24 November 2017

Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis

As I prepare material for my book on the Heart Sutra, I have been collating published responses to Jan Nattier's thesis that the text was composed in Chinese and (back)translated into Sanskrit (Nattier 1992). I suggested in a previous essay that the reception of Nattier's thesis in Japan has been and remains decidedly anti. New evidence of this has emerged in the form of an article by Ishii Kōsei (2015), translated by his English-speaking former student Dr Jeffrey Kotyk

Unfortunately, much of the research done in Japan is only ever published in Japanese and is thus inaccessible to the majority of Buddhist Studies researchers in the West. The linguistic burden is high in our field. I have varying levels of skill in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Medieval-Chinese, but adding modern Japanese just to get access to secondary literature is not feasible. A review article of the Japanese reception of Nattier's article by some qualified scholar is a desideratum, but since Prajñāpāramitā is a tiny niche in Buddhist Studies, it is unlikely ever to happen. 

Ishii is apparently writing in a milieu in which there have already been well-received attacks on Nattier's thesis of a kind that we have not seen in English. He cites publications by Fukui Fuminasa and Harada Wasō, but these apparently focus on the conjecture that Xuanzang might have been responsible for making the Sanskrit translation from Chinese. The conflation of the Chinese origins thesis with the Xuanzang as translator thesis is unhelpful. Nattier leaves open the possibility but, in the end, does not commit to Xuanzang being the translator. On the other hand, the evidence for Chinese origins is very strong. Ishii seems to think that it is because we Western scholars of Buddhist Studies are "not specialists in this respect" that we have fallen for Nattier's thesis, rather than the strength of her arguments.

Ishii thus see his article as contributing some details to an existing (Japanese)  consensus in the face of a general credulity and ignorance in the West. Without access to that consensus, we are forced to take his article on face value, which I'm sure does not do it justice. Be that as it may, I will briefly outline the main points of Ishii's article and then review his methods and conclusions. I may say that my own published research has touched on many of the issues that Ishii has raised and I am thus in a relatively unique position to comment. I am very much a specialist in this respect (see my list of publications).

A Precis of Ishii (2015)

Ishii begins by referencing Nattier's 1992 article with a focus on the idea that Xuanzang might have been involved in editing and translating it from Chinese to Sanskrit. The bulk of the article deals with the opening sentence of the Heart Sutra and with Nattier's translation of it, which Ishii suggests follows the Chinese text, largely on the basis that Nattier omits a word-for-word translation of svabhāva  (1992: 155). 

While Nattier is explicitly translating from a modified version of Conze's critical edition, Ishii refers only to the diplomatic edition based on several hand-copies of the Hōryūji manuscript, produced by Müller in 1884 (though he refers to this as a "critical edition", it is clearly not). In order to attempt to refute Nattier, Ishii launches into a lengthy exposition showing that the word svabhāva is present in the Sanskrit text, but absent in the Chinese, and that the passage overall has given translators some difficulty. He tries to establish a case for the word svabhāva being dropped by a Chinese translator (as it is dropped by Nattier). 

Ishii spends a good deal of time speculating on how to translate the Sanskrit text into Chinese, twisting it this way and that according to rules which may be obvious to his Japanese readers, but which are not at all clear to me. His point seems to be that one may, through a series of arbitrary changes, rearrange a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit, to fit the pattern of Chinese one finds in T251 (the standard Heart Sutra in East Asia). However, on face value the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are simply different. I am told that this may reflect the Japanese practice of rearranging Classical Chinese texts into the Japanese word order and only then interpreting them, a procedure known as  kaki-kudashi, 書き下し.

A particular problem is that the Sanskrit has three phrases, marked by the present participle caramāṇo, "practising") and two verbs with meaning "look" (vyava√lok) and "see" (√paś) - both using the pleonastic particle sma indicating the past or the present-in-the-past tense. One of the problems in Chinese is that there are only two verbs in this sentence, i.e., "practising" (行) and "clearly-seeing" (照見). Ishii seems to be saying that the latter is in fact two verbs in two distinct phrases, but rearranged in a series of aesthetic changes so that the two verb characters are together at the beginning of the two phrases, in the order verb1 verb2 phrase1 phrase2

Ishii then discusses the 照見 combination in Chinese literature (two examples) and the vyavalokayati sma/paśyati sma combination in Sanskrit. However, he seems to show that 照見 is used as a binomial verb - the two characters have to be taken together, rather than as two separate verbs, which undermines his case. He argues that, though the phrase 照見五蘊皆空 ("[he] saw the five skandhas were all empty") occurs nowhere else in Chinese, translating it as two phrases does not make sense. 

