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.


Authenticity

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.


Authority

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?


Ownership

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.


Aesthetics

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). 




Conclusion

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). 

~~oOo~~


Bibliography


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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