20 October 2017

The Horror of Apocrypha

People often react positively when I say that I study the Heart Sutra. They often seem to imagine that the holiness of the text must rub off on me (I wish!). In reality, I don't find the Heart Sutra particularly interesting, except as a case study in the history of ideas in Buddhism. Unfortunately, I found a sixty year old mistake in Conze's edition as I was beginning to learn Sanskrit back in 2012 and for me that meant figuring out how to fix it (see Attwood 2015). But it also meant looking to see in what other ways it was broken. As much as anything, what fascinates me now is that people continue to translate the text even though it is broken in several ways, both by Conze and by the original translator. What goes on in the mind of a translator who stumbles on a passage that simply does not make sense, but publishes something anyway?

The English language literature on the Heart Sutra mostly celebrates irrationality and mysticism, which goes a long way to explaining why no one noticed that the text did not make sense. It reminds me of that popular formulation of the laws of thermodynamics (aka Ginsberg's Theorem), which I can paraphrase for our purposes as: "you can't understand, you can't hope to understand, there is nothing you can do that will bring about understanding". Call this Conze's Theorem, though it could equally well be Suzuki's. If someone accepts Conze's Theorem, then their chances of spotting grammatical errors plummets. 

Amidst all the smoke and mirrors, we don't usually see that, like many philosophers, priests and mystics actively get in the way of understanding. They impede us by asserting falsehoods, contradicting themselves and, above all, by trying to convince us to take up the defeatist, fixed mindset (in the Professor Carol Dweck sense) that Conze's Theorem represents. If anyone actually understood, all the priests would be out of a job, or they would have competition. On the other hand, there is a symbiotic relationship between those who confuse and those who wish to be confused (or to justify their state of confusion or be absolved of responsibility for it). Priest and congregation co-exist and feed off each other.

A friend who likes to produce his own translations of the Heart Sutra, partly based on our long discussions about it, was criticised recently for "taking the mystery out of it". What can I say? The mystery of the Heart Sutra is how Buddhists get away with promoting magical thinking.

The Horror...

Anyway, sometimes my desire to understand forces me (reluctantly) to read books about the Heart Sutra. It's a bit like, having dropped my glasses in the toilet while having a piss, I have to fish them out before I flush, just in case they go past the U-bend. For some reason, I had high hopes about Kazuaki Tanahashi’s book. I think it might have been the nice cover. The book does have a very nice cover (right). As the subtitle suggests, this was an attempt at a comprehensive account of the Heart Sutra. However, like Red Pine, there was a mismatch between the author's expertise, the subject of the book, and the scope of his ambition. Tanahashi is even less proficient than Red Pine in Sanskrit and appears to be entirely reliant on third parties, who apparently mislead him on many occasions. His commentary on the Sanskrit text is full of errors of lexicon and morphology and, as a result, quite unreliable.

I'm not even going to mention the new English Heart Sutra contrived with help from Roshi Joan Halifax. Instead, in this essay, I want to focus on how Tanahashi deals with the news, delivered in 1992, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, in Chinese. It was not Indian and not written in Sanskrit, and therefore not a sūtra. Tanahashi devotes almost four pages to outlining Nattier’s seventy-page article in a fairly neutral manner. His gloss is more or less accurate and he states that he thinks it is plausible (2014: 73-76). 

Then in a separate chapter, he notes the horror with which the article was received in Japan. He cites the late Japanese scholar, Fumimasa-Bunga Fukui (福井文雅), as saying, “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (2014: 77). Fukui (who died in May 2017) was a major figure of the Japanese Buddhist establishment, though almost completely unknown in the West because he didn't write in English (e.g. he only has a Japanese Wikipedia entry). Fukui, unsurprisingly, given this attitude, is not convinced by the evidence presented, though Tanahashi does not really say anything about Fukui's reasoning. 

Tanahashi also records Red Pine’s objection, which I have already dealt with to some extent (Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar". 13 October 2017). However, unlike Pine, Tanahashi declares himself satisfied by the case that Nattier has made for the Heart Sutra having been composed in China. On the surface this is a victory for reason (sorely needed), but watch what happens next.

It Cannot Be Ruled Out

The chapter that starts off assessing Nattier's thesis veers off on what seems to be a tangent. Tanahashi notices that T250 is closer to T223 and dubs it the “alpha version”. Despite the fact that T250 differs considerably more from the received Sanskrit text than T251, Tanahashi proposes it as the source text for the Sanskrit. He is concerned here to rally facts that support the identity of Xuánzàng as the translator, a case which, in reality, is very weak. Someone as familiar with the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature as Xuánzàng undoubtedly was would be unlikely to make so many idiomatic mistakes or to misread the Chinese text.  The reasoning becomes increasingly specious, but it comes around to an unexpected conclusion:
“Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang’s Sanskrit version could be accepted as an authentic scripture.” (84)
So, having accepted the rational argument against the text being authentic, Tanahashi uses deduction to show that, after all, it is authentic. The reasoning here is quite something and it might be instructive to diagram it.
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.
Note that Axiom3 assumes that the Heart Sutra complies with Axioms1 & 2. Nattier shows, however, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China some time between 404 CE and 672 CE. And so we get the syllogism:
If the Heart Sutra was composed in China, it did not come from India, therefore it is not the word of the Buddha, and therefore it is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1: The Heart Sutra is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1 is the complete opposite of Axiom3. One or other must be false. Nattier, in fact, downplays this conclusion, presumably out of sympathy with her many Asian Buddhist Colleagues. But anyone can see the implications for this most popular of all East Asian texts. To put it baldly: it's a fake. Anyone who promoted it is a fool. Even if you did understand it, the understanding itself would not be authentic. This is the fear, anyway. In my view, the Heart Sutra is an authentic expression of early medieval Chinese Buddhism, but that's probably not enough for the traditionalist. 

Buddhist religious authority is partly predicated on the authenticity of the sūtras and, for Japanese Zen Buddhists, this sūtra has a central and vital role. The Heart Sutra is the central mystery in the mystery religion that is modern Zen Buddhism (especially after D T Suzuki’s influential Theosophy inspired presentation of it). Axiom1 is the warp upon which the Zen Buddhist priests weave the weft of their religious authority. If Axiom1 is no longer a given, then the whole fabric of the religious tradition may unravel. Zen Buddhism is in danger of losing all credibility: hence the horrified reaction in Japan to Nattier’s article.

So, for obvious reasons, Conclusion1 is unacceptable: Fukui and Pine reject the evidence out of hand. Pine goes as far as denying that there is any evidence.

Tanahashi is, unlike Red Pine, honest enough to admit that Nattier’s case for Conclusion goes beyond any reasonable doubt. However, he is still committed to the three axioms. Therefore, he looks for a weak point in Nattier’s case. Her 1992 article is 70 pages long and covers a lot of ground. One of the subjects she covers is the attribution of T250 to Kumārajīva and T251 to Xuánzàng.

Traditionally, of course, T251 is attributed to Xuánzàng as translator. While Nattier casts enough doubt on this attribution for it to be abandoned, she leaves open the possibility that Xuánzàng produced the Sanskrit translation. This is a very appealing possibility to many Buddhists and in it Tanahashi finds his salvation.

Having definitely identified Xuánzàng as translator, Tanahashi constructs a fantasy that goes like this: Buddhists, he says, meditate and sometimes, in meditation, they receive divine revelations. Stories of meditating monks receiving instructions from Maitreya or Mañjuśrī are exceedingly common in Buddhist folklore. In these stories, the figures are usually bodhisatvas and they play the role of a virtual-buddha who provides the necessary imprimatur to meet Axiom2 (sūtras are the word of the Buddha).

It is, of course, well known that Xuánzàng travelled to India. In his final manoeuvre, Tanahashi imagines that the revelation from Avalokiteśvara conveniently took place in India. This allows him to construct the following syllogism:
If Xuánzàng had “received” the [translated] text in India [Axiom1], it would have to be seen as a scripture of Indian origin! Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang's version could be accepted as an authentic scripture (84).
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.

The essential axioms are satisfied and the horror of the prospect that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon is banished, just as Xuánzàng himself banished the demons of the Gobi desert by reciting the Heart Sutra by magic. As Tanahashi says, this possibility “cannot be ruled out”. He is of course right. Just as we cannot rule out the possibility of the tooth-fairy. 

However, Tanahashi cannot cite a single source for this idea. There is nothing in Xuánzàng's own account of his journey to suggest any of this happened. Nothing in the biographies composed by his contemporaries. Not even a suspicious-looking legend. There is nothing for anyone to base such speculation on. We associate Xuánzàng with the Heart Sutra because shoe-horned into his travelogue is a single mention of the text; and because his two main disciples wrote commentaries on the text (which are, curiously, undated - the Chinese dated everything). Xuánzàng is famous precisely for bringing Sanskrit Buddhist texts to China, and translating them into Chinese after he arrived. He was a prolific translator, so we have a very good idea of what to look for, and the Heart Sutra has none of the tell-tale signs. What is apparent is that someone has inexpertly altered the text to make it look more like a Xuánzàng production, but they didn't do a very good job of it.

