23 December 2022

An Open Letter to Buddhist Studies Academics

I'm not an academic. I don't have the training, temperament, or the inclination. If I had been an academic I would have chosen chemistry (my undergraduate major) as my field, not Buddhist Studies. However, by a series of accidents I have ended up publishing around thirty articles in Buddhist Studies journals, including fourteen on the Heart Sutra (or closely related topics). I expect at least three more publications on the Heart Sutra by the end of 2023. I am, by a very wide margin, the most prolific scholar on this text since Lopez published his two books, 34 and 26 years ago respectively.

My anonymous reviewers comments are often a mixed bag. However, I still have the email with comments on my first Heart Sutra article (2015). Anonymous reviewer No.1 said:

"This is an impressive paper, in which the author has assembled a wide range of evidence—drawn from Chinese and Tibetan as well as Sanskrit—in support of his hypothesis... 
This scenario strikes me as entirely plausible, indeed, ingenious, and it certainly does resolve the grammatical difficulties that have plagued earlier interpretations of the Sanskrit text".

Of course, this was followed by nine pages of suggestions for improvement. I was and am extremely grateful for a thoughtful and sympathetic, but penetrating, critique of my draft. As a writer, this is exactly what you want and my article was considerably improved as a result. I thought, naively as it turns out, that if I could get my work published in an academic journal academics would take it (and me) seriously. Comments like the one above, and actually getting published, only encouraged this delusion. 

The reality is that is that across the Humanities, fully 80% of articles are never cited. And even when my "impressive paper" has been cited by Buddhist Studies academics, they don't seem to be impressed at all, but also don't commit themselves to saying what is wrong with it. They just vaguely wave it off in a footnote. To be clear, in that article I showed that the first sentence of Conze's Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya has a simple, and entirely uncontroversial, grammatical mistake in it. A mistake that can be resolved by the addition of an anusvāra (a dot or ) to one syllable. 

Academics don't seem to care that there are multiple mistakes in Conze's Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra. I am completely stumped by this attitude. 

In this letter I want to highlight some issues with respect to doing research on the Heart Sutra, many of which I have already raised in passing in my articles. I also want to make a case for getting off the fence when it comes to the provenance of the Heart Sutra. To this end I spell out some simple ways to refute my work and I invite everyone to try to disprove my thesis (the joke goes: I say to academics "disprove me!" and they reply "We do disapprove of you.").

Writing About the Heart Sutra

Every year, at least one or two academics write articles about the Heart Sutra. In most cases this is not connected to the main thrust of their research and is not a subject they return to. The quality of these one-off articles is typically quite poor. I have informally critiqued a number of these articles (see the blog posts listed in the bibliography). Two published articles, Attwood (2020 "Methods") and (2022 "Frontiers") look more deeply at the problem of substandard writing about the Heart Sutra by academics.

Almost all of these one-off articles I've read (and, for my sins, I think I've read them all) explicitly treat the Heart Sutra as an Indian text. The exception is Matthew Orsborn, writing as Huifeng (2014), who applied Nattier's comparative method to different parts of the text with two important results. On one hand he confirms the validity of Nattier's approach and conclusions; and on the other he notes the metaphysics of Madhyamaka are not a suitable framework for thinking about Prajñāpāramitā and suggests that an epistemic approach is needed instead. Many of my articles expand on Nattier's conclusions in the same way and this work is now summed up in Attwood (2021 "Chinese origins"). More recently I have also taken up Huifeng's idea of an epistemic reading of the Heart Sutra and expanded on that (2022 "Cessation"). Our approach has a definite methodology, a nascent body of theory, and some great successes explaining the seemingly inexplicable. We have made progress.  

With respect to Nattier (1992), there seems to be a great deal of what me might charitably call "confusion" about what her version of the Chinese origins thesis explains and how it explains that. Of those Japanese scholars whose work has published in English (sometimes in translation), we mostly see them labouring away to explain the similarity of the Chinese texts or to deny that Xuanzang was involved in composing the text. While these issues are not irrelevant, they are secondary. What any theory of the provenance of the Heart Sutra has to explain is not the similarity of the Chinese texts, but the differences between the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (Hṛd) and the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Pañc). This is because most of the passages in Hṛd were ostensibly (in the Indian origins hypothesis) copied from Pañc. This copying is not a controversial fact. Everyone knows about it and the knowledge goes back to the late-seventh century Chinese commentaries on the Heart Sutra, which only postdate the earliest evidence of the Heart Sutra by a few decades.

From this we can conclude that the pattern of differences between Hṛd and Pañc should be the central focus of research on the provenance of the Heart Sutra. But they almost never are. 

Although Nattier discussed the most salient examples of differences, Huifeng and I have noted more. Below is the complete list of expressions from passages supposedly copied from Pañc but which are substantively different in Hṛd. I give the term as it appears in Hṛd followed by the term we find in Pañc:

  1. Avalokiteśvara < Subhūti
  2. caramāno (present middle participle) < caranta (present active participle)
  3. prajñāpāramitācaryām < prajñāpāramitā
  4. svabhāvaśunyān < śūnyatā
  5. rūpaṃ śūnyatā < rūpaṃ māyā (in Aṣṭa)
  6. na pṛthak < na anya/anya
  7. sarvadharmāḥ < śūnyatā
  8. amalā (adj.) < na saṃkliśyate (verb)
  9. avimalā (adj.) < na vyavadāyate (verb)
  10. anūna (adj.) < na hīyate (verb)
  11. aparipūrṇāḥ (adj.) < na vardhate (verb)
  12. avidyākṣaya < avidyānirodha
  13. jarāmaraṇakṣaya < jarāmaraṇanirodha
  14. na jñānaṃ < na prāptiḥ
  15. na prāptiḥ < nābhisamayaṃ
  16. aprāptitvāt < anupalambhayogena
  17. āśritya < niśritya
  18. tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ < atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ
  19. mahāmantraḥ < mahāvidyā
  20. mahāvidyāmantraḥ < mahāvidyā
  21. anuttaramantraḥ < anuttarā vidyā
  22. asamasamamantraḥ < asamasamā vidyā
  23. mantraḥ < dhāraṇī

In most of these cases, idiomatic Sanskrit expressions in Pañc are non-idiomatic and/or anachronistic expressions in Hṛd. Another class of cases do not seem to be copied, but do also seem to be non-idiomatic. I have tentatively reconstructed these by retranslating the Chinese with a view to Buddhist idioms and consulting Xuanzang's translations (which usually better reflect the Sanskrit text he was translating).

  1. viharatyacittāvaraṇaḥ < *cittaṃ asya na kvacit sajjati
  2. cittāvaraṇanāstitvāt < *tena
  3. viparyāsātikrāntaḥ < *viparyāsamāyāviviktaḥ
  4. satyaṃ amithyatvāt < *satyaṃ na mṛṣaṃ
  5. uktaḥ (passive past participle of √vac) < *vaca (second person singular imperative of √vac).

