06 December 2021

"Authenticity" is Not a Useful Criterion

One of the complaints that we most often see in response to the Chinese origins thesis is that it sounds implausible, or as one senior Japanese academic recently said, it sounds "unnatural".

Underlying this attitude, I think, is the idea that the Chinese passively received Buddhism. They translated sutras into Chinese and never looked back. And this implies that authentic Chinese Buddhism cannot be wholly located in China. For example, even some Chinese Buddhists (at least amongst the elite monks of Chang'an and Luoyang) seem to have believed that authenticity was predicated on the ideas, attitudes, and practices coming from the West (meaning Greater India or Central Asia).

In reality however, many Chinese were not only literate but they were intellectuals, philosophers, historians, etc. Moreover, unlike Europeans, they were not yet slaves to technology. They made conscious decisions not to let technology take over their lives.

There is ample evidence that Chinese Buddhists began composing their own texts almost immediately. And why not? Indians had been doing so for some centuries, and continued to do so long after contact with China was established. We know, partly from Chinese translations, that Mahāyāna texts in particular were never finished. While there was life in Indian Buddhism, Buddhists constantly tinkered with their texts. The Prajñāpāramitā literature was no exception. Indeed one text in about 8000 lines was transformed into a series of much longer texts (ca 2 to 3 times more material was added in each case). And all continued to evolve over time.

I see no a priori reason why a Chinese person could not attain liberation and write about it. Or even imagine what it might be like and write about that. Or contribute a culturally appropriate version of the Pure Land, or any number of other possibilities.

Another common complaint is that there is no precedent for what we say happened to the Heart Sutra. In this vein one of the reviewers of my forthcoming articles has pointed me to two articles by (fellow Kiwi) Michael Radich.

Radich, Michael. "On the Sources, Style and Authorship of Chapters of the Synoptic Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra T 664 Ascribed to Paramārtha (Part1)." Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 17 (2014): 207-244.
———. "Tibetan Evidence for the Sources of Chapters of the Synoptic Suvarṇaprabhāsottama-sūtra T664 Ascribed to Paramārtha." Buddhist Studies Review 32 (2015): 245-270.

In these two papers, Radich explores the origins of four Chapters that were added to the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra (Suv or Golden Light Sutra). They are not found in the first translation but appear in the translation attributed to Paramārtha (now lost) and in a subsequent text that combines material from various sources, including Paramārtha's translation.

On examination, the added chapters appear to have been composed in China on the basis of existing Chinese translations.

As I read Radich this is not an example of the practice of chāo 抄 or extract-making despite being based on existing texts. Recall that the idea that the Heart Sutra is a chāo jīng 抄經 (digest text) is now fairly well established. Rather what seems to have happened with Suv is that someone, possibly Paramārtha, decided it needed something more and went about creating it in Chinese. Moreover, when the Tibetan sources are examined in detail, we find some supporting evidence for this conclusion.

This procedure is very much how Indian Buddhists composed their texts as well. The typical Buddhist text is modular: it is made from a combination of pre-existing elements, from lines and phrases to whole chapters. It was not uncommon for independently circulating smaller works to be absorbed into a larger work, e.g. the Avalokiteśvara chapter of the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra.

Another complaint is that there is very little evidence of Chinese texts being translated into Sanskrit. But it did happen. And one of the people most often associated with this is none other than Xuanzang. We can be fairly sure, for example, that Awakening Faith in Mahāyāna was a Chinese text, translated into Sanskrit, by Xuanzang.

By the mid-seventh century, i.e. around the time the Heart Sutra was composed, Chinese Buddhists were exposed to a number of co-existing literary traditions and cultures. At that time Chang'an was not only the largest city in the world but, because of the Silk Road, it was the most cosmopolitan. So the reception of Buddhism in China was vastly more complex than a simple interaction of Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism.

Chinese literary culture had been evolving for almost 2000 years by this time. And not only that but the fine arts were focussed on poetry and calligraphy. The idea that Chinese Buddhists would not compose their own texts looks less plausible to me than that they did. Of course they did.

Buddhism is not a revealed religion. Our texts are sacred but not sacrosanct. We change them when there is a need. And if all else fails we simply write new texts and we invent ways to authenticate them. A great deal can rest on the charisma of the individual.

Rather than thinking of Chinese Buddhism as a bodhi tree planted in the alluvial soils of the Yellow River, we should think of it as a recipe passed on through a series of friendly strangers who each adapted it to their local ingredients and tastes, to create a new dish with the same name. Culinary examples abound: pizza as served by places like Pizza Hut or Dominos is only loosely (theoretically even) connected to the traditional dish enjoyed by working people in Naples. Which is fine. It's not like I am or want to be Neapolitan. I happen to like grilled cheese on toast with a dash of tomato sauce. If I want pineapple with that, it's nobody's business but mine. To say that I can't call it pizza or that my cheese on toast is somehow inauthentic would be to miss the point. It's not like anyone calls humans and chimps inauthentic because they evolved to be different from their last common ancestor.

I recently happened to read about an idea attributed to Derek Parfit recently, although he apparently attributed it back to Buddhism. Which is this: continuity not identity over time is what matters. This is quite similar to my conclusion after reflecting on the Ship of Theseus conundrum. Identity (i.e. sameness) over time doesn't really exist because we change. But change does not preclude continuity.

If this is true, then it suggests that we have missed the point about the evolution of Buddhist texts in China, but also we have missed something important about the notion of authenticity in China.

I think we can say that for a Chinese person to consider a non-Chinese text authentic was actually a stretch. Keep in mind that some Chinese continued to see Buddhism as a foreign barbarian religion well beyond the time of Xuanzang. Authenticity in China was complex. Authentic Buddhist texts did have to have a connection with India, but it also required that the ideas be expressed in elegant Chinese. Once translated, the Indian manuscripts were seldom if ever consulted again. Initially, of course, there were no manuscripts since texts arrived in the memories of monks. But by the Tang, 100s or even 1000s of Indic and Central Asian (mostly Iranic) manuscripts were physically present in China. Few if any of them survive.

Chinese translators often consulted earlier translations when preparing new ones. But there is little evidence of going back to the source languages. Proficiency in Sanskrit was exceedingly rare then (and now).

In view of the dynamics of Chinese literary culture, it should not be surprising that Chinese Buddhists created their own texts. The argument about authenticity really gets us nowhere. The Heart Sutra is a Chinese text. We cannot reasonable say that it is not authentic simply because it was composed in Chinese. Even the fact that it is almost universally misunderstood, doesn't make that misunderstanding less authentic: on the contrary since the misunderstanding is virtually canonical, it is the correct reading that is viewed as inauthentic (sigh). People believed what they wanted to believe. That is interesting in and of itself. Asking open questions allows us to explore these beliefs and their implications. Asking binary questions about authenticity/inauthenticity tends to collapse any line of investigation.


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