So no, we cannot prove that it didn't happen, but there is also no reason to believe it did, except for Axioms1 & 2. 

One weakness that Tanahashi did not exploit is that, while he was in India, Xuánzàng is believed to have made a Sanskrit translation of the Chinese apocryphal text known in English as The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. However, in this case the text is widely acknowledged to be an apocryphon. In trying to establish the authenticity of the Heart Sutra, it would be risky to pair it with a known forgery. Tanahashi avoids this potential complication by not mentioning it (though it is equally likely that he was simply ignorant of this fact). 

Having proved to his own satisfaction that the Heart Sutra is authentic, despite also accepting that Nattier has proved that it is not authentic (in that sense), Tanahashi proceeds as though his fantasy is reality. Just three pages later, he says:
“However, when Xuanzang translated the Hridaya into Chinese, there is no doubt that he referred to the α version [i.e. T250], which he might have believed to be the Kumarajiva translation” (87)
This is a neat trick. He begins by making a show of rationality, of gravely considering and accepting the validity of Nattier’s argument, despite the horrifying consequences that have made his prejudiced contemporaries in Japan (and elsewhere) reject it outright. Nevertheless, he proceeds as though Nattier got it completely wrong and the Heart Sutra is everything the Japanese Zen tradition says it is. The level of self-deception and desperation involved is shocking even to this relatively cynical author.

Oh, and the lack of doubt that Xuánzàng consulted T250 is convenient cover for the fact that T251 is not a separate translation at all, it is T250 that has been lightly edited: two lines have been removed, one from the beginning and one from the middle of the quote from the Large Sutra (T223) and/or it's commentary (T1509); and three words have been changed to reflect Xuánzàng's preferred "spelling" (Avalokiteśvara, Śāriputra, and skandha).

"We Fear Change."

With apologies to the copyright holders

Anyone familiar with the history of science probably knows about Thomas Kuhn's description of how science makes progress. It is down to him that we use the word paradigm as much as we do. Scientists supposedly resist paradigm change because they stake their careers on the old idea. However, in science, though there may be resistance, attitudes, theories, and practices do change, because scientists respond to evidence (my lifetime has seen many paradigms shift). In religion, it can be a very different story, even in the religion whose unofficial motto is "everything changes". Ideally in science, theory is evidence led. Religion is almost always the opposite: theory leads evidence. Evidence is either made to fit the theory or it is simply discarded as irrelevant. As we have seen in this case.

In all likelihood, both Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi are good men; they are sincere and wrote their books in good faith, not consciously intending to impede understanding by giving false information or creating confusion. They, most likely, care deeply about the traditions they've given their lives to. They don’t see themselves as deceiving anyone, nor the self-serving nature of their deceptions. In all likelihood, they are just as deceived by their own words as others are (though happy to accept the benefits that accrue to them as a result). The axioms of their worldview override other concerns. Such axioms underpin the deductive logic of the rejection of any counter-factual information. This is the characteristic of a religious mindset.

However, it leaves them vulnerable. Sooner or later, someone like me was going to examine their work and point out the fallacies, biases, and mistakes in their work. The problems that don't just detract from their efforts but characterise them. Everything that is wrong with religion as a cultural institution is on display in Tanahashi's attempt to both accept and subvert the Chinese origins thesis. The rhetoric, the pretence, is that they are concerned with ultimate reality and that they accept that everything changes. But a simple truth such as the Heart Sutra being a Chinese composition, causes such consternation that they revert to type: they obfuscate, deny, and misdirect.

The reality in this case is that the Heart Sutra is changing. It has changed in the past, and it will change again. Buddhism is changing, it has changed in the past, and it will change again. If change is the nature of reality, then the changes wrought by Jan Nattier should be joyfully embraced by Buddhists. Instead, they are fearfully rejected and replaced with fantasy versions of reality. And this is sanctioned by followers because they don’t want things to change either. All too often Buddhism seems like a tragedy blurring into a farce.

The final irony is that, if you could ask the Heart Sutra itself, it would reply: in emptiness there is no Heart Sutra. And the mainstream, the paradigmatic, metaphysical interpretation would be that the Heart Sutra doesn't exist! And laughably, it is precisely my epistemological interpretation (based on Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāḷi suttas) that rescues the text from this ignominious fate. It's only me arguing that of course the text exists, it's just that perception of it is not governed by the same rules as the existence of it. 

The uncomfortable truth is that the text that everyone knows and loves is full of errors. And faith is getting in the way of fixing them. 



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

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

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