Next Ishii brings up the commentaries of Kuījī (Ji in the article) and Woncheuk. Ishii notes that Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text and that he used a minor variant of T251, which has an extra character  等 (Sanskrit ādi = English "etc") in two places. Woncheuk was also aware of this variant, and finds ādi in his Sanskrit text, though, of course, his commentary is on the text of T251. It is very likely that these two commentaries established T251 as the authoritative text of the Heart Sutra down to the present. Neither man mentions the differences between the versions in the introductory section. As Ishii hints, had a Sanskrit text been available, it would have been incumbent on the commentator to comment on differences, if only because Sanskrit texts were considered authoritative (this was the entire rationale behind Xuanzang's journey to India, after all).

Ishii reveals that his primary goal is still to criticise Nattier's omission of a word for word translation of svabhāva. He has spent 6 of the 8 pages of the article showing this, though we may say that this is an obvious point and one that has little bearing on the larger issue of where and when the Heart Sutra was composed.

Having laboured this point, Ishii briefly discusses the phrase 真實不虛, "true and not false". The Tang dynasty commentators all take this as a standalone phrase; however, Ishii claims that the Sanskrit manuscripts read "satyam amithyātvāt, prajñāpāramitā ukto mantra" which is the way Nattier translates it. Ishii uses the same method to translate the Sanskrit into Chinese, producing something different than the present Chinese text. Ishii seems unaware that Nattier is following Conze's edition, and that Conze's edition gives this passage as:
Tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro’ samasama-mantraḥ, sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatvāt. Prajñā-pāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ. 
On this basis, then, Ishii declares that Nattier's thesis is a mistake and untenable. Had I been reviewing this article prior to publication, I would have argued that it need major modifications before being published. As it stands, the argument is difficult to follow and the evidence does not support the conclusion. 

Critique of Ishii (2015)

Core of the Thesis

Nattier's thesis mainly revolves around the core section of the Heart Sutra, which is a quote from Kumārajīva's text of the Large Sutra (T223). The Chinese Heart Sutra, especially T250 is identical with T223. T251 is identical, but missing a line at the beginning and one in the middle; and a few technical terms are "spelled" according to innovations introduced by Xuanzang. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra, by contrast, is a strangely unidiomatic paraphrase of the Sanskrit Large Sutra (compared to either the Gilgit recension or the later Nepalese recension).

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a number of words or phrases that are hapax legomena (one of a kind), whereas the Sanskrit Large Sutra has a string of stock phrases. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is unidiomatic in almost every place where it is possible to use a nonstandard synonym, that is, outside the settled technical vocabulary of Buddhist jargon.

There is no doubt in my mind, despite some minor slips on Nattier's part, that the thesis is accurate. I think I have the smoking gun for this, but have not yet had time to check all of the details and write it up.* So far as I can tell the term sarvabuddhāḥ tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ "all the Buddhas existing in the three times" is a translation of a phrase that only ever occurs in Chinese, i.e., 三世諸佛. This is literally, "three time all buddha", but we would translate it as "all the buddhas of the three times". Sanskrit texts always use the wording atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ buddhāḥ instead, i.e., "past, future, and present buddhas". There is no way that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could be anything but a translation from Chinese, produced by someone unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I need to do a very thorough check on the various texts, but I think this conjecture will stand up to scrutiny and provide definitive proof of the Chinese origins thesis.
* Subsequently published as: Attwood, J. (2018). "The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 15, 9-27. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/184

Whatever minor flaws we may find in Nattier's analysis, the main conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is already beyond reasonable doubt. While I would be interested to get more insights into the problems that Japanese scholars see, I cannot imagine how they think they have disproved the thesis. Ishii has certainly not done so in this article, though, strangely, he provides quite a good summary of the evidence presented by Nattier. However, Ishii does not even touch on this central problem or any of the evidence for it, but concentrates instead on peripheral and seemingly trivial issues that have no impact at all on the issues at hand.

