25 October 2019

Heart Sutra: Author, Scribe, Editor, Translator, Reader

In this second essay on philology and the Heart Sutra I will once again take up Milikowsky's tripartite description of a text as consisting of Work, Text, and Document. The Work being the author's intended message, expressed in a Text (or several Texts) using words, and then encoded in a Document (or Documents). Mostly in studying the history ancient Buddhism we're dealing with physical Documents that postdate the composition of the text by some centuries, supported by sparse and contradictory archaeology and epigraphy (inscriptions). There is no mention of Buddhism from external sources until Lāja Devapiya (aka Asoka) ruled the Moriya Empire in the mid 3rd Century BCE (Yes, he did spell Rāja with an L; no, he never used Sanskrit).

When studying a Work conceived of centuries ago in a language now long dead, the Documents we have to hand are very often translations. Suttas were probably not composed in Pāli, for example. We may think that anyone who reads Chinese characters as, say Mandarin or Cantonese, would be able to read the Xīnjīng (like Icelanders reading the Nordic Sagas) but this is not so. The Chinese grammar used in the Heart Sutra is early medieval (much of it composed in the early 5th Century). It's full of loan words, transliterations, and Indic grammar. It's rather like a modern English-speaker reading Chaucer. There's no privileged access to these Texts or to the Work. 

A translation is someone's interpretation of a Text that is someone's interpretation of a Work. It is thus twice removed (at least) from the Work. In effect, a translation has at least two authors. Some would say a translation is a wholly new Work, but I think this goes too far. A translation is genetically related to a source Text. One derives from the other. The self-appointed role of philologers is to try to use Documents and Texts to infer knowledge about the Work. Religieux don't usually seek out philologers because they already consider their narratives about the Work to constitute all the desirable knowledge to be had.

In this essay, I will introduce a cross-current in the form of some ideas and terms from speech act theory, developed by John L. Austin and his student John Searle. Speech act theory arose in the tradition of American pragmatic philosophy, which often stands in contrast to European concern with semantics and/or semiotics (i.e., what words and things mean). The focus in pragmatics is less on what speech means and more on what it does. Speech act theory is interesting because it sidesteps the intricacies and controversies of etymology and grammatical analysis. It also has a broader reference. Words are certainly at the heart of language, and language is at the heart of communication, but semantics tends to ignore the halo of other ways with which we influence our world using speech. 


If I say "Nice hat" in a pleasant tone of voice it is a compliment, but in a sarcastic tone it is derogatory. Same words, different meaning. Pragmatics also takes into account the way contextual factors may affect the message. If my interlocutors believe that people who wear hats fit into a stereotype and I say of some third party, "Nice hat", then I am saying that person fits our stereotype. It's not a comment on the hat, but an invocation of shared presuppositions about the person wearing it. The hat is merely a metonym for the stereotype and my attitude to it. The study of semantics is admirable and fun, but it often misses the point of speech. Semantic methods can be blind to the fact that a statement like "Nice hat" may have little to do with hats at all. 

This point is particularly important where speech is encoded in written words. We tend to assume that the words are the Work and that semantic methods will allow us to infer all the knowledge we need. We may not consider the pragmatics at all. I noted this tendency in my contribution to the special issue of Contemporary Buddhism on the term vedanā (Attwood 2018). In fact, the words are the Text; a representation of the Work. And meaning can be entirely unrelated to etymology, as the term vedanā shows.

Scholarship on the Heart Sutra to date has been too mired in unnoticed editorial and hermeneutical  mistakes for semantic methods to gain much traction. Or at least, we can point to spectacular failures of semantics to notice simple grammatical and lexical mistakes. We are all still working with faulty Texts but seemingly do not notice because our hermeneutic embraces concepts like the equality of opposites. 

Speech Acts

It is a while since I read Austin's classic book How to Do Things With Words, and my interpretation may well have drifted away from his. Where semantics focuses on the meaning of words, speech act theory thinks of speech as instrumental: speech does something. A speech act has several aspects:
  • locution, what one says, an utterance, i.e., a speech act seen from the point of view of semantics, grammar, and prosody; 
  • illocution, what one does or intends to do with speech; and 
  • perlocution, the actual effect of speaking, especially the impact of the speech act on the audience. 