All of these cases are explained as the result of passages being translated from Chinese to Sanskrit, without much, if any, knowledge of Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idioms. Most of the original Chinese text  was copied from Kumārajīva's translation of Pañc, i.e. Móhē bānrěbōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T. 223; translated 400-404CE), with the addition of a dhāraṇī copied from Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» *Dhāraṇīsamuccaya (T. 901) translated by Atikūṭa in 654 CE, and some light editing to showcase Xuanzang's new approach to translating. 

At every turn the back-translator of Hṛd chose a synonymous Sanskrit expression, only they chose the wrong synonym. As a result, Hṛd resembles the speech patterns of the character Alexander Perchov (the driver) in Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated

A good example is avidyākṣaya. This is a hapax legomenon, i.e. a unique expression found only once in this one text. In the context of the nidāna doctrine, Buddhist literature invariably uses the term avidyānirodha (Pāli avijjānirodha). Hṛd is the only text in existence that uses the expression avidyākṣaya. Buddhists do use -kṣaya but only with reference to an idea borrowed from Jainism, i.e. āśravakṣaya "the destruction of the influxes" (which refers to someone who no longer creates karma). 

Moreover, we have identified a good deal of circumstantial evidence that lends support our conclusions. The oldest Heart Sutra artefact is Chinese, a stele from Fangshan dated 13 March 661; see Attwood (2019). The oldest literary reference to the Heart Sutra (6 January 656) occurs in Chinese, specifically in Xuanzang's Biography; see Kotyk (2019). Commentaries on the Chinese texts date from the late seventh century. The oldest Sanskrit manuscript is the so-called Hōryūji manuscript from Japan, is now thought to be from the ninth or tenth century (Silk 2021). The transcribed Sanskrit text in T 256 is now attributed to Amoghavajra, active in the mid-late eighth century (d. 774). Evidence from Tibet begins to appear only in the late eighth century, with commentaries around the same time. Notably all Chinese commentaries are on the standard text, while all Tibetan commentaries are on the extended text. Evidence from Dunhuang is difficult to date, but likely eighth century (during the Tibetan occupation) and mostly considerably after that. The earliest evidence from Nepal, as far as I know, is a manuscript from the thirteenth century. There is no evidence of the Heart Sutra from India: neither artefacts, such as manuscripts or inscriptions, nor literary mentions in other texts. The Heart Sutra was completely unknown in ancient India as far as we know. Eight Tibetan commentaries, from the late eighth century onwards, are attributed to "Indian" authors. We know next to nothing (or just nothing) about the "authors" in half of the cases, while at least two of the commentaries were commenting on Tibetan texts (Horiuchi 2021). None of the attributions has been tested against other works attributed to these authors, (where they exist). 

Perhaps the most strikingly circumstantial evidence is that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese genre of Buddhist literature, unknown in India, i.e. a chāo jīng 抄經 or digest text (a short precis of a long text made using copied passages). I believe this observation was first noted in a rather patchy one-off article in Chinese by Ji Yun (2012), (who despite having the honorary title "Professor" is a librarian at a "Buddhist University" and thus only notionally an "academic"). This article was republished in English translation in 2017. I posted a critique of Ji's article on my blog (see bibliography) and published my own exploration of this idea in Attwood (2020 "Palimpsest").

If those who reject this explanation wish to contribute, they need to find a better explanation of the 27 differences cited above and of all the circumstantial evidence. Show me how an expression such as avidyākṣaya can occur in an Indian Buddhist context when no Indian Buddhist of any period is known to have used the term. In other words, show me evidence of an Indian Buddhist tradition that does use this term in contradistinction to the norm. If the Indian origins thesis is so powerful, then let us see it used to explain something about the Heart Sutra. Pick an example from the list above and explain it in a way that is more satisfying than our explanation ("our" here is Nattier, Huifeng/Orsborn, Kotyk, and me). Prove me wrong and I will change my mind and tell the world about your explanation. This is how scholarship is supposed to work, right?

Why is This Important for Buddhist Studies Academics?

Let's review some of the reasons that academics might want to accurately identify the provenance of the Heart Sutra, other than the simple and obvious desire to know where it came from. And apart from the fact that the normative "Indian origins thesis" doesn't seem to explain anything

It is now a well-worn cliche to say that the Heart Sutra is the most popular Buddhist text, chanted daily by millions of Buddhists across Asia and Europe. This alone qualifies the text to be an object of intense interest and study. Most of those who chant the Heart Sutra, attribute magical power to the text, and at least some of this depends on its origins in India, with the Buddha. If there is no direct line back to India and the Buddha, then the popularity of the text would appear to be based on a misperception. Does this make it any less authentic? Doesn't the mere existence of the Heart Sutra raise questions about the notion of authenticity, i.e. that it is a matter of perception, rather than a matter of fact?

Rethinking the authenticity of local forms of Buddhism is a desideratum, if only because European Buddhists are taking the religion in a plethora of new directions, from a tentative and usually partial embrace of secularism, to aligning with the metaphysics of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, to approaches inspired by psychoanalysis, and so on. What can authenticity mean in these circumstances?

If the Heart Sutra was composed in China, then a lot of powerful and influential Buddhist figures —including the Dalai Lama and the late Thich Nhat Hanh—are potentially exposed as fallible. Academia has tended to act as a willing co-dependent with these religious figures, allowing them to act as normative sources for Buddhist historiography and doxology. There is a growing acknowledgement that academic reliance on Buddhist sources and authorities has been naive (again, we are being charitable here). See the series of articles on this by Max Deeg (2007, 2012, 2016), for example. See also Kotyk (2019) on the (in)accuracy of Chinese Buddhist sources vis à vis Imperial court records. 

In at least one important case—aprāptitvāt substituted for anupalambhayogena—the privilege afforded to the Sanskrit version has obscured the meaning of the Heart Sutra, by distracting us from the historical fact that Kumārajīva invented the term yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 to translate a single technical term from Sanskrit, i.e. anupalambhayogena, "by means of the practice of nonapprehension". In this case, the confusion goes back to the earliest commentaries. For example, Kuījī makes just this mistake (c.f. Heng-ching and Lusthaus 2001: 115-116). That is to say, the Indian origins thesis not only doesn't explain what we want it to, it actually obscures facts. It subtracts from our knowledge rather than adding to it. 