Both of the passages that Ishii comments on are outside the core part of the text; i.e., not part of the quoted section, but part of the original composition that accompanies it, one in the introduction and one in the concluding passage.

Flaw in the Introduction

Before addressing Ishii's comments in the introduction I need to point out that I have showed that Conze (and, for that matter, Müller) made a mistake in his edition. In the first (three phrase) sentence, pañcaskandhās is nominative plural and vyavalokayati sma is intransitive, both of which are nonsensical and make the sentence impossible to parse as Sanskrit. In fact, as some manuscripts allow, the noun should be in the accusative plural, pañcaskandhāṃs (simply add anusvāra to dhā). If we do this, pañcaskandhāṃs becomes the object of vyavalokayati sma. The result is a sentence that can be parsed and that does not require any punctuation (Attwood 2015).

Without solving this problem the Sanskrit sentence cannot be parsed or translated without fudging things. Both Nattier and Ishii fail to notice anything amiss, here. But, then, so do all other scholars, apparently.  In this respect, the Heart Sutra is a curiously neglected text, given its popularity. My next published article will identify and solve another simple error in Conze's edition (in Section VI) that has also gone unnoticed (the flaw is already outlined in my essay Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar" 13 October 2017, but the article will give rigour to the conjecture).
*Subsequently published as: Attwood (2020). "Ungarbling Section VI of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 18, 11-41. https://www.academia.edu/43133311/Ungarbling_Section_VI_of_the_Sanskrit_Heart_Sutra

The main problem that Ishii highlights, other than Nattier's failure to provide a word-for-word translation of svabhāva, is that the Chinese has two phrases and the Sanskrit three phrases. If we assume that the Sanskrit is original, then we expect three phrases in the Chinese, as well. In order to make three phrases, Ishii proceeds to rearrange the characters 照見 to make one verb into two verbs, each applying to two different parts of the sentence. 照 can, in fact, mean "inspect, regard" which is what vyavalokayati means, so in that sense this procedure makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Ishii's method seems to require us to believe that Chinese has no syntax rules. We know that Buddhist Chinese does follow syntax rules, albeit that it sometimes follows medieval Chinese and sometimes Indic rules. Ishii's method is a classic case of making the data fit the hypothesis. It is a post hoc rationalisation. His method is not sound, and not consistent with established principles of philology.

In all of this procedure it is never explained why a Chinese translator would omit the word svabhāva from their translation if it occurs in the Sanskrit text, nor why they would condense three phrases down to two. Nothing is explained. 

Assuming that we ignore the overwhelming case of a Chinese origin for the core section, there is no way to establish precedence by comparing the number of phrases in a given passage outside the core. In my work on the epithets of the mantra (Attwood 2015) I showed that the number of epithets varied from 2 to 8 in unpredictable ways. Note also that Conze's English translation of his Sanskrit, has an fourth phrase as he struggled to turn his garbled Sanskrit into comprehensible English.

True and Not False

It is ironic that Ishii should bring up 真實不虛, because the Sanskrit is clearly a mistranslation of the Chinese. Although the combination of 真實 and 不虛 is common in Chinese, the combination of satya and amithyā never occurs in Sanskrit outside the Heart Sutra, where is is one of several hapax legomena. Although Ishii provides several examples of the use of 真實不虛 in Chinese, he never gives the Sanskrit equivalent. Since we know that it is not satyam amithyātvāt, it would be most interesting to see what the equivalent is. 

However, the problem here is deeper: satyam amithyātvāt is nonsensical as it stands. Amithyā does not mean "false"; i.e. ,it is not an antonym for satya, which would be mṛṣa or even asatya. Mithyā, on the other hand, is the antonym of samyañj, and it means "wrong" (as in "going about something the wrong way, against the grain, in the wrong direction"). Worse, in fact 虛 isn't an antonym of 真實, "true", either, but, instead, means, "hollow, empty; vain, pointless". The passage does not mean "true and not false"; it means "true and not in vain". And amithyā cannot be construed as a good translation of this. And the word in Sanskrit that might correspond to this is tucchaka. A better English translation would thus be "true and effective". A better Sanskrit translation would be satyaṃ atucchakaṃ. Again, I hope to publish something on this, but it is another case of something that ought to have been obvious to anyone who reads Buddhist Sanskrit texts. 

