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.

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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