13 October 2017

Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar"

When I mention to anyone that I work on the Heart Sutra, there is a better-than-even chance that that person will declare that they like Red Pine's book on the text (2004). This small book purports to be a translation from the Sanskrit along with a commentary. However, Pine is not very good at Sanskrit and there are a load of mistakes in his book, and his commentary is sectarian, to say the least. My Amazon UK review of his book suggests that it is "a facile book on modern Japanese Zen rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra." I say this whenever his name comes up, but his reputation survives intact. The response is usually along the lines "We trust him, we don't trust you (so fuck off)". The last may be sotto voce, but sometimes it is expressed just like that.

Facts don't necessarily win arguments or establish reputations, and nor do falsehoods necessarily lose arguments or destroy reputations. No one alive today can doubt this truism. Nevertheless, I still try to deal in facts and here are some facts about Red Pine's attempts to understand the Heart Sutra.

One of the characteristics of Pine's approach is his outright rejection of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China.
"... we are shown no proof that the Heart Sutra was originally composed or complied in Chinese, that any part of the first half was extracted from the Large Sutra or any other Chinese text, or that the mantra was added later."  (2004: 23)
Pine instead proposes a "lost manuscript thesis". That is to say, he argues that the Heart Sutra quote from the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is from a (now lost) sūtra with the same name, and with the same meaning, but written in an entirely different Sanskrit idiom from any other Prajñāpāramitā text. In other words, he believes that the Indian sūtra existed in at least two prose versions, which paraphrased each other; meaning that one of them was in the standard idiom of all other Prajñāpāramitā texts, and one was in an idiom unknown except for the passage in the Heart Sutra. The fact that the Chinese Heart Sutra is coincidentally identical to Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati is apparently irrelevant (note: it is T250 that is character for character identical; T251 has a line removed in the middle and a couple of key terms changed). 

In taking this perverse approach, Red Pine is asserting that the Sanskrit text is original and authoritative and that the Chinese text is just a translation. But as we will see, this is not what he believes in practice. I draw your attention to Section VI of Conze's edition and to Red Pine's "translation". 

The mystery of Section VI

Conze's edition chops up the Heart Sutra into sections to make it easier to comment on. The earliest manuscripts of the Heart Sutra do not have sections. In fact, they don't even have sentence or word breaks. They have no punctuation at all. In Conze’s edition the passage reads:
VI. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo Prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ.
This section has already been examined in detail by Huifeng (2014), but there is work to do yet on the Sanskrit. I am about to submit a short article tackling the mistake introduced by Conze, and am working on another article which tackles what went wrong with the original (back)translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. Here, I just want to look at Red Pine's approach and what it reveals about his methods.

The second sentence in particular is puzzling. Jan Nattier notes that it seems "abbreviated at best", but doesn't seem to clock why. Others seem to gloss over the problems. What Pine says is this:
“I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta” (2004: 137)
If we look at the Sanskrit text it is apparent that there are problems with this passage. The two words viparyāsātikrāntaḥ and niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ are both bahuvrīhi compounds or compound adjectives. The two words in the compound work together to describe a noun: "one who has overcome delusion" and "one whose extinction is final". But there is no noun for them to describe. Nor does the sentence have a verb or anything that might substitute for one - and just as in English, a sentence without a verb is a contradiction in terms.

A compound cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces under any circumstances. It is never allowed.  There is nothing vague about this rule. For one thing, were we to do that to viparyāsātikrāntaḥ, as Pine does, we would leave  viparyāsa with no case ending and thus no relationship to the other words in the sentence (grammar is all about relationships between words). The role of the compound in the sentence is entirely determined by the second member of the compound, which does have a case ending (in this case masculine nominative singular).

The passive past participle atikranta cannot function as a finite verb under any circumstances. The root verb ati√kram does not mean "see through", it means "go beyond, transgress, transcend". Given the Prajñāpāramitā idiom, it probably ought to be samatikranta, which cannot be construed as "transgress", but that is a another story.

Pine has misread the sentence and, in asserting that there are any "vagaries" here, has gone completely off piste. The problem, as my forthcoming article will show, is that Conze has incorrectly put a full stop (US "period") in the middle of the sentence, stranding the three adjectives (atrastaḥ is the third) apart from the noun they describe, i.e., bodhisatvaḥ. Note that the Chinese text in the CEBTA version of the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka has a semicolon at this point, rather than a full stop. Conze had little or no facility with Chinese and never checked the Chinese texts when preparing his Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts.

This is completely obvious to anyone educated in Sanskrit; adjectives taking the case of their noun is very basic stuff (you probably learn this in the first or second week of study).