Syntactically, in Chinese both qualities are predicates of prajñāpāramitā (there is no suggestion that one is the cause of the other). It makes no sense at all, in Sanskrit, to take satyam amithyātvād with the following passage. Amithyātvād is weird: the wrong word in the wrong form in the wrong case. It is not the weirdest thing about the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but I find it hard to believe that it has not caused other scholars to scratch their heads.

Miscellaneous Criticisms

It is strange that Ishii would use Müller's diplomatic edition rather than the critical edition by Conze. Despite being flawed in places, it is still the result of comparing many different manuscripts. At one point Ishii refers to "most of the extant Sanskrit manuscripts", but he does not cite any one of them. We have to wonder what sources he consulted, or whether he referred to Conze's notes in his edition? In which case, why not use that edition as his Sanskrit source?

At one point Ishii makes a big deal of the Chinese translations of the extended version of the Heart Sutra T253, T254, T255, and T257. He must surely be aware that there is no dispute that these are translations from Sanskrit. The dates are clearly recorded in Chinese and that they come from a much later period. They have no bearing on the matter of which language the text was composed in. Citing them doesn't help his case at all.

Thinking about Woncheuk's reference to a version with 等 (ādi) in it, Lusthaus (2003) also tries to make something of this. But so what? The version is no longer extant and was not canonised - no one saw it as important enough to preserve. And as before, it doesn't affect the main arguments. Ishii and Lusthaus both fail to see that, although Woncheuk appears to have had a Sanskrit text, he does not treat it as authoritative. Rather, he comments on T251 as the authoritative version of the text. So does Kuījī. Under what circumstances does a Sanskrit "original" (as Lusthaus calls it) not trump a Chinese translation in early medieval China? In fact, both Kuījī and Woncheuk were aware that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, and Kuījī at least knew it contained a quote from T223  (see Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). So this is not news. It is quite likely that it is precisely these two commentaries that establish T251 as the authoritative text in China and its cultural sphere. This is entirely inconsistent with the pair having a Sanskrit "original".


The text of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is so far from the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā Sanskrit literature, Buddhist Sanskrit literature, or any other kind of Sanskrit literature, that the fact itself is (or ought to be) remarkable. The Heart Sutra stands alone in the entire body of Sanskrit literature and is only related to the other Prajñāpāramitā texts by its use of jargon. This is not consistent with being composed in India. It is consistent with having been composed in China by someone proficient in Sanskrit, but without any great knowledge of idiom. This could not have been Xuanzang - who was more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom than anyone in China at the time. I think the mistakes highlighted by Huifeng (2014) also helped to cement the Chinese origins thesis. The translator has misread the Chinese text at times and has struggled to find the Sanskrit vocabulary to express the Chinese concepts at others. Again, this is inconsistent with a monk in an Indian Sanskrit-using context. The translator was relatively isolated.

I admit, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging from Ishii and I found the article quite disappointing. He concentrates on peripheral issues and provides no refutation of the very strong evidence put forward already (and added to by Huifeng and myself in the last couple of years). The methods are not sound and the conclusions are weak and do not derive from the evidence presented. It looks like a tendentious throwing together of evidence to support a preconceived conclusion. "It is inconceivable that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, therefore it wasn't. QED." But this is hardly the standard of argumentation and reasoning we expect from a senior academic.

Like other scholars before him, Ishii has simply overlooked the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text, which I am less and less inclined to forgive in professionals. After all, professionals are, on the whole (with a few notable exceptions), very hard on me when I dare to encroach on their territory and do not meet their high standards. So yes, let's have high standards, but that includes not being duped into accepting simple grammatical errors in our texts. 

We should, of course, not judge Japanese scholarship more generally on the basis of this single example, even though Ishii is a senior member of the Japanese Buddhist Studies establishment. We can hope that the article does not reflect the state of the art in Japan.* However, it is not a good sign that such a weak and confused article could be published in a peer-reviewed journal at all. 
* Note 16 Apr 2023: With a few more glimpses into Japanese articles on the Heart Sutra literature this hope has been dashed. Acta Asiatic 121 (2019) contained five articles purporting to reflect the "frontier" of Heart Sutra research, but on close reading proved to be more of the same. See my review of these articles: Attwood (2022). "The Heart Sutra Revisited." [Review article]. Buddhist Studies Review. 39(2): 229-254.