As Huifeng (2014) pointed out, the ramifications of this discovery are extensive. It is not that we've got one word wrong, it is that in exposing how we got this word wrong, we see that the whole approach of treating the Heart Sutra as concerned with communicating a metaphysical truth through contradiction and paradox is shown to be a false narrative. When we clean up the text, we see that there are no paradoxes in the Heart Sutra. Moreover, the term anupalambhayogena "through practising nonapprehension" is clearly an epistemic term, concerned with meditation and the arising and, especially, the cessation of sensory experience. In this view, then, the message of the Heart Sutra is not the nihilistic metaphysics of Nāgārjuna, it is the epistemology, the phenomenology even, of sensory experience, especially of the state of "emptiness" in which all sensory experience has ceased.

We need to explain how we ended up conflating Prajñāpāramitā with the Madhyamaka approach when, in fact, they seem unrelated and are incompatible. Furthermore, we have to explain why this tension has been completely overlooked by academics. Huifeng (2016) is a notable exception to this trend and an important source for problematising the perceived sameness of Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka (a theme of later Madhyamaka thought). It is all the more concerning, therefore, to note that academics who write about the Heart Sutra have never read Huifeng (2014) or (2016). Note that Huifeng has moved on from being a monk, and has returned to being Dr Matthew Orsborn, an academic working at Oxford University. 

The Buddhist anxiety over authenticity is visible in every strata of Buddhist literature and continues to be an important theme in modern Buddhism. Given that the world considers the Heart Sutra to have the highest level of authenticity, we begin to see why so many Buddhists are reluctant to think of it as a Chinese composition. This doesn't quite explain the reluctance amongst academics, except of course that many Buddhist Studies academics are also religious Buddhists or act as apologists for Buddhism (this is very striking in Nāgārjuna scholarship, for example, where the most prominent scholars are openly apologists for Nāgarjuna. On this, compare comments by Richard H. Jones (2018).

Prajñāpāramitā is a centrally important topic for the history of Buddhism, but is sorely neglected and the normative narrative about Prajñāpāramitā is evidently false in many respects. For example, given that it emphasises practices associated with the Buddha before his awakening, Prajñāpāramitā may well turn out to predate mainstream Buddhism rather than appearing as an innovative breakaway group later on. Contradiction and paradox play little or no role in Prajñāpāramitā. Prajñāpāramitā has little or no relation to Madhyamaka and is in many ways antinomous to it. And so on.

The Chinese Heart Sutra paradigm is a better narrative and it has vastly more explanatory power. Those academics who don't simply ignore us, mostly seem concerned to refute this new paradigm, although refutation attempts to date seem to miss the mark entirely. Therefore, let me make it easier for those who wish to refute this new paradigm by spelling out what it would take

What Evidence Would Refute the Chinese Origins Paradigm?

One of the exercises that intellectuals sometimes do is to consider what evidence might refute our views. My view, based on ten-year-long a forensic review of the existing evidence and a lot of original research, is that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese chāo jīng 抄經 or "digest text", composed using copied passages ca 654-656 CE, by Xuánzàng 玄奘 , for Wǔ Zhào 武曌 (later Emperor Wǔ Zétiān 武則天; r. 690–705 CE).

However, it has to be admitted that evidence is sparse and not always conclusive. New, more conclusive, evidence could turn up at any time. It behooves me to be clear about what kind of evidence would refute or seriously challenge the view I am proposing. This is not a common practice in Buddhist Studies, but it is one that I am keen on. Here is an indicative, but not comprehensive, list of possible counter-evidence:

  • The existence of a Sanskrit Heart Sutra manuscript or inscription from India that was securely dated (say, by C14 analysis or any similarly objective measure) prior to the seventh century would definitely refute the Chinese origins thesis.

  • The discovery of an Indian literary reference to the Heart Sutra prior to the seventh century would probably refute Chinese origins. This could include a quotation from it including some of the non-idiomatic expressions. Any early reference to a text called Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya would at the very least undermine Chinese origins.

  • The discovery of a Chinese Xīn jīng text from before the seventh century would also refute the current version of Chinese origins, but only in the sense of pushing back the date of composition in China and excluding Xuanzang as the likely author. Note that several texts have been conjectured to be older, but these claims have themselves all been refuted. The Dàmíngzhòu jīng 《大明呪經》 (T 250) is certainly not from the fifth century, as the traditional narrative suggests, and is generally agreed to post-date the Xīn jīng. The supposed Heart Sutra texts in old catalogues are not even called Xīn jīng and we have no other information apart from the title, i.e. no idea what the content was.

  • The discovery of a Sanskrit manuscript/inscription of more or less any text, securely dated prior to the seventh century, with the same two dozen non-idiomatic expressions as the Heart Sutra, or at least several of them, would likely refute Chinese origins, since it would explain the oddities in a more straightforward way, i.e. by direct borrowing.

I don't pretend that this list is exhaustive, but it is indicative. If this evidence, or something in this vein, turns up, I will be forced to reconsider. Until it does turn up, I think my explanation of the available evidence is better in all kinds of ways. A single process explains all the oddities in one stroke (this is partly what "explanatory power" means). My explanation fully acknowledges the authenticity of Chinese Buddhism. It takes in the full range of evidence. It provides us with a more straightforward, non-supernatural narrative about what Prajñāpāramitā practices might have looked like and how they worked. It also explains some peripheral problems such as defining terms such as asaṃskṛtadharma. It leads to the epistemic reading which obviates the need for speculative metaphysics, especially the kind that tells us that "nothing exists".

No one is denying that we have sensory experiences. In Buddhist terms: dharmas arise. But the normative metaphysical narrative is that dharmas do not exist. Although this is sometimes qualified by "really" or "ultimately", the qualifications don't make much, if any, difference. The insistence that dharmas don't exist (na rūpaṃ na vedanā, etc) forces proponents into the dualistic position of having one metaphysics for experience and a completely different metaphysics for reality, unironically called the "two truths" (ironically, because only one of them is considered to be true). The epistemic distinction between experience and reality is a much simpler prospect based on how humans come by knowledge about self and world through different sensory modes. Moreover, the epistemic approach is far more consistent with recent neurological studies of meditators in the state of emptiness. 

If I am wrong about these conjectures, then the fact that I have published them in academic journals requires that academics refute them by publishing the contradictory evidence or showing how the logic of my argument fails. The basic dynamic of scholarship, as I understand it, is still conjecture and refutation. And I would be grateful to be corrected, if it was done sympathetically. Of course, academics could continue to ignore my contributions, but I submit that after fourteen articles on this topic, this strategic ignorance begins to look dishonest. If I am wrong, show me. If I am right, then academics are obliged by the customs of scholarship to acknowledge this.

Open Questions in Heart Sutra Research

As I have gone along, I have noted many open questions regarding the Heart Sutra. These are topics that any qualified academic or grad student could tackle if they wanted to make a contribution. They don't quite amount to a research agenda, but solving these problems would go a long way to clarifying some of the details of the Heart Sutra. Again, if academics want to contribute, these are the kinds of issues they could think about working on.


