25 August 2017


There's been quite a lot of talk of "meta-rationality" lately amongst the blogs I read. It is ironic that this emerging trend comes at a time when the very idea of rationality is being challenged from beneath. Mercier and Sperber, for example, tell us that empirical evidence suggests that reasoning is "a form of intuitive [i.e. unconscious] inference" (2017: 90); and that reasoning about reasoning (meta-rationality) is mainly about rationalising such inferences and our actions based on them. If this is true, and traditional ways of thinking about reasoning are inaccurate, then we all have a period of readjustment ahead.

It seems that we don't understand rationality or reasoning. My own head is shaking as I write this. Can it be accurate? It is profoundly counter-intuitive. Sure, we all know that some people are less than fully rational. Just look at how nation states are run. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to realise that I don't understand reasoning. After all, I write non-fiction. All of my hundreds of essays are the product of reasoning. Aren't they? well, maybe. In this essay, I'm going to continue my desultory discussion of reason by outlining a result from experimental psychology from the year I was born, 1966. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason, Mercier & Sperber (2017) describe this experiment and some of the refinements since proposed.

But first a quick lesson in Aristotelian inferential logic. I know, right? You're turned off and about to click on something else. But please do bear with me. I'm introducing this because unless you understand the logic involved in the problem, you won't get the full blast of the 50-year-old insight that follows. Please persevere and I think you'll agree at the end that it's worth it.


For our purposes, we need to consider a conditional syllogism. Schematically it takes the form:

If P, then Q.

Say we posit: if a town has a police station (P), then it also has a courthouse (Q). There are two possible states for each proposition. A town has a police station (P); it does not have a police station (not P or ¬P); it has a courthouse (Q); it does not have a court house (¬Q). What we concerned with here is what we can infer from each of these four possibilities, given the rule: If P, then Q.

The syllogism—If P, then Q—in this case tells us that it is always the case that if a town has a police station, then it also has a courthouse. If I now tell you that the town of Wallop in Hampshire, has a police station, you can infer from the rule that Wallop must also have a courthouse. This is a valid inference of the type that Aristotle called modus ponens. Schematically:

If P, then Q.
P, therefore Q. ✓

What if I tell you that Wallop does not have a police station? What can you infer from ¬P? You might be tempted to say that Wallop has no courthouse. But this would be a fallacy (called denial of the antecedent). It does not follow from the rule that if a town does not have a police station that it also doesn't have a court house. It is entirely possible under the given rule that a town has a courthouse but no police station.

If P, then Q.
¬P, therefore ¬Q. ✕

What if we have information about the courthouse and want to infer something about the police station. What can we infer if Wallop had a courthouse (Q)? Well, we've just seen that we cannot infer anything. Trying to infer something from the absence of the second part of the syllogism leads to false conclusions (affirmation of the consequent)

If P, then Q.
Q, therefore P. ✕

But we can make a valid inference if we know that Wallop has no courthouse (¬Q). If there is no courthouse and our rule is always true, then we can infer that there is no police station in Wallop. And this valid inference is the type called modus tollens by Aristotle.

If P, then Q.
¬Q, therefore ¬P. ✓

So given the rule and information about one of the two propositions P and Q we can make inferences about the other. But only in two cases can we make valid inferences, i.e. P and ¬Q.

If P, then Q.PQ

Of course, there are even less logical inferences one could make, but these are the ones that Aristotle deemed sensible enough to include in his work on logic. This is the logic that we need to understand. And the experimental task, proposed by Peter Wason in 1966, tested the ability of people to use this kind of reasoning.

~Wason Selection Task~

You are presented with four cards, each with a letter and number printed on either side.

The rule is: If a card has E on one side, it has 2 on the other.
The question is: which cards must be turned over to test the rule, i.e. to determine if the cards follow the rule. You have as much time as you wish.

Wason and his collaborators got a shock in 1966 because only 10% of their participants chose the right answer. Having prided ourselves on our rationality for millennia (in Europe anyway) the expectation was that most people would find this exercise in reasoning relatively simple. Only 1 in 10 got the right answer. This startling result led Wason and subsequent investigators to pose many variations on this test, almost always with similar results.

Intrigued they began to ask people about the level of confidence in their methods before getting their solution. Despite the fact that 90% would choose the wrong answer, 80% of participants were 100% sure they had the right answer! So it was not that the participants were hesitant or tentative. On the contrary, they were extremely confident in their method, whatever it was.

The people taking part were not stupid or uneducated. Most of them were psychology undergraduates. The result is slightly worse than one would expect from random guessing, which suggests that something was systematically going wrong.

The breakthrough came more than a decade later when, in 1979, Jonathan Evans came up with a variation in which the rule was: if a card has E on one side, it does not have 2 on the other. In this case, the proportions of right and wrong answers dramatically switched around, with 90% getting it right. Does this mean that we reason better negatively?
"This shows, Evans argued, that people's answers to the Wason task are based not on logical reasoning but on intuitions of relevance." (Mercier & Sperber 2017: 43. Emphasis added)
What Evans found was that people turn over the cards named in the rule. Which is not reasoning, but since it is predicated on an unconscious evaluation of the information, not quite a guess either. Which is why the success rate is worse than random guessing.

Which cards did you turn over? As with the conditional syllogism, there are only two valid inferences to be made here: Turn over the E card. If it has a 2 on the other side, the rule is true for this card (but may not be true for others); if it does not have a 2, the rule is falsified. The other card to turn over is the one with a seven on it. If it has E on the other side, the rule is falsified; if it does not have an E, the rule may still be true.

Turning over the K tells us nothing relevant to the rule. Turning over the 2 is a little more complex, but ultimately futile. If we find an E on the other side of the 2 we may think it validates the rule. However, the rule does not forbid, a card with 2 on one side having any letter, E or another one. So turning over the 2 does not give us any valid inferences either.

Therefore it is only by turning over the E and 7 cards that we can make valid inferences about the rule. And short of gaining access to all possible cards, the best we can do is falsify the rule. Note that the cards are presented in the order in the same order as I used in explaining the logic. E = P, K = ¬P, 2 = Q, and 7 = ¬Q.

Did you get the right answer? Did you consciously work through the logic or respond to an intuition? Did you make the connection with the explanation of the conditional syllogism that preceded it?

I confess that I did not get the right answer, and I had read a more elaborate explanation of the conditional logic involved. I did not work through the logic but chose the cards named in the rule. 

The result has been tested in many different circumstances and variations and seems to be general. Humans, in general, don't use reasoning to solve logic problems, unless they have specific training. Even with specific training people still get it wrong. Indeed, even though I explained the formal logic of the puzzle immediately beforehand, the majority of readers would have ignored this and chosen to turn over the E and 2 cards, because they used their intuition instead of logic to infer the answer.


In a recent post (Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability, 20 Jul 2017) I explored some of the consequences of this result. Mercier and Sperber go from Wason into a consideration of unconscious processing of information. They discuss and ultimately reject Kahneman's so-called dual process models of thinking (with two systems, one fast and one slow). There is only one process, Mercier and Sperber argue, and it is unconscious. All of our decisions are made this way. When required, they argue, we produce conscious reasons after the fact (post hoc). The reason we are slow at producing reasons is that they don't exist before we are asked for them (or ask ourselves - which is something Mercier and Sperber don't talk about much). It takes time to make up plausible sounding reasons. we have to go through the process of asking, given what we know about ourselves, what a plausible reason might be. And because of cognitive bias, we settle for the first plausible explanation we come up with. Then, as far as we are concerned, that is the reason.

It's no wonder there was scope for Dr Freud to come along and point out that people's stated motives were very often not the motives that one could deduce from detailed observation of the person (particularly paying attention to moments when the unconscious mind seemed to reveal itself). 

This does not discount the fact that we have two brain regions that process incoming information. It is most apparent in situations that scare us. For example, an unidentified sound will trigger the amygdala to create a cascade of activation across the sympathetic nervous system. Within moments our heart rate is elevated, our breathing shallow and rapid, and our muscles flooding with blood. We are ready for action. The same signal reaches the prefrontal cortex more slowly. The sound is identified in the aural processing area, then fed to the prefrontal cortex which is able to override the excitation of the amygdala.

A classic example is walking beside a road with traffic speeding past. Large, rapidly moving objects ought to frighten us because we evolved to escape from marauding beasts. Not just predators either, since animals like elephants or rhinos can be extremely dangerous. But our prefrontal cortex has established that cars almost always stay on the road and follow predictable trajectories. Much more alertness is required when crossing the road. I suspect that the failure to switch on that alertness after suppressing it might be responsible for many pedestrian accidents. Certainly, where I live pedestrians commonly step out into the road without looking.

It is not that the amygdala is "emotional" and the prefrontal cortex is "rational". Both parts of the brain are processing sense data, but one is getting it raw and setting off reactions that involve alertness and readiness; while the other is getting it with an overlay of identification and recognition and either signalling to turn up the alertness or to turn it down. And this does not happen in isolation but is part of a complex system by which we respond to the world. The internal physical sensations associated with these systems, combined with our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, about the situation are our emotions. We've made thought and emotion into two separate categories and divided up our responses to the world into one or the other, but in fact, the two are always co-existent.

Just because we have these categories, does not mean they are natural or reflect reality. For example, I have written about the fact that ancient Buddhist texts did not have a category like "emotion". They had loads of words for emotions, but lumped all this together with mental activity (Emotions in Buddhism. 04 November 2011). Similarly, ancient Buddhist texts did not see the mind as a theatre of experience or have any analogue of the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor (27 July 2012). The ways we think about the mind are not categories imposed on us by nature, but the opposite, categories that we have imposed on experience. 

Emotion is almost entirely missing from Mercier and Sperber's book. While I can follow their argument, and find it compelling in many ways, I think their thesis is flawed for leaving emotion out of the account of reason. In what I consider to be one of my key essays, Facts and Feelings, composed in 2012, I drew on work by Antonio Damasio to make a case for how emotions are involved in decision making. Specifically, emotions encode the value of information over and above how accurate we consider it.