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

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017).  ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

Huifeng. (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

Ishii, Kosei. (2015) 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 ―ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う = ‘Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier's Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.’ Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu), 2015, 64(1), 499-492. (Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk).

Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) 'The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.

17 November 2017

All of them Arahants. Notes on Aṣṭasāhasrikā and Speech Acts.

I'm doing some preparation for reading Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa) with a friend and have ended up making a load of notes. I'm mainly looking at the edition by Vaidya, but comparing it where possible with the Gāndhārī, and two versions in Chinese, one by Lokakṣema, translated in 179 CE (the earliest), and one by Kumārajīva, translated in 404 (the most popular). This will be too laborious to do for the whole text, but might help shed light on particular passages (we may well get a publication out of it at some point).

The first sentence is:
evaṃ mayā śrutam ekasmin samaye bhagavān rājagṛhe viharati sma gṛdhakūṭe parvate mahatā bhikṣusaṃghena sārdham ardha-trayodaśabhir bhikṣuśataiḥ, sarvair arhadbhiḥ kṣīṇāsravair niḥkleśair vaśībhūtaiḥ suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair ājñair ājāneyair mahānāgaiḥ kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair apahṛta-bhārair anuprāpta svakārthaiḥ  parikṣīṇabhava-saṃyojanaiḥ samyag-ājñā-suvimuktacittaiḥ sarvaceto vaśiparamapārami-prāptair ekaṃ pudgalaṃ sthāpayitvā yaduta āyuṣmantam ānandam ||
In this batch of notes, I will make some miscellaneous comments about numbers, dhāraṇī, and the absence of bodhisatvas. I then look at how speech act theory can inform translation, using one of these adjectives (in red) as my example.


In english we say that there were "twelve hundred and fifty bhikṣus". However, Sanskrit Buddhists texts say this differently, using the form "x hundreds-of-bhikṣus" (where hundreds-of-bhikṣus is a compound, bhikṣuśatāḥ). In this case the number of hundreds is ardha-trayodaśa or literally "half-thirteen". This means thirteen-less-a-half, or twelve-and-a-half. And "twelve and a half hundreds" = 1250. The significance of this number is unclear, but it crops up in other texts as well.


One of the overall things that strikes me about the string of adjectives (in red) is how much it looks like a dhāraṇī. There is the same kind of iteration and alliteration, e.g. suvimuktacittaiḥ suvimuktaprajñair,  ājñair ājāneyair, and kṛta-kṛtyaiḥ kṛta-karaṇīyair. If change the instrumental plural to the standard eastern Prakrit nominative singular ending, it emphasises the similarity e.g. 
kṣīṇāsrave niḥkleśe vaśībhūte suvimuktacitte suvimuktaprajñe ājñe ājāneye mahānāge kṛtakṛtye kṛtakaraṇīye apahṛtabhāre anuprāpte svakārthe  parikṣīṇabhavasaṃyojane samyagājñāsuvimukte
Tack a svāhā onto the end of this and it could be a dhāraṇī as found in most Mahāyāna texts after about the 4th Century. It seems we could say that dhāraṇī make use of literary techniques already in use, such as the tendency to iterate adjectives, to double up (or higher multiples) in order to create emphasis. 

The form of this statement, using the instrumental plural is rare in Pāḷi, occurring only in the Samaya Sutta, recorded twice: in the Dīgha Nikāya (DN ii.252) and the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN i.25). 
Evaṃ me sutaṃ – ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sakkesu viharati kapilavatthusmiṃ mahāvane mahatā bhikkhusaṅghena saddhiṃ pañcamattehi bhikkhusatehi sabbeheva arahantehi; 
Thus have I heard: one time the Bhagavan was dwelling with the Sakyas in a large grove in Kapilavattu, together with a large congregation of five hundred bhikkhus, all of them arahants. 
The Pāḷi number idiom is slightly different. Pāḷi says "five measures (pañcamatta) of one hundred bhikkhus (bhikkhusata)." However, most of the other adjectives are familiar in one way or another. 

Note that Lokakṣema's translation doesn't have a list of adjectives and thus looks a lot more like the opening of the Pāḷi Samaya Sutta. It suggests that the adjectives were added after the original composition. This highlights that the Mahāyāna texts were not part of a Canon (a collection of texts in fixed form), even when written but, instead, they were continuously added to over the centuries. 


