18 March 2016

A Review of The Heart Sutra, by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

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

When one spends years studying and writing about a text it is always an occasion when a major new publication comes out promising something a little more than the usual recycled clichés. So I welcomed the publication of a new book on the Heart Sutra by respected Zen Buddhist author Kazuaki  "Kaz" Tanahashi, best known for translating commentaries by Dogen. The book has received rave reviews from the Zen community and on Amazon. It contains a number of chapters exploring the history of the text, including some material that is new or difficult for the average reader to get hold of, often because, as with a good deal of scholarship on the Heart Sutra, it was published in Japanese. So, in that sense, the book fills a gap in the market. The publisher, Shambhala Publications, are known for publishing fairly serious works alongside mass-market trivia and reviewers seemed to be particularly impressed by the author's "scholarship". However, my own delight at obtaining a copy of this book was soon tempered by misgivings about the quality of the scholarship, particularly with reference to the Sanskrit texts and to aspects of how it treats the sutra's history.

The new book was published by Shambala in 2014 as an attractively designed hardback. After the massive disappointment of Red Pine's popular translation and study of the Heart Sutra, this book promised to be a corrective. The sub-title proclaims that it will be a comprehensive guide. This suggestion of comprehensiveness seems to refer to the inclusion of many versions of the text in the discussion section, including several versions in less well known Asian languages. However, it quite quickly becomes apparent that in an English language book on the Heart Sutra there is not much advantage to having a Vietnamese or a Mongolian translation. It makes me wonder who the intended audience was. 

The crucial versions required for understanding the text and the history of the Heart Sutra are the surviving Sanskrit manuscripts, those used by Conze for his (flawed) critical edition, and the Canonical Chinese texts (T250, T251, and T256) and, in addition to these, the early Prajñāpāramitā texts that the Heart Sutra quotes from, particularly the version in 25,000 lines and its translations into Chinese (esp T223 and T220) and also《大智度論》Dà zhì dù lùn (Sanskrit *Mahāprajñā-pāramitopadeśa) T1509. The last is a commentary, attributed to Nāgārjuna, on the 25,000 line text incorporating the lines that are quoted by the Heart Sutra. Tanahashi does include most of these versions (leaving out T1509 and T220) and some discussion of the sources of the Heart Sutra; however, rather than producing a critical discussion of the differences between the texts and what that might tell us, the author manages only a superficial comparison of the texts in different languages. His scholarship is more of an exercise in collecting versions and contains almost no critical evaluation of the versions.

To make it more confusing, Tanahashi takes the Japanese Horiuzi Palm-leaf manuscript, the Sanskrit version embedded in T256, and the edition produced by Conze as three distinct recensions. Weirdly, he refers to Conze's edition as the "Nepalese Version" despite the fact that Conze used Japanese and Chinese manuscripts and inscriptions, including the Horiuzi manuscript, for his edition. Despite its flaws, Conze's edition is a true critical edition; i.e., an attempt to use the existing manuscripts and inscriptions to reconstruct the text that underlies all of them. The idea of a critical edition seems to be lost on Tanahashi. It is not unusual for Japanese authors to privilege the Horiuzi manuscript, because of its claim to be the oldest manuscript (albeit that it is not as old as is usually claimed). But this manuscript is also riddled with errors and must be seen in the context of the manuscript tradition as a whole. Tanahashi refers to T250 as the "α version", though T250 is clearly no such thing. T250 contains large chunks of text that are not included in any Sanskrit text, for example, making it the least likely candidate amongst the short-text versions to be an ur-text.

Part of the problem is that Tanahashi rejects the conclusions of Jan Nattier in her watershed 1992 article in which she spells out the reasons to doubt the author attributions and, therefore, the dating, of both T250 and T251 (usually attributed to Kumārajīva and Xuanzang, respectively). It's apparent that neither T250 nor T251 can be the ur-text for the Heart Sutra. Tanahashi, unlike Red Pine, accepts that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, but he has no explanation for how either T250 or T251 could have been the model for the Sanskrit text as it has come down to us.  As it stands, T250 has several more phrases that have no counterpart in any other text, let alone the Sanskrit, than T251 does. This makes it less likely to be the "α version" than any other Chinese text. But then, neither T250 nor T251 precisely corresponds to the Sanskrit version. The ur-text or α version is almost certainly no longer extant and the versions we do have show signs of editing. Tanahashi makes no mention that I can find of T1509, even though it is highly likely to have influenced the final form of the Chinese Heart Sutra, if not having been the actual source of the quotations. Nattier (1992) sets out the evidence for these conclusions in great detail in her article. In many cases, she is simply repeating (with references) the widely held views of her colleagues, though she does make original observations on this subject, as well.