I have noted that the Xīn jīng does not use the term svabhāva but that it does occur in Hṛd. There are, broadly speaking, two Buddhist approaches to this term. In early Buddhism and Abhidharma it is used in the sense of sui generis, or that which enables us to identify (saṃjñā) the experience we are having. Distinctions such as kusala and akusala are central to Buddhist soteriology. We know which is which because they feel different. This is an epistemic proposition, not a metaphysical claim about the nature of dharmas.

The other approach only occurs, as far as I know, in the works of Nāgārjuna and his followers. Here, svabhāva is taken to mean autopoietic, or "self-creating". Nāgārjuna defines an existent thing as being autopoietic, i.e. an existent thing can only be one which is itself the sole condition for its own existence. It is then a trivial exercise of logic to show that nothing can be autopoietic in this sense. Logically, such a self-creating entity either exists permanently or it permanently does not exist. For Nāgārjuna, only autopoietic things exist; and he's just proved that no things are autopoietic because nothing is permanent. While being contingent on other things places limits on existence (especially duration), it does not stop a thing from existing. It might call into question how we define existence, but clearly many things exist that are not autopoietic. In which case, why would we privilege Nāgārjuna's late Iron Age definition over more modern definitions?

As far as I know, no one has investigated how the word svabhāva is used in Prajñāpāramitā, though I know that many authors assume that Prajñāpāramitā uses svabhāva in Nāgārjuna's autopoietic sense.

Matthew Orsborn (Huifeng 2016) has identified the problematic Madhyamaka telos involved in virtually all modern scholarship on Prajñāpāramitā. Given the popularity of Nāgārjuna amongst academics, this goes some way to explaining the general neglect of Prajñāpāramitā in favour of nihilistic metaphysics.

A study of svabhāva in Prajñāpāramitā, sensitive to the sui generis/autopoietic distinction, is urgently needed.

明咒 and

Matthew Orsborn tells me there is a discussion of these two terms in Dàzhìdù lùn《大智度論》 (T 1509). It would be really useful for someone to publish a translation and commentary on this, especially in relation to the use of the terms in Chinese translations of the Heart Sutra

The term zhàojiàn 照見 has proved problematic for translators, e.g. “saw clearly” (Mattice 2021: 198), Hyun “illuminatingly sees” (Choo 2006: 142), “had an illuminating vision” (Hurvitz 1977: 107). None of these rings true for me and maybe in this case the Sanskrit back-translation, vyavaalokyati sma, is indicative? Since the term is used in other contexts, someone needs to look at what Indic terms were translated using this expression.

Prajñāpāramitā Chronology

Conze's chronology of Prajñāpāramitā is still cited as normative, but it is now obviously wrong in many respects. Our research shows that the Heart Sutra doesn't fit Conze's scheme at all. Most scholars now believe that the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā was an early text and that the Ratnaguṇasamccayagāthā is late. Someone needs to review the recent evidence and revise the chronology on an objective basis. The posthumous publication of Stefano Zacchetti's (2021) history of the Large Sutra and its main commentary goes some way towards this, but it needs to be distilled into a succinct chronology to replace Conze's dated and biased work in Buddhist Studies textbooks.

Contradiction and Paradox

Harrison (2006) has now shown that contradiction and paradox play little or no role in Vajracchedikā. This is independently supported by Jones (2012). Orsborn/Huifeng and I have shown that contradiction and paradox play little or not role in the Heart Sutra. Of course, we know that this approach plays no role whatever in early Buddhist literature, either. The question then becomes, when did Buddhists adopt this paradoxical hermeneutic? Was it a consequence of Madhyamaka, for example? Or developments in Chan Buddhism? We might want to identify the factors that drove Buddhists to abandon the idea that one could make sense of awakening, which in turn requires seeing the change in its historical context.

History of the Heart Sutra

It would be very useful for someone with access to previous versions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka to collate all the Heart Sutra texts (T250-257) and note any differences and/or any patterns of change over time. Posting images of all the various versions online would make these texts more accessible to those of us who don't have that kind of access. Though digital texts would be preferable. 

This gives a flavour of what is currently missing from our accounts of the Heart Sutra. The actual history of the text and the repair of mistakes introduced into it are in hand. My own current projects include: (interim) revised editions of Xīn and Hṛd, with all the editorial mistakes resolved; a detailed comparison and running commentary of Xīn and Hṛd; an epistemic reading of Chapter One of Aṣṭasāhasrikā; and a synoptic edition and commentary on the Chinese, Sanskrit, Pāli versions of the Kātyāyana Sūtra (which is important in epistemic approaches to Buddhism).


I don't expect a Nobel Prize for my contribution. I wouldn't want that kind of attention anyway. But I have published fourteen articles in the prescribed manner, meeting the standards of academic communications to the satisfaction of an academic editor and two academic reviewers each time. I feel that I have made a significant contribution to the field. Given this, seeing a stream of new publications on the topic appear without any citation of my publications or more importantly of Huifeng, and seeing the constant misrepresentation of Nattier (1992), is depressing and has left me feeling cynical about the whole enterprise of academic Buddhist Studies.

In Buddhist Studies, there is no common research agenda, with each academic mainly pursuing solo projects that don't connect to what anyone else is doing or address common concerns. Graduate students appear to pick topics at random and supervisors let them. In what sense is this a unified "field" of research? 

Worse, there is no consistent use of research methods amongst academics who write about the Heart Sutra. We are all dependent on the work of others. No one does scholarship in a vacuum. And yet, I find myself tearing my hair out each time a new Heart Sutra article appears only to discover that they haven't bothered to do a literature search, let alone a literature review.  Instead, they appear to cite a random assortment of sources, often ignoring the most relevant primary sources, let alone important secondary sources like Huifeng (2014) and (2016). This means that each new article tends to be written in a vacuum and the execrable results speak for themselves. We teach students to do literature searches for a reason. It is just weird to abandon the practice once one has a job in academia.

I understand that the pressure to publish or perish exists. The temptation to knock out a one-off article on the Heart Sutra (or whatever), with minimal actual research, could be overwhelming if, for example, one's main line of research has plateaued or one's funding for bigger projects has dried up. But this superficial approach doesn't help. The world's most popular Buddhist text deserves better and, in my experience, it handsomely repays sustained attention. The desultory and piecemeal academic approach to the most popular Buddhist text serves only to reinforce preconceived ideas and prejudices. And thus little or no progress is made, and such progress as is made goes unacknowledged. I want to emphasise, for example, that Huifeng 2014 represents major progress in our field and it has been completely ignored by academics. 