Though this is a Mahāyāna text and the critical edition is based on relatively late manuscripts, with the oldest being from the 10th Century, there are no bodhisatvas present. This seems significant, because the presence of bodhisatvas seems to be an important feature of Mahāyāna.

However, when we look at the old translations we find a different story. Lokakṣema's translation from 179 AD, 《道行般若經》 (T224) says: 
[8.425.c06] 佛在羅閱祇 耆闍崛山 中,摩訶比丘 僧不可計,諸弟子 舍利弗 、須菩提等;摩訶薩菩薩無央數,彌勒菩薩 、文 殊師利菩薩  等。 
Once the Buddha was at Rājagṛha on the Vultures Peak with a huge congregation of monks, impossible to count, all of them disciples (弟子), including Śāriputra and Subhūti; and countless mahāsatva bodhisatvas, including Maitreya and Mañjuśrī. 
This kind of hyperbole is what we expect from a Mahāyāna sūtra. By the way, the word "disciples" (弟子) seems to reflect an underlying śrāvaka, though we expect arhat here, and is probably a mistake. It may reflect the idea that arhat was the goal of the śrāvakayāna, whereas the bodhisatva was the goal of the bodhisatvayāna

Unfortunately, the Gāndhārī manuscript (dated to 70 AD) is damaged and/or missing at this point. By the late 4th Century Kumārajīva's text (T227), while still considerably shorter than the later manuscripts, is completely conventional:
[537a25 - 26]  如是我聞。一時佛在王舍城耆闍崛山中。與大比丘僧千二百五十人倶皆是阿羅漢。
Thus have I heard: one time the Buddha was staying at Rāgagṛha on the Vulture's Peak, with a great congregation of 1250 bhikṣus, and all of them were arhats. 
Here the word arhat is transliterated as 阿羅漢, which in Middle Chinese was alahan. It may reflect a Prakrit original (cf Pāḷi arahant), but, by Kumārajīva's time, was fairly standard, though there were many variant "spellings" in Chinese, e.g.,  阿盧漢; 阿羅訶, 阿羅呵; 阿梨呵, 阿黎呵. This was later abbreviated to lohan or louhan (these Romanizations represent modern Mandarin pronunciations)

So the text is seemingly quite different at different times, assuming that the Chinese translations accurately reflect their source texts. Nor are the differences explicable as a linear evolution. Lokakṣema has bodhisatvas present, whereas others did not. So was Lokakṣema's text different or was he taking liberties? We don't know, because the Chinese did not preserve the Sanskrit originals of the Indic texts that they translated and, indeed, very few texts survive from that period, anywhere. The surviving Sanskrit manuscripts of Aṣṭa are on corypha palm leaves and date from about the 10th Century onwards. Note also that—especially in the earlier translations—the translators were working from single manuscripts that were most likely riddled with copying errors.

One of the things this brief comparison shows is that there is no single sūtra called Aṣṭasāhasrikā. I tried once before to bring out this with respect to the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'? 20 December 2013). Similarly, Jonathan Silk has recently called into question the applicability of traditional philological techniques of identifying the "original" text, (Establishing / Interpreting / Translating: Is It Just That Easy?), which I used as the basis of my essay, The Heart Sutra and the Crisis in Buddhist Philology (30 June 2017).

Effectively, the text of any given sūtra is different for different people at different places and times. And this is an argument for the prominent position that translations play in Western Buddhism, despite the fact that, as far as the Prajñāpāramitā literature is concerned, there are no good translations, as yet. With the forthcoming book by Paul Harrison we may finally have a decent translation of the Vajracchedikā but, as my work has shown, we do not yet have a reliable source text from which to translate the Heart Sutra. An accurate translation of Aṣṭa would be a fine thing.

Speech Act Theory and Translation

In this short sub-essay I'll take a single example and examine how we should understand it in the light of speech act theory. 