So, while it is clear that Tanahashi has made some effort to understand the various versions, the conclusions that he comes to are idiosyncratic and, frankly, misleading. And this is problematic, because of the influence of both author and publisher. We know from history how mistakes can become canonised and propagated because they are associated with authority figures or popular books. Conze's work on the Prajñāpāramitā is a case in point. 

While we are on the subject of idiosyncrasies, Tanahashi's frequent translation of śūnyatā as "zeroness" (alongside other translations) is deeply problematic. I commented on idiosyncratic translations in my review of Thich Nhat Hanh's new translation of the Heart Sutra. A translator always has difficult choices to make but, rather than being an exercise in self-expression on the part of the author, translation must prioritise the needs of the reader, especially the reader who does not know the source language. When a jargon term has a standard or widely accepted translation, the translators ought to be constrained to follow it, unless there is some good reason not to. In which case they must explain in detail what that reason is and leave plenty of signposts for the reader so that they can join the dots. To my knowledge, no other translator has ever suggested "zeroness" as a translation of śūnyatā and, in my view, it conveys utterly the wrong impression. The new translation of the Heart Sutra featured in the book uses "boundlessness" which says more about modern (Romantic) Zen concerns than it does about the way that Prajñāpāramitā authors saw śūnyatā, i.e., in terms of the absence of svabhāva. The problems of an apposition between a substantive and an abstract noun I noted in my Form is Emptiness essays seems to apply even more in this case: "form is zeroness" looks exactly like nihilism. And it leads to mutant translations such as "(Avalokiteśvara saw five skandhas and) perceived them as zero-like self-nature." [sic] (156 ). On p.157 Tanahashi seems to have become confused by the fact that later on Indian mathematicians used śūnya as a word for "zero", because in this context it clearly refers to absence (of svabhāva), just as it does in some early Buddhist texts.

In the book there is no discussion on what the differences between the versions of the text might signify. So the reader is left with multiple conflicting versions of a well-known text without any commentary that might help us make sense of the differences. It's not necessary to argue for a definitive version because there may not ever have been one. But Tanahashi could have spelled out which are the most important versions and tried to explain the significance of the differences between them. For example, what does it mean when one version of a text includes a passage that no other version includes? Textual criticism would usually see such passages as interpolations: chunks of texts that have been added to one version only, and not passed on in other versions. The presence of just such a passage is what disqualifies T250 as the "α version".

Tanahashi says that he accepts Nattier's Chinese origins thesis, but if he does accept Nattier's thesis then it does not show in his exegesis. None of the explanations that she provided for some of the back-translations, for example, make it into Tanahashi's exegesis. There are places where it might have been useful, such as the case of 究竟涅槃 or niṣṭhānirvāṇapraptaḥ (Tanahashi 186-7; cf Nattier 1992: 178). This phrase is natural in Chinese, but extremely awkward in Sanskrit. This is a key part of the evidence for the text having been composed in Chinese and then translated into Sanskrit by someone who was unfamiliar with the Sanskrit idioms of Prajñāpāramitā texts. An Indian Buddhist composing in Sanskrit would not come up with this phrase. Nor does it occur in the Prajñāpāramitā literature. If Tanahashi accepts Nattier's thesis, why not make use of the observations that flow from it? 

In a previous essay I pointed out some minor errors in the book. But of considerable concern is the author's weakness in Sanskrit. Although he purports to be translating and interpreting the Sanskrit text for the reader, he seems not to be at home in Sanskrit, by any means. Indeed, he often seems to be relying on third parties to inform his explanations of Sanskrit. This means that he makes a number of basic grammatical (syntactical and morphological) and etymological errors. Some examples include:
  • On p. 148 the author asserts that "śvara is an adjective meaning 'delight in'." There is no word śvara श्वर in Sanskrit. The second form of the name Avalokateśvara (avalokita-īśvara) is Avalokitasvara (avalokita-svara) where svara, स्वर, means "sound". There is no form with aśvara अश्वर (also not a word) or with asvara अस्वर. See Avalokiteśvara & The Heart Sutra (24 April 2015)
  • On p. 193 he describes mantra as "related to the verb mant". The verbal root is √man, the verb is manyate. The t in mantra comes from the instrumental suffix -tra and the etymology of the word is man-tra, "that which facilitates thought".
  • On p. 156 the author gives a number of elaborate definitions of the verb paśyati, "behold, look at, perceive or notice". This is taken directly from Monier-Williams's Dictionary (MW) where these are the senses in which the word is used in the Ṛgveda (Something beginners often misunderstand is that MW places the older definitions first in each entry). But he has missed out the very first definition, and in this case by far the most apposite definition from MW, i.e., "to see". In practice "see" is the most common sense of the word in general Sanskrit, especially in a Buddhist context - it would be unusual to translate it as anything other than "see". And this is what a non-Sanskrit speaking person needs to know. One cannot just translate from the dictionary, one has to have a feel for how the language is used in practice!
  • On p.153-5 the author has divided the phrase vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhās tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyan paśyati sma in the wrong place, creating a phrase that starts with ca - this is forbidden by Sanskrit grammar (this is very basic Sanskrit). The two phrases are vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhāṃs ([Avalokiteśvara] examined the five skandhas); and tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyan paśyati sma (...and he saw that they lack self-existence). Here the metaphor SEEING IS KNOWING probably applies, i.e., "[he] examined the five skandhas and understood they lacked self-existence." I deal with this sentence in detail in Attwood (2015).
These are just examples I have scribbled in the margins of my copy. There are many more. Another problematic area is the commentary on the formula rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam (158-62). Here the author has mixed up the text, misunderstood which bits of the different versions correspond to which, and fluffed the Sanskrit etymologies. The result is a disastrous muddle. There are three pairs of phrases in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but only two pairs in the Chinese (T250, T251) and the 25,000 line text in both Chinese and Sanskrit. Tanahashi knows that one of the three pairs is the odd one out, but he chooses the wrong pair so that his commentary is on the pair that is left out, but connected to the pairs that remain. 

It seems that no one who with a good knowledge of Sanskrit proofread the book. No one fact checked Tanahashi's assertions about the Sanskrit text. No doubt this would have been expensive and added to the cost of the book and lengthened the production process, but the result is rather poor and often misleading. In a book promoted as a comprehensive guide to the most popular Mahāyānist text, you'd think it would merit careful attention. Sadly not. What we have here is another Zen translator attempting to pass himself off as able to translate an important text from Sanskrit without really knowing Sanskrit. And since their peers know even less Sanskrit, the practice can continue because if you pack a book with grammatical jargon and etymologies it looks like you know what you are talking about. 

Where the book does better is in describing the cultural context of early Medieval China. Though even here it now seems very dated and superficial in the light of Paul Copp's book on the cult of dhāraṇī in early Medieval China (2014). Copp sheds a good deal of light on the Chinese practice of using short texts for inscriptions and manuscripts to avert misfortune and create good fortune. Tanahashi manages to convey that the text was used in this way, but not why. 

As I mentioned, reviews praise the scholarship of the author. The book's blurb says that the line by line (in fact, phrase by phrase) analysis provides "a deeper understanding of the history and etymology of the elusive words than is generally available to the nonspecialist". Unfortunately, the non-specialist is in no position to evaluate the information being presented to them, either. The dust jacket endorsement attributed to Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara declares the books "unsurpassable!" In fact, it could easily be surpassed simply by correcting the many errors. Few non-academics are able to appreciate what good scholarship looks like and thus are unable to see limitations and deficits in this book. An accumulation of detail (often erroneous detail), without any real attempt make sense of it, is not scholarship, it is more like stamp collecting. Scholarship involves the critical evaluation of what one has collected and trying to communicate insights that derive from that evaluation. Tanahashi's book is like a stamp collection. Everything is nicely displayed, but some of the labels are wrong, and there is nothing to say why these particular stamps are important or useful. 

The book includes a new translation composed with help from Joan Halifax (3-4). Like the translation produced by Thich Nhat Hanh, this one paraphrases the text to try to make it more consistent with modern Zen concerns. The result is another padded out, turgid pseudo-poem. The Heart Sutra itself is not comprehensible without considerable contextualisation (and possibly not even then). As with previous translations this translation fails to see the text as a Prajñāpāramitā text and sees it, instead, in sectarian terms as a Zen text. On one hand, this is not such a bad thing. If one is trying to communicate something to an audience of modern Zen Buddhists, then one uses terms and ideas that they will understand. Commentators (both ancient and modern) typically use the Heart Sutra as a floating signifier to carry a message that is independent of the words and aimed at promoting a sectarian view of Buddhism. In which case, the author would ideally be clear that this is what they were doing. Tanahashi is not clear on this point. The book pretends to be a non-sectarian work that gives the reader a "deeper understanding... of the elusive words", but it fails on two counts: firstly, the information about the words is frequently inaccurate; and, secondly, the commentary is all too often not elucidating the words of the text, but instead expounding the ideology of Zen seen through the lens of Romanticism.

In one case the translation mistakes the object of a verb and thus mistranslates. Where the text says that dharmas do not arise or pass away, the author and his co-author translate this as śūnyatā not arising and passing away. This might be doctrinally sound, but it is not what the text says, either in Chinese or Sanskrit. Nor does it say that "Boundlessness is the nature of all things". The Chinese text is 是諸法空相 "All dharmas are marked with emptiness" or sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanā. Anyone familiar with Buddhist Chinese will recognise 空相 as the equivalent of Sanskrit śūnyatā-lakṣana. The concept of "nature" has sneaked in here, giving the text an ontological twist, i.e., a speculation about the nature of dharmas, rather than a statement about the observed characteristics of them. The sheer number of such problems makes reading the book an exercise in exasperation for an informed reader.

I have written to the publishers to point out some of the many mistakes I have noted above, but without much hope that I can repair the damage done. Shambala have not responded to my emails. In the end the book is very disappointing. I certainly disagree with Zoketsu Norman Fisher when he says on the back cover blurb that "this astonishing work of loving scholarship... is a must-have for any serious Dharma student". It is an astonishing work, but for all the wrong reasons. The best one can say about it, is that it is reasonably priced. 

It's a real shame that this book falls so very far short of the claims for it. There really is no good book on the Heart Sutra in English and thus another opportunity has been lost to open up the fascinating history of this text to the general public in a meaningful way. People often ask me what book I would recommend and I keep having to say that I cannot recommend any book on the Heart Sutra. Indeed, I find myself warning people not to read books. Don't read Red Pine, for example. Don't read Conze, D T Suzuki, or Mu Seong. Don't, because the books are poorly researched and written. They won't help you understand the text or put the words into practice and they will certainly mislead you in ways that will be difficult to detect if you don't read Sanskrit and (Buddhist) Chinese. I haven't read commentaries by the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, but going on the latter's translation I would not recommend him either. One is probably better off not reading this book, either.

It is ironic, given the iconic status of this text, that the best scholarship is ignored and the worst is wildly popular. Donald Lopez's two books (1988, 1996) on the late Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan certainly offer some insights, but those commentaries are sectarian and rather difficult to understand and interpret. Similarly with more recent translations of the earlier Chinese commentaries by Xuanzang's students Woncheuk and Kuījī (Hyun Choo 2006, Shih & Lusthaus 2006). The best one can do at this stage is read Jan Nattier's 1992 article (being sure to read all of the footnotes carefully), and Paul Copp's (2014) book on dhāraṇī. This at least opens some doors and gives one a sense that the popular view of the text does not hold water. I've written nearly 30 essays on the Heart Sutra and related texts covering certain details of the text, but a truly comprehensive, critical study of the Heart Sutra in its own right as a Prajñāpāramitā text, sadly does not yet exist. Quite surprising given the manifest popularity of the text. 



Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104/123

Copp, Paul. (2014) The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Columbia University Press.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) 'An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch'uk's Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra)'. International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture, 6: 121-205.

Lopez, Donald S. (1988). The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, Donald S. (1996). Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University Press.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707.

Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006). A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

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

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