Nattier, Huifeng, and I have all faithfully played the game of academic communications and all we ask is that academics read our articles and evaluate them based on commonly accepted standards: Is the evidence salient? Do we understand the primary sources? Have we addressed all the relevant secondary literature? Is the method appropriate to the evidence and the project? Are the inferences we draw from the application of the method valid? Are the conclusions we arrive at sound? Do our explanations actually explain the thing we claim to explain? 

We don't ask for special treatment, just read and evaluate our work objectively as normal. Which is, after all, your job; not the whole of your job, obviously, but definitely an important part of any academic's work. 

Yours Sincerely
Jayarava Attwood, B.Sc, Dip. Libr.


Selected Blog posts and Unpublished Essays

"Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis." (24 November 2017). http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2017/11/japanese-reception-of-chinese-origins.html

"Review of Ji Yun's 'Is the Heart Sutra an Apocryphal Text? A Re-examination'." (01 June 2018). http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2018/06/review-of-ji-yuns-is-heart-sutra.html

"Another Failed Attempt to Refute the Chinese Origins Thesis." (13 September 2019).http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2019/09/another-failed-attempt-to-refute.html

"The Heart Sutra Was Not Composed in Sanskrit - Response to Harimoto." https://www.academia.edu/48794912/The_Heart_Sutra_Was_Not_Composed_in_Sanskrit_response_to_Harimoto

"Just How Crazy if the Heart Sutra?" (23 Sept 2022). http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2022/09/just-how-crazy-is-heart-sutra.html

Published Heart Sutra Articles

(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

(2017). "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13,52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.

(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

(2018). "A Note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇa in the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre For Buddhist Studies, 14, 10-17. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/173

(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

(2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30. http://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3201_Attwood(1-30).pdf

(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

(2020). "Edward Conze: A Re-evaluation of the Man and his Contribution to Prajñāpāramitā Studies." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 19, 22-51. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/223

(2020). "The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest." Pacific World, Series 4, no.1, 155-182. https://pwj.shin-ibs.edu/2020/6934

(2020). "Studying The Heart Sutra: Basic Sources And Methods (A Response To Ng And Ānando)." Buddhist Studies Review, 37 (1-2), 199–217. http://www.doi.org/10.1558/bsrv.41982

(2021). "Preliminary Notes on the Extended Heart Sutra in Chinese." Asian Literature and Translation 8(1): 63–85. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18573/alt.53

(2021): "The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese and Sanskrit Texts." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44: 13-52.

(2022) "The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy" International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 32(1):111-148. https://www.academia.edu/84003602/The_Cessation_of_Sensory_Experience_and_Prajñāpāramitā_Philosophy.

(2022 forthcoming). "The Heart Sūtra Revisited: The Frontier of Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya Studies." Acta Asiatica [No. 121]. 2021. [A Review Article].” Buddhist Studies Review 39(2)

Other Published Sources

Deeg, M. (2007). "Has Xuanzang really been in Mathura? Interpretation Sinica or Interpretation Occidentalia – How to critically read the records of the Chinese pilgrims." In Essays on East Asian religion and culture: festschrift in honour of Nishiwaki Tsuneki on the occasion of his 65th birthday, edited. by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, 35–73. Kyōto: Editorial Committee.

Deeg, M. 2012. "Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled… Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions (Xiyu Ji西域記): A Misunderstood Text?" China Report 48 (1-2): 89–113.

Deeg, M. (2016). "The political position of Xuanzang: the didactic creation of an Indian dynasty in the Xiyu ji’. In “The Middle Kingdom and the Dharma Wheel: Aspects of the Relationship between the Buddhist Saṃgha and the State in Chinese History,” Vol. 1. Sinica Leidensia, 133: 94–139.

Harrison, Paul. (2006) "Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra." In Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection.Vol. III. Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.

Heng-Ching, Shih & Lusthaus, Dan. (2001) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hṛdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

Horiuchi, Toshio. (2021). “Revisiting the ‘Indian’ Commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya: Vimalamitra’s Interpretation of the ‘Eight Aspects’.” Acta Asiatica 121: 53-81.

Huifeng. (2014). “Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: Non-attainment, Apprehension, and Mental Hanging in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 6, 72-105.

——. (2016). Old School Emptiness: Hermeneutics, Criticism, and Tradition in the Narrative of Śūnyatā. Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

Ji, Yun. (2012) "纪赟 —《心经》疑伪问题再研究." [Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination.] Fuyan Buddhist Studies, 7: 115-182 (2012), Fuyan Buddhist Institute. [Trans. Chin Shih-Foong (2017). Singapore Journal of Buddhist Studies, 4: 9-113. https://www.academia.edu/36116007/Is_the_Heart_Sūtra_an_Apocryphal_Text_A_Re-examination

Jones, Richard H. (2012). The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and Other Perfection of Wisdom Texts. New York: Jackson Square Books.

——. (2018) "Dialetheism, Paradox, and Nāgārjuna’s Way of Thinking," Comparative Philosophy 9(2), Article 5. https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/comparativephil.../vol9/iss2/5

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). ‘Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳’. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Mattice, Sarah A. (2021). Exploring the Heart Sutra. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Samuel, Geoffrey. (2008). The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. 

Silk, Jonathan A. (2021). “The Heart Sūtra as Dhāraṇī.” Acta Asiatica 121: 99-125.

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2021). The Da zhidu lun 大智度論 (*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa) and the History of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā. [Edited for publication by Michael Radich and Jonathan Silk]. Bochum/Freiburg: projektverlag.

25 November 2022

On the Cognitive Linguistics of Emptiness

This essay applies an analytical method developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, especially as it occurs in the book Metaphors We Live By, originally published in 1981, with a revised edition 2003. I will also draw on their other published works, notably Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987). Lakoff and Johnson tell us that "cognitive metaphors" are ubiquitous in human language. These metaphors involve treating a target domain as if it were a member of the same category as the source domain. In these metaphors the source domain is usually some form of physical interaction that humans have with the objective world, and the target domain is some feature of cognition. In this way, cognitive metaphors are what enable us to think about the world in abstract terms. 

This is a modern form of philosophical analysis not available to the ancient world. So this type of analysis offers the possibility of new insights when applied to old discourses. This method has occasionally been applied to Buddhism in the past, though the application has been patchy and the methods involved have not become mainstream. In this essay, I am going to use the methods developed by Lakoff and Johnson to critique the abstract concept of "emptiness" as we mainly meet it in accounts of Buddhism. In this case, I'm not criticising any particular usage, but want to make some general points about the concept. 

Cognitive Metaphors

A metaphor involves treating one things as if it were another. In a series of five blog posts in 2016, I outline John Searle's account of social reality in which "as if" plays a major role (see Social Reality). In that account of social reality I noted that language is an institutional fact:

Language itself only works because of collective intentionality, i.e. we all agree that certain verbal sounds count as words; that certain words count as representing concepts; that certain combinations of words count as sentences, and so on. (Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality. II).