We know this because when the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is disrupted, by brain damage, for example, it can disrupt the ability to made decisions. In the famous case of Phineas Gage, his brain was damaged by a railway spike being drive through his cheek and out the top of his head. He lived and recovered, but he began to make poor decisions in social situations. In other cases, recounted by Damasio (and others) people with damage to the  ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex lose the ability to assess alternatives like where to go for dinner, or what day they would like doctor's appointment on. The specifics of this disruption suggests that we weigh up information and make decisions based on how we feel about the information.

Take also the case of Capgras Syndrome. In this case, the patient will recognise a loved one, but not feel the emotional response that normally goes with such recognition. To account for this discrepancy they confabulate accounts in which the loved one has been replaced by a replica, often involving some sort of conspiracy (a theme which has become all too common in speculative fiction). Emotions are what tell us how important things are to us, and indeed in what way they are important. We can feel attracted to or repelled by the stimulus; the warm feeling when we see a loved one, the cold one when we see an enemy. We also have expectations and anticipations based on previous experience (fear, anxiety, excitement and so on).

Mercier and Sperber acknowledge that there is an unconscious inferential process, but never delve into how it might work. But we know from Damasio and others that it involves emotions. Now it seems that this process is entirely, or mostly, unconscious and that when reasons are required, we construct them as explanations to ourselves and others for something that has already occurred.

Sometimes we talk about making unemotional decisions, or associate rationality with the absence of emotion. But we need to be clear on this: without emotions, we cannot make decisions. Rationality is not possible without emotions to tell us how important things are. Where "things" are people, objects, places, etc. 

In their earlier work (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) of 2011, Mercier and Sperber argued that we use reasoning to win arguments. They noted the poor performance on the test of reasoning like the Wason task and added the prevalence of confirmation bias. They argued that this could be best understood in terms of decision-making in small groups (which is after all the natural context for a human being). As an issue comes up, each contributor makes the best case they can, citing all the supporting evidence and arguments. Here confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. However, those listening to the proposals are much better at evaluating arguments and do not fall into confirmation bias. Thus, Mercier and Sperber concluded, humans only employ reasoning to decide issues when there is an argument. 

The new book expands on this idea but takes a much broader view. However, I want to come back and emphasise this point about groups. All too often philosophers are trapped in solipsism. They try to account for the world as though individuals cannot compare notes, as though everything can and should be understood from the point of view of an isolated individual. So existing theories of rationality all assume that a person reasons in isolation. But I'm going to put my foot down here and insist that humans never do anything in isolation. Even hermits have a notional relation to their community - they are defined by their refusal of society. We are social primates. Under natural conditions, we do everything together. Of course, for 12,000 years or so, an increasing number of us have been living in unnatural conditions that have warped our sensibilities, but even so, we need to acknowledge the social nature of humanity. All individual psychology is bunk. There is only social psychology. All solipsistic philosophy is bunk. People only reason in groups. The Wason task shows that on our own we don't reason at all, but rely on unconscious inferences. But these unconscious (dare I say instinctual) processes did not evolve for city slickers. They evolved for hunter-gatherers.

It feels to me like we are a transitional period in which old paradigms of thinking about ourselves, about our minds, are falling away to be replaced by emerging, empirically based paradigms that are still taking shape. What words like "thought", "emotion", "consciousness", and "reasoning" mean is in flux. Which means that we live in interesting times. It's possible that a generation from now, our view of mind, at least amongst intellectuals, is going to be very different. 



Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) 'Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

See also my essay: Reasoning and Beliefs 10 January 2014

11 August 2017

Fixing the Broken Heart Sutra.

In this essay I do several things. I show that Conze bungled the editing of the Section VI. of the Heart Sutra (Section VII in my nomenclature) and how to fix the received text. I review research by Huifeng which shows that the original Sanskrit translator also bungled, and go into detail on how to fix his mistakes. I incidentally show that Red Pine is also a bungler. By doing the basic philology that should have been done a century ago, I explain the grammar of this passage of the Heart Sutra and how to better construct it in Sanskrit. I give a revised Sanskrit text that is far more consistent with existing Chinese texts. I once again ponder the dire state of Buddhist philology. 

One of the many linguistic puzzles of the Heart Sutra is the construction nāstitvād that one finds in Conze's Section VI. I have been worrying away at this problem for five years and just now had a breakthrough, but it requires some context. The text in Conze's revised, 1967 edition and 1975 translation of the Heart Sutra tells us 
Tasmāc Chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo  prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 
Therefore, O Śāriputra, it is because of his non-attainmentness that a bodhisattva, through having relied on the perfection of wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can be upset, and in the end attains to Nirvāṇa (Buddhist Wisdom Books).
Almost everything about this translation is wrong. It is one of the most egregious examples of Buddhist Hybrid English in the entire canon of Buddhist translations. The English is execrable and incomprehensible. "Non-attainmentness" is a rather ugly neologism. And what on earth is a "thought-covering" (and why is it hyphenated)? Nor have other translators ever really got to grip with this passage. Those who purport to translate it from Sanskrit have failed to see a very basic mistake in Conze's Sanskrit (incidentally repeated by Vaidya in his edition). Red Pine simply dismisses the rules of Sanskrit grammar at this point with hand-waving and produces a translation that fits his preconceptions but has nothing to do with the underlying text (See p.137 of his book). 

As with previous essays of this kind I will make frequent use of the Chinese. In a previous essay, I worked through Huifeng's treatment of the Sanskrit acittāvaraṇaḥ in light of the Chinese text. I accepted that he was right to reinterpret the passage, but disagreed on the definition of the key verb. He wanted 罣 to mean "hang" and I insisted on the more basic meaning of "stick".

The Chinese passage in T2521, which most East Asians take to be the Heart Sutra, reads (though note that the punctuation is modern):
以無所得故,菩提薩埵依 般若波羅蜜多故,心無罣礙;無罣礙故,無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想 ,究竟涅槃。
And this means more or less the same. I'll work through the differences as we go.  The first difference is to notice that the Chinese text has no "therefore Śāriputra" here.

Next, Huifeng has shown that aprāptitvād is an incorrect translation of 以無所得故.  In fact, Kumārajīva most often uses these characters to represent anupalambhayogena. And Huifeng makes a very good case for taking this word with the previous section and as ending a sentence. So if we make these corrections we get a working text that looks like this

Tasmācchāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ… na prāptir nābhsamayo anupalambhayogena ॥  
Bodhisatvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 

Now, bodhisatvo does not just start a new sentence, it starts a next paragraph or section. Focusing now on this new paragraph, since we have eliminated the possibility that 以無所得故 means acittavaraṇaḥ, it is extremely unlikely that 無罣礙故 can mean acittavaraṇaḥ nāstitvād (and anyway this is a very weird construction). Moreover, there is no verb like viharati "dwell" anywhere in Chinese.

Unfortunately, although he gave an English translation which conveyed the correct reading of the Chinese, Huifeng didn't give a Sanskrit reading (and declined to do so when I pestered him in person). With the help of some colleagues I came up with an alternative Sanskrit reading based on the hints in Huifeng's article:
yo bodhisatvaḥ  prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati ।
The mind of the bodhisatva who relies on perfection of wisdom, does not get stuck anywhere.
The phrase "does not get stuck" could also be "does not get attached"  But how to deal with Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ? It is at this point that Red Pine simply abandons grammar and simply makes up a translation to suit his purposes. But the fact is that there is nothing very difficult here, except that Conze has once again led us astray.

In his 1948 edition, the last word in the sentence is nishṭhā-nirvāṇaḥ. Let us start here. Nirvāṇa is an adjective and thus properly takes the gender of the noun it describes. Buddhists often use it as a noun, and when they do so it is invariably neuter. The eagle eyed reader will note that here nirvāṇaḥ has a masculine nominative singular ending. This can mean only one thing (and there is nothing "vague" here, contra Mr Pine)  which is that nishṭhā-nirvāṇa is a bahuvrīhi or adjectival compound. And it is describing a noun in the masculine nominative singular case. In Conze's Sanskrit, there is no such noun in this sentence. However, there is one in the previous sentence, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ (and note that -aḥ followed by p is unchanged, so bodhisatvo is wrong in Conze).

This tells us that Conze has blundered (again). Here we have just one sentence. It also tells us that we don't need prāpta. Prāpta (the passive past participle of prāpṇoti "to attain") was added to provide a verbal derivative because, just as in English, a Sanskrit sentence has to have a verb or a verbal derivative acting as a verb. By dividing one sentence, with one main verb, into two sentences, Conze has created an ungrammatical entity. Ancient scribes added prāptaḥ or in one case the verb prāpṇoti, but it was never needed. It also makes Red Pines decision to take atikranto as the verb look silly (not to mention that this leaves viparyāsa undeclined which is also not allowed).

The rules of grammar in any language are not simple. But the person who composed the Sanskrit followed those rules and it is the subsequent editors, translators, and commentators who have been at fault. Conze was an expert in Sanskrit so I cannot imagine why he went off piste in this case. Other experts, some of whom I hold in the highest esteem, have also failed to notice which rules were being applied.

There are in fact three bahuvrīhi compounds in a row, all of which describe the bodhisatva:
  1. atrastaḥ “one who is without fear”  
  2. viparyāsa-atikrāntaḥ “one who has overcome delusions”
  3. niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ “one who has extinction as his end”
 So our working text now reads
yo bodhisatvaḥ  prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati  cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād so atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇaḥ
A quick comparison with the punctuation of the Chinese text T251 tells us that the editors of Taishō were on the same wavelength (though inconsistently, T250 they side with Conze and break the passage into two sentences!). But we can refine this further. I said above "it is extremely unlikely that 無罣礙故 can mean acittavaraṇaḥ nāstitvād". Based on Huifeng's research the Chinese characters most like mean asaṅgatvād "because of being without attachment". And this gives us
yo bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati asaṅgatvād so atrasto viparyāsātikrānto nishṭhānirvāṇaḥ |
However, when we look again at the Chinese we notice some further issues with these adjectival compounds. Firstly there are four of them in Chinese, and secondly the two key texts T250 and T2521 are different.
T250: 無有恐怖,離一切顛倒夢想苦惱,究竟涅槃。
T251: 無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想,究竟涅槃。
Well take this a step at a time, and it is well worth taking our time because the first part of this provides us with a nice little insight. From the Sanskrit, we are expecting an adjective which means "he is not afraid". What we get is "non- 無 existent 有 terror 恐怖". Typically we read this as "being without fear" to match the Sanskrit. But let's look again at the passage with the previous word added and without the modern punctuation.
This is what the Sanskrit translator saw in the 7th Century. He had to figure out where the breaks come. We can see where the modern editors have put the breaks, but what if the translator became a little confused at this point and bracketed out the wrong characters and thought he saw something like this:
無 [罣礙故無有] 恐怖 遠離 顛倒 夢想
Now, this is an unlikely reading, but I'll tell you why I am highlighting it.  If we take the bracketed characters 罣礙故無有 the phrase 無 [罣礙故無有] 恐怖 says something like "not—because of the non-existence of mental obstructions—afraid". So is 無有 here the source of nāstitvād? There is no other explanation I can think of and no other explanation has ever been offered, to the best of my knowledge. Although the Chinese text is mangled in the process, we know it is not the first time the translator has mangled the text in the process of translating it into Sanskrit. But we also know that the translator does understand that 無 corresponds to the Sanskrit prefix a- or to the negative particle na. Which is to say that he knows better than to use nāstitvād when a- or na would do, and thus nāstitvād is in need of some explanation. If there is another explanation, I'd love to hear it.

Then we have some pairs of characters:
  • 恐怖 "afraid" 
  • 遠離 "goes beyond" = Sanskrit atikranto
  • 顛倒 "delusion = Skt viparyāsa
  • 夢想 "dream thoughts" i.e. illusions = Skt māyā.

In Chines, the order of 遠離 "goes beyond"  and 顛倒 "delusion suggests an active verb. And on this basis it would be possible to quibble with the construction of the Sanskrit. But I propose to leave the basic structure intact here. The translator has also mushed 顛倒 and 夢想 together into the familiar Sanskrit word viparyāsa, when he might have included the concept of māyā. Adding māyā here would be interesting in light of my observation about the relation of śūnyatā and māyā (soon to be published, but preliminary notes blogged) Now we want viparyāsātikrānta to be a descriptive compound and we would read this as "the bodhisatva has overcome delusions." I think we could follow the Chinese more precisely by having viparyāsmāyātikrānta. 

Note that T250 and T251 differ slightly here (added spaces for comparative purposes)
T251: 遠離        顛倒夢想,
T250:     離一切顛倒夢想苦惱.
The extra bits are 一切 meaning "all" (literally, "a single cut") and 苦惱 meaning "misery and trouble" where 苦 is the character most often used for Sanskrit duḥkha. In T250, 離 means "depart, go away"; while in T251, 遠離 has the same meaning, but with greater emphasis. A similar distinction is found in Sanskrit between atikranta and saṃatikranta for example.

The final piece of the puzzle, then, is how to translate 究竟涅槃. As I have explained in another previous essay, niṣṭhānirvāṇa was a poor choice. Kumārajīva uses these characters for a nirvāṇaparyavasānam. In our text it is being used an adjective of bodhisatvaḥ and must be given in the masculine nominative singular: nirvāṇaparyavasānaḥ. This gives us a final text:
yo bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati asaṅgatvād so atrasto viparyāsamāyātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānaḥ |
Of course there are always difference ways to translate passages from one language to another. One only has to look at English translations of the Heart Sutra which continue to multiply and diverge from each other. With the Heart Sutra each exegete appears to be trying to put their own unique stamp on the text rather than all of us working towards a common understanding and a single standard translation. In other words, in the usual Buddhist critique, translating the Heart Sutra is more often an occasion for egoism than for transcending self. Rather ironic really.  

At the very least this essay has shown, again, how poorly the Buddhist community has been served at times by philologists and traditional exegesis. Here is a short text, barely 250 words or characters, that is supposed to be chanted daily by millions of Buddhists, and we still don't have an accurate text to chant.

I have spent a considerable part of the last five years forensically examining this text in Sanskrit and Chinese, with help from key allies, and have been posting my many notes here as I go in the form of more than 30 essays. My third peer-reviewed publication on the text will be out in November 2017. Not everyone is going to be able to follow the argument in this essay, but I hope some of you will at least try. Experience shows that traditionalists will resist any call to change the Heart Sutra and will probably deny that anything is wrong with the text. But people need to know that the familiar Heart Sutra is deeply flawed and in need of surgery. And that the so-called authorities on the text have never noticed this stark fact.

I confess that I am thoroughly vexed by all this bungling. I am far from the best person to be trying to sort this mess out, but the best people have come and gone and the mess remains. Some of them have made huge contributions to the field and clearly had bigger fish to fry, but the Heart Sutra is not exactly inconsequential in Buddhism. That is has been left in this state by philologists does my head in. If I can understand it, why did they not? I'm not special. Something as simple as noticing that a neuter noun is declined as masculine and therefore must be an adjective is just basic Sanskrit. You learn this in the first month of the first year of studying the language. How does anyone miss this, let alone everyone? I also missed it for years. I have studied this passage before and thought about how to translate it. I suppose I'm now something of an expert on the text (if not an authority) but if you look around the internet there are dozens of people with strong opinions on how to understand the text. It's just that none of them seems to actually read the text in Sanskrit and think about how to parse the sentences. 

In particular, in my circles, Conze and Red Pine are treated as reliable guides, but are in fact often, or even mostly, unreliable. Neither of them deserves their reputation for scholarship. Both are bunglers and who have set back understanding of this text amongst Buddhists by decades. Kazuaki Tanahashi is not much better. Though his book is an improvement on Pine's, it is full of careless errors or just plain ignorance of Sanskrit. The dozens of commentaries are just rote recitations of sectarian gibberish. Mu Soeng frankly seems like a lunatic and his opinions on Sanskrit are laugh-out-loud wrong. The Dalai Lama is just going through the motions, reciting some ancient commentary by rote. D T Suzuki is busy doing his Mr Spock impression. It's all so depressing. How does the most popular text in Buddhism come to be treated so shabbily? It is gold. But not for the reasons that any famous Buddhists think it is. 

People often ask me what book they should read on the Heart Sutra. I get blank looks when I say that, in my opinion, it is better not to read any of the books currently available. They are full of inaccurate information. I mean it. The more you read about the Heart Sutra, the more wrong information you are assimilating that will only have to be unlearned in the end. I hope to remedy that situation soon by publishing a small book which gives an overview of recent research on the text (including mine, of course, but a few other people like Huifeng and Jan Nattier). In the meantime beware of fake Heart Sutra news, I guess. You're better off setting the sūtra  to one side and talking to someone who has some real depth of experience in meditation. Come back to it when you have experienced cessation for yourself. That would help head-off the most egregious wrong views. 


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.

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

20 July 2017

Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability.

My worldview has undergone a few changes over the years. Not just because of religious conversion or obvious things like that. It has usually been a book that has shifted my perspective in an unexpected direction. Take for example Mercier and Sperber's book The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding.

We all just assume that actions are explained by reasons. If actions are baffling then we seek out reasons to explain them. What is the reason that someone acted the way they did? Given a reason, we think the action has been explained. But has it? How?

Furthermore, when discussing someone's actions we assume that particular kinds of internal motivations are sufficient to explain the actions. We almost never consider external factors, like say peer-pressure. It's not that we're not aware of peer pressure, but that we don't see it as a reason.
So if person P does action A, we expect to find a simple equation, P did A for reason R. R is likely to be expressed as a desire to bring about some kind of goal G, call this R(G). So the calculus of our lives is something like this:

P did A for R(G)

But this is not how reasoning works and it is not how people decide to do things. Most decisions, even the ones that feel conscious, are in fact unconscious. The decision making machinery is emotional and operates below our conscious radar - the result that pops into consciousness is preprocessed and preformed. Essentially, it is what feels right, on an unconscious level.

Having decided, we may either just do it with a conscious sense of it feeling right (so-called "feeling types") and only produce reasons after the fact (post hoc) when asked; or we may first seek a reason (so-called "thinking types") and then act. Both kinds of reasons are post hoc - the decision to act comes first, then we come up with reasons to support that decision. The number of times that someone asks "why did you do that?" and you come up with nothing, is a sign of this.

The most extreme examples of this occur in people with no memories due to brain damage. Oliver Sachs described the case of a man who asked "What are you doing here?" never knew, because he could not remember. But the part of his brain that still worked would conjure up a likely reason, and since it fit the criteria of a reason, that's what we would say. But he would not remember saying it and asked again, might come up with another equally plausible answer. He was only ever accurate by accident. He was not consciously lying, but not understanding the deficit caused by his injury was speaking what popped into his head.

We are very far from assiduous in generating and selecting reasons. For a start, we all suffer from confirmation bias. We typically only look for reasons to support and justify our decision. Ethics is partly about realising that our actions are not always justified and admitting that. Not only this, but we are also lazy. Once we come up with one reason that fits our criteria, we just stop looking. We typically take the first reason, not the best one, then, having settled on it, will defend it as the best reason.

Of course, we can train to overcome the cognitive biases, but most of us are still bought into the paradigm of P did A for R (G). It's transparent. We don't see it. I know about it and I don't usually see it. It's only when I'm being deliberately analytical that I can retrospectively see the nature of my reasoning. And it is not what we have taken it to be all these centuries. 

I'm never been very convinced by so-called post-modernism. They make the mistake that I would now call an ontological fallacy - they mistake experience for reality. But the mistake is so common amongst intellectuals that they cannot be singled out. This idea about reasoning might well be the kind of epistemic break that would really constitute our either leaving modernity behind or more likely, finally becoming truly modern. The idea that modernity represents a break with medieval superstition, is also clearly not quite right because our reasons are no better than superstition in most cases. 