Why is it so obvious in this case? Because the noun nirvāṇa is invariably neuter (nominative singular nirvāṇaṃ), but in the Heart Sutra it has a masculine ending, -nirvāṇaḥ. The only time this is permitted is when a word is used as an adjective for a masculine noun, in the nominative singular: adjectives take the gender, case, and number of the noun they describe. Thus niṣthānirvāṇaḥ can only be a bahuvrīhi compound, an adjective, and can only be related to a masculine noun in the nominative singular, and could not be anything else. The only candidate noun within 20 words in either direction is bodhisatvaḥ, in the previous "sentence". When we remove the full stop we have one perfectly good Buddhist Sanskrit sentence.

Conze blunders again and the whole (Buddhist) world blindly follows him off the cliff.

The essential problem, then, is that cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ is not a well formed sentence. It's just a qualifier and three adjectives, with no verb, no subject, and no noun to be described. When we remove the full stop, and merge it with the previous sentence, we supply all three. That is why Pine is struggling, but he doesn't see it. And rather than take the simple and obvious solution he abandons Sanskrit grammar altogether and claims that Sanskrit grammar itself is "vague". Given that he has abandoned grammar, why does he choose the particular configuration he does? If he is abandoning the rules of grammar then he might have opted for any combination of words. The answer lies in the Chinese text.


The text that everyone in Asia considers to be the Heart Sutra is T251. It differs from T250 at this point, but only in a minor way (I will deal with this in the article, but not here). The Chinese parallel to the Sanskrit phrase cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in T251 is:
A word for word translation would be:
unattached (無罣礙) because (故),there is no (無有) terror (恐怖),going beyond (遠離) delusions (顛倒) [and] illusions (夢想 ),final (究竟) nirvāṇa (涅槃).
Here the particle 故 gives the first word the same sense as the Sanskrit ablative of cause, it is a qualifier meaning "because, since". The previous sentence concluded that "[the bodhisatva's]  mind 心 is unattached 無罣礙". So the qualifier links the two phrases, in the manner of "; because of that...". Then we have a statement that appears to logically follow from it, i.e. "because he is unattached, he is without fear". Then we have a verb "he goes beyond" and it has a direct object "delusions and illusions" and an indirect object "final-nirvāṇa". So it says:
[his mind is unattached]; since it is unattached, [the bodhisatva] is not afraid; he goes beyond delusion and illusion to final extinction.
I want to draw your attention to two things here. Firstly the sentence structure of the Chinese is completely different to the received Sanskrit and some of the words are different. I've already pointed out that the second part of Section VI cannot be a stand-alone sentence in Sanskrit. But in Chinese, we do have a well formed sentence with verbs and nouns (the subject is implied, but it is the bodhisatva in the preceding phrase). Translating this we don't struggle, at least we certainly don't have the kind of problems thrown up by Conze's Sanskrit edition.

Secondly, compare how Red Pine has construed the Sanskrit text to make atikranta the verb (= 遠離), viparyāsa a standalone noun (= 顛倒), niṣthā an adverb (= 究竟), and nirvāṇa a standalone noun (涅槃). To make it plain, Red Pine has chopped up the Sanskrit sentence, abrogating the rules of Sanskrit grammar, to make it read (more or less) like the Chinese, but with a concession to his Zen ideology. The concession is that he takes niṣṭhā as an adverb, "finally", related to the "verb" atikranta, rather than part of the adjective "final-extinction". This allows him to construe the possibility of "finally seeing through nirvāṇa". Again, Sanskrit does not allow parts of compounds to come adrift and act independently, so this reading of the Sanskrit is wrong. I don't think it works in Chinese, either, though at a pinch it might be a plausible reading. A broader look at the phrase 究竟涅槃 in Chinese shows that it is always a single compound and not an adverb-noun combination. But Red Pine does not seem to know this.

The main point I wish to make here is that Red Pine prioritises the Chinese text over the Sanskrit (and not just here, either).

As I noted above, Red Pine says that he considers the Sanskrit text to be the authentic original Heart Sutra. The Chinese text is merely a translation. But when he meets a problem in the Sanskrit text he does not deal with it in Sanskrit (even though there is a simple and obvious solution to his problem); instead, he uses the Chinese text as a guide to butchering the Sanskrit, to make it read like the Chinese.

I discovered this some weeks ago and I still laugh out loud every time I explain it to anyone. Despite what he says in relation to the Chinese origins thesis, and despite claiming that he is translating from Sanskrit, in practice Red Pine treats the Chinese text as authoritative and translates from Chinese (on more than one occasion). 

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?" The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
Now, to give him his due, Red Pine is almost unique in admitting that he had any problem at all translating this part of the text. Most religious translators hide their struggles and their methods from their readers, giving the illusion of greater understanding than is humanly possible. In this case Conze's edition is unreadable and untranslatable. A sentence with just a qualifier and three adjectives is nonsense and nonsense cannot be translated into sense. But strangely enough all the English translations seem to make sense. How does that happen? 

What goes through the mind of the translator faced with a text that doesn't make sense, but who wishes to be known as an expert in understanding that text?

Presumably the demands of status mean that these translators simply lie about understanding the text, and then lie to themselves about having lied. And do a lot of hand waving to distract anyone from seeing the lies. They feel safe in the knowledge that very few of their readers bother to learn Sanskrit and that scholars play no corrective role in the process.

And they do get away with this cheating, this intellectual fraud. Time after time.

Surely the publisher of Red Pine's book, Counterpoint Press, also has some responsibility (as do other publishers of non-fiction books)? Counterpoint Press edited the book and presumably sub-edited the English in it. Why was the Sanskrit not sub-edited? No one seems to have bothered to check a dictionary at any point. It seems that they did not do any fact-checking or due-diligence, such as having an expert read the manuscript. At best, the complacency of the publisher has facilitated the ongoing deception. 

We expect religieux to fudge things from time to time because they have an agenda that includes overriding ideological concerns. We understand this and, while we may not endorse it, at least it is no great surprise to find that a religious translator has manipulated a text to make it fit their preconceptions; or told us what they think it ought to say, rather than what it actually says (especially in cases where they demonstrably do not understand it, as here). We expect religieux to have exaggerated reverence for a printed text and not to think about how the text might be wrong (Thich Nhat Hahn is the sole exception to this that I'm aware of but, as I explained, his solution is to hide the problem by manipulating the translation. This is just an exercise in hand waving). 

What of academia? Many of the people who have studied, translated, and commented on this text were academics of quite high standing. Conze's first edition (1948) was published in a prestigious journal, where it was supposedly peer-reviewed. How did all of these experts in Sanskrit, miss the fact that the neuter noun nirvāṇa was in the masculine gender in this text and not see the implications of this? Any undergraduate student could spotted this and have told us what those implications were. 


The fact is that Buddhists have been poorly served by religious teachers and academic experts alike. In the case of the Heart Sutra, huge, possibly irreparable, damage has been done by D T Suzuki and Edward Conze and their Theosophy inspired nonsense. Yet both are almost deified and occupy a kind of pantheon of Buddhist Modernism. Conze has been described by Sangharakshita as "one of the great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century". He was a poor editor and translator, and while his views were influenced by Buddhism (amongst other things), I'm not convinced he was a Buddhist at all.

Red Pine's popular book is full of egregious errors and, as we now know, a degree of deception, inconsistency, and hypocrisy. At best it is a facile book on modern Japanese Zen ideology, rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra. But there is no doubting that it is popular. So it too has done huge damage.

Where we might have expected correctives from the supposedly objective scholars based in universities, dispassionately studying the languages and documents of Buddhism, we simply see more of the same in most cases (with a few notable exceptions). The most basic level of scholarship has been left incomplete, while scholars pursue ever more obscure objectives. I'm told by insiders that this might be so that they can avoid confrontation with anyone else in the field. Criticism that might affect anyone's career prospects is scrupulously avoided and even suppressed as journals refuse to publish it. Still, Conze has been dead for 43 years, I can't see how criticising him is going to hurt anyone.

Another problem, of course, is that the field is tiny and funding for it in the West has become scarce. Most of the major projects are based in Asia, under the guidance of Buddhist organisations and funders, meaning that scholarship is beholden to those with strong religious ideologies. Dissent is not really possible under such conditions.

The Heart Sutra is frequently referred to as "the most popular Mahāyāna text in the world". Most undergraduates in Buddhist Studies read it. Probably many of them read it in Sanskrit. So actually what I said about any undergraduate spotting the mistake is probably wrong, because several generations of them have not spotted it, or they spotted it and stayed quiet. And so simple grammatical errors have persisted in the most popular Buddhist text for almost 60 years (the anniversary of Conze's edition is in 2018; he died in 1974). 

I'm repeating myself in complaining about Buddhist Studies as a discipline (if "discipline" is the right word). But, here I am, working systematically through the shortest text in popular use (260 Chinese characters and about the same number of words in Sanskrit) and still finding mistakes in the text and trying to figure out how anyone could have translated the resulting mess. Something is deeply wrong in the world, if an autodidact, amateur, independent scholar is the one finding these fundamental problems. They should have been ironed out by academics decades ago. Conze should never have been allowed to publish his critical edition with errors in it for a start, but they should have been corrected long before now. 

Ironically, in the final analysis, this set of circumstances can only stand because Buddhists themselves are complacent and not paying attention. Perhaps we are in a kāliyuga after all?



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. 

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

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

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