What this means is that language relies on us all agreeing that a given word means what it means.  As Wittgenstein famously said, 

“For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Wittgenstein 1967, section 43)

This is often abbreviated to "meaning is use". Individualism has a role to play in the evolution of language, especially where the individual is influential.  But, generally speaking, language relies on our collective agreement on what words mean (semantics) or do (pragmatics). Cognitive metaphors are no different; other people must understand our use of cognitive metaphors in order for us to communicate about abstractions. 

The metaphor relation is not arbitrary. It is not that anything can be anything. The relation requires that the target domain has some properties that make it a good candidate for metaphorical projection. I won't go more deeply into this since it involves invoking the image schema and explaining this is too involved for an essay like this one. The standard work on image schemas is still (as far as I know) Mark Johnson's book The Body in the Mind (1987). Suffice it to say that the target domain for the metaphor must be a good fit. 

For example, we may state a commonly used cognitive metaphor: IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. (I use Lakoff and Johnson's convention of citing metaphors in small caps). In this metaphor, the source domain is our physical interactions with objects, while the target domain is a subjective experience of thought. If we accept the metaphor IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, then any operation we can physically perform on an object we can perform mentally on an idea. If I can grasp an object, then under this metaphor I can grasp an idea, as if it were an object. I can turn an idea over and look at it from another angle. I can look at an idea from different angles. If I have more than one idea, I can juggle them. I can throw an idea out, toss it around, and kick it into the long grass. Virtually anything I can physically do with an object finds a metaphorical application to an idea under the cognitive metaphor, IDEAS ARE OBJECTS.

A poor metaphor might be IDEAS ARE COWBOYS. Cowboys ride, bait, and subdue semi-wild animals for entertainment. It's not clear in what way an idea is like a cowboy. This metaphor is not intuitive. Another one might be FISH ARE BICYCLES. Note that these propositions are not forbidden by the rules of English grammar. Still, they don't make for obvious metaphorical usage. The metaphor IDEAS ARE OBJECTS works because ideas have a limited scope, they can often expressible in a succinct way that makes each idea seem discreet from other ideas. Expressing the idea leads to a transfer of that discreet piece of knowledge to another person. It's not that an idea is an object, but that an idea is sufficiently like an object in specific ways. The similarity occurs at the level of "image schemas", which I'm trying to avoid for reasons of brevity. 

It may seem simplistic to labour the point, but I think it's worth saying that ideas are not real objects. In making the metaphor, we are not reifying the abstraction. Moreover, contrary to the prevailing view of humans amongst Buddhists, people are not easily fooled into reifying cognitive metaphors. It would be odd for a person to claim that ideas are objects in a substantial sense. We know this is not true. No one ever literally held an idea in the palm of their hand, for example. We know it's a metaphor and we intuitively deal with thousands of such metaphors every day. If we had to stop to analyse each one, abstract thought would not be possible.

Unlike a computing language I don't have to "declare" the metaphor before using it. We effortlessly decode hundreds and thousands of these cognitive metaphors on the fly without even noticing that we are doing it. When people are sitting around a table at a meeting and someone says, "we need to move on", and they change the subject rather than getting up and leaving the room, no one is surprised by this.

In this case, it is because we can form a cognitive metaphor: A CONVERSATION IS A JOURNEY. For example, we might be having a conversation and it "takes a turn" (perhaps a strange or unexpected turn, or a turn for the worse). Someone might wish to "return" to what was said earlier. If it's going badly, we might say "Let's start over". If the conservation was difficult but productive, we may say: "we got there in the end". When a conversation is at an impasse, we might say that we have to move on and leave the impasse unresolved. And a conversation may reach a natural conclusion: "let's stop there".

These cognitive metaphors are not incidental but rather they form an integral part of language use. The richness of our metaphorical use of language is part of what makes us human. Our ability to talk about one thing as if it were a member of a completely different class of thing is what distinguishes human communication from all other animals. Clearly, some animals and birds are capable of abstract thought to some extent. But they don't communicate in metaphors. We do. 

Once we get attuned to this idea of cognitive metaphors, we begin to see them everywhere. When I talk about typing on my keyboard (a physical act) and words appearing "on my screen" this is two cognitive metaphors: WORDS ARE OBJECTS and SCREENS ARE SURFACES. Of course the screen is literally a surface, but the words are not on it in a physical sense. I can't physically interact with words on a screen. Even on a touch screen that's not what is happening. Rather the patterns of light and dark created by pixels make words seem to appear on the screen, and electrical interactions between surface and finger help to create the illusion of physical interaction. At the end of the day there is dust and fingerprints on my screen, but no physical objects called "words". Still, all the verbs that can be used to describe interacting with objects on a surface, can now be applied to "words on a screen".

In order to get at the underlying metaphors involved in talking about emptiness in a Buddhist context, we have to consider the use of container metaphors.

Container Metaphors

A very common cognitive metaphor involves likening something to a container. For example, in English we have the metaphor: A BOOK IS A CONTAINER. A book can, for example, be filled with ideas (here again: IDEAS ARE OBJECTS). With this combination we make a complex source domain: putting objects into a container maps onto putting ideas or words into a book. We use the same verb in each case, but use it substantively on one hand and metaphorically on the other.

A very common metaphor in English is MIND IS A CONTAINER and more specifically, mind is a container of experiences. In this view, experience happens in the mind; experience is the content of the mind qua container of experiences. Interestingly, however, Indian Buddhists do not seem to have used a specific container metaphor that we take for granted: i.e. sensory experience is contained in the mind. In Buddhism, the mind (manas) is more like a translator that turns (physical) sensory experience into (mental) perception. An ancient Buddhist could not, for example, say something like "empty your mind" because this relies on the container metaphor and they did not conceive of the mind as a container or sensory experience as the content of the mind. They are more likely to use a surface metaphor for the mind, and to talk about sensory experience as a disturbance of that surface. They may also talk about a sensory event in terms of the sense organ being struck by the appearance of an object. Keeping in mind that "appearance" (rūpa) is to the eye as sound is to the ear.

Despite the fact that ancient Buddhists did not use the container metaphor for the mind, it is so ingrained in us as English speakers that it's almost impossible to not think of the mind as a container and sensory experience as the content. 

Given all this, what can we say about how to understand the term "emptiness" (Skt. śūnyatā)

Emptiness and Experience

The adjective "empty" and the abstract noun "emptiness" are part of the broader cognitive metaphor involving containers. There is no abstract "emptiness" in the absence of a container that could potentially contain something. Moverover, emptiness in the dictionary sense boils down to "the absence of content". "Emptiness" is defined by the Online Etymology Dictionary as "the state of containing nothing". Similarly Merriam-Webster defines emptiness as "containing nothing, not occupied or inhabited" and "lacking reality, substance, meaning, or value."