Like most of the adjectives in our list, this is a compound. It combines kṣīṇā, 'cut off', and āsrava, 'inflow' ← ā√sru,* where √sru means "flow", but also "to flow out of, to gush forth". The addition of the ā- prefix to verbs involving direction, usually reverses the direction, i.e., suggests, as a first approximation, "inflow, influx". We could translate kṣīṇāsrava as "inflows cut off". We could play around with synonyms such as "influx", or more traditional attempts at interpretation such as "taints, corruptions" or the wildly interpretive "intoxicant biases" (Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary). But what does any of this mean? What precisely is "flowing in"? I've been a Buddhist for more than 20 years and I still draw a blank when I see these terms.
* the change from sru to srava is regular and expected. The root sru undergoes guṇasro, which is conceived as sr(ău). We add a to create an actions noun giving, sr(ău)a. This creates an internal sandhi which resolves as srava

Can we do better? I think we can. Many writers, not least Richard Gombrich, have pointed out that āsrava (Pāḷi assava) is a term taken from Jainism. In that context, actions (karma) cause an inflow (āsrava) of "matter" or "dust" (the Sanskrit word here is unclear) that sticks to the soul (jīva) and keeps it in saṃsāra. But the word āsrava might also be translated as "channel for acquisition of karma", i.e. the Jains see āsrava both as the flow and channel for flow of karma. Jains believe that suffering removes (nirjarā) karma from the jīva, thus liberates it from saṃsāra. Another way of thinking about it in Jain terms, is that āsrava is a way that the consequences of karma impinge on the person. An āsrava is a karma conduit.

So what might it mean to cut off the inflowing or channels for inflowing of karma? It means that the person concerned is not going to suffer the consequences of any past actions because the flow of karma has ceased. Nor will they create any new karma (conceived of as consequential actions that will result in rebirth) that might prevent from being finally liberated from rebirth. Someone who is kṣīṇāsrava does not create new karma and has no old karma waiting to manifest.

In other words, to be kṣīṇāsrava is to be free of karma: free in the sense of not subject to any consequences of past actions; and free in the sense of not having to worry about what they do because they can no longer do actions that result in rebirth. Of course, Aṅgulimālā might be considered an exception, since he still has to suffer from past karma but he is still not making any new karma and won't be reborn.

Dictionaries are helpful tools, but to really understand a language one has to think beyond the dictionary, to see words in their cultural context. This is particularly important for Sanskrit which is used in a wide range of distinct contexts which may use the same words very differently. Similarly, etymology can tell us what the parts of a compound originally meant, but not how the individual words are used at a particular place or time, let alone the meaning of a compound.

Speech Acts and Translation

The theory of speech acts was developed in the USA in the 20th Century, largely by two men, John L. Austin and John Searle. Their analysis was part of a movement away from seeing language in merely semantic terms by applying principles deriving from pragmatism. Semanticists ask "What does language mean?", while pragmatists ask "What does language do?" Austin and Searle mapped out the kinds of things we do with language. They treated spoken sentences as "speech acts". In this pragmatic view, semantics must be subordinated to pragmatics, if only because of irony, i.e., when we say one thing, but mean something else. If I say "I love your new haircut", a semanticist can only analyse the words themselves and conclude that I do love your new haircut. A pragmatists also listens to my tone of voice and watches my face as I say it, and they might realise I don't like your new haircut, at all, and that I am mocking you. Semantics cannot cope with sarcasm or irony, because the same words are used as if I was sincere. Pragmatics doesn't just add a dimension to semantics, but shows that "sense" occurs in the context that goes well beyond word choices.

This is one of the problems of working with written texts. Written texts have no eyebrows or tone; we cannot tell how the author intended us to read their words, whether as literal truth, informative myth, entertaining legend, or some other interpretation. To take a real example, one of us might read a Buddhist text such as the Pāḷi Tevijjā Sutta as a parody, which changes its meaning entirely; while another dismisses the idea that Buddhists could portray the Buddha as having a sense of humour as projection, and argues for a more literal reading. 

Speech act theory suggests that we can understand a communication in terms of what was said, what was meant, and what was understood. The technical terms for these are locution, illocution, and perlocution (and be aware that the technical definitions of all of these terms are a lot more sophisticated than how I have boiled it down here). The case of kṣīṇāsrava illustrates this very nicely. Obviously kṣīṇāsrava is a locution; i.e., it is a declaration about an arhat that helps to establish legitimacy and authority on several levels. It establishes the status of people present (who subsequently participate in the dialogues); it helps to establish the status of arhats as a class of people; and because the Buddha is surrounded by a large number of them, his authority and legitimacy is also established. Buddhists are obsessed with these political issues of status, legitimacy, and authority from the earliest records of their thinking.

Conze's attempt to translate kṣīṇāsrava is "their outflows dried up". This is a perlocution for Conze, it represents what he has understood, but it is also a new locution, something he is declaring. This is a feature of translation. The author composes a text and perhaps writes it down as a document. The translator reads the text, tries to understand it in the source language, then they compose a text in the target language which they hope will have the same illocutionary force. A translation is always a new locution. It's never the same locution.

Conze wants us to understand this thing about arhats: "their outflows dried up". This is similar to how Kumārajīva's translation team understood term, since they translate 諸漏已盡 "all leaks completely exhausted"

So, contrary to the dictionaries and Jain usage, which clearly suggest that ā√sru means "in-flow", both Conze and Kumārajīva understand "outflow". One of the things about borrowed terms is that they are thoroughly decontextualised, so the knowledge that this word āsrava originally came from a Jain context was lost and not recovered until after Conze was writing.

I'm not sure about other readers, but when I think of "their outflows dried up", I think of a leaky container, particularly a human body leaking fluid from various orifices (the Chinese 漏 "leak" only reinforces this!). I have a cold at present with a runny nose and sore throat. I have a lot of extraneous outflows that I wish would dry up. So, what Conze seems to be saying, on face value, is that the leaking body fluids from the arhats have dried up. It certainly does not conjure any sense of what the term means in practice, or convey anything to me that I intuitively find meaningful.

By looking at how the word was used in its original context we have deduced that the illocutionary force of kṣīṇāsrava is that arhats are free of karma. And we can use this conclusion "free of karma" as our translation. To my mind, as a Buddhist who has explored Buddhist karma doctrines in some depth, this makes a great deal of sense; whereas, "their outflows dried up" doesn't communicate anything relevant to me (and produces a load of irrelevant associations). 

What I do not control is how the reader will understand this - the perlocution. For example there are many different ways of thinking about karma and I can't be sure that all of them will fit my conception. Some might take this to mean that the arhats are free from moral restraint, for example, and able to act immorally with impunity. Though this would not be what I intended to say, not my illocution, it might be a perlocution for the reader.


This "essay" is really just a collection of notes with no overall theme except that they arise out of reading Aṣṭa and thinking about how to translate it. However, one of the major themes I've explored over the years is just how difficult translating really is. I've tried to convey how little confidence we should have in translated documents as representative of the author's intentions. The very idea of "the text" is much more fluid in our Buddhist milieu that it is for, say, Christians.

On one hand, this ought to legitimate translations. We know that in most Asian countries, Indic texts were abandoned quickly once translations became widely available. Indic texts were not generally preserved in the long term, but remained theoretically important. On the other hand, the whole point of the story of Xuanzang going to India (and he was only one of many such pilgrims from China and Tibet) was that he felt the translations of Kumārajīva and others were not sufficiently clear or comprehensible. It is a little ironic then, that while his translations were generally considered superior by scholars, none of Xuanzang's translations ever become popular or replaced those of Kumārajīva in the popular imagination.

Translations are seldom really about translating individual words. The basic unit of meaning is the sentence. That is to say, it is how words are used in sentences that convey the authors' intentions. A list of adjectives is a special case. But the single word example of kṣīṇāsrava does seem to highlight many of the problems with English translations of Buddhist texts. We are not there yet in terms of fully migrating to English as a medium for communicating the Dharma. We are still struggling with Buddhist Hybrid English and with incomprehensible word for word translations.

One of the problems we seem to have is that few scholars are going over the ground and bringing the light of new discoveries to familiar texts. I think this is partly a problem of how such work is funded now. Everyone is busy working on "new" areas and previously untranslated texts (which seem to become more obscure with each passing year).

Another text I've been looking at recently is Lewis Lancaster's unpublished dissertation on the Chinese translations of Aṣṭa which compares the versions - and delineates three periods of the text. I hope to write up some notes on this as well, because it is apparent that this 50 year old document has not had the kind of influence on the popular imagination of Prajñāpāramitā that it should have. It is  a great pity that in the 50 years since Lancaster's doctoral dissertation no one seems to have followed up on the doors that it opened. Certainly, no new translation of Aṣṭa has appeared to replace the faulty one produced by Conze. One bright spot is Seishi Karashima's glossary of Lokakṣema's Aṣṭa, which ought to make a new comparative translation much easier. 


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