grammatical errors plummets. 

Amidst all the smoke and mirrors we don't usually see that, like many philosophers, priests and mystics actively get in the way of understanding. They impede us by asserting falsehoods, contradicting themselves, and above all by trying to convince us to take up the defeatist, fixed mindset (in the Professor Carol Dweck sense) that Conze's Theorem represents. If anyone actually understood, all the priests would be out of a job, or they would have competition. On the other hand, there is a symbiotic relationship between those who confuse and those who wish to be confused (or to justify their state of confusion or be absolved of responsibility for it). Priest and congregation co-exist and feed off each other.

A friend who likes to produce his own translations of the Heart Sutra, partly based on our long discussions about it, was criticised recently for "taking the mystery out of it". What can I say? The mystery of the Heart Sutra is how Buddhists get away with promoting magical thinking.

The Horror...

Anyway, sometimes my desire to understand forces me (reluctantly) to read books about the Heart Sutra. It's a bit like, having dropped my glasses in the toilet while having a piss, I have to fish them out before I flush, just in case they go past the U-bend. For some reason I had high hopes about Kazuaki Tanahashi’s book. I think it might have been the nice cover. The book does have a very nice cover (right). As the subtitle suggests this was an attempt at a comprehensive account of the Heart Sutra. However, like Red Pine, there was a mismatch between the author's expertise, the subject of the book, and the scope of his ambition. Tanahashi is even less proficiency than Red Pine in Sanskrit and appears to be entirely reliant on third parties, who apparently mislead him on many occasions. His commentary on the Sanskrit text is full of errors of lexicon and morphology and, as a result, quite unreliable.

I'm not even going to mention the new English Heart Sutra contrived with help from Roshi Joan Halifax. Instead in this essay I want to focus on how Tanahashi deals with the news, delivered in 1992, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, in Chinese. It was not Indian and not written in Sanskrit, and therefore not a sūtra. Tanahashi devotes almost four pages to outlining Nattier’s ninety-page article in a fairly neutral manner. His gloss is more or less accurate and he states that he thinks it is plausible (2014: 73-76). 

Then in a separate chapter, he notes the horror with which the article was received in Japan. He cites the late Japanese scholar, Fumimasa-Bunga Fukui (福井文雅), as saying “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (2014: 77). Fukui (who died in May 2017) was a major figure of the Japanese Buddhist establishment, though almost completely unknown in the West because he didn't write in English (e.g. he only has a Japanese Wikipedia entry). Fukui, unsurprisingly given this attitude, is not convinced by the evidence presented, though Tanahashi does not really say anything about Fukui's reasoning. 

Tanahashi also records Red Pine’s objection, which I have already dealt with to some extent (Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar". 13 October 2017). However, unlike Pine, Tanahashi declares himself satisfied by the case that Nattier has made for the Heart Sutra having been composed in China. On the surface this is a victory for reason (sorely needed), but watch what happens next.

It Cannot Be Ruled Out.

The chapter that starts off assessing Nattier's thesis veers off on what seems to be a tangent. Tanahashi notices that T250 is closer to T223 and dubs it the “alpha version”. Despite the fact that T250 differs considerable more from the received Sanskrit text than T251, Tanahashi proposes it as the source text for the Sanskrit. He is concerned here to rally facts that support the identity of Xuánzàng as the translator, a case which in reality is very weak. Someone as familiar with the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature as Xuánzàng undoubtedly was, would be unlikely to make so many idiomatic mistakes or to misread the Chinese text.  The reasoning becomes increasingly specious, but it comes around to an unexpected conclusion:
“Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang’s Sanskrit version could be accepted as an authentic scripture.” (84)
So having accepted the rational argument against the text being authentic, Tanahashi uses deduction to show that after all it is authentic. The reasoning here is quite something and it might be instructive to diagram it.
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.
Note that Axiom3 assumes that the Heart Sutra complies with Axioms1 & 2. Nattier shows, however, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China some time between 404 CE and 672 CE. And so we get the syllogism:
If the Heart Sutra was composed in China, it did not come from India, therefore it is not the word of the Buddha, and therefore it is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1: The Heart Sutra is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1 is the complete opposite of Axiom3. One or other must be false. Nattier in fact downplays this conclusion, presumably out of sympathy with her many Asian Buddhist Colleagues. But anyone can see the implications for this most popular of all East Asian texts. To put it baldly: it's a fake. Anyone who promoted it is a fool. Even if you did understand it, the understanding itself would not be authentic. This is the fear anyway. In my view the Heart Sutra is an authentic expression of early medieval Chinese Buddhism, but that's probably not enough for the traditionalist. 

Buddhist religious authority is partly predicated on the authenticity of the sūtras, and for Japanese Zen Buddhists this sūtra has a central and vital role. The Heart Sutra is the central mystery in the mystery religion that is modern Zen Buddhism (especially after D T Suzuki’s influential Theosophy inspired presentation of it). Axiom1 is the warp upon which the Zen Buddhist priests weave the weft of their religious authority. If Axiom1 is no longer a given, then the whole fabric of the religious tradition may unravel. Zen Buddhism is in danger of losing all credibility: hence the horrified reaction in Japan to Nattier’s article.

So, for obvious reasons, Conclusion1 is unacceptable: Fukui and Pine reject the evidence out of hand. Pine goes as far as denying that there is any evidence.

Tanahashi is, unlike Red Pine, honest enough to admit that Nattier’s case for Conclusion1 goes beyond any reasonable doubt. However, he is still committed to the three axioms. Therefore, he looks for a weak point in Nattier’s case. Her 1992 article is 90 pages long and covers a lot of ground. One of the subjects she covers is the attribution of T250 to Kumārajīva and T251 to Xuánzàng.

Traditionally, of course, T251 is attributed to Xuánzàng as translator. While Nattier casts enough doubt on this attribution for it to be abandoned, she leaves open the possibility that Xuánzàng produced the Sanskrit translation. This is a very appealing possibility to many Buddhists and in it Tanahashi finds his salvation.

Having definitely identified Xuánzàng as translator Tanahashi constructs a fantasy that goes like this. Buddhists, he says, meditate and sometimes, in meditation, they receive divine revelations. Stories of meditating monks receiving instructions from Maitreya or Mañjuśrī are exceedingly common in Buddhist folklore. In these stories, the figures are usually bodhisatvas and they play the role of a virtual-buddha who provides the necessary imprimatur to meet Axiom2 (sūtras are the word of the Buddha).

It is of course well known that Xuánzàng travelled to India. In his final manoeuvre, Tanahashi imagines that the revelation from Avalokiteśvara conveniently took place in India. This allows him to construct the following syllogism:
If Xuánzàng had “received” the [translated] text in India [Axiom1], it would have to be seen as a scripture of Indian origin! Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang's version could be accepted as an authentic scripture (84).
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.

The essential axioms are satisfied and the horror of the prospect that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon is banished, just as Xuánzàng himself banished the demons of the Gobi desert by reciting the Heart Sutra by magic. As Tanahashi says, this possibility “cannot be ruled out”. He is of course right. Just as we cannot rule out the possibility of the tooth-fairy. 

However, Tanahashi cannot cite a single source for this idea. There is nothing in Xuánzàng's own account of his journey to suggest any of this happened. Nothing in the biographies composed by his contemporaries. Not even a suspicious looking legend. There is nothing for anyone to base such speculation on. We associate Xuánzàng with the Heart Sutra, because shoe-horned into his travelogue is a single mention of the text; and because his two main disciples wrote commentaries on the text (which are, curiously, undated - the Chinese dated everything). Xuánzàng is famous precisely for bringing Sanskrit Buddhist texts to China, and translating then into Chinese after he arrived. He was a prolific translator so we have a very good idea of what to look for and the Heart Sutra has none of the tell-tale signs. What is apparent is that someone has inexpertly altered the text to make it look more like a Xuánzàng production, but they didn't do a very good job of it.

So no, we cannot prove that it didn't happen, but there is also no reason to believe it did, except for Axioms1 & 2. 

One weakness that Tanahashi did not exploit, is that while he was in India, Xuánzàng is believed to have made a Sanskrit translation of the Chinese apocryphal text known in English as The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. However, in this case the text is widely acknowledged to be an apocryphon. In trying to establish the authenticity of the Heart Sutra, it would be risky to pair it with a known forgery. Tanahashi avoids this potential complication by not mentioning it (though it is equally likely that he was simply ignorant of this fact). 

Having proved to his own satisfaction that the Heart Sutra is authentic, despite also accepting that Nattier has proved that it is not authentic (in that sense), Tanahashi proceeds as though his fantasy is reality. Just three pages later, he says:
“However, when Xuanzang translated the Hridaya into Chinese, there is no doubt that he referred to the α version [i.e. T250], which he might have believed to be the Kumarajiva translation” (87)
This is a neat trick. He begins by making a show of rationality, of gravely considering and accepting the validity of Nattier’s argument, despite the horrifying consequences that have made his prejudiced contemporaries in Japan (and elsewhere) reject it outright. Nevertheless, he proceeds as though Nattier got it completely wrong and the Heart Sutra is everything the Japanese Zen tradition says it is. The level of self-deception and desperation involved is shocking even to this relatively cynical author.

Oh, and the lack of doubt that Xuánzàng consulted T250 is convenient cover for the fact that T251 is not a separate translation at all, it is T250 that has been lightly edited: two lines have been removed, one from the beginning and one from the middle of the quote from the Large Sutra (T223) and/or it's commentary (T1509); and 3 word have been changed to reflect Xuánzàng's preferred "spelling" (Avalokiteśvara, Śāriputra, and skandha).

"We Fear Change.

With apologies to the copyright holders

Anyone familiar with the history of science probably knows about Thomas Kuhn's description of how science makes progress. It is down to him that we use the word paradigm as much as we do. Scientists supposedly resist paradigm change because they stake their careers on the old idea. However, in science, though there may be resistance, attitudes, theories, and practices do change, because scientists respond to evidence (my lifetime has seen many paradigms shift). In religion, it can be a very different story, even in the religion whose unofficial motto is "everything changes". Ideally in science, theory is evidence led. Religion is almost always the opposite: theory leads evidence. Evidence is either made to fit the theory or it is simply discarded as irrelevant. As we have seen in this case.

In all likelihood both Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi are good men; they are sincere and wrote their books in good faith, not consciously intending to impede understanding by giving false information or creating confusion. They most likely care deeply about the traditions they've given their lives to. They don’t see themselves as deceiving anyone, nor the self-serving nature of their deceptions. In all likelihood, they are just as deceived by their own words as others are (though happy to accept the benefits that accrue to them as a result). The axioms of their worldview override other concerns. Such axioms underpin the deductive logic of the rejection of any counter-factual information. This is the characteristic of a religious mindset.

However, it leaves them vulnerable. Sooner or later, someone like me was going to examine their work and point out the fallacies, biases, and mistakes in their work. The problems that don't just detract from their efforts but characterise them. Everything that is wrong with religion as a cultural institution is on display in Tanahashi's attempt to both accept and subvert the Chinese origins thesis. The rhetoric, the pretence, is that they are concerned with ultimate reality and that they accept that everything changes. But a simple truth such as the Heart Sutra being a Chinese composition, causes such consternation that they revert to type: they obfuscate, deny, and misdirect.

The reality in this case is that the Heart Sutra is changing. It has changed in the past, and it will change again. Buddhism is changing, it has changed in the past, and it will change again. If change is the nature of reality, then the changes wrought by Jan Nattier should be joyfully embraced by Buddhists. Instead, they are fearfully rejected and replaced with fantasy versions of reality. And this is sanctioned by followers because they don’t want things to change either. All too often Buddhism seems like a tragedy blurring into a farce.

The final irony is that, if you could ask the Heart Sutra itself, it would reply: in emptiness there is no Heart Sutra. And the mainstream, the paradigmatic, metaphysical interpretation would be that the Heart Sutra doesn't exist! And laughably, it is precisely my epistemological interpretation (based on Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāḷi suttas) that rescues the text from this ignominious fate. It's only me arguing that of course the text exists, it's just that perception of it is not governed by the same rules as the existence of it. 

The uncomfortable truth is that text that everyone knows and loves, is full of errors. And faith is getting in the way of fixing them. 



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

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

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