These definitions are curiously opposed to Buddhist definitions of "emptiness" which specifically state that it does not mean "void" or "nothingness". As one writer seeks to clarify:

"Emptiness is not complete nothingness; it doesn't mean that nothing exists at all. This would be a nihilistic view contrary to common sense." - Lewis Richmond.

In other words, in a Buddhist the concept "emptiness" does not mean emptiness, at least in any general sense. Rather it means, we are told, that things are not as they appear to us. It is the difference between appearance and reality. In which case, "emptiness" is obviously the wrong term for this concept. Still I want to press on and consider the cognitive metaphors that apply to our English word and circle back to the doctrinal mismatch.

Any given container—physical or metaphorical—may contain something or not, but to be a container it must potentially contain something. If a container contains anything, then it is not empty. If it contains nothing, it is empty. 

Note that this is unrelated to the expected content of the container. I drink my morning coffee from a teacup I like. The rest is in a thermos and stays hot. One could say that my cup is empty of tea, for example, but by being specific one falls down a rabbit hole. My cup may well be empty of tea, water, lime-juice, cooking oil, kerosene, and every other kind of liquid, but it presently is filled with coffee and thus my cup is not empty at all. This gives emptiness an important parameter. Emptiness tends to be an absolute: if my cup has any kind of content, then it is not empty. My cup is only empty when there is no liquid in it; i.e. when there is emptiness.

So far, so logical. But this is not how Buddhists, especially Mādhyamikas, use the termin practice. Mādhyamikas use the abstract noun "emptiness" in a concrete sense. The classic example is the statement "form is emptiness". This is a valid English sentence, but there is something wrong with it. Even when we take "form" to be "form in the abstract" (or matter generally as many Mādhyamikas do), this sentence is not logically valid because it is trying to equate two different levels of abstraction. "Form" here is generally taken to mean "phenomena". If the metaphor is FORMS ARE CONTAINERS then we might validly state that form is empty. 

There are several problems here. The first is that rūpa is (in English at least) not the container of experience, it is the content of experience (or part of it). Rūpa is to eye what sound is the ear. And note that this applies across the senses. Importantly, rūpa is to the eye as tangibles (spraśtavya) are to the body (kāya). Rūpa is on the wrong side of the equation to be equated with body, even metaphorically. In Chinese, rūpa is routinely translated as 色 "hue (from original meanings "form, appearance, complexion"); visual surface quality." (definition from Kroll). In Sanskrit, rūpa is typically a property of a surface reflecting light, it is not a metaphorical container. 

That said, there is no doubt that some modern Buddhists do take rūpa to mean "substance", "matter", or "body". We can see that this is incoherent even at face value since the word is neither defined that way nor used that way in ancient texts. Even the translation "form" misleads most English-speakers into thinking in substantive terms about rūpa. Rūpa means "appearance". Moreover, even if we invoke the container metaphor, it can't be applied to rūpa because rūpa is an element of experience, this is to say that rūpa is content. Ancient Buddhists preferred to see rūpa as a disturbance on the surface of the mind, but even in this metaphor, rūpa is not substantive.

The second problem is that even if rūpa were a container we could go as far as saying that it is empty if it did not contain anything. We could not logically assert that it is "emptiness". If emptiness is the absence of content and rūpa is content, then the two are logical contraries. Despite a great deal of hand waving in modern Buddhist philosophy, "form is emptiness" simply does not make sense in English. But then it doesn't make any more sense to state this in Sanskrit; rūpameva śūnyatā is still equating two different levels of abstraction. This is an egregious wrong turn in Buddhist philosophy.

I might never have thought of this had I not discovered that the phrase was not originally rūpaṃ śūnyatā "form is emptiness", but rūpaṃ māyā "appearance is illusion" (Attwood 2017). This equation occurs in Aṣṭa and in a few places in Pañc as well. It is clearly translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva as 色不異幻、幻不異色,色即是幻、幻即是色。 (e.g. at T 223, 8.239c6-7). Here huàn 幻 translates māyā "illusion", though it originally meant "creation" or the creative power of the devas to keep the world in harmony (ṛta). Given the long history of Buddhists comparing sensory experience to an illusion this makes perfect sense. A classic example of this is the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta, which concludes with a well-known verse:

Pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ, vedanā bubbuḷūpamā /
Marīcikūpamā saññā, saṅkhārā kadalūpamā;
Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ, desitādiccabandhunā
(SN iii.142).
Appearance is like a ball of foam, valence like a bubble.
Recognition is like a mirage, volition like a plantain.
Discrimination is like an illusion. So Ādiccabandhu taught.

Here, Ādiccabandhu means the Buddha, but it is a distinctively Brahmin name completely unconnected to any of the standard myths of the Buddha. A similar verse occurs at the end of the Vajracchedikā, where the simile becomes a metaphor:

tārakā timiraṃ dīpo māyāvaśyāya budbudaḥ |
supinaṃ vidyud abhraṃ ca evaṃ draṣṭavya saṃskṛtam ||Vaj 22 || (Harrison and Watanabe 2006)
We should see the conditioned as a star, a kind of blindness, a lamp;
An illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a lightning flash, a cloud.

We also find the simile in Aṣṭa, “appearance is like an illusion” (māyopamaṃ rūpam. Vaidya 1960: 9). And this is all quite straightforward: experience and reality are not the same thing; different rules apply. 

There is a popular rhetorical strategy for dealing with "form is emptiness" amongst Buddhists which can be illustrated with a random example from the Tricycle website:

Avalokita found the five skandhas empty. But, empty of what? The key word is empty. To be empty is to be empty of something.

If I am holding a cup of water and I ask you, “Is this cup empty?” you will say, “No, it is full of water.” But if I pour out the water and ask you again, you may say, “Yes, it is empty.” But, empty of what? Empty means empty of something. The cup cannot be empty of nothing. “Empty” doesn’t mean anything unless you know empty of what. My cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air. To be empty is to be empty of something. This is quite a discovery. When Avalokita says that the five skandhas are equally empty, to help him be precise we must ask, “Mr. Avalokita, empty of what?”

What we see here is a fantastic distortion of reality, leading to a false conclusion. It is nonsensical for you to ask me what my cup is empty of, because to be empty in any sense, it has to be empty of everything. As I noted above, my cup could be and regularly is empty of tea (and all other liquids) but full of coffee: in which case my cup is not empty at all. The conclusion here—“Empty” doesn’t mean anything unless you know empty of what—is simply not true. This is a case of the tail wagging the dog. That is to say, we know what the answer had to be in order to legitimise Buddhist dogma on emptiness, and the question is phrased in such as way as to elicit only that answer. But in doing so, Buddhists blithely defy the conventions of language. 