A Work exists in the mind of an author. In order to communicate it, the Work must be made into a Text. The instantiation of a Work in words as a Text is a locutionary speech act. That said, an author does not gain an audience simply by writing down their thoughts. They must publish them, i.e., make them known to the public. Making known the Text is another locutionary act, with the specific illocutionary function of persuading people to obtain and read the Text. The illocutionary function of the Text is likely more complex.

It may be true that we use words to communicate facts some of the time, but Texts almost always have some illocutionary purpose related to the nature of the Work: to persuade or dissuade, to entertain or distract, to educate, etc. In this essay, for example, I'm trying to alert the reader to certain complexities of dealing with Buddhist texts that I think have important ramifications for my project to revise the text. I was persuaded (a perlocutionary function) that I needed to go through this exercise after reading a Text by Jonathan Silk, which is itself part of a broader project he is involved in which questions the applicability of traditional philology to Buddhism and the problem of what might replace it. My essays often take the form of my "lecture notes" and "thinking aloud" as I educate myself about such issues.

A Buddhist sūtra began life as a Work many centuries ago in a culture that is long gone. We sometimes assume that ancient India is clearly reflected in modern India. Perhaps it is, but only to the extent that Iron Age Britain is represented in the modern United Kingdom. That is, hardly at all. India is as much the product of history as any other modern nation. Rediscovering the historical context is not simply a matter of projecting modern-day life in, say, rural Bihar back 2500 years. Rather, the culture must be painstakingly reconstructed from clues closer to the time. In the case of the Prajñāpāramitā, the culture was Gandhāra under the Kushan Kings. Previous rulers included Achaemanid Persians, then Greek invaders, then Central Asians. The people spoke Indic languages in the east and Iranian languages in the west. The different cultures each contributed something to the substratum of local cultures to produce a unique place and time with no parallel in modern India.

The Work behind a Buddhist sūtra may not be the product of an individual mind. My sense is that the underlying Work was always a multifaceted network of stories developed amongst the members of a community that grew, splintered, and reformed many times. Texts emerged and constantly changed, with each storyteller adding, making their contribution. Later attempts to unify the stories tell us that disunity was the norm but at some point, probably under a political hegemony, it came to be perceived as a problem. In this case identifying the Work as a singular, coherent, unified entity is impossible. The Texts do not point back to an ur-text which reproduces the Work with great fidelity.

I also presume that the first Buddhist communities emerged from an existing culture. Judging by the language of the early Buddhist Texts, through surviving Documents, they emerged as a result of repeated storytelling based on central themes which were elaborated upon over considerable stretches of time. Whether the figure of the Buddha lived or whether the idea of a teacher was just appealing to the community, we don't know. There is no corroborating evidence outside of the texts. What we conclude on this score depends entirely on our starting assumptions. However, we can say that along the way some sūtras were expressed in the theological language of a kind of Brahmanism. Some were in the language of Jainism. Some show influence from autochthonic cultures via deities like the yakkha. Terms from these sectarian accounts made their way into general circulation. There is some evidence also that storytelling proceeded in local languages for centuries before the adoption of what have been called "church languages" emerged (we don't know when this happened). 

From a semantic point of view, a Buddhist sutra is an attempt to communicate an idea. From the pragmatic point of view, it is an attempt to do something in the world. It may be that the authors of a sūtra sought to instruct a student, to convert a stranger, to arouse zeal in a flagging disciple, to argue with a rival, or to preserve a cherished memory. Or all of the above. Intentions are as varied as authors. And each author will have multiple and perhaps competing intentions. Thus, the Text is partial, in the sense of being an imperfect representation of the Work; in imperfectly conveying the author's intentions in communicating the Work; and also in achieving what the author sought to do.

The Context of Speech Acts

The context within which a speech act operates is social reality. I outlined my take on John Searle's social reality in a series of essays in 2016. I will return to social reality in my next installment, but will make a few general comments here. Texts are very much embedded in systems of social reality:  culture, laws and customs, language, alphabets, historical narratives, editions, translations, and so on.

Austin and Searle referred to the illocutionary force of an utterance. A speech act has the power to change social reality through its illocutionary force. I'm not sure the metaphors of "power" and "force" are the most appropriate here. I would prefer to say, for example, that an illocution is a tool for bringing about change. Illocution is instrumental and the agent of change is the author. The text is a tool for bringing about the change that the author desires.

Importantly, speech act theory extends Milikowsky's tripartite scheme. Perlocution, what is actually achieved by a speech act, acknowledges that the reader plays an active role in the process of bringing about change. The reader is a not a blank sheet on which the author writes, they have their own worldview, their own context. They have to allow themselves to be acted upon by the Text (which in turn invokes Foucauldian ideas about the technology of the self). Changing the world via Texts involves persuasion and negotiation, but it also involves subjection. It order for the author to achieve their goal, the reader must subject themselves to the will of the author. 

This is not the post-modern idea that the reader is the author or that in fact there is no author. I am not arguing that the Text is different for everyone who reads it. This kind of relativism seems to be a dead end that denies the possibility of communication or deliberate changes in social reality. And this flies in the face of experience: we do communicate and social reality does change. 

The reader has their own worldview, beliefs, knowledge, emotional state, and very likely their own ideas about what changes are necessary and desirable in the world. But the Document the reader refers to is a constraint. It means that both the meaning and purpose of the Document is not arbitrary. The assumption of pragmatics is that the author is attempting to do something with a Text. If a reader argues that the author's intention was something arbitrary or unrelated to the words, then this creates at best a burden of proof on the reader or cognitive dissonance in other readers. Whence the phrase "Did we read the same book?"

For example, when Libertarians argue that Marxists want to enslave everyone, the Marxist can point to what Marx wrote about liberating the proletariat from the dominion of capitalists. Collectivism need not be a tyranny. The totalitarian states of Soviet Russia and China would have horrified Marx every bit as much as the Classical Liberal Capitalism of his day did. He wanted to see power and resource ownership vested in workers' collectives, not in government. One can see why the 1% fear this prospect, but it does not make their lies about Marx any truer.  

Of course, we are seeing this stretched to breaking point right now. Orwellian doublespeak has become the norm for politicians and big business. And the media report it all with no filters or analysis. The tools of semantics leave us scratching our heads when someone says something and then claims not to have said it, or to have said something different, or to have meant something different (all three have occurred in the last week). Semanticists cry out, "but... words have meanings, you can't just make them say something else." This is the position that Alice takes in her confrontation with Humpty Dumpty:
 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”  
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things–that’s all.”  
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all” (Carroll 1872: 112).

Pragmatics does not endorse the political nonsense, but it gives us a way to understand speech acts that defy semantics. The question is not what the author meant, but what the author of the speech act  was trying to do. For example, sowing confusion amongst your enemies by spreading disinformation is a classic military tactic. It undermines the ability of the enemy to understand your true intent and leaves them expending time, energy, and resources sifting through your utterances looking for the truth. The use of disinformation and propaganda in warfare is not new. The routine overt use of them in domestic politics is a modern disease. When the government adopts this style of disinformation campaign we can conclude that they see themselves as on a war footing. The problem is that it is we, the people, who are their enemy that must be kept in the dark. The government seeks to conceal its true intent from its own citizens. Frank Zappa said that "government is the entertainment wing of the military industrial complex." But since he said that the role of government has moved from distraction to more active deception.

Because speech acts are aimed at doing something within social reality they are almost always political in the broadest sense. As we will see, this is related to the idea of empowerment to perform functions in social reality. To some extent, primate communications always exist in a social milieu characterised by relative status and power. In the massive, loosely bound communities of modern urban life, where the bonds of mutual obligation are weak, we don't always treat our neighbours as part of our ingroup.

The power to produce, transmit, or authenticate texts is not open to everyone. Typically, the community empowers someone to carry out these functions by agreement.

Importantly those involved in transmitting a Text across time, across boundaries—scribes, editors, redactors, translators—may inadvertently or deliberately change the Text in the production of new Documents. And in extreme cases, of which the Heart Sutra is one, this can create false leads as to the nature of the Work, and even confusion as to the provenance and authenticity of the Text. In a case such as the Heart Sutra, where ties with the Work were broken, then we are creating a wholly new Work.

Approaching a Work

When I first started studying Buddhist texts, my instructors were very unsophisticated. They took  and encouraged a naive realist approach to texts. The view was that we had direct access to the Work through the Document at hand, even though the Document was inevitably an English translation. We effectively acted as though the Buddha spoke modern English. At best we acknowledged that two translators could phrase the ideas of the Work somewhat differently, but we had no coherent theory of how this happened and no access to source texts. We could compensate to some extent by looking at multiple translations, but this was not always possible in the mid-1990s before the world wide web.

The first text that really attracted my attention was the Bodhicaryāvatāra (a book I now loathe). I had access to two translations: Marion Matics' translation from Sanskrit and Stephen Bachelor's translation from Tibetan (the Tibetan being itself a translation from Sanskrit). At first I was not aware of how a double translation might differ from a single translation. But it did spark an interest in source texts in canonical languages that eventually motivated me to teach myself Pāli and begin reading Pāli suttas independently. This opened my eyes to the vast gulf between a source and a translation that often exists. But it was not until I begun to try to understand that Heart Sutra that I realised just how complex the relationship of Text to Document could become, and how that complexity could skew any inferences we might make about the Work.  

In the case of Nepalese manuscripts from the 18th and 19th Centuries, which are relatively plentiful, they are full of scribal errors. When I described British Library Manuscript EAP676/2/5 for the first time, my diplomatic edition required 142 notes to mention all of the omissions, additions, and spelling mistakes with respect to Conze's text and the rules of Sanskrit. Such manuscripts have gone through several generations of being copied by scribes who did not know Sanskrit. These scribes seem not to have been writing for comprehension. The Documents they created were good enough to attract puṇya (credit towards a better afterlife) and/or to be an object of worship. Even the oldest Sanskrit Heart Sutra manuscript, previously held in the Hōryū Temple in Ikaruga, Japan has errors and editorial additions that are not found in the Chinese source texts.

So when a reader holds a translated Buddhist sutra in their hand, and reads it in an attempt to understand what the author was attempting to communicate, there are multiple human minds at work: the locution and illocution of the author; of various scribes; of editors; of translators, each of them embedded in a cultural context. And at each step there is a chance that the perlocution fails to match the illocution of the author, scribe, editor, translator, or reader.

A New Text

The illocution of the popular Chinese Heart Sutra Text (of which there are probably millions of Documents) has resulted in a skewed perlocution that changes our whole understanding of the text. Traditionally, it is read as a kind of anti-realist metaphysics that denies the existence of Buddhist categories. When we point out the key term that was misunderstood, the text starts to seem like an epistemic account of an altered mental state. Of course, the ability of the human mind to enter the state of emptiness has broader metaphysical implications, but they are not anti-realist in flavour. Thus the mistaken reading must be due to the retroactive influence of the Sanskrit translation produced in China. My understanding is that it was intended to deceive the Chinese Buddhist establishment about the provenance of the Heart Sutra, which is all too obviously not a sūtra and not Indian.

The case of the Heart Sutra is somewhat unusual. For example, we can see that 以無所得故 yǐwúsuǒdégù does not mean aprāptitvāt because we know that it was copied from Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, i.e. 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》 (T 223). By comparing Kumārajīva's translation with the extant Sanskrit manuscripts we can see that he used 以無所得故 to represent anupalambhayogena. So here, Kumārajīva, as translator, had the locution anupalambhayogena in mind, but 以無所得故 was misread as aprāptitvāt, which was in turn assumed to be correct. So, we came to (mistakenly) read 以無所得故 to mean "being in state of non-attainment".

Worse still, when Kumarajīva was translating the Large Sutra he either had a faulty manuscript or he fluffed the translation of na prāptir nābhismaya as 無智亦無得, which is conventionally read to mean na jñānaṃ na prāptiḥ. Mokṣala and Xuanzang both got this right. What's more the context shows that na prāptir nābhismaya is significant because the terms are standing in for marga and phala here. Kumarajīva's mistake was copied into the Xīnjīng, then translated into Sanskrit. 

Understanding this, we could create a new Text which more accurately conveys the Work. But here's the rub. The new Text has never existed before. It will be unfamiliar to the world's Buddhists. Huifeng laid out the rationale for the change, and he did create a new English translation, but he did not propose changing the Sanskrit Text (which is still widely if erroneously believed to be the source text). Let us say that I create this new Text (which I have done) and early in 2020 I manage to get it published. Would anyone take any notice at all? Would there be any obligation to?

Such questions move us closer to the heart of the matter I am wrestling with. 



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

Attwood, Jayarava. (2018). 'Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass.' Contemporary Buddhism, 18 no. 3, 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959. Academia.edu.

Jonathan A. Silk (2015) 'Establishing­/­Interpreting­/­Translating: ­Is­ It­ Just­ That­ Easy?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 36/37: 205-225.

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