And of course, some of us are able to see more complex networks of cause and effect. We see political complexities, or sociological complexities, for example. These produce more sophisticated reasons, but even these tend to get boiled down into generalisations or interpreted from ideological points of view. And ideologies make sense to people because of reasons

The whole 2010 UK general election was fought on the basis of a single idea: Labour borrowed too much money. This falsified the situation in a dozen different ways but because it offered a reason for the disastrous economic crash in the UK in 2008, and because Labour could not offer a similar simple reason, it won the day. A lot of the political right appears to be convinced that this explains everything. So the of the whole world has the same economic problems, and economies are incredibly complex, but it all boils down to Labour borrowed too much money. And this—this simplistic, fake fact— is widely considered to be plausible. The UK is leaving the EU for reasons. And so on. 

But here's the thing. Reasons, on the whole, do not explain behaviour. They are just post hoc rationalisations of decisions made unconsciously on the basis of the value we give to experiences and memories, which are encoded as emotions. The reasons you give for your own actions, let alone the reasons you give for mine, do not explain anything. And as I have said, we simply ignore some of the more obvious reasons that any social primate does what it does (because of social norms). It's not a matter of deliberate deception. After all, we all believe that the reasons we give sufficiently explain our actions and that we can accurately gauge the kinds of reasons that are applicable (and we believe this for reasons). The problem is more that we don't understand reasons or reasoning.

How does this affect the issue of culpability? 

Any student of Shakespeare will be familiar with the problem of people being puzzled by their own actions. Shakespeare might have been the first depth psychologist. But if we are discussing the issue of culpability then things get really difficult. One could write a book on the actions for which Hamlet might be culpable and to what degree (probably someone has!). 

The whole notion of culpability has taken a beating lately. Advocates for the non-existence of contra-causal freewill are persuasive because metaphysical reductionism is a mainstream paradigm of reasoning. One hopes that the flaws in such arguments will eventually be exposed—contra-causal freewill isn't relevant or interesting; structure is real; reductionism is less than half the story of reality; etc.—but until they are, discussions of culpability are likely to remain confused. 

Mercier and Sperber's argument about the nature of, and the relationship between, reasoning and reasons is a deeper challenge. Because we now know that even if we get a sincere answer to the question "Why did you do that?", very few of us are even aware that the reasons we give are simply post hoc rationalisations and that they are not sufficient to explain any action. Clearly, our will is always involved in deliberate actions, but we ourselves may not understand the direction our will takes. We generate reasons on demand because society has taught us to do so... for reasons. But at root, most of us are mystified by our own actions most of the time. 

Legal courts still represent a pragmatic approach to culpability. Did P factually do A? Yes or no? If yes, then punish P in the way mandated by the legislative branch of government. As readers may know, George Lakoff has analysed this dynamic in terms of metaphors involving debts and bookkeeping. If action A incurs a debt to society, then P is expected to repay it We still largely operate on the basis that the best way to repay a social debt is to suffer pain, but we have created "more humane" ways to make people suffer that are on-the-whole, less gross but also more drawn out than physical punishment. Indeed we consider inflicting physical harm as barbaric. And why? Oh, you know, for reasons

If you're going to make someone suffer, it's better to inflict psychological suffering on them―through extended social isolation, for example, or enforced cohabitation with unsavoury strangers―than to inflict physical harm. Because of reasons. If my choice was between years of incarceration with criminals and being beaten senseless one time, I might well opt for the latter (well, I wouldn't but some might). Quite a lot of people are beaten and raped in prison anyway, and a majority are psychologically damaged by the experience so a one-off payment in suffering might make more sense. It's more economical. Just because you are squeamish about beating me, but not about psychologically torturing me by imprisoning me, doesn't make your squeamishness more ethical. You are still seeking to inflict harm on me in the belief that it will balance out my culpability for acting against the laws of society... for reasons

Then again, if I am an Afghani, fighting for my homeland against a foreign invader, you might just choose to drop a bomb on me from 40,000 ft, killing me and my entire family, because of reasons

What happens to justice when reasons are exposed as fraudulent? And they may as well we fraudulent because they're only relevant by accident. We see this happening all the time. The UK no longer has the death penalty not because British people don't like killing (Britain has been almost constantly fighting wars it has initiated or encouraged for 1000 years!). Rather we realised that we killed a few too many falsely convicted innocents. That means we have created a debt for which we ought to suffer. D'oh! 

We're for or against capital punishment for reasons. We vote left or right for reasons. We are for or against, this or that for reasons. We love, marry, fight, work, take on religious views and practices, choose our haircut, our friends, etc... for reasons. Good reasons! Sound reasons. Thought out reasons. Wait! We can explain. And you have to take our reasons seriously, because of... other reasons. Don't you see? It all makes sense... doesn't it? 

In other words, our whole lives are based on post hoc rationalisations of decisions we do not understand and cannot explain, but which we are convinced that we do understand and can explain. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's fucked up.

So, how confident should anyone be about their reasons? 

We so often seem very confident indeed (because of reasons), but if there is one other rational person who disagrees with us, then we ought to be at best 50% certain. If it's just a matter of reasons... then 50% seems optimistic, because chances are that neither party has any real idea of why they believe what they do. On most social matters one can usually find a dozen rational opinions based on reasons, and we believe our own reasons (for reasons), or we are persuaded of a different view for other reasons.

What does any of this amount to?

And more to the point, how can we tell what is of value, if reasons are not a reliable guide?

I think Frans de Waal has got the right idea (for reasons). Ethics (i.e. social values) are based on empathy and reciprocity, capacities we and all social mammals evolved in order to make living in big groups possible and tolerable. It all builds from there. Other rational opinions are available, but for reasons, I like this one. I still have no idea what gives something an aesthetic value, but I do believe (for other reasons) that we experience that value as an emotional response. Again, other rational opinions are available.

I cannot help but think that my view, cobbled together from other people's views, makes more sense than any other view I've come across. But then, everyone thinks this already. So then the question is, how do some opinions become popular? And I think Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting things to say on that matter in The Tipping Point. In his terms, I'm a "maven", but not a persuader or connector. 


30 June 2017

The Heart Sutra and the Crisis in Buddhist Philology.

This is the 500th post on this blog. What appears here, over the 12 years or so since I was Ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2005, is a kind of intellectual diary or autobiography. It records what interested me, what I was learning about, and what I was thinking about. Here one can see my haphazard development as a Buddhist intellectual over more than a decade of self-directed & self-taught study and research. Of course this is not my whole life. There is little of my daily life, my practice of religious exercises, my artistic and musical explorations, or my friendships. I made a conscious decision to avoid this being a confessional blog after some bad experiences in earlier forays online. This blog is all about ideas. I have also published some writing and this to some extent outshines this self-published material, but this blog is what it is, and I'm content with it as it is. Thanks to everyone who ever read an essay, but especially to everyone who got in touch to say I made them think or articulated some intuition they had. That's what it's all about.

My thanks to Ann 'Pema Yutso' Palomo for the original inspiration to start composing Buddhist "raves" a lifetime ago.

~~| 500 |~~

A few weeks ago, I struggled through one of the dullest articles from Buddhist studies that I've ever read. It was long, pedestrian, and had nothing much to say, but it touched on something I've been working on so I had to persevere.  Jonathan A. Silk's 2015 article on philology in JIABS could not be more of a contrast. Silk is incendiary in his approach to philology, burning to the ground many of the cherished assumptions of the field. After reading the article I discovered that the text is from a conference paper delivered at Oxford University in 2013, a video of which is online. I recommend it, as Silk is a good presenter (which is rare amongst academics reading papers) and his topic is of great interest to anyone working with or interested in Buddhist texts. The reasons that academic writing and presentation are so bad is another subject entirely. 

I learned philology by reading examples of it, rather than systematically studying it under the guidance of a teacher. I'm fortunate that a few scholars have given me assistance when I've requested it, Jonathan Silk being one of them (he is an expert on the Heart Sutra in the Tibetan Kanjur). Since I met Richard Gombrich in 2006, while attending his Numata lectures at SOAS, his approach to philology and that of his friend and teacher, K. R. Norman, have been particularly influential. Reading the articles of Professors Norman and Gombrich was my education in Buddhist philology. Norman said that the philologer tells us not only what a text says, but why it says that (and not something else, he seems to imply). I've always tried to take this to heart.

In this essay, I explore aspects of Silk's thesis on philology by looking at how it applies to the Heart Sutra, a text which exemplifies many of the problems he identifies. Silk and I are on the same wavelength on this. I have been coming around to some of the same conclusions, but without the expertise and clarity that he brings to the subject.

Philology and the Heart Sutra

Deciding what a text says, let alone what it means, is far more difficult that most people imagine. I've outlined some of the difficulties in my essay Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'? (20 December 2013). For example, every single manuscript and inscription of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is different from the others. Mainly the differences are simple scribal errors, but most of the witnesses also suffer from cack-handed "editing". The late Nepalese manuscripts (18th - 19th Century) are so full of errors that they make no sense anymore. In 2014, I described a previously undocumented Heart Sutra text, containing more than 140 omissions, additions, and errors (using Conze's edition as a reference point).

The execrable state of the Nepalese manuscripts is one reason that, since Max Müller first described them in the late 19th Century, the principal witnesses for the Heart Sutra have been the two manuscripts preserved in Japan (one of the short and one of the long text), particularly the so-called Hōryūji manuscript of the shorter Heart Sutra. However, even these, which probably dates from the 8th or 9th Century, are problematic. They suffer from grammatical and scribal errors (i.e. spelling mistakes); as well as odd punctuation and some adventitious defilements. On the other hand, argues, Silk, such idiosyncrasies can be informative about the history of textual production.

However, the question Silk raises is this: what is the reference point for making such comparisons? I used Conze's edition, but it was before I became thoroughly dissatisfied with it and with Conze's entire body of work on Prajñāpāramitā

The manuscript and epigraphical witnesses of the Heart Sutra give a confused testimony. Just as a dozen witnesses to a crime will all recall different details and will disagree on many of them. Out of this chaos, Conze scraped together a text that is more or less coherent, but what is the relationship of his eclectic edition with any historical Buddhist community? Even taken at face value, there is no evidence that a Sanskrit text like Conze's ever existed before he created it in 1948. This is a problem for all eclectic editions of Indian texts, and most especially Buddhist texts. The value of eclectic editions lies in the assumptions we make about what they represent.

Philologists take the possibility of recreating an ur-text from existing witnesses as axiomatic; the methods of doing so to be sound; and the results of these methods to be valuable. And Buddhists seem more than happy to accept the work of philologists on face value. But there is no objective reason to believe any of this. It is possible that we might identify common features of texts by comparing them, and we might conjecture about the immediate ancestor of the witnesses in hand. But that such a creation can be considered the ur-text is incredibly naive. We usually have no way of testing our conjectures. New archaeological finds often prove our conclusions wrong. And in the case of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, a number of errors have lurked in the text. Intense interest in the Heart Sutra has not translated into intense scrutiny of the text.

In the case of the Heart Sutra, it is apparent that we do not have an ur-text or anything like it. Though claims are made for a Sanskrit ur-text, and for two of the Chinese short texts, i.e. T250 and T251, according to my understanding of standard philological methods, none of the three could be the direct ancestor of both the others. So the ur-text appears to be lost and the confusion amongst the extant witnesses makes recovering it impossible.

Philology, drawing on underlying assumptions of the Western intellectual tradition, assumes a singularity at the beginning of history. The norm is that a single author composed a "work", instantiated it as a fixed "document", and created a "text" in the form of manuscript or inscription (Cf. Silk 2015: 206). This original work is understood to be a pure representation of the author's thoughts. In this view of the pure "original", we are forced to see differences in contemporary witnesses as corruptions. This language is suspiciously reminiscent of the Old Testament, which is not a coincidence.

Buddhist philologists inherited our methods and attitudes from European Biblical scholars. As they were dealing the word of God, the early philologists had a real problem with the variability of their manuscripts. It only got worse as they colonised the world and looted old Bible manuscripts, only to discover major differences from European received texts. That so much human error was apparent in the Bible was alarming for Christian scholars to say the least. Their urgent task was to establish an authoritative version of the Bible, eliminating human error entirely, to reveal the words of God. They also had to hide the existence of this variability from an unsuspecting public, because what would people think if the Bible were revealed to be a human production? The Buddhist public is similarly insulated from the variability of Buddhist texts. Buddhists often speak of, for example, The Heart Sutra, as though it is a unitary document. But it isn't. News slowly leaks out of scholarly discoveries, but scholars are generally careful not to rock the religious boat and the pieces are seldom brought together in ways that would cast doubt on the established view (here I differ from my mentor Richard Gombrich as he sees no reason to doubt the story that the Pāḷi texts tell about themselves and I see every reason to doubt it).

When Darwin was describing evolution, he chose a branching tree as the central metaphor for the process. He was of his time, focussed on describing how variety emerged by natural selection. Unfortunately, this was a poor choice, because, in both biological and textual evolution, hybridization is common. For example, in the last few years, we have discovered that all Homo sapiens outside of Africa have genes from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and some other, as yet unidentified species of human. Europeans, Asians and Americans are all hybrids, or in the vernacular, mongrels. A branching tree cannot show this, as it never recombines. Similarly, texts show every sign of different lines of evolution crossing over and influencing each other. That such influence is referred to as "contamination" is revealing of the attitude underlying the philological method. I have proposed (to the void) that we adopt the braided stream as our metaphor for evolution. Features such as tributaries, mainstream, side-streams, confluences, branching, recombining, ox-bow lakes, give us a much richer metaphor for dealing with the real world complexities of change over time. Fortunately, some biologists better placed for influence than I am are saying similar things (For some examples, see the notes at the end of my essay, Evolution: Trees and Braids). 

In the rest of this essay, I will offer some reflections on philology and the Heart Sutra under four headings: authenticity, authority, ownership, and aesthetics. To my mind, these issues are closely interrelated and thus not strictly separable. However, by taking each as a starting point for reflection different aspects of the problems with Buddhist philology come into focus.


Historical singularities are a myth. There may be a time when streams of events reach a confluence that is particularly influential, but they are never simple. This fact does not stop us from thinking of the past as simpler than the present.

The obvious example for Buddhists is our myth of the founder of Buddhism, whose name we do not know, but who was later called Siddhartha Gautama, an archetypally Brahmin name. There are two quite contradictory stories about how he ended up leaving home to become a religious striver (śrāmaṇa). His dates are a matter of conjecture: Buddhist texts appear to have been composed sometime after ca. 700 BCE and considerably before ca. 250 CE, and the Buddha, if he lived, presumably predates the texts. The myth is that all Buddhist ideas and practices stem from this one man. But this is not true. For example, Norman, Gombrich, and others have shown that early Buddhist texts are full of technical terms, ideas, and practices adopted from Brahmins and Jainas.

The early Buddhist texts are, like the Heart Sutra, largely constructed from stock passages, recycled many times over. Stories occur in several different versions, with changed characters, or a key term changed; or we see fragments of one story are combined with parts of other stories. Some stories or parts of stories are obviously drawn from a general pool of such stories shared with Jains and Brahmins. We also see that the language of the texts changes in a way that suggests progression over time (an important basis for the conjecture that some parts of Pāḷi Canon are older than others). The most likely conjecture is that the Buddhist literature went through an extended period as an oral literature (i.e. storytelling) lasting perhaps two or three centuries, before being edited en-masse and set down in writing (or possibly the other way around) in at least three different versions: Pāḷi, Gāndhārī, and possibly a distinct Prakrit Canon later translated into Sanskrit.

Even if these structural features were not there to undermine the concept of the historical singularity, we have to consider the psychological reality of being human. Everyone is subject to conditioning as they grow up. We learn a mother tongue, family patterns of interacting, and the social mores of our community. No one is a blank slate. Despite the romantic myth, genius doesn't appear out of nowhere. Talent that goes unnurtured goes to waste.

It used to be accepted that the Heart Sutra was a Sanskrit text, composed in India. Indeed it was seen not only as authentic but as the essence of other authentic text. Conze placed it together with the so-called Diamond Sutra (vajra does not mean "diamond") in the mid 4th Century,  representing a phase of contraction following a phase of expansion of the original Prajñāpāramitā text. In fact that expansion never really stopped while Buddhism was a living religion in India. A number of scholars now consider the Vajracchedikā to be the same vintage as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000). Then in 1992, Jan Nattier showed beyond reasonable doubt that the Heart Sutra composed in China from a couple of extracts from a translation of Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (25000) produced by Kumārajīva's group (T223) or perhaps their translation of the commentary (updeśa) on it (apocryphally) attributed to Nāgārjuna (T1509). To these extracts were added an introduction, itself drawing on the Prajñāpāramitā idiom found in Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, and a shortened dhāraṇī based on one found in the Mahāmegha Sūtra.

So the provenance of the Heart Sutra is complicated. It has been assembled, rather than composed; and assembled in Chinese rather than Sanskrit. 

Recent research has shown that Mahāyāna texts were composed in Prakrit and only began to be translated into Sanskrit during the Gupta Era (ca 3rd – 6th Centuries CE). Close attention to the transliterations of Indic words in the earliest Chinese translations shows that they were either in Prakrit or some Central Asian vernacular (of the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian). In the last decade, a few more very early Gāndhārī manuscripts from caches in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been described, including a first Century CE manuscript of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. Few, if any, sutras were originally composed in Sanskrit, though commentaries and other secondary literature were (although at this stage the distinction is moot).  So a Sanskrit text is not an indication of authenticity, it just means that a text was in use at a time when Sanskrit began to be widely used outside Brahmanical circles.

We also know that Mahāyāna sutras were continuously changed, mostly expanded, over many centuries. A first Century Buddhist community in Gandhāra would have known the Aṣṭasāhasrikā as a mid length sutra in their local vernacular. An 8th Century Magadhan community might have used a Sanskrit translation of Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, with no sense of it being either a translation or expanded. In China where different versions of a work were recorded, the differences over time became apparent and caused some consternation as it appeared to them that earlier translators had abbreviated their translations. However, Chinese Buddhists also composed "sūtras", including the Heart Sutra.

Can a sutra "composed" in China be considered authentically Buddhist? Or more precisely, can it be considered an authentic sutra, since presumably, any work about Buddhism composed by a Buddhist is de facto a Buddhist text. Or does the authenticity lay in the quoted passage from Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā which was originally in Prakrit? I'm not sure how to resolve these questions from a philological point of view. 

Silk points out that an eclectic edition such as those produced by Conze or Vaidya is not the same as an ur-text. An edition is not the original but is, in fact, a new work (2015: 211). In the case of the Sanskrit text, there is no evidence whatever that a version like Conze's edition was ever used by any ancient Buddhist, though it has been adopted by many modern Buddhists as the authentic Heart Sutra. But the fact is that it came into existence only in 1948. And Conze's edition, at least, has some errors in it (Nattier 1992, Attwood 2015). Meanwhile, eclectic editions produced by Müller, Conze, and Vaidya are all different from each other. They have not solved the problem of authenticity, just moved the bottleneck.

For the Heart Sutra, the situation is particularly dire, because the Sanskrit version is revealed by recent scholarship to be a rather poor translation. Jan Nattier (1992) identified some poorly translated passages. Since then Huifeng (2014) and I (Attwood 2015, 2017) have independently identified several more. The translator seems to have misread the Chinese version and thus bungled the Sanskrit translation. Even where the rendering is accurate, the Sanskrit Heart Sutras are not consistent with the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom, leading to some oddities.

The situation is worse still since there are three versions of the Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka:, i.e. T250, T251, and T256. All are different from each other. The earliest dated inscription is almost identical to T251, differing in only one character (used twice) though the substitute has the same phonetic and tonal value. Woncheuk's commentary suggests that at least one more Chinese version was circulating at the end of the 7th Century and that a Sanskrit text was consistent with it rather than with T251, but he made T251 the normative text for his audience. He may have been influenced in this by the commentary of his rival Kuījī who also used T251 as his text. The three canonical texts are traditionally considered to be translations by from Sanskrit, but now we know that they are not translations and in each case the attribution to a particular translator is questionable. None of the three is an obvious source text for a putative Sanskrit "original". This suggests a missing Chinese mother text that underwent multiple parallel revisions resulting in the different daughter texts and was then lost.

So, in fact, none of the versions of the Heart Sutra, and certainly not Conze's Sanskrit edition, can be considered "authentic" in the sense required by philology. And here we run into the limits of philology when dealing with religious texts.

It gets a bit more interesting when we look at the situation from an anthropologist's point of view. In Chinese Buddhism, for example, T251 is the undisputed authentic Heart Sutra. Although other texts are preserved, it is only T251 that has ever been the subject of commentaries (since Kuījī and Woncheuk in the late 7th Century). In Japan the authentic Heart Sutra is T251 written in Chinese, but pronounced according to Japanese conventions, making it incomprehensible in either language. In Tibetan Buddhism, by contrast, only the longer version was canonised and commented on, giving it the stronger claim to authenticity. Tibetan translations of the short text were found at Dunhuang (briefly ruled by a militaristic Tibetan empire) but none of them was incorporated into the Kanjur. Western Buddhists frequently recite the sutra in English translation, but there are dozens of different translations each of which is seen as authentic within the context in which it was created.

So from an anthropological point of view, the authenticity of the sutra is not a matter of reconstructed ur-texts or "originals". Not even (solely) a matter of putative original languages. The authentic Heart Sutra is simply the received text within a particular practice community, whatever form that may take.

Since commentary on the text assumes that it doesn't make sense on face value, commentators are largely able to skate over the incomprehensible parts, though Thích Nhất Hạnh is a notable exception to this because he actually dares to change the text, a fact we'll revisit under the heading of ownership. A garbled text can still be authentic in this anthropological sense if it is the text that a community prefers and uses. Another example of this I have written about is the 100 Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra which is usually chanted in a garbled form. Despite being easily restored to classical Sanskrit, as it is found in the earliest textual source, there is considerable resistance to such restorations.

Of course, a historian of ideas may wish to trace the development of a work as it changes over time, and it may be valuable to do so in that it gives us insights into the process of producing Buddhist texts. But one cannot really argue that any one version is more authentic than the others. Each community that uses a text defines what counts as authentic. This is not a recycling of post-modernist critical tropes, but an acknowledgement that the nature of the text in Buddhist literature is fluid; and that Buddhist communities are seldom interested in philology even though they are very interested in the issue of authenticity.

This situation is curious. I confess that I experience resistance to the idea that there is no authentic text except in the locally defined sense and no effective critique of the authenticity of a locally accepted text. The text is what it is, to the community who accept it; and it means just what they say it means (the Humpty-dumpty Principle). Which brings us to the issue of authority in relation to the Heart Sutra.


The authority of a religious text has nothing to do with how true or factual the text is; nor even its virtues as literature, since the literary merit of most religious writing is minimal (and made worse by translation). This is particularly so in the case of Buddhist scripture, which is often highly stylised according to aesthetic and practical considerations relative to ancient North India. By modern standards, Buddhist sutras are repetitive, turgid, and stilted. This is not helped by translations that ape the archaic language of the King James Bible; and which employ English vocabulary arranged according to Sanskrit syntax, aka Buddhist Hybrid English

Philology plays almost no role in the issue of authority in Buddhist communities. The authority of scripture comes from the collective agreement of people to treat it as authoritative. And that seems to be the extent of it. Of course, this seems insufficient to the philologist, but Buddhist communities just don't seem to care. They care more about respecting the author of a commentary than about the text. This is an aspect of the crisis in Buddhist philology.

However, the text does play a role in humans asserting their authority. For example, the text can be a tool for a person to assert a superior position in the hierarchy; or it can be a symbol of their superiority. Conze's commentary on the Heart Sutra is full of oblique references to his special insights into the meaning of the text, which he does not expect ordinary readers to understand. Conze set himself up as an authority on Prajñāpāramitā, outside of any community. Throughout his books on Prajñāpāramitā, Conze taunts his audience with their failure to understand the text. It is only decades later that we realise that Conze's work was very often shoddy and that his gnomic pronunciations on the text were more influenced by readings of German Idealist philosophy than by Buddhism. The irony is that despite his still authoritative reputation in Buddhist circles, Conze is an unreliable guide to Prajñāpāramitā. Conze-ism is a very peculiar reading of Buddhism.

Authority with respect to the Heart Sutra is part of a feedback loop: people seeking authority interpret the text and in the process, the text becomes a symbol of authority. When enough people point to the sutra was embodying something important, then people treat it as important, even when they don't understand it (which almost no one does). Not being able to understand something associated with the exercise of authority (be it economic ideology, or scripture) is treated as a sign that it is profound (as opposed to difficult, complex, or wrong). Confusion produces awe, especially when a high-status individual tells us that they understand the thing that puzzles us and our peer group acknowledges their authority. See also what Dan Sperber calls "the guru effect".

In terms of authority, it's not what you know, but who you know. Back in the 7th Century, the two men were in direct competition to be the official successor of Xuanzang. Both wrote commentaries on the Heart Sutra. Kuījī went on to become famous as the co-founder, with Xuanzang, of a major Yogācāra based school of Chinese Buddhism. The other man, Woncheuk (a Korean), was passed over. It's likely that the Heart Sutra was a popular magic charm up to this point, written out and carried on the body to ward off misfortune. It is the commentaries themselves that establish the Heart Sutra as a text with a message. The source text for the Heart Sutra, i.e. Pañcaviṃśati (T223) and/or the commentary or Upadeśa (T1509), were important for Chinese Buddhism. The Udapdeśa was particularly seen as the most important interpretation of Prajñāpāramitā, partly because it was attributed to Nāgārjuna (again it's the person, not the text). Because the Heart Sutra is associated with Xuanzang it is considered weighty. Though T251 is attributed to Xuanzang, Nattier casts doubt on this. In fact, the evidence of Xuanzang's association with the text mostly seems to date from after his death. The Heart Sutra continues to play the role of magical protection (and this is also associated with Xuanzang), but it also becomes the essence of Prajñāpāramitā: a summary of the ineffable.

People sometimes ask me which book on the Heart Sutra to read and I usually say "none of them". There is Mu Seong's imaginative, but wildly inaccurate work; or Kaz Tanahashi's recent elaborate pretension to "scholarship" in a language he cannot speak or read; or one can turn to Conze's grumpy elitist mysticism, which continues to be reprinted; or to the Dalai Lama's little book, which perpetuates his pose of being a "simple monk" offering simple wisdom. All are designed to flatter the reader and the author.

I'll focus on Red Pine's "translation" and commentary since it is probably the most popular of these awful books. Pine trades on his reputation as a translator of Chinese texts. Here the translation is purportedly from Sanskrit, but Pine appears to struggle with the language and the English text is a mere paraphrase of Conze. He offers no real insights into the Sanskrit text and, worse, no comprehension of the context of the sutra beyond repeating some cliches that appear to originate with Conze. The commentary revisits the well-worn Zen absurdist approach to the sutra, popularised by Suzuki in the 1950s and 60s (which also forms the foundation of Conze's interpretation). Pine's folksy but ultimately vapid commentary is certainly popular. People seem to treat Pine as an authority on the Heart Sutra. However, as a work of philology, his book is worse than worthless, since it gives wrong information and misleads readers about the text.

Almost every prominent Mahāyāna Buddhist clergyman since the 7th Century has composed a commentary on this text, though few rise above the level of a paraphrasing existing commentaries. The result is that we think of the sutra itself as authoritative, i.e. as possessing a human characteristic. The claim that the Heart Sutra communicates the "essence of the Dharma" is endlessly repeated. But as far as I can tell it doesn't. It really doesn't. It does give us some insight into the meditative state of emptiness or cessation. But it tells us nothing about "reality" or "transcendental wisdom" or how to practice.

In a sea of irony, we can also point out that the understanding sought by mystically oriented Buddhists (concerned with, for example, knowledge of the true nature of reality) is said by them to be ineffable. This is insisted on by both the Buddhists and by many of the texts themselves. So to hold a text in such high esteem is itself paradoxical. Buddhist communities try to get around this by chanting it in a language or form which cannot be understood by that community, but it only reinforces the role of the exegete.

If eclectic editions are not ur-texts, but simply new works in an ecology works created by various methods, amongst which recombination of existing elements is central; and if human communities, rather than any intrinsic feature of texts, determine authority, then the question of who owns a text arises. Who has the right to create a new text or alter an existing text?


Despite more than 150 years passing since the first translation of the Heart Sutra into English by Rev. Samuel Beal (1865), philological scholarship made little progress until 1992 and Nattier's article. Twenty-five years later, a good deal of basic philology remains to be done, and few scholars seem interested in doing it. Working through the implications of Nattier's copious footnotes alone could have sparked a PhD or two, but her main thesis seems not to have drawn the kind of attention it deserves. There has been no radical reassessment of the landscape of Mahāyāna or Prajñāpārmitā in China. Dan Lusthaus and Huifeng have both raised concerns about Nattier's thesis. I've reviewed their efforts here and here respectively. Neither produces any serious objection to the Chinese origins hypothesis. The text repeatedly referred to as "the most popular text in Mahāyāna Buddhism" consistently fails to attract sustained attention from philologists.

I believe the situation is somewhat different in Japan, but the majority of Japanese scholars publish only in Japanese, and very little of their output ever makes it into English. Nattier (1992) is clearly reliant on Japanese scholarship, but without proficiency in Japanese language (on top of Sanskrit and Chinese) a scholar is cut off from their efforts and insights. This seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Ironically the most popular Buddhist text is one the least well studied and understood texts, not counting the hundreds that are entirely ignored. The context of the quoted sections is routinely ignored for example (I have partially addressed this in Attwood 2015). There is, to the best of my knowledge, not a single study of the larger passage from Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, of which the Heart Sutra uses perhaps a third (I hope to begin to address this in a forthcoming article). Wouldn't it make sense to see the quotation in context? Kuījī knew the text was a quote in the 7th Century, but more than a millennium later there is no comparative work on the source and quote. Perhaps the forthcoming publication of the Gilgit manuscripts of Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā will make a difference to this? On current form, it won't.

The question of ownership seems to be complicated. For example, it seems that anyone can offer a new English translation of the Heart Sutra and they are not bound by any convention. One can change the way key technical terms are rendered, or one can interpolate at will to "clarify" the meaning of the text; one can arbitrarily punctuate the text and break the text into sections. There is a curious lack of constraint regarding translation, but quite a strong taboo on changing Sanskrit sources which are still widely seen as "original" and thus sacrosanct.

In 2014, Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, changed his popular English translation because he found a mistake in the Sanskrit (that he left intact). Meanwhile, Huifeng (2015) has pointed out that the Sanskrit translator has misunderstood his Chinese source text. Huifeng offers a new English translation of the Chinese, demonstrating the correct reading, but refrains from offering a better Sanskrit translation. I pressed him on this point by email and got nowhere. Despite being ungrammatical, unidiomatic, or incorrect, no one seems to believe that the Sanskrit text may be changed. I recently pointed out that the Sanskrit translator has misunderstood the characters 明咒 (Attwood 2017) and have proposed that the Sanskrit be amended to vidyā. Interestingly I sent my article to a prominent web-based translator of Chinese texts who dismissed it out of hand and insisted that he would retain the wrong translation. Tradition always trumps philology.

It may be that this reluctance is related to a reluctance to accept Nattier's argument. After all the conclusion is that the Heart Sutra is what philologists call "apocryphal". I'm not sure the term has much meaning in Mahāyāna Buddhism, though of course, some Mahāyānists do believe that their sutras were literally spoken by the Buddha. All Mahāyāna texts are apocryphal in that they were composed centuries after the putative lifetime of the Buddha and contain many innovations which have no precedent in early Buddhist texts. The popular books which mention Nattier's article appear to struggle with it. Red Pine proposes that there is another Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā now lost which is not in the usual Sanskrit Prajñāpārmitā idiom and that this imaginary lost manuscript is the "original" from which the Heart Sutra is created. Tanahashi says that he accepts the thesis but then carries on as though he has not even read the section on the attribution of the Chinese texts to Kumārajīva and Xuanzang.

Anyone can create an English translation, but the Sanskrit is "sacred". A philologist is allowed to create a new edition as long as they maintain the fiction that they are reconstituting "the original". Editions gain the inviolable status of "the original". People still talk about the Sanskrit original of the Heart Sutra. In 2012, I noticed that Conze made a simple grammatical error in his 1948 edition of the sutra (retained in subsequent revisions in 1967, 1973). It took me three years to research and publish the solution (Attwood 2015). In short, Conze mistakenly read the historical present verb vyavalokayati sma as intransitive (lacking a patient) and read pañcaskandhāṃs (accusative plural, the patient of the verb) as pañcasakandhās (nominative plural, agent). Conze tried to smooth over the resulting lumps using punctuation. The result is weird. Anyone familiar with Sanskrit ought to have seen that Avalokiteśvara was the agent of all three verbs in the sentence and that he was examining the five branches of experience (vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhāṃs). This correction brings the Sanskrit in line with the Chinese versions and allows for the removal of all punctuation since phrase boundaries within the sentence are clearly marked.

In the 67 years before I corrected Conze's mistake, at least a dozen top Buddhist studies scholars, including a number of experts in Sanskrit (including my scholar-hero Nattier), had commented on the Sanskrit text and offered translations. Red Pine built a reputation as an authoritative scholar on the basis of his "translation". But none of them questioned why the first sentence could not be parsed. Note that my 2015 article has yet to be cited by anyone, which presumably means that most people interested in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra have yet to get the news.

Why is the Sanskrit text, even in the form of newly generated editions, inviolable? The huge variability in the manuscript bears stark witness to the fact that the text has been changed in the past. But most punters never have any contact with the manuscripts (If you want some click here). In fact, the Prajñāpāramitā literature was frequently altered by editors, some of whom seem quite inept. All the pre-Tantric prose texts (the texts with numbers in their titles, as well as Vajracchedikā) grew over time. The fetish for fixing Mahāyāna texts in a Canon was something that developed in China and then Tibet. There is a contrast here with Pāḷi texts which were canonised quite early on. There really is no historical rationale for not changing a Mahāyāna text if we find a mistake. Mistakes were made. 

Part of what Silk is saying in his article on the failings of philologists is that texts are rooted in communities. If some Japanese Zen practitioners chant T251 (the Chinese text attributed to Xuanzang), in a Japanese pronunciation that is not comprehensible either as Japanese or as Chinese, and they feel it has meaning for them, it's not for us to judge. This is an anthropological view. The philologist is focused on what texts say and why they say that, but the anthropologist is interested in questions such as how chanting the incomprehensible scripture affects the behaviour of the community, how it enacts their values, and how it helps them to create a shared identity. And if each community, in time and space, uses a different version of the same scripture it doesn't really matter. The scripture that a community uses is the authentic and authoritative text for that community.

If all texts are the product of a community, then, as Silk says,
"There is no conceivable objective reason to value the product of one community over that of another, no reason why we should seek the earlier form of the text rather than the later one." (2015: 212; emphasis added)
What we may ask makes a Mahāyāna text valuable in our society? In her book, A Few Good Men Jan Nattier pointed out that just three criteria determine which of the hundreds of Mahāyāna sutras are popular in the West. The three criteria are that:
  • there is an extant Sanskrit text,
  • the text has been influential in Japanese Buddhism,
  • the text is congruent with liberal values.
This may help explain the reluctance to improve Sanskrit texts by correcting errors. An extant Sanskrit text has an intrinsic value for Western Buddhists (as long as what it says can be interpreted as supporting liberal Western values). It may be that here we see the influence of Protestantism with its cult of the book. Certainly, we are taught to see Sanskrit as the "original" language of the sutras. Not all Buddhists directly buy into the Indian superstitions surrounding Sanskrit as the "perfect language", but this attitude may be an influence. Learning Sanskrit is a fairly major undertaking that few Buddhists are willing to commit to. Indeed few translators of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra seem to be willing to commit to it either. The fact that one cannot read the "original", and the taboo around Sanskrit texts, help to intensify the aura of mystery; and, I would argue, the submission to authority that characterises our communities. 

If this section of the essay seems a bit disconnected, it's probably because I struggle to make sense of the complex situation. In fact, I think the situation is bizarre. Some days I think it is hilarious. There is no rhyme or reason to the different attitudes to the Heart Sutra. Philologists seem uninterested in the text as philologists, and unwilling to engage with any philological problems that are identified, even if they themselves identify the problems! Meanwhile, Buddhists churn out translations and mystical commentaries with increasing frequency (accelerated by Tibetan Lamas joining the Zen bandwagon). One can do anything at all to the text in English; but the Sanskrit translation is taboo, even though the Sanskrit text people think of as "original" was created in 1948 by Conze whose methods and results leave a lot to be desired; and even though the original Sanskrit translation from Chinese appears to be have produced by a bungler. How does one make sense of any of this? 

The range of tribal values and attitudes that inform the approach to this text is impossibly broad and contradictory. I don't think the Heart Sutra contains paradoxes, but the way Buddhists and scholars relate to it does seem to involve paradoxes. There is no conclusion here, but lastly, I want to move on to consider some aesthetic issues involving the Heart Sutra.


In Austin and Searle's work on speech acts they make an interesting distinction between what you say (locution), what you mean (illocution), and what your audience understand (perlocution). There is no necessary relationship between the three aspects of speech. It is vital to know this in England, where what a person says is frequently unrelated to what they mean.Some days it seems as though everyone in the country is being sarcastic all the time. The famed English politeness is often a trojan horse. A polite English person may well be expressing contempt for someone of perceived higher or lower status. For example, using the title "Sir" is very often an expression of contempt rather than deference. I'm sure all societies have varieties of this and I suffer from being a cultural (though not genetic) immigrant, but I want to highlight these kinds of differences when considering the Heart Sutra from an aesthetic point of view.

It's quite likely that at the start of its life, the point of the Heart Sutra was apotropaic magic, i.e. for the purpose of warding off evil. Medieval Chinese Buddhists would have the text copied, roll it up, and wear it about their person. Or someone with more money would have it carved onto a "dhāraṇī pillar"—an octagonal pillar of stone, with a pagoda-like 'hat' on top—and placed at a strategic place to prevent evil spirits from intruding. Xuanzang is supposed to have chanted it to scare off demons in the Gobi desert on his way to India. Curiously this is the only time the Heart Sutra is mentioned in his memoir and I suspect it was inserted later to cement a relationship between the two of them by someone seeking to further legitimise the apocryphal sutra after his death.

Unfortunately for a long time dhāraṇī was seen in the context of Vajrayāna as a type of mantra, and thus in the province of tantric Buddhism. The confusion over the translation of the character 咒 (incantation, dhāraṇī or mantra depending on time-frame) has not helped this. Until the invention of Tantric Buddhism and its introduction to China in the later 7th Century, i.e. for some hundreds of years prior to that, dhāraṇī were chanted mainly as magical protection along the same lines as the Theravāda practice of reciting certain suttas as protection (parittā). This has nothing to do with tantra and teleological approaches which treat dhāraṇī as "proto-tantra" miss the point. Dhāraṇī recitation and copying is an important Mahāyāna practice in its own right, though until the last ten years or so it has received almost no scholarly attention as such until Paul Copp's book The Body Incantatory. Dhāraṇī operates in an entirely different aesthetic to mantra.

On the other hand, as early as the late 7th Century (the precise dates are unclear), commentaries were composed commenting on the Heart Sutra as a doctrinal text. The first commentaries were by Yogācārins, both students of Xuanzang. Kuījī acknowledges that there is a Madhyamaka reading of the Heart Sutra, but his commentary asserts his own Yogācāra interpretation as superior. This view of Yogācāra as superior to, and partially superseding Madhyamaka, became common in East Asian Buddhism (it finds its way into the doctrines of Kūkai in early 9th Century Japan for example).

The sutra continues to play a dual role: a magical ward and a written record of ineffable doctrine, though members of different sects all see it as demonstrating their own sectarian doctrine. In the sense of a speech act, the illocutionary force of chanting the text is ambiguous, especially in the light of the sutra typically being chanted in a way that obscures the words, e.g. chanting it in a language the devotee does not speak. One of the special qualities of this text is that the devotee need not understand it for the "power" of the text to be effective. I've met people who claim to have had profound shifts in their consciousness on hearing the Heart Sutra for the first time - usually in Sanskrit (which usually means Conze's flawed edition). Chanting the sutra, in whatever form, retains a certain magical quality. Buddhism has this flavour of magical wish fulfilment throughout - though the "wish-fulfilling gem" is a Mahāyāna invention. 

Many of the extant Indian manuscripts seem to have been created not for reading, but as objet d'art or even as objects of worship, placed on shrines and offered flowers, candles, and incense rather than read or studied. Tibetan Buddhists have made a fetish of not allowing a book to touch the ground for example - or the proxy of the ground in the form of the floor of a house. I once attended a Tibetan puja at someone's house. Seated cross-legged on a cushion on a mat, I put the puja text on the carpet in front of me. One of the members, without saying anything, came and placed a cushion under it. It was never explained to me what was going on and I didn't ask. The carpet seemed clean enough to me and it certainly was not the "ground" as houses in New Zealand tend to sit on piles that elevate them above the ground. I can only suppose that it was related to the old Indian superstition of the feet being taboo

And yet, contrarily, the apparent meaning of the text—the ineffable meaning— is considered to be vitally important and so the text is assiduously studied by generation after generation of Buddhist acolytes. Dozens of commentaries have been composed in dozens of languages. Typically, alongside chanting an incomprehensible version of the text, students of Mahāyāna will also study commentaries of the text in their own language. So for example, Westerners will chant the text in Sanskrit or Chinese, but study an English language commentary by a famous Buddhist such as Thích Nhất Hạnh or the Dalai Lama. Chanting is magic, but apparently one must also try to understand a text that it is claimed defies understanding. Most teachers are more circumspect in explaining the inexplicable than Conze, in that they don't gloat about their superior insights. All of the commentaries I have seen quietly resort to hand-waving and misdirection when it comes to explaining "form is emptiness". The little books on the Heart Sutra also flatter the reader with simplistic explanations that are comprehensible. With practice, the reader can reproduce such interpretations so that they appear to understand the ineffable - at least well enough to win an argument. On the other hand, no one really seems to explain why the positive identity (form is emptiness) logically implies the negation of, for example, the Four Noble Truths. If "form is emptiness" then the Four Noble Truths are naturally affirmed rather than negated. I think however that Buddhists get a little frisson of excitement seeing their central doctrine being dismissed. They assume that it must be very profound indeed. Yet if someone outside Buddhism was to simply deny the Four Noble Truths, no doubt they would defend them to the hilt.

Here again, I struggle. Because from a philological point of view, most commentary on the Heart Sutra is worthless or positively deleterious to understanding. And yet a "teacher" with a very tenuous grasp of Sanskrit who produces a flaky commentary of minimal literary or intellectual merit, may nevertheless have succeeded according to the aesthetic criteria of their sect. Commentators such as Red Pine or Mu Seong, seem to me to badly mislead their readership, but are still highly popular and even revered for their efforts. And my efforts to point out their mistakes are treated with scorn and derision. 

As someone with a great interest in philology, I struggle with an aesthetic sensibility which raises an error to the status of a profound truth, and in which a correction is resisted often with considerable hostility. The tension between philological and anthropological approaches to the text cannot easily be resolved because they are expressions of quite different values. But the tensions between these two outsider (etic) viewpoints are as nothing to the conflict of either with insider (emic) views. The anthropologist seeks to understand the insider on their own terms, but also to analyse those terms dispassionately, i.e. not accepting those terms. They study the emic view but retain an etic overview, relating their observations to some theory of human culture for example.

The insider simply accepts the terms, hook, line, and sinker. In return, they gain acceptance to the group with all of the benefits membership bestows (or ought to). In a sense, acceptance is the key human value. Acceptance is primal. Foucault pointed out that we willingly subject ourselves to power, willingly make ourselves into subjects, in return for membership. That power in human relationship does not force people to accept the situation, that we ourselves make it happen. We are not the victims of power, we actively participate in power-relations whether we are high-status or low-status. This is far more obvious in other primates with their simpler lifestyles. One need only read Jane Goodall or Frans de Waal to see what primate societies are like and how we are very like them in many respects (though different as well). 


Is there really a crisis in Buddhist philology? In fact, despite Jonathan Silk's effort to provoke a crisis (and my own modest contribution), if one looks at the Buddhist Studies literature, it is very much business as usual. Philologists continue to churn out critical editions and studies of texts based on such editions. They still construct phylogenetic trees or stemma to illustrate how the texts are related to each other. However, in order to attract funding and meet artificial objectives, they study more and more obscure texts. Many of the new studies are on texts I've never heard of and that seem to have very little historical interest. 

The movement of research in the field of Buddhist studies can be glacial. Knowledge progresses over decades, if at all. There are very few exciting new developments or paradigm changing articles. Nattier's article on the Heart Sutra is still treated as provisional after 25 years, and very few people have paid it any critical attention. It has not provoked a flurry of follow-up articles. It has not changed minds. Silk himself (2013, 2015) still refers to the Chinese Heart Sutra as a translation from Sanskrit. 

In the meantime, Silk has launched The Open Philology Project to explore more dynamic ways of presenting texts that are more consistent with the reality of Buddhist texts. It will run over five years and hopefully produce some innovations in how philologists deal with Buddhist texts.

In reality, there is no crisis, but there should be one. The Heart Sutra illustrates this need because it cannot be contained or understood within the current philological paradigm. The very idea of an ur-text crumbles. The values by which we judge the worth of the Heart Sutra cover such broad ground that even the metaphor of a spectrum doesn't cover it. I've suggested the image of a braided stream, but in fact, a riot might be more appropriate in this case.

The different starting points for discussing philology and the Heart Sutra—authenticity, authority, ownership, and aesthetics—give a broad picture, but it is an abstract expressionist picture. The Heart Sutra is an enigma, not for the reason people think, but because of the reactions it provokes: from mystical fascination to studied indifference; from magical thinking to serious (though dead-end) philosophy. The Heart Sutra has a way of reflecting the views that people take to it. It is both tabula rasa and carte blanche.

Even if Buddhist philology has the decency to have a crisis, I don't think that will have any effect on most Buddhist communities. They demonstrably operate under a very different set of values when it comes to texts. Despite being almost entirely dependent on the preservation and translation efforts of scholars, people interested in the Heart Sutra maintain a rather grim contempt for intellectuals. If anything the crisis in conservative Buddhist establishments is social and related to the general decline of organised religions. They are content with medieval philosophy and resent intellectuals poking their noses in. If anything philosophers are counter-revolutionaries, who tend to abandon their critical thinking when approaching medieval Indian "philosophy" and go native. I've seen many modern attempts to get to grips with Nāgārjuna's method, with apparent relish of the experience of confusion. I have yet to come across a single published attempt to identify, let alone assess the validity of, the axioms that Nāgārjuna takes for granted. As far as I can see some of them are demonstrably false, and that undermines the whole enterprise. 

It is 25 years since Jan Nattier exposed the flaws in the received tradition about the history of Heart Sutra. In what is probably the best Buddhist Studies article ever written, she methodically works through the main thesis as well as a host of secondary issues with admirable clarity and thoroughness. Despite the comprehensive nature of her argument, Nattier left open a number of questions that have subsequently been largely ignored. In our three long articles, Huifeng and I have barely scratched the surface. I hope to get another long article published before the end of 2017 and have two shorter articles in mind.

I no longer think we will find interesting answers to important questions in ancient texts. They are fun to explore and I have been enriched by learning the languages, but pragmatically the future is ahead of us and the Iron Age has little to say about our problems. We cannot keep reinterpreting ancient texts and, in any case, the Buddhist establishment has little interest in new interpretations. Those developing secular applications of Buddhist techniques have little or no interest in the Buddhist superstructure of ancient ideas. Buddhist Studies as a scholarly field has resolutely avoided any confrontation with Buddhism (especially over axioms), and as the field is increasingly funded by Buddhists and staffed by Buddhist monks the situation is probably only going to get worse.

There isn't a crisis in Buddhist philology, but there ought to be one. As Jonathan Silk concludes:
"... if we wish to come to terms with Buddhist scriptures, their forms and their authorship, if we wish to think critically about establishing texts, how to interpret texts and how to translate them, there are deep, deep waters into which we must plunge, thinking about and considering issues of authority, of ownership, of intension [sic], of our place in the long... transmission of this literature (2015: 223). 



Attwood, Jayarava. (2015) 'Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. http://ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155 [Subscription required until May 2018]

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

Silk, Jonathan A. (2013) 'Establishing/Interpreting/Translating: Is it just that easy?' [Conference] Authors and Editors in the Literary Traditions of Asian Buddhism, 16th September 2013, Wolfson College, University of Oxford. http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/prof-jonathan-silk-literary-buddhism/326

Silk, Jonathan A. (2015). 'Establishing/Interpreting/Translating. Is It Just That Easy?' JIABS 36/37: 205-226. Online: http://www.academia.edu/33124295/Establishing_Interpreting_Translating_Is_It_Just_That_Easy [edited text of Silk (2013)]

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