We can never legitimately ask "empty of what?" The question is meaningless and the answer is simply a restatement of a dogma that doesn't make any sense. The idea that "empty of what" is a natural question is either extraordinarily naive or disingenuous. Either way, Buddhists propagate this falsehood in all sincerity. 

This invalid method and false conclusion are often parlayed into an even worse question using the abstract noun: "emptiness of what?" Such a thing is not allowed under English grammar. Emptiness is emptiness. "Of what" is an entirely meaningless question because if the answer is not "everything", then the vessel is not empty at all. 

We do sometimes suggest that emptiness might have degrees.  For example, we may say that a cup may be half full or half empty. Still, it's only from the point of view of being half full that we can ask "of what?" The "of what?" question only applies to the content of the container. An empty container has no content; a half empty container is half empty of all content. Even if we say the glass is half empty, no one in their right mind asks "Half empty of what?". This is simply not how the container metaphor works. 

We can see that the cognitive linguistic perspective is a powerful method for understanding utterances. But it also highlights how dogmatic the Buddhist discourse on emptiness is. This kind of invalid logic is de rigueur for Buddhist philosophy and is almost never questioned or critiqued: either from within or without. Rather such views are carefully curated by Buddhists, in the sense of being framed as deep truths, discovered by visionaries and mystics, and accompanied by frenzied hand waving so that they can be presented as something they are not, i.e. true. This is what we expect of a religious philosophy or theology. There are axioms that cannot be questioned or the whole thing would fall apart. The fabric of Madhyamaka is held together with unquestioned, religiously inspired, axioms. 

The same argument holds for Sanskrit which has identical cognitive metaphors. In Sanskrit it is nonsensical to say rūpaṃ śūṇyatā, but it is sensible to say rūpaṃ māyā, and even better to say rūpaṃ māyopamaṃ "appearance is like an illusion"

So my, rather awkward conclusion is this: Buddhists don't seem to understand the concept of empty, let alone the concept of emptiness. If they did understand, the question "empty of what?" would never occur to them. Worse, Buddhists routinely insist that this flawed concept of emptiness is what makes sense of Prajñāpāramitā. Two wrongs don't make a right. 

In this case, how should we understand the word emptiness?

Making Sense of Emptiness

The key here is to note that the first use of śūnyatā as a technical term is to refer to the state of meditative concentration in which all sensory experience has ceased due to the withdrawal of attention from the senses. This state is called suññatāvihāra or śūnyatāsamādhi. Since sensory experience is dependent on attention (manasikāra), by practising non-attention (amanasikāra), one prevents sensory experience from arising and causes arisen sensory experience to cease. 

Here, sensory experience can be seen as the content of experience or, in Buddhist terms as a distortion of the (naturally) smooth surface of the mind. As such, sensory experience may be present or absent and even admit degrees of these. Hence, between ordinary waking awareness and emptiness there are numerous stages (āyatana) of increasingly attenuated sensory experience. But here, too, absence is absolute; the presence of an any sensory experience means that emptiness doesn't apply. This point is made repeatedly in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, for example. Emptiness in this case, is the complete absence of sensory experience. 

There are several Buddhist approaches to analysing the content of experience: a range of reductive ontologies into which experience is analysed. For example, the skandha-ontology, which focuses on the processes that give rise to experience, or the dhātu-ontology, which is focussed on the sense faculties and their objects. Mainstream Buddhism foregrounds this reductive, analytic approach of breaking experience down into simpler components in order to eliminate it as a source of absolute being. That complex objects disappear under analysis is not some great metaphysical truth, it is simply a consequence of methodological reductionism. 

If I dismantle my chariot, of course I no longer have a working chariot because I've just broken it on purpose. Who does that? Why would I want to dismantle a working chariot in the first place? And why would my destruction of the thing constitute proof that it never existed in the first place? This is the claim that many Buddhists make but, again, it is nonsensical.   

Prajñāpāramitā Buddhists, building on a tradition that is probably older than Buddhism itself, sought first to bring sensory experience to a halt. They didn't analyse sensory experience in any depth because the acme of their program was not an insight into sensory experience. What they sought, first and foremost, was an insight into death and rebirth. The whole fetish of emptiness was originally established on the analogy of emptiness with death. Mastery (vidyā) over sensory experience, in the form of the ability to voluntarily make it stop, equated to mastery over repeated death. This mastery was and is the driving force of Buddhism, even when it is buried in centuries of intellectual accretion. 

My current thinking is that the discovery of how to do this probably arose around the same time as major socio-political changes in India, reflected in, for example, the replacement of red and black pottery type by the painted grey ware style of pottery. Within a few centuries we see the emergence of walled city states which are stable for some 200-300 years before the Moriyan Dynasty of Magadha overwhelmed all the others, founding the first pan-Indian empire. One possible source of mind-training techniques that limit sensory experience is the "interiorisation" of Brahmanical rituals. In this development, some Brahmins began to perform their daily rituals in imagination rather than physically. This led to the discovery of radical changes in sensory experience, especially in the form of hallucinations due to sensory deprivation, and ultimately to the cessation and absence of sensory experience. By the time the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad was composed (in or around the Kingdom of Kosala) the correct performance of rituals was being linked to one's afterlife destination. Buddhists and Jains had similar ideas but focussed on actions more generally, with Buddhists refining this to just volitional actions. 

However it happened, it is apparent that in this milieu some religieux developed and shared the techniques that allowed them to bring sensory experience to a halt and to dwell in a state in which there is awareness but no content. Some Buddhists called this "emptiness" (śūnyatā). Other Buddhists called it "extinction"(nirvāṇa) and other names. This state is also known in modern times as "contentless awareness", "minimal phenomenal awareness", or "non-dual awareness". 

This is how I presently understand "emptiness" in Prajñāpāramitā.  I believe this is a better approach than anything based in later traditional interpretations based on the Madhyamaka telos (which sees Prajñāpāramitā merely as proto-Madhyamaka). 

Dharma as Container?

One of the key concepts in Madhyamaka is "the emptiness of dharmas". In this usage, dharmas have to be considered as metaphorical containers. The broader translation of dharmas as "phenomena" (as distinct from noumena; i.e. appearances rather than reality) seems to fit here, but what is the content of  a phenomenon? Is there really any phenomenon that is not sensory experience?

Nāgārjuna tells us that he expects that we will expect a dharma to have svabhāva in the sense of being autopoietic or self-creating. Nāgārjuna points out that this self-creating property of dharmas cannot exist in any changeable phenomenon. So far so good. The problem is that no one ever believed in self-creating dharmas. No one ever proