20 April 2017

Heart Sutra Anomaly


It was apparent, even to the late 7th Century commentators Woncheuk and Kuījī that the Heart Sutra contained quotations from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (PPS) (Nattier 1992: 206-7, no. 33). In this essay I will compare and contrast the various source texts for part of one of the quotations. We will see that a substantial change was introduced in translation of the PPS produced by Kumārajīva's translation team in 404 CE, though we don't know if this was evident in their source text or was an innovation at that time. Jan Nattier (1992: 205, n.26) already noted this in her watershed article on the Chinese origins of the Heart Sutra, but it has received scant attention since. And it raises interesting issues regarding authenticity and the role of modern philologers.

Nattier compared various versions of the quoted passage from PPS with the versions found in the various Heart Sutras. The Chinese Heart Sutra extra is nearly identical to the Chinese PPS created by Kumārajīva's translation team ca. 404 CE (i.e. Taishō Sūtra No. 223). The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is however different in many ways from the extant Sanskrit PPS manuscripts (one cache from Gilgit ca, 6th Century and another from Nepal ca. 19th Century). The versions differ in syntax at some points and it differ in lexicon at others, but they mostly do not differ in semantics. Where sentence structures and word choices are different, the Heart Sutra still conveys the same message. Except in one case, which I will call "Section 3" in this essay (I've broken the quoted passage into a sequence of sections for my own purposes).

The obvious conclusion is that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a paraphrase of the Sanskrit PPS, while the Chinese Heart Sutra is a direct quote from T223. The paraphrasing occurred because the extract went from Buddhist Sanskrit (composed ca. 1st Century CE) through the filter of Middle Chinese (sometime between 404 and 664 CE) and back to something like Classical Sanskrit (before the death of Xuanzang in 664). The meaning was preserved but many particulars of how that was communicated were changed.

We can see how this might work using Google translator to go between English to Mandarin and back.
  1. Original: Form is only emptiness. Form is not different from emptiness.
  2. Eng→Man: 形式只是空虛。 形式與空虛沒有區別。
  3. Man→Eng: The form is just empty. There is no difference between form and emptiness.
The words mean the same, but they are paraphrased. The effect on a highly inflected language like Sanskrit could be rather more dramatic, because a good deal of grammatical information is lost in converting to Middle Chinese. And if the translator from Chinese into Sanskrit was not familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā idiom in Sanskrit, then this would also amplify the effect.

We have five versions of the quoted passage from different times and places:
  • 《放光般若經》 by Mokṣala (291 CE). T221 8.6a06-6a13.
  • 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》 by Kumārajīva (404 CE). T223 8.223a13-a24
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. Gilgit Ms. ca 6th C. Facsimile by Karashima et al (2016). 21v-22r.
  • 《大般若波羅蜜多經》 by Xuánzàng. (659-663 CE). T220-ii; Fasc. 401-478 7.13a12ff.
  • Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra Nepal Ms. ca 19th C. Edition by Kimura (2012) 1-1: 64
In this essay I will examine two extracts: section 1 and section 3. Section 1 is useful to review since it is the centre piece of Jan Nattier's argument that the Heart Sutra was composed in China and in the Chinese Language. It demonstrates her notion of "back-translation", but given the alternative reading, also demonstrates the complexities involved.

Section 1
Mok.色與空等無異 所以者何?色則是空 空則是色
Kj.舍利弗 色不異空 空不異色* 色即是空 空即是色
Xz.舍利子 色不異空 空不異色 色即是空 空即是色
Gil.na hi śāradvatīputrānyad rūpam anyā śunyatā nānyā śunyatānyad rūpam rūpam eva śunyatā śunyataiva rūpam evaṃ nānyā vedanānyā śunyatā |
Nep.tathā hi śāriputra nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam
*The notes in the Taishō Tripiṭaka say that some editions have 非色異空 非空異色 here. This is important because the two main versions of the Heart Sutra have different versions of this. T251 has the form above, while T250 has this alternate form.
The syntax here is one of the key differences that Nattier noted in 1992 as evidence for her Chinese origins hypothesis. PPS has na anya X anya Y, whereas Heart Sutra has X na pṛthak Y. Note that anya "other" is a pronoun which takes the gender, case, and number of the noun it qualifies. These both mean the same thing, i.e. that X and Y are not different, or in plain English "X is the same as Y".

There are also two different syntaxes in Chinese: X 不異 Y and 非 X 異 Y (which in some ways mirrors the Sanskrit paraphrasing). The Chinese texts all follow very similar conventions:
ChineseEnglishSaṃsṛktam notes
form rūpa
emptiness śūnyatā
not naGeneric pre-verbal negative
without, un-, -lessa-
is not na (asti)Generic negative for sentences, esp. identities
different anya/pṛthak
則/即only eva

Comparing the versions, we can see here that Xuanzang largely followed Kumārajīva. All that he changed was the spelling of the name Śāriputra. Kumārajīva uses a phonetic transcription which in Middle Chinese would have been something like sharibut. The final /t/ was pronounced strongly in Old Chinese and may have sounded very like the Central Asian pronunciation of the name in Prakrit (cf. Gāndhārī: Śariputra; Pāli: Sāriputta). Note that final -a is also dropped in modern Hindi with similar effect (compare also Nattier 1992: 216, n.91). Xuanzang kept the shari, but replaced the last syllable with the Chinese character for son 子 to translate Sanskrit putra.

An oddity is that Gil. has Śāradvatīputra for Śāriputra. This is actually common, but not reflected in the Chinese translations, which all have the latter.

Mokṣala phrases his first sentence differently: 色與空等無異 means "form and emptiness, etc 等, are not different"; while 所以者何?is "And why?". What follows is the same except that Sanskrit eva is conveyed with 則 where Kumārajīva and Xuanzang both use 即.

Section 1 was the entree, now we move onto the main course.

Section 3.
Mok.亦不見生 亦不見滅 亦不見著 亦不見斷 亦不見增 亦不見減 亦不過去當來今現在
Kum.舍利弗 是諸法空相 不生不滅 不垢不淨 不增不減 是空法非過去 非未來 非現在
Xz舍利子 是諸法空相 不生不滅 不染不淨 不增不減 非過去非未來非現在
Gil.yā śāradvatīputra śunyatā na sā utpadyate na nirudhyate | na saṃkliśyate na vyavadāyate | na hīyate na vardhate | nātītā nānāgatā na pratyutpannā
Nepśūnyatā śāriputra notpadyate na nirudhyate na saṃkliśyate na vyavadāyate na hīyate na vardhate nātītā nānāgatā na pratyutpannā yā ca īdṛśī
These are all saying something similar. Here, something does not arise (不見生, 不生, na sā utpadyate, notpadyate) it does not cease; it's not defiled and not pure; it is not deficient* and does not grow; it is not part, future, or present. The big difference involves what that something is.
* hīyate (passive form of √) is the verb from which the adjective hīna derives. It means "deficient, wanting; excluded; abandoned; etc."

In both the Gilgit and Nepalese PPS texts, it is śūnyatā that is the subject of these sentences, i.e. it is śūnyatā itself which does not arise or cease etc. However, in the Chinese text of Kumārajīva a whole new phrase is inserted which says: "all dharmas are marked with emptiness" (是諸法空相). Xuanzang also has this phrase by may simply have followed Kumārajīva. As Nattier points out, "In this context, without an explicit subject in the Chinese text, the reader would most naturally conclude that the subject is 'all dharmas'." (1992: 205, n.26). And this is indeed how the translator of the Heart Sutra seems to have read the text, translating sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā...

This discrepancy is not one of paraphrasing or selecting different synonyms as it is in other cases. The new phrase completely changes the meaning of this sentence, though the (intransitive) actions are the same, the subject "undertaking" the actions is different.

Another major difference here, of which Nattier says "most striking of all", becomes apparent when we look at the Sanskrit Heart Sutra passage:
iha śāriputra sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā anutpannā aniruddhā amalā avimalā anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ
Nattier notes (172 and notes) that where the Sanskrit PPS has singular verbal forms, consistent with śūnyatā being the grammatical subject, the Heart Sutra has nominal forms in the plural. She reminds us that while plurals may be marked in Chinese, they frequently are not; and that any given character may function as noun, adjective, or verb depending on context.
Gil.Kj.Heart Sutra
na sā utpadyate 不生 anutpannā
na nirudhyate 不滅 aniruddhā
na saṃkliśyate 不垢 amalā
na vyavadāyate 不淨 avimalā
na hīyate 不增 anūnā
na vardhate 不減 aparipūrṇāḥ
"In each case the Chinese is a perfectly good rendition of the terminology contained in the Sanskrit Large Sutra, while the Sanskrit Heart Sutra in turn represents a perfectly good rendition of the Chinese" (Nattier 1992: 172).
Repairing this artefact of translation would be relatively easy were it not for the phrase 是諸法空相. However, the Chinese Heart Sutra contains this phrase because it is in the source text. Admittedly the terms have been altered from verbal to nominal forms, and we could fix this, the matter of the extra phrase is more difficult because we only have a small number of Sanskrit texts and it is not found in either, despite the antiquity and relative fidelity of the Gilgit ms.

All Dharmas and the Mark of Emptiness

Where does the phrase 是諸法空相 come from? The CBETA Lexicon tool shows that the phrase does not occur in any Chinese text before Kumārajīva uses it in T223, his translation of PPS. In the Sanskrit PPS (kimura) the compound sarvadharma occurs quite often with svabhāvaśunya eg:
  • tathā hi svabhāvaśūnyāḥ sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_2-3:129)
  • svabhāvaśūnyā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_4:55)
  • svabhāvaśūnyā hi kulaputra sarvadharmāḥ. (PSP_4:94)
  • tathā hi bhagavan sarvadharmāḥ śūnyāḥ, (PSP_4:130)
But in the whole text śūnyatālakṣaṇa occurs only twice:
bhagavān āha: śūnyatālakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā, ānimittalakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā, apraṇihitalakṣaṇā hi devaputrā iyaṃ gambhīrā prajñāpāramitā. (PSP_4:67)
"The bhagavan said, for this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods (devaputrā), has the mark of emptiness; this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods, has the mark of signlessness; this profound perfection of wisdom, O small gods, has the mark of desirelessness." (Cf Conze 1975: 351 - the text is almost obscured by imposed subject headings).
Which is a reference to the three vimokṣas and thus to śūnyatā as meditative state, not abstract principle. And:
sarvadharmā hi subhūte viviktā asvabhāvāḥ svabhāvaśūnyāḥ, anena subhūte paryāyeṇa yena lakṣaṇena prajñāpāramitā saṃvidyate tenaiva lakṣaṇena sarvadharmāḥ saṃvidyante yad uta viviktalakṣaṇena śūnyatālakṣaṇena. PSP_5:12
"For, Subhūti, all mental objects are isolated, without essence, empty of essence. In this way, Subhūti, perfection of wisdom is recognised by this mark, that is by the mark of isolation, the mark of emptiness." (Cf Conze 1975: 441, who seems to translate every other verb as "exists", but here and elsewhere saṃvidyate clearly does not mean "exist", but instead means, "is known, is recognised; is perceived")
This doesn't really help us because here it is prajñāpāramitā that is marked with emptiness (śūnyatālakṣaṇa). Now we have a third object to which this condition can apply. In a related passage from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā we find:
śūnyatāsvabhāvā hi subhūte pañca skandhāḥ, asvabhāvatvāt / na ca subhūte śūnyatā lujyate vā pralujyate vā (Aṣṭa XII; Vaidya 126. Cf. Conze 1973: 173)
For, Subhūti, the five skandhas are the essence of emptiness, because they have no essence. And, Subhūti, emptiness cannot break or destruct.
The point is that śūnyatā cannot be broken (√ruj, pra√ruj), which is at least related to the idea that is doesn't arise and pass away.
As an aside, here lujyate is from a PIE root *leug̑- "to break" (the only common English cognate is lugubrious). The dialect of the composers of the Ṛgveda only had r, however the text was redacted by speakers of a dialect that retained the r/l distinction who reinserted l. The Eastern dialect of Māgadhī developed into l-only (King Asoka referred to himself as lāja rather than rāja); whereas Western dialects tended towards r-only (See Despande p.70ff.). This is interesting because recent evidence has shown that the original Prajñāpāramitā text was composed in a western dialect, namely Gāndhārī (Falk and Karashima).
There is an interesting passage in Aṣṭa XV:
iha subhūte bodhisattvā mahāsattvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupamiti dharmaṃ deśayanti | evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ | evameva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ | yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam, anutpannam aniruddham, evam eva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvādavikalpāḥ | (Aṣṭa 15.2)
Here Subhūti, the bodhisatvas mahāsatvas, being unexcelled fully-enlightened Buddhas, teach the Dharma that form has the [same] condition of space in the world. So also sensation, apperception, and volition. In the same way, Subhūti, all dharmas have the condition of space, not coming, not going, just like space. Just as space does not come or go; it is not made or unmade or shaped, it does not last, remain, or endure, it does not arise or cease, so also all dharmas do not come or go; they are not made or unmade or shaped, they do not last, remain, or endure, they do not arise or cease, they are not falsely distinguished from these aspects of space.
And the reason this is true is that, "all dharmas are in a state of emptiness" (śūnyatāgatika sarvadharmāḥ).

Another interesting passage is the section which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet (a ra pa ca na...) as an acrostic by which to remember various aspects of emptiness upon which to meditate. In PPS (Kimura 1-2: 85) we find the phrase
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇām ādyanutpannatvāt
The letter 'a' is a door, because of the the primordial non-arising of all dharmas.
Here mukha is usually (following Conze) rendered as "door" or "opening", but may also mean "mouth, face, head; chief". What the letter 'a' (a-kāra) is, in practice is a mnemonic, a place holder, or a reminder, for a word that begins with that letter, i.e. anutpanna 'unarisen'. More hints about the meditation practice are found elsewhere in the text:
"Moreover, Subhuti, the Bodhisattva, who courses in perfect wisdom, admonishes the Bodhisattvas as follow: 'Sons of good family, may you become skilled in the consummation of the letters! May you become skilled in one letter, in two letters, etc. to: in forty-two letters! May you through these forty-two letters come to a state which has moved away from everything. May you meditate on the 42 letters as contained in one letter, and may you meditate on one single letter as contained in 42 letters!" (PPS VIII 5.3; Conze 1975: 587. For more on this, see my essay The Wisdom Alphabet Meditation on visiblemantra.org.)
Although I don't think there is any direct connection between the Heart Sutra and the Arapacana Alphabet this does at least confirm that the idea of dharmas not arising was also stated in this context. However, as discussed in the essays about form is emptiness, I think this refers to the state of śūnyatā-samādhi where there is no experience. Buddhists involved in the Prajñāpāramitā texts seem to have come to ontological conclusions on the basis of this experience. By this I mean they adopted the stance that śūnyatā-samādhi was reality, or at least a more fundamental reality than what we normally experience. When you take consciousness and subtract all experience, what you are left with is awareness with no subject or object, no spatial or temporal orientation, and so on. This state is often described a luminous.

While this certainly tells us something interesting and profound about the nature of our minds, I think it is a mistake to turn from epistemology to ontology on this basis. Defining reality on this basis seems, frankly, foolish to me. Reality is almost impossible to understand from a single point of view, which has led to a tendency to solipsism in both Western and Eastern philosophy, even after the power of comparing notes on experience has been demonstrated by scientists.

The solipsistic tendency in "hardcore" Buddhism is pronounced and perhaps unavoidable. The experience of no (normal) experience is so vivid and compelling that it must be hard not to use it as an absolute reference point around which we organise our worldview if we have it. Just as ontological dualism seems entirely plausible to those who've had out of body experiences, or God seems to exist for those who've had that kind of experience.


In many cases where the Heart Sutra is problematic, where Conze has made a mistake (Nattier 1992, Attwood 2015) or where the original Sanskrit translator has made a mistake (Huifeng 2014, Attwood 2017), the philologist can see the error and suggest a solution (although some philologers seem reluctant to offer such solutions, I am not). Of course, whether religieux accept such suggestions is another matter. Even errors can be authoritative when they are over 1000 years old.

But in this case there is no obvious resolution. The introduction of the phrase "all dharmas are marked with emptiness" is a discontinuity, because it is not found in any Sanskrit witness, albeit that we have very few Sanskrit witnesses: only a handful of manuscripts in two small caches.

That said, the idea is itself fairly orthodox and in keeping with many statements found elsewhere in the Prajñāpāramitā literature. So it is not wrong in the way that some other parts of the Heart Sutra are wrong. Once again, we see the issues of authority and authenticity are complex with respect to the Heart Sutra. The creator of the text appears to have faithfully copied a passage from Kumārajīva's text, and the Sanskrit translator to have tackled it with some success, even if some of his word choices were not. But where did Kumārajīva get it from? Did Xuanzang also have a source with this phrase, or did he include it because it was in Kumārajīva's text, which he was apparently copying (at least in this passage)?



Conze, Edward. (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.

Conze, Edward. (1975). The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.

Deshpande, Madhav M. (1995) 'Vedic Aryans, non-Vedic Aryans, and non-Aryans: Judging the Linguistic Evidence of the Veda', in Erdosy, George. The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

Falk, Harry and Karashima, Seishi. (2012). ‘A First-Century Prajñāpāramitā Manuscript from Gandhāra — parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1)’. ARIRIAB 15: 19-61.

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

Kimura, Takayasu. (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin.

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

14 April 2017

Further Problems with the Heart Sutra: acittāvaraṇa

In this and the previous essay I am summarising and discussing Huifeng's article on terminology in the Heart Sutra. To reiterate, in this essay we are assuming that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a translation from a Chinese text (though not one of the surviving versions). So we're investigating how a translator might understand the Chinese text, and were subjecting the received Sanskrit text to a critical examination in the light of comparative philology, especially within the Prajñāpāramitā literature, facilitated by electronic texts and word searches. The fundamental (radical) question we are asking is, "Is the received Sanskrit text an accurate translation of the Chinese Heart Sutra?" But this also hints at an unasked question, "Which Chinese Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit a translation of?" The latter question will have to wait for another day

We now move onto the phrases 心無罣礙 and 無罣礙故 which were translated into Sanskrit (in Conze's edition) as acittāvaraṇa and cittavaraṇa-nāstitvād. Conze is again in poor form translating the latter as "without thought coverings" and "in the absence of thought coverings".

This section of the text was apparently composed to accompany the quotation which finished as the end of the last section. So we do not expect to find exact equivalents in the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature, but we might wish that the Sanskrit translation of the Chinese was at least consistent with that literature. Although one might equally argue that the requirement is still to be true to early medieval China. 

The easiest part of this passage is 心. We expect citta in Sanskrit and we find citta in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. So far so good. 

The translation of 心無罣礙 as acittāvaraṇa was a phrase that Conze had a great deal of trouble with. In his edition he notes some manuscripts have acittālambana and he describes how one might have become the other through a series of scribal errors of the type that are so common in the Nepalese manuscripts (e.g. mistaking v and b). However, Huifeng finds that neither of these possibilities—āvaraṇa or ālambhana—are plausible readings of 罣礙 (2014: 98-9). For example he cites what seems to be an important passage from Kumārajīva's Large text:
Then Śakra, Lord of the Gods, said to Subhūti: Whatever Subhūti has stated is only for the sake of emptiness, without being hung-obstructed [sic] (無罣礙). Just as an arrow shot up into empty space is not obstructed (無礙), so too is Subhūti's Dharma teaching not obstructed (無礙). (92) 
Now, the awkward phase "hung-obstructed" is not very convincing and I find that I cannot go along with Huifeng in either his interpretation of 罣 as "hang" in this context. The basic meanings of the two verbs here are according to Kroll (2015):
  • 罣: catch fish; enmesh, ensnare, entangle.
  • 礙: impede, hamper, hinder; obstruct, block off.
If we are describing the way an arrow shot into space travels as "無礙" then it seems straight forward to say it is "not impeded". If we are looking to compliment this with 罣 then "hung" is not an obvious choice, whereas some kind of entanglement is. The arrow is not impeded or entangled in anything - therefore it continues on its way. 

As Huifeng points out this is only reinforced by the Sanskrit equivalent of the phrase 無罣礙 in this simile which is: na kvacit sajjati. The form sajjati is unusual. The Sanskrit verb is √sañj which means "adhere to, be attached to, cling to". Other Sanskritists I consulted all took the verb sajjati to mean "cling" on face value. And we expect a passive form sajyate. In Pāli this is sajjati. So this looks like an example of a Prakrit form being used in Sanskrit. That it occurs in a Buddhist text makes this quite likely as Buddhists mixed up forms from Prakrit and Sanskrit very often.

One of the things about this verb is that it governs the locative - the place of clinging or attachment is given in the locative case. Hence kvacit "anywhere", a locative adverbial pronoun.

So the Sanskrit phrase na kvacit sajjati means "it doesn't stick anywhere" (and this time Conze accurately translates "...does not get stuck anywhere"). Elsewhere saṅga means "attached" and asaṅga means "unattached" or "without attachment" (hence the name of the Yogācāra co-founder). Huifeng's argument for "hung, hanging", is not wrong, but it overlooks the obvious meaning. It is true that √sañj can mean "hang", but when describing the arrow or the mind of the meditating bodhisatva., the basic sense works fine. Also an arrow shot into space doesn't stick anywhere, as opposed to an arrow shot at a target which does. We don't say that an arrow that strikes a target is "hung" on the target. It's sticks into, or is embedded in it.

Some other passages show that Kumārajīva also used the character 礙 for Sanskrit prati√han "to strike against." This adds a certain semantic richness, but the basic sense of √sañj "stick" conveys the meaning of the text. There's also an unnoticed play on words here, because the secondary verb in the Sanskrit, translating 依, is āśritya and this has a connotation of "to adhere to, to attach one's self to". So the sentence is saying that because he is attached to the perfection of wisdom, the bodhisatva doesn't stick elsewhere. In Chinese 依 means "to rely on, fall back on; be guided by". 

Huifeng's grammatical commentary also informs us that 故, "alone after a verbal form is usually grammatically equivalent to a Sanskrit ablative form" (81) suggesting that 無罣礙故 corresponds to an ablative form. The received Sanskrit cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād i.e. (citta-āvaraṇa-na-asti-tvād),  is such a form, though the idea of negating a verb by compounding it with nāstitvā 'non-existence-ness' is idiosyncratic at best, and I can find no examples of this form in PPS. Where PPS does use the abstract form of nāsti (as a stand alone term), it opts for nāstitā not nāstitvā (e.g. Kimura 1-1: 154, 1-2: 17). The form ‑nāstitvād doesn't fit the Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I've not been able to turn up this idiom anywhere except in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. We can see what it means, but not why anyone would chose to translate 無 this way.

Translating from Chinese into Sanskrit

So in 心無罣礙 無罣礙故: 心 is citta; 無罣礙  is most likely na [kvacit] sajjati; and 無罣礙故  is asaṅgatvāt. We just need to assemble the elements into a Sanskrit sentence. We also have to keep in mind that the preceding passage describes the bodhisatva as being "engaged in non-perception" (anupalambhayogena) and we need to translate this phrase to fit that setting. We're looking for a phrase that says that the bodhisatva's mind, while engaged in non-perception, does not stick anywhere.

Unfortunately Huifeng does not commit to a Sanskrit translation at this point, though he does give an English translation that reinterprets the Chinese text.
The bodhisattvas, due to being supported by transcendental knowledge, have minds which do not hang on anything; due to their minds not hanging on anything, they are without fear... (103)
Given my discussion of this above, my rendering of this same passage (trying to avoid Buddhist Hybrid English) would be
Being supported by the perfection of wisdom, the mind of the bodhisattva does not get stuck anywhere; and because it does not stick, they are fearless ...
We can see now why some mss. have bodhisatva in the genitive case, they want to indicate that the mind in question is possessed by the bodhisatva. What I take the passage to mean is that through insight style meditations such as the contemplation of the skandhas, and dwelling in emptiness, the bodhisatva disentangles themselves from the snares of sensory experience and becomes free (vimokṣa).

Now that we are clear what the text says and what it means, and we know roughly what kind of words the authors of the Prajñāpāramitā literature might have used, we can try to translate 菩提薩埵 依 般若波羅蜜多故 心無罣礙 無罣礙故 into Sanskrit.

So we want a compound that says "unattached mind" or "mind which is unattached" or "mind which is not stuck". We can see why a translator might have adopted a-citta-āvaraṇa, since in Buddhist Sanskrit and in Pāḷi āvaraṇa means "hindrance" or "obstruction" (BHSD). The translator has understood impediment and opted for a common word, but without reference to the Prajñāpāramitā idiom. Still it can mean "without mental hindrances". Note also that the Sanskrit texts interpolates viharati as a main verb and treats 依 as a gerund āśritya. The former is odd, but the latter fits the context.

One way to say in Sanskrit, what we understand the text to say, and which doesn't diverge too far from the Chinese source text would be:
[Yo] bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya [tasya] cittam na kvacit sajjati. Asaṅgatvāt so 'trasto...* 
That bodhisatva, relying on perfect wisdom, his mind does not stick anywhere. Being unattached he is unafraid...
Words in square brackets have no Chinese word equivalent but are added to create grammatical Sanskrit.This is necessary because the grammar of Sanskrit is more elaborate than that of Chinese.  Kvacit is implied by Kumārajīva's idiom and a locative is required by the verb. In plain English
Because the bodhisatva adheres to perfection of wisdom, his mind doesn't get stuck elsewhere. Not being stuck, he is fearless... 
* Thanks to Dhīvan and Dayāmati for help with composing this Sanskrit. It will no doubt be subject to revision.


The conclusions of both part one and two of this essay are similar. Whoever translated the Chinese Heart Sutra into Sanskrit could have done a better job of it. They mistook 以無所得故 for aprāptirvād and mistook 心無罣礙 無罣礙故 for acittavaraṇaḥ | cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād  when in fact these are not very likely translations in the light of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā traditions. The idiom nāstitvād is particularly nasty. In fact although we stipulated the Chinese origins hypothesis at the outset, the awkwardness and idiosyncrasy of these two phrases alone make the hypothesis seem plausible.

So over and above what we can glean from the manuscript tradition of the Heart Sutra, it seems that the Sanskrit ur-text was botched. The question for scholars and Buddhists is then: Should we correct these errors?

Given that the errors are in the order of 1300 years old and universally attested in the Sanskrit manuscript and epigraphical witnesses, given how familiar they are to Buddhists and scholars alike, perhaps we ought to leave them alone? We can treat the Heart Sutra as a quaint oddity, a somewhat perplexing, but unarguably positive one. I imagine that many practitioners would like to continue to chant the familiar text.

On the other hand what Huifeng has identified in his article are errors. Since I have identified other errors, I think there is a growing case for retranslating the Heart Sutra from Chinese into Sanskrit that is more consistent with the Prajñapāramitā tradition and the improved understanding of the text that philology affords. Of course the Indian tradition was originally one that spoke Gāndhārī and reconstructing that vocabulary would be difficult to say the least. But we can, and I argue that we should, construct a better Sanskrit Heart Sutra. One that makes sense, that eliminates the bizarre contradictions, and is in keeping with the other Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts at least at the time the sūtra was composed, ca. 7th Century.

To this end we have three Gilgit manuscripts of the PPS. One of which has been published in facsimile and partially transcribed. We know from recent publications that full transcriptions of all of the manuscripts are well underway and that we can expect a critical edition at some point. There is a huge amount of comparative information in Karashima et al. (2016).



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

Kimura, Takayasu (2006). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. 6 vols. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin.

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


Note 18 Apr 2017

evam ukte āyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etad avocat: kiṃlakṣaṇā (PSP_5:12) bhagavan prajñāpāramitā? bhagavān āha: asaṅgalakṣaṇā subhūte prajñāpāramitā na subhūte prajñāpāramitā lakṣaṇan na prajñāpāramitāyāḥ kiñcil lakṣaṇam.

07 April 2017

Further Problems with the Heart Sutra: aprāpti

Ven. Dr Huifeng (釋慧峰)
In this essay I will attempt to summarise and critically assess the article Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems by Huifeng (2014). The article is long and complex. It deals with three philological problems in Conze's Sanskrit text of the Prajñāpāramitahṛdaya or Heart Sutra. Conze himself highlights these problems and Huifeng tackles them by using the method, suggested by Jan Nattier and Nobuyoshi Yamabe (Nattier 1992), of tracing the passages back to the Prajñāpāramitā source texts in Chinese and Sanskrit. Huifeng discovers that the  person who translated the Heart Sutra from Chinese into Sanskrit misread the text. However, Huifeng leaves open the correct readings, which I will attempt to supply. I will also discuss the problems raised by this discovery (which in many ways parallels my own discoveries about this text) and I disagree with Huifeng on how to translate a key term.

Huifeng's article concerns the passage (Sanskrit from Conze 1967; Chinese from T251).
na jñānam, na prāptir na aprāptiḥ. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhanirvāṇa.
I'll separate the three problems into two separate installments: this one will deal with the Conze's phrases na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ and aprāptitvād; the next will deal with the phrases containing the compound a-citta-varaṇa , which occurs twice in different grammatical forms. In the conclusions we will see that this whole passage needs to be reinterpreted and retranslated.

Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be the only plausible account of the history of the text. Until such time as it is refuted, I take it for granted. This gives us a timeline like this:

-100Putative origin of Prajñāpāramitā
~708000 line manuscript in Gāndhāri
179《道行般若經》T224 (8000) by Lokakṣema
225《大明度經》T225 (8000) by Zhī Qiān
291《放光般若經》T221 (25,000) by Mokṣala
382《摩訶般若鈔經》T226 (8000) by Zhú Fóniàn
404《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra T223 (25,000) by Kumārajīva
406《大智度論》*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, T1509. Composed by Nāgārjuna, trans. Kumārajīva
408《小品般若經》T227 (8000) by Kumārajīva
404-600?Heart Sutra ur-text in Chinese from various sources including T223 or perhaps T1509.
404-600?《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 *Mahāprajñāpārami[tā]-mahāvidyā-sūtra, T250 atrrib. Kumārajīva
663《大般若波羅蜜多經》 T220-ii (25,000) by Xuánzàng
7th C?《般若波羅蜜多心經》 Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, T251 attrib. Xuánzàng.
7th C?Sanskrit translation of Chinese 心經
7th C?First Chinese commentaries on T251
8th C?First Sanskrit long text
741《般若波羅蜜多心經》Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra (long text) T 252 translated by 法月 Fǎyuè (Skt. *Dharmacandra?)
9th CTransmission to Tibet of corrupt Heart Sutra ms.

I understand the later Chinese Heart Sutras (T252-7) to be translations from Sanskrit texts, except T255 which is a translation from Tibetan. I take the two early short-text Heart Sutras (T250 and T251) to derive from the no longer extant Chinese ur-text. The Heart Sutra was mainly composed of passages from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (PPS) aka the 25,000 Line Prajñāpāramitā Text. See also my list of Chinese Heart sutra texts, with translators and dates. My focus is almost entirely on the relationship between the Sanskrit and Chinese short texts and when I refer to the "Chinese Heart Sutras" I mean only T250 and T251 unless otherwise specified.

At some point I hope that Ben Nourse will finish his study of approximately 300 short text manuscripts in Chinese and Tibetan found at Dunhuang, but until then, I won't be considering them.

Sanskrit Heart Sutra

The passage that concerns us initially, begins "Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness..." (Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ); negates the skandhas etc, and then concludes with "no wisdom, no attainment and no non-attainment" (na jñānam, na prāptir na-aprāptiḥ)(Conze 1975: 89). Here, the Sanskrit word prāpti means "attainment". It is an action noun from the verb prāpṇoti (pra√āp) which means "to attain, to reach, arrive at".

I've noted previously that some editors and/or copyists get carried away with the negations and modify the nidāna section of this passage—i.e. nāvidyā nāvidyā-kṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo—so that it reads (interpolations underlined):
navidyā nāvidyā navidyākṣya nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmarṇnaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
It would seem that the double negative na-aprāptiḥ in the current passage falls into the same category, though curiously the editor has not included na ajñānaṃ. It is contradictory to state, as Conze's Heart Sutra appears to, that there is "no nonattainment" (na-aprāpti) and then in the next sentence say that it is precisely "because of being in a state of non-attainment" (a-prāpti-tvād) that bodhisatvas get enlightened. The Chinese Heart Sutras lack any equivalent of nāprāpti. Since Conze includes the this phrase he has to resort to convoluted explanations for the apparent contradiction, which are not very convincing. Thus we can treat na aprāpti as an interpolation and a clumsy one at that. 

The phrase na jñānaṃ na prāpti is found in the section of PPS that is quoted in the Heart Sutra. However the original passage lists na prāptir nābhisamayo, i.e. "No attainment, no realisation" and then continues on listing types of attainment, from stream-entrant up to Buddhahood. At least one Heart Sutra manuscript also has na prāptir na abhisamaya, e.g. Cb aka T256 (a Sanskrit text transliterated using Chinese characters). I'll return to this when considering the Chinese texts.

Conze's next sentence begins tasmāc Chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya..., which he translates as "Therefore, O Śāriputra, it is because of his non-attainment-ness that a bodhisattva...", which is one of the more egregious examples of his Buddhist Hybrid English. We need to be aware of how Sanskrit uses abstract nouns (indicated by the suffix -tvā). It can be very like English, in which case the suffix -ness can work well. However the abstract can also represent the idea of being in a particular state. Coulson's discussion of abstract nouns is instructive: "English noun clauses ('that the grass is green') and noun phrases with a verbal component such as an infinitive ('for the grass to be green') tend to be replaced in Sanskrit by a straight abstract noun ('the greenness of the grass')" (2003: 130-1). And thus in translation we sometimes have to produce a noun clause and noun phrase to translate a Sanskrit abstract noun.

Conze is surely correct to interpret aprāptitvād as an ablative of cause ("because"), but the abstract noun can't really be forced into a single word here. The compound must mean something like, "because of being in a state of non-attainment". As PPS explains repeatedly, if a bodhisatva were to think "I am a bodhisatva", or "I have an attainment", then they would not be a bodhisatva. I believe that this kind of talk relates to what in Pāḷi is called suññatāvihāra or "dwelling in emptiness", something the Buddha was said to do frequently. This involves cultivating the formless (arūpa) meditations and sustaining the samādhi in which one experiences nothing at all (śūnyatāsamādhi), i.e. one is alert, but without any sense of being a subject observing an object.

Having described and tidied up the Sanskrit Heart Sutra passages we now turn to the Chinese texts and begin to unpick the Sanskrit translation, and of course any English translations based on it.

Chinese Words

There is a problem throughout the Chinese Canon because translators, especially Kumārajīva, have "flattened" the lexicon by using the same character to translate multiple words. This means that there can be considerable ambiguity when looking at a Chinese text as to what Indic word was being translated. So for example, Huifeng notes that the character 得 has been used to translate √bhū, prāpta/prāpti, √budh, √labh, and other terms (81).

Unfortunately we also have to add the almost ubiquitous possibility of problematic Chinese translations. As Jan Nattier has said:
"In short, when reading any given line of a Chinese Buddhist sūtra—excepting perhaps those produced by Hsüan-tsang, who is justifiably famous for his accuracy—we have a roughly equal chance of encountering an accurate reflection of the underlying Indian original or a catastrophic misunderstanding." (2003: 71)
T250 and T251 are the same at this point, though both slightly different to the Sanskrit text. Between na jñānaṃ na prāpti , and aprāptitvād bodhisatvasya... the Sanskrit has tasmāc chāriputra "therefore Śāriputra". The Chinese text does not have this, but reads (without the modern punctuation):
...no knowledge and no attainment because of there being no attainment...
All modern editions punctuate, and translate as two sentences (see below). Here 無智 would appear to correspond to na jñānam; and 無得 to na prāpti. However, because the Gilgit ms. of PPS has na prāptir nābhisdamayo at this point, Huifeng would like to read  as abhisamaya (85). This would also mean that the order of the two negated terms had been switched. With the inherent ambiguity of the Chinese translations, this is plausible. My view is that the Gilgit PPS ought to be treated as authoritative when it comes to the correct Sanskrit of quoted passages. 

The phrase 以無所得故 presents us with some difficulties. The verb is again 得. Huifeng points out that the character combination 以 ... 故 usually stands for a Sanskrit instrumental (2014: 80). However, note that Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) say of this same structure: "故 often works together with 以, meaning “for this reason”, “because”" (39), i.e. it can be consistent with an ablative of cause, which also fits this context. Huifeng also notes that 故 "...when alone after a verbal form is usually grammatically equivalent to a Sanskrit ablative form" (81). For Huifeng 所 before a verb indicates a past participle. Kieschnick & Wiles (2016) explain that "when placed before a verb or verb phrase, 所 turns it into a noun."

When he compares the use of this Chinese phrase he finds: "examination of other examples reveals that the majority of the appearances of the Chinese phrase “以無所得故” (yĭ wú sŭodé gù) directly corresponds to the Sanskrit an-upa√lambha-yogena" (88). The phrase frequent appears appended to sentences describing practices, and means "by being engaged in non-apprehension".

Despite meaning prāpti in the immediately preceding phrase, here 得 appears to equate to a Sanskrit verb upalabh "obtain; perceive, behold". Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary lists anupalambha as meaning "inconceivability, inconceivable", particularly in relevant phrases such as śūnyatānupalambheṣu dharmeṣu "in regard to states of being which because of voidness are inconceivable". However s.v. upalambha, Edgerton defines upalambhayogena as "by the (erroneous) method of upalambha"; and the latter means "mental perception or apperception, realization by the intellect (c.f. Tibetan dmigs-pa). This supports reading anupalambhanayogena as "by the method of non-perception".

Thus Huifeng argues that, in the phrase 以無所得故 the verb 得 has to be read differently to its use in the previous 無得. He points out that, in any case, denying attainment is inconsistent with the passage in which the bodhisatva attains nirvāṇa (niṣṭhanirvāṇaprāptaḥ). Though note that I have already showed that niṣṭhanirvāṇa is probably another mistake and that what was intended by the Chinese phrase 究竟涅槃 was more likely to be nirvāṇa-paryavasānam ("whose culmination is extinction").

Having said that 所 indicates a past participle, which would be upalabdha or upalabdhita, Huifeng does not note any such forms, but instead finds forms such as upalambha (action noun) or upalabhamāna (present participle). So here 所得 probably stands for the noun derived from the verb upalambha, and 無所得 for anupalambha; and thus we expect 以–無所得–故 to translate anupalambhena (instrumental) or anupalambhāt (ablative). Apparently the yoga was simply left out. But this is not uncommon in Chinese translations.


Various modern versions punctuate the Chinese text differently, but the oldest versions of the text have no punctuation. Huifeng thinks that other modern editors have broken the sentence in the wrong place. He argues that the version punctuated as:
... no wisdom and no attainment. Because of non-attainment...
Ought to be
...無智亦無得 ,以無所得故
... no wisdom and no attainment, due to engagement in non-apprehension.

This creates a structure in which the whole passage opens with the words, "Therefore in emptiness" (是故,空中) proceeds to say there is no form (無色) etc, but concludes, in Huifeng's new English translation, "...due to engagement in non-apprehension" (以無所得故)(2014: 103). This also means we would read the Sanskrit differently. As Huifeng says this introduces a major shift in orientation:
"It is our view that this shifts emphasis from an ontological negation of classical lists, i.e. 'there is no X', to an epistemological stance. That is, when the bodhisattva is 'in emptiness', i.e. in the contemplative meditation of the emptiness of phenomena, he is 'engaged in the non-apprehension' of these phenomena" (2014: 103).
This view is consistent with my own reading of the Prajñāpāramitā literature as continuing an epistemological stance found in the Pāḷi suttas and described in detail by Sue Hamilton (2000). The main focus of early Buddhism is experience. Similarly the Prajñāpāramitā literature is focussed on the experience of states which are characterised as "empty", i.e. states in which there is no sense of being a subject observing an object, and no arising and passing away of experience. In this altered state there is just alertness and no content. It is cultivating this state that is the summum bonum of Buddhist practice. I suspect that in the Prajñāpāramitā texts, the character of Subhuti represents this point of view, while Śakra and Śāriputra represent other points of view; most likely dhyānic meditation and abhidharma-style analysis.

The problem here, however, is that Huifeng appears to overlooked another kind of boundary in the text. In fact 無智亦無得 is the end of the quotation from PPS and 以無所得故 is part of the text composed in China. There is no reason to think that the non-quoted parts of the Heart Sutra were composed by Kumārajīva and thus no a priori reason to think that they will conform to Kumārajīva's idiom. Importantly, because of this transition from quotation to composition there is no necessity to read 得 as being from two different verbs, which after all is a rather startling ambiguity. Just as the translator has read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād, so might we.

This issue becomes more interesting if we repeat Huifeng's search for this phrase to see who used it. Using the online CBETA Lexicon tool, I search for the phrase and found that it occurs 238 times in the Taishō edition of the Tripiṭaka. Before Kumārajīva it is used just once:
  • T318 文殊師利佛土嚴淨經  a translation of the Ratnakuta Sutra on the Prediction of Mañjuśrī to Buddhahood (cf 310.15) translated by Dharmarakṣa 竺法護 in the Western Jin [西晉] (A.D. 240 ~ 290)
Notably it is not used in Dharmarakṣa's Prajñāpāramitā translations. In Kumārajīva's translations we find the phrase multiple times: T223 26; T250 1; T307 1; T586 1; T1509 35. All the rest of the occurrences are in versions of the Heart Sutra or commentaries on it, and thus can be thought of as copying the Chinese Heart Sutra; or they are from later translators. Thus the phrase, though first used by Dharmarakṣa is quite distinctive of Kumārajīva's PPS and his translation of the Upadeśa or commentary on the PPS attributed to Nāgārjuna. This suggests that the composer of the Heart Sutra was familiar with Kumārajīva's idiom! 

And just to make matters more complex, we know from ample attestation, that Kumārajīva—a native of Kucha who was taken to Changan as a captive late in life—was probably never fluent in Chinese and his "translations" were probably all the result of collaboration with Chinese monks who produced the actual translations based on his lectures about the texts (Daňková 2006). In other words "Kumārajīva" is a cipher for a process in which he provided the intellectual understanding, but not the actual Chinese expressions that bear his name.

The upshot of this is that we cannot be sure whether to read 以無所得故 as aprāptitvād or as anupalambhayogena. It also makes me wonder what else can be discovered by comparing other phrases with Kumārajīva's translations. For the purposes of this essay I will follow Huifeng's lead in my conclusions, but more work is required to establish the relation of the composed parts of the text to the quoted parts. 

I would further quibble with Huifeng's translation of anupalambha as "non-apprehension" and replace it with "non-perception". The meaning of the term is the same, but I think it more clearly conveys the epistemological stance of the text. Apprehension is a metaphor quite at home in this context, however it implies that something is there to be apprehended which is not apprehended, whereas in the state of emptiness there is nothing to apprehend. I think non-perception conveys this better.

Another effect of this is to cast doubt on the use of Tasmāc Chāriputra in this passage. The earlier use is probably also an interpolation, but here it definitely gets in the way and contradictions the sentence structure. So again it looks like an interpolation that ought to be excised. However, note that in PPS this quoted passage begins "So, therefore, Śāriputra..." (tathā hi śariputra) (Kimura 1-1: 64)

Reconstructive Heart Surgery

Huifeng thus reads the passage of the Chinese Heart Sutra as
"Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form ...etc... no gnosis, no realization, due to engagement in non-apprehension." (102-3)
是故,空中無色,無受 ... etc ... 無智,亦無得,以無所得故
He does not give a reconstructed Sanskrit translation, but this would be:
tasmāc [chāriputra] śūnyatāyām na rūpa ... etc ... na prāptir na abhibhasamayo anupalambhayogena.
I would give an interpretative translation of this:
Therefore, Śāriputra, in [the state of] emptiness, due to being engaged in [the practice of] non-perception [of objects], there is no form... etc... no attainment, and no realisation.
Note that in some of his the first Sanskrit edition (1948) Conze follows aprāptitvād with bodhisattvasya,  i.e. bodhisatva in the genitive singular case. This was a mistake that was corrected in the 1967 edition, to bodhisattvo, i.e. the nominative singular. Unfortunately the second edition of Buddhist Wisdom Books (1975), originally published in 1958 using the 1948 text, doesn't include the correction. This change was not picked up by Kazuaki Tanahashi in his recent Heart Sutra Book (2014: 181).

In the next instalment I will look at Huifeng's treatment of the compounds acittavaraṇaḥ cittavaraṇa-nāstitvād /心無罣礙 無罣礙故.



All Chinese texts from CBETA.
All Sanskrit texts from Gretil. Except Heart Sutra from Conze (1967).

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

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

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. First Ed. 1957.

Coulson, M. (2003) Teach Yourself Sanskrit. teach Yourself Books.

Daňková, Zuzana. (2006) Kumarajiva the Translator His Place in the History of Translating Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese. Diplomová práce. Ústav Dálného Východu Filozofická fakulta Univerzita Karlova v Praze.

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

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

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The INquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Kieschnick, J. & Wiles, S. (2016) A Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings. Stanford University. http://religiousstudies.stanford.edu/a-primer-in-chinese-buddhist-writings/

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

03 March 2017

Time for a Change

Zeno was an ancient Greek famous for inventing paradoxes.
The third [paradox] is … that the flying arrow is at rest, which result follows from the assumption that time is composed of moments … . he says that if everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always in a now, the flying arrow is therefore motionless. (Aristotle Physics, 239b.30)
In other words if we think of an arrow flying through the air, the arrow is the same length throughout the flight. It takes up the same amount of space. At any given moment in time, the arrow is at a given location in space, taking up a given space. If we could freeze time at any random moment the arrow would appear to be stationary; it would not be moving, it would only be in one place. So if at any moment the arrow is stationary, it is stationary at every moment. Which is paradoxical. Nāgārjuna wrestles with motion and time in a similar way because moments are built into the Buddhist understanding of time also.

In a YouTube video interview, George Lakoff explains to an interviewer, in the space of approximately 3¾ minutes, that the paradox is due to the metaphorical nature of our thought and the framing of the problem. In this essay I'm going to recapitulate his argument in my own words.


So the first thing to notice is the way I write about a space of time the previous sentence. This is a metaphor. It turns out that metaphor TIME IS SPACE occin almost every human language. But there are two main ways of conceptualising time as space. Firstly time is a stationary path along which we move:
  • We are approaching [the time for] lift-off
  • We're past the time for apologies
  • I'm looking forward to a future with jet packs
Or, time is a like river flowing past us:
  • Crunch time is rapidly approaching
  • The past is receding in my memory
  • Time passed without me noticing
Time is typically a one dimensional space, so it can be long or short for example, but seldom wide, narrow, or tall. Occasionally we may talk about a window of time, though what this comes down to is a slot marked by a beginning and end time. Here the metaphor is not TIME IS A WINDOW, but that instead MOMENTS ARE WINDOWS. TIME FLIES, but this is a variant on the flowing time metaphor where we are fixed and time goes past us. Time may also be a container, so that events happen "in time", in the space of an hour. Again the metaphor is, MOMENTS ARE CONTAINERS. A window can be a container, because it is framed. In this essay I'm going to focus on the linear spatial metaphors for time.

Metaphors are linguistic structures. In the first lot of three sentences we have a human agent which acts on time (time is the patient of the verb). In the second group of three, time itself is the agent of the action. In one, time is passively acted on by us, and in the other time is actively acting on us. And the actions in both cases are motions (go, pass, approach, recede). These are linguistic structures that help us to conceptualise and talk about of the flow of events that make up experience. However, these linguistic structures do not correspond to structures in reality. Part of the reason they do not is that the two metaphors contradict each other. Time cannot be both stationary and in motion at the same time. Maybe we could call this Lakoff's Paradox.

In English, we cannot even discuss time except in terms of the spatial metaphor - length of time, how long is a second. Length is extension in space. We have no separate word for extension in time.*
* The obvious candidate, 'endure', actually comes from a root *deru meaning "to harden"; from which, ultimately, we also get our word 'true'.
These metaphors for time describe a linear progression. But it only seems to go in one direction. We can move in any direction in space, why is the dimension of time different? This is a question that Lakoff doesn't answer, but its always useful when thinking about time, to get into this.

Time's Arrow

The answer is well known to us now as the arrow of time, a concept developed by Sir Arthur Eddington (who was also the first to test a prediction of Einstein's theory of relativity). The basis of the arrow of time is entropy. The second law of thermodynamics says that in any closed system entropy always increases. More simplistically we can say that disorder tends to increase over time. So comparatively a whole egg has low entropy, a broken egg has more entropy (more disorder), and a scrambled egg has high entropy. The arrow of time means that if someone shows us a film of an egg being broken and cooked backwards we can almost always tell straight away because the film shows us things moving in ways that are not possible and events happening in an order that contradicts the arrow of time. In reality eggs never uncook themselves and reform into white and yolk.

Incidently it's frequently pointed out that living things are an exception to this rule because they sustain order against the second law. There are two responses to this assert. Firstly, living organisms are temporary motes of complexity, and complexity varies differently than disorder. Entropy increases steadily over time, but the complexity need not. If we take the example of the universe as a whole, entropy steadily increases as times goes on, but complexity starts at a minimum, rises to a maximum at about 1010 years (about now in fact), and then declines back to a minimum by about 10100 years. The universe will continue to expand indefinitely, but once we reach a certain point the universe is as disordered as it can get and there is no arrow of time. Secondly, life increases the entropy of the universe more rapidly than non-living systems. For every low entropy photo of sunlight that falls on the earth, living things radiate 20 high entropy photons back into space. One way of defining living things is that we are systems for efficiently converting low entropy energy into high entropy energy. So life doesn't break the second law of thermodynamics, it uses energy to create complexity, that speeds up the increase in entropy locally. 

Coming back to time, it is a narrow path or flow, and it goes one way. But why do we see time as being broken up into moments? And is it really like that?

A Moment of Your Time

We measure time relative to cyclic phenomena. There are natural cycles such as planetary orbits, annual seasonal changes, the phases of the moon, menstrual cycles, the diurnal cycle, breaths, and heartbeats. And to these we have added phenomena such as burning candles, dripping water, oscillating pendulums, vibrating piezoelectric crystals, and finally the oscillations of radiation emitted by excited caesium atoms relaxing (in "atomic" clocks). In addition to this there are firing cycles of neurons in the brain that coordinate the beating of your heart, your breathing, and other cyclic bodily events, thought these are quite variable depending on how active we are. We measure time by counting numbers of regular cyclic phenomena. A stretch of time is so many repetitions of a cycle. A "moment" in time is the time for one iteration of the shortest cyclic phenomenon.

In reality, time is not composed of moments at all. Time is a way of conceptualising the procession of events that happen as the universe evolves. These events happen at their own pace. Events are not coordinated like a symphony orchestra is coordinated by a conductor. Events are more like a marathon where everyone runs at their own pace. 

The division of time (and space) into units is arbitrary. For example, note that years, months, and days are all based on natural cyclic phenomena, but they do not match up. A year is not a whole number of months (moon cycles) or days. This is why our calendars have to be adjusted occasionally, such as adding an extra day every four years, because the year is ~365.25 days. There is no "snap to grid" feature when it comes to time. 

Aspect and the Three-Times Structure

Coming back again to linguistics, when we use language to describe events the verbs we use contain information on aspect. Different languages note different aspects, but it includes such information as the beginning, persistence, or ending of an event; and event in progress, completed, or yet to begin; and whether an event is continuous, cyclic, iterative, and so on. Amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956) wrote some interesting essays on aspect in indigenous American languages. In English I can indicate continuing or completed actions in the past, present, or future.
  • I was running (past, incomplete )
  • I ran (past, complete)
  • I am running (present, incomplete)
  • I have run (present, complete)
  • I will run (past, incomplete)
  • I will have run (future, complete)
The structure of time into past, present, future is common to Sanskrit, and thus I presume to Indo-European languages in general. We can also indicate repetitive actions. So one walk is a tramp. To repeated walk over something is to trample it. One oscillation is a wag, many is a waggle. Though in English we often express aspect through adverbs like, 'constantly', 'repeatedly', 'occasionally', or 'persistently'.

In most English time metaphors, the present is where we are now, the future is what is in front of us, and the past is what is behind us. In the time-flow metaphors of some languages, the future sneaking up from behind us and we cannot see it, while the past flows away from us in front, where we can see it. The future could be quite unnerving in such cultures!

If we are the agent, then the "present" is the moment we are in. Where a "moment" is an entirely arbitrary unit of time. And we still favour traditional measures because our sense of time is geared to them. A moment is roughly a heartbeat. The idiom "in a heartbeat" means "instantaneously". But we also have idioms for moments such as "in the blink of an eye", "a finger snap", "half a tick". Of course we can measure time many orders of magnitude more precisely than this now, but anything much shorter than a heartbeat is difficult for us to imagine. Past, present, and future are features of the metaphorical structure of language, but not of time in reality, because the present is an arbitrary time.

In John Searle's language, the present is an observer relative function. The present isn't an intrinsic feature of the universe, but occurs to us as a subjective feature of time. So epistemically we understand there to be this structure to time, and since we all agree on it, it is epistemically objective. But it is ontologically subjective. The present only exists in our minds, because our minds have the features they do. 

Time to Get Real

Which brings us to the question of the reality of time. When the interviewer asks Lakoff about the reality of time, he says:
"There may be no such time as "time in reality". And that's what's interesting. There may be just events in reality."
Time is unlikely to exist independently of our metaphorical conception of it. This seems to be consistent with the universe that physicists describe at quantum and cosmological scales. The universe simply evolves in patterned ways. Some of those patterns persist as structures and those structures form increasingly complex layers of structure. In a sense we could say from this point of view that there are no entities, there are just some persistent processes, like standing waves in a river. Many physicists now think that time is not fundamental, but that it emerges as a property of the interactions of quantum fields. What his might mean in human terms, like most of quantum theory, is far from obvious, or in fact completely obscure. It may not even be possible to disentangle our metaphorical time and what time is in reality, if it is anything. 

This insight into the metaphorical basis for how we understand time is important for deconstructing Zeno's arrow paradox. The paradox is based on reifying the notion that time can be measured in moments. It assumes that the moments we perceive in time relative to some other cyclic events are real. But they are not. In reality the evolution of the universe is continuous and not broken down into moments. 

As we know, different layers of the universe require different descriptions. At the quantum level, events may be discrete, such as the transition of an electron from one energy state to another. This is what the quantum part of quantum theory means. At the quantum level, change can be discontinuous. But at the macro level (i.e. at the mass, length, and energy scale relevant to human experience) changes is never discontinuous. It may happen very rapidly, but it is always continuous.

So if change is continuous and we divide it up into moments, what happens is that we lose information about the continuity of the process. The same thing happens when converting music to a digital format. If the sampling rate is less than about twice the highest frequency we can hear then the loss of fidelity at the high end starts to become obvious. The average healthy person can hear sounds up to about 20 kilo-Hertz. Which is why digital music samples at roughly 48 kHz or more. But even if we sample at 96 kHz or more, we still lose information. Other factors intervene. Our equipment for turning digital signals into analogue waves in the air will not produce 100% fidelity either so sampling a million Hz would be pointless. The point is that dividing time into moments is a lossy process.

Time is not a series of moments, it is an unfolding of events: a marathon rather than an orchestra. So for example, there is no such thing as "the present moment" because the idea of a moment is defined relative to some cyclical event, and we are free to choose difference reference points. Different authorities define the present moment as lasting a different number of units or fractions of seconds. A second is the length of time that it takes for a 1 meter pendulum to complete an arc. Or a second is "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom". In other words, a second is arbitrary, but if we all choose the same arbitrary measure, then we agree on how long a second is.

We now have enough information to understand the misunderstanding that creates the paradox.

Resolving the Paradox

Zeno's arrow is not stationary at any given moment. Moments are arbitrary and are arbitrarily long. If the moment is 0.001 of a second, the arrow is still moving during that time, though the amount of movement may be too small for us to see, it still moves. When the arrow is in motion it is constantly moving. Similarly, if we observe a mountain for a year it may not perceptibly change, because mountains change on geological time scales (millions of years). A photograph of a bird on the wing may give the illusion of stillness if the exposure is short enough, but even then if one looks carefully one may find movement blur at the wingtips.

In reality, there are no moments. Moments are a structure that we subjectively impose on the flow of events. Time itself may be an emergent property of quantum systems. And events go at their own speed, with no coordinating universal clock. Time's arrow is a result of steadily increasing disorder in the universe and will disappear once entropy reaches a maximum. 

So Zeno's arrow paradox and Nāgārjuna's laborious fumbling around the subjects of time, duration, motion, and change, are difficult because they do not understand the distinction between how they conceptualise time and what time might be in reality. In other words we once again meet the mind projection fallacy or the problem of confusing experience for reality. George Lakoff dispenses with Zeno in less than four minutes. Of course there are many secondary questions and a lot of gaps to be filled in, but once a problem is correctly framed, things can move along more rapidly. 


George Lakoff (2016) How Does Metaphysics Reveal Reality? [Video] Closer To The Truth. https://youtu.be/mRX4vSJra6A

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality. MIT Press.

24 February 2017

The Ship of Theseus. FTFY*

The Ship of Theseus has been a staple of philosophical discussion and teaching for millennia. The folk version of this conundrum is grandfather's axe, in which the axe in question is favoured despite having had its head and handle replaced many times. Can it be the same axe? Grandfather thinks it is, and we the audience hearing the story doubt that it can be. I have certainly not surveyed every instance of it, but introductions to this story always seem to take the same approach to the problem and to leave it hanging as a paradox.

So why does this problem continue to fascinate philosophers? Partly, I think, philosophers like problems that can be argued over but not resolved (and their worldviews resist a resolution). However, I think it is also because the ship is a metaphor for ourselves. We visibly change over time and, at least for philosophers, this raises the question of identity. The combination of continuity and change seems to be particularly problematic for philosophers, East and West. 

The locus classicus of the story is Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans:
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” (14)
The problem is often portrayed as having only two mutually exclusive answers with nothing to decide between: it is either the same ship or a different ship. And thus the story contains a kind of paradox. I will try to show that it is only a paradox because of the way the problem is framed and that by reframing it we can resolve the paradox. I suspect that all apparent paradoxes are related to framing problems.

Over the years philosophers have added new twists to the problem. What if we collect all the discarded old planks and build another ship out of them? Can there be two boats that we identify as Theseus’ ship? What if Theseus stays aboard the ship as it travels, but running repairs result in the same exchange of old timbers for new. Does Theseus arrive on the same ship that he set out on? And so on. All of these trade on the same framing of the problem.

The framing here focusses on the relationship of the complex wholes and parts (which may themselves be simple or complex). I want to reframe the problem by pointing out that in all of the arguments about Theseus's ship, no one ever questions that the structure is a ship and no amount of plank changing alters this fact. And this gives a clue to how to deal with the question. Let us start with the idea of "ship".

What is a ship? 

What are the minimal features an object must possess so that we can recognise it as belonging to the category "ship". And here I'm going to ignore the complexities of the semantics of ships versus boats and all their myriad variations. For my purposes ship here represents water-craft in a very general way. 

Firstly, any material that can be made watertight and is malleable can be used. One can build a ship from paper, wood, concrete, or steel. What really matters is the average density of the volume contained by the ship's hull. Any object which is less dense than water will float in it. A ship's hull encloses a large volume of space with a thin wall so that the average density of the enclosed volume is very much smaller than the density of the building material, and less than the density of water. Hence, we can build a ship from steel which is eight times denser than water, by ensuring that the hull encloses more than eight times the volume of the steel used.

Secondly, the hull must be water-tight, or as close to it as possible. In practice most ship designs in the ancient world would have been leaky. Planks can be made to fit together with sub-millimetre accuracy, but still have to be caulked. (For a fascinating insight into ancient boat building techniques see the Jewel of Muscat Project)

convergent evolution
Thirdly a ship needs to be hydro-dynamically efficient, i.e. it needs to move through the water easily. The best configuration for this is a hull that it is considerably longer than it is wide. A broad-beamed ship will still make way, but with considerably more effort than a long and narrow ship. A prow that converges to a point is also advantageous, though not essential. River boats often opt for a flat bottom and blunt prow, for example. A smooth surface is also advantageous. The efficiency of these criteria can be seen in the way that the evolution aquatic animals has tended to converge on the same long, thin, pointy, smooth design.

Lastly, a ship needs some kind of motive power to propel it through the water. A water-craft that is not propelled is a raft. A ship can be propelled by any number of sources of power, though in ancient Greece it would have involved a combination of oars for rowing and a square or lug sail for the wind. Both methods impose constraints on the design. A mast must be stepped and stayed, and sailing requires a method to prevent leeway for example; while oars require a fulcrum and somewhere for rowers to sit (or stand in some designs).

With just these features, an object may be called a ship. But there is something more going on here. A ship is not a ship merely because it possesses some intrinsic features. A log possesses most of these features. A ship performs a function. The function of a ship is to transport people and/or cargo over water. Note also that we can use "ship" as a verb and it is no longer confined to moving cargo by ship. As John Searle has pointed out, a function is an observer relative feature of the object. In other words the object we are calling a "ship" can perform the function of transporting Theseus to Minos and back, but this is not an intrinsic feature of the ship. The intrinsic features a ship has make it suitable for performing this function, but the function itself is relative to the observer. And observer relative features of an object are created by the mental states of the observer.

For example, if we take the ship out into the middle of the desert and show it to people who've never seen a large body of water, they might not be able to deduce its function from intrinsic features. They may well conclude that rather than displacing water, the hull is designed as a cistern for storing water. And that the configuration makes it easier to drag over sand. The intrinsic features of the object alone do not tell us what function it serves for human beings. We have to have the concept of a ship in our minds as well.

Consider also someone visiting Athens who did know the story of Theseus. They might see a ship, but they would not see Theseus's ship. The connection between the ship and Theseus does not exist for them, because they haven't heard of Theseus. One might argue that Theseus exists despite his not being known about and that even in ignorance the ship is still Theseus's ship. However, the uninformed visitors could not discover this information through examining the ship. The ownership by Theseus is not an intrinsic property of the ship. The association with Theseus is also observer relative.

So "ship" is an observer relative feature of an object with the appropriate intrinsic properties. Thus, a "ship" is not an ontologically objective fact. Nor is "Theseus's ship" an ontologically objective fact. The "ship" is an epistemically objective fact, but ontologically it is subjective, i.e. it only exists relative to mental states in the observer.

So in fact the idea of "Theseus's ship" involves some intrinsic subjectivity. And part of what makes the ship interesting is the analogy of our own identity. I'm a good example because my name appears to be unique in history. There is, and has only ever been, one being called Jayarava. The fact that I am Jayarava is an ontologically subjective fact. But in my Sangha it is epistemically objective - everyone in my milieu knows that's who I am, and many do not know me by any other name (i.e. did not know me before my ordination). On the other hand parts of me are ontological objective. If you literally run into me, you'll certainly feel it. And parts of me are both ontologically and epistemically subjective, i.e. my private thoughts. So my "identity" as Jayarava spans all these possibilities (and possibly more) depending on the point of view of the observer.

The identity of Theseus and of Theseus's ship both rely on a range of types of facts and this makes the problem very much more complicated. There are no simplifying assumptions we can make without excluding essential information. 

Part/Whole Gestalt

A ship, as I have defined it, is a combination of materials and construction. Considerable time and effort is required to turn the materials into an object with the necessary intrinsic features to perform the function of ship. The parts have to be shaped and then fixed together in ways that create the necessary structure and give it enduring integrity. However, the usual way of framing the problem of Theseus ship, only looks at materials and ignores the structure itself. This may be why no one seems to notice that despite all the changes, the ship is still a ship.

It seems that many philosophers are blind to the role of structure in the world. Ships are complex objects, made of many parts assembled in the right order to fit the category of ship. There is a tendency to default to a reductionist paradigm in which only the parts are relevant to the question of identity. We do not see structure as real. We only see substance as real. Therefore if we are going to invest identify in anything it ought to be, in this view, in substance. Structure is apparently incidental. 

If we replace one plank of wood in a ship made from dozens of planks, we have no problem in identifying the structure as the same, with a repair. If we replace all the parts we struggle because in reductionism the parts are where identity is vested. If there are no original parts then identity is lost. Somewhere in the middle is a cross-over point. We're not quite sure where it might be, but at some point we begin to suspect that if we replace that arbitrary number of parts, then the identity of the whole somehow changes. And this despite the fact that the ship is continually existent as a structure.

This see-saw—yes/no—approach has characterised Western philosophy for years. Eastern philosophy was mired in its own problems, but clearly the Buddhist philosophy that I am familiar with also tended to reductionism and thus did no better at dealing with change. However, there is a better approach.

It is better to acknowledge that the ship is both made from parts and constitutes a whole. When we analyse the ship into parts we see that parts on their own are not ships and mostly do not have the necessary intrinsic features to be a ship. The epistemically objective "ship" only emerges when we assemble all of the parts into the appropriate structure and we, the observer, have the appropriate mental states. The integrated whole has features which the the parts to not possess: especially buoyancy, hydrodynamics, and motive power. To fully understand the concept of ship we have to take into account both sides of the coin: substance and structure; as well as the observer relative status of the concept of "ship". 

In this view, the structure of the ship is causal. The structure causes the ship to float, to displace water, and to move in ways that parts alone cannot. The materials on their own do not have these features, or at least not enough of them to fit into the category ship. A lump of steel rapid sinks in water. But if we hollow it out so that it encloses a volume more than eight times the volume of the original lump, then it will float. Given the density of steel as a substance, we expect it always to sink. But a steel ship floats because it is ship-shaped. Here structure is more important than substance in understanding the nature of a ship.

The structure also persists over time, despite the replacing of some or even all of it's parts. So the structure also exists and is causal. The structure does not exist independently of its parts, but since identical parts can be substituted with no change in the structure, then structure is not absolutely dependent on its parts. Indeed, we can often remove parts from a structure and it remains intact as a structure. Removing a plank from above the water-line of a ship does not destroy the intrinsic features of the object, nor does it stop the object from performing the function of ship.

Thus we can say that the structure is real. Reductionists assert that only substance is real. Antireductionists assert than only structures (or systems) are real. My view, following Richard H. Jones (2013), is that both substance and structure are real. The planks and the ship are both real, and the structure has emergent features that are not features of the planks. Planks have their own important features that enable them to function as a good building material. The individual fibres or cells of wood do not have the features of a large tree cut into planks.  At every scale we look at both substance and structure are important. However, if you dismantle a structure into its parts, the features of that structure no longer exist. So the reductionist approach to structure nets us no information because it destroys the object of interest. This is a fact every biologist is aware of.


I've already pointed out that identity is an observer relative function and not something intrinsic to insentient objects. We may project it onto objects, but in this case the identity is something we believe and someone who does not believe this will not be able to deduce it from simply interacting with the object. In this section I want to raise some other problems with how Theseus's ship is identified.

Is the ship that sits in the harbour and gradually has all its parts replaced, Theseus's ship? The question assumes that Theseus is a point of reference. But Theseus himself is subject to change. He ages. He sails to Minos and kills the Minotaur. How could such events not change him? Is he the same man afterwards? Well, yes and no. The structure that we think of as Theseus has been extended by having new experiences and some of the parts have been exchanged, but the fundamentals are still there. When Theseus returns, everyone recognises him as Theseus. But they probably also notice that the events at Minos have changed him as well. There is both continuity and change.

Some people approach the question of the identity of Theseus's ship by ignoring the continuity and focussing on the fact of change. In this case neither Theseus nor the ship are the same. And the difference takes on an exaggerated importance when continuity is excluded from the equation. And some ignore the change and focus on the continuity.

I can walk out my door and within a few minutes be standing on top of a large mound of dirt, piled up by the Normans in 1068 CE, which has commanding views of Cambridge and the surrounding area. The mound has been there for about 950 years as I write this. Or, on a slightly longer walk, I can visit buildings that were constructed in the 13th Century. These are structures that have persisted for centuries. Not without change and/or repair, but still, arguing that they don't exist is nonsensical. There they are, and there they have been for centuries! One has to go under, over, or around them, one cannot just pretend they are not there. For those who believe that a brick wall does not exist, the recommended procedure is to bash your head against it repeatedly, until wisdom dawns.

These objects are real by any sensible definition of the word. Real and impermanent. Impermanence does not make an object unreal, it only makes it temporary. Buddhist intellectuals have struggled with this because ancient Buddhists defined existence as permanent. An impermanent object cannot be said to exist. In fact they were mixing up experience and reality. The original target of the criticism was the existence of absolute being (ātman) in experience (pañca-skandhāḥ). Since experience is impermanent, no absolute being could be found in experience. Unfortunately they went too far with this and equated all being with absolute being. From this they argued that no being of any kind could be found. But this is simply a misunderstanding of an ancient criticism of ātman

Over time, structure persists. In the light of this we can say that the structure of the ship once owned by Theseus persists, helped by the exchange of rotten planks for good ones. At the same time the substance of the ship has changed so that no plank of the original is left; but because planks are essentially identical this doesn't affect the structure. If we vest identity solely in the structure then this is Theseus's ship. If we vest identity solely in the substance, then it is not Theseus's ship. There is no paradox here, because where we vest identity is simply an arbitrary decision we make, though probably motived by presuppositions and non-reflective beliefs.

Similarly if we take the old planks and build a new ship, how we see it depends on whether we focus on structure or substance. The new ship is a new structure, made from old substance. So if identity is substance this is the same ship, and if it is structure it's a completely different ship.

The two extremes are not the only possible answer here. Part of what philosophers do to win arguments is to back us into corners by artificially making us choose one side of a duality. This is another example of the arborescent fallacy, which sees us frame the question as having an either/or answer. In this fallacy, the world appears to us as a series of binaries. The term arborescent is also used in graph theory and botany; and was the title of an album by Ozric Tentacles. Another name for this is false dilemma. Edward de Bono independently wrote about this problem as a feature of neural networks, which he called knife-edge discrimination (1990: 108ff).

After my critique of the tree metaphor in evolution (Evolution: Trees and Braids) I stumbled onto the same critique produced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980), whence the name arborescent meaning 'tree-like' (from arbor 'tree' and the suffix ‑escent  'a process or state of being'). Unfortunately, having looked at their book I found it suffered from all the usual faults of French philosophy of that period: the writing style is obscurantist and the argument jumbled and poorly structured. So I still don't know what they say about the fallacy except what is on Wikipedia (so potentially I know nothing).

The problem of Theseus ship is framed according to a logical fallacy that results from a cognitive bias to see things in binary terms. Once I realised that both substance and structure were real, the problem I knew as grandfather's axe no longer seemed to me to be an either/or problem. The apparent paradox is simply a limitation artificially imposed by intellectuals who haven't fully grasped the situation they live in. They labour away with theories about how the world should be, based on idealistic or romantic fantasies. Education is a good thing, but all too often it leaves us with unexamined presuppositions that hinder our understanding. For example, most people finish their science schooling believing in reductionism and this is an obstacle to understanding because reduction is strictly limited in its application. 

Another complaint is that identity is a fairly slippery concept. It makes more sense to speak of a conscious entity having identity, than a ship. Without a mind, the ship itself has no sense of identity. Therefore any identity that we perceive is a quality that we have projected into the ship. Identity in this case doesn't reside in the ship at all. It resides in our own minds! What we're really wondering is whether we recognise the ship as being the same or not, which again comes down to whether we look at substance, structure, both, or neither. And I argue that we have to look at both.

Since no object is entirely stable, no matter how long it persists, insisting that identity is a function of some fixed quality rather than something dynamic is just arbitrary. Castle mound is by no means exactly the same as it was ~950 years ago when it was heaped up as the base for a defensive stockade to guard a key crossing point on the River Cam. But it is a mound and there has continuously been a mound on that spot for ~950 years. A mound exists. Whether the mound exists is just something to argue about in a framework that doesn't allow a resolution. If we focus on the grains of soil, then it is not the mound, but another identically shaped mound in the same location as yesterday (by coincidence apparently). If we focus on the structure itself it is the same mound, but the parts have all changed.

Answers are so often already implied by how we frame questions. Logic doesn't stop us getting things wrong.


So to recap, the problem of Theseus's ship is problematic mainly because of how it is framed and the presuppositions of the person who asks the question. Reductionist methodologies cannot cope very well with persistent structure. Reasoning from the assumptions and methods of reductionism on its own produces nonsense and/or contradictions.

To understand and appreciate structure requires an antireductive approach. We have to see structures as persistent, dynamic systems, with their own (emergent) features and causal powers: e.g. buoyancy and hydrodynamism. Such a structure can function as a ship, but only in relation to other systems, such as the ocean. Also the function of the object as a ship, is an observer relative function. While it is epistemically objective, the fact of being a "ship" is ontologically subjective. A naive observer would not look at a ship and conclude that it could convey people and cargo across the ocean, especially if they were not familiar with oceans.

Identity is not vested in either parts or wholes of any inanimate object, but in our own conscious states. Any identity Theseus's ship might have is a projection from our minds onto the object. It is Theseus's ship if, and only if, we believe it to be so. Different people, at different times and places, may have different reasons for believing that it is Theseus's ship, but apart from a tiny number of long dead eye-witnesses (whose testimony may still be inaccurate), the rest of us take it on faith.

If we restrict ourselves to focussing on substance and change then the ship is not the same. But if we restrict ourselves to structure and continuity then it is the same. But the dichotomy is not intrinsic. Any object we can see has both structure and substance. Both are real and therefore when considering the question of Theseus's ship, both are equally important.

The problem is that we seek something essential in a complex object in which the parts are being changed for identical parts but the structure remains stable. To simply ask "Is it the same ship?" is an incomplete question. One might counter, "the same as what?" Or in other words, what is the point of comparison?

If we resolve the paradox by reframing the problem and selecting appropriate methods to understand it, does it shed any new light on the problem of identity? I'm not sure that it does. We all have this experience of continuity with change. We have memories that provide us with continuity, even if they are not 100% accurate. Over a normal human lifespan change occurs rapidly at the beginning, slowly in the middle, and rapidly at the end. But we experience ourselves as continuous through our lives. Not, as some Buddhists insist, as unchanging, but as connected over time. We all understand that we change physically and mentally. Externally we age and internally we accumulate experience.

That there is change-with-continuity or continuity-with-change seems fairly obvious when you think about it. However, everywhere we turn this is denied. Theists argue that we have an unchanging eternal soul. Buddhists deny any kind of continuity when discussing metaphysics, but insist on continuity when discussing morality. Philosophers frame the problem of Theseus's ship so that it is a paradox. But everyday experience is of change and continuity. There is a dialectic between substance and structure and it is helpful to acknowledge the contribution of both to experience. 


* FTFY Fixed That For You (h/t David Chapman)


de Bono, Edward. (1990) I Am Right - You Are Wrong. Penguin

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (1980). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . Continuum, 2004. [First translated into English 1987; originally vol. 2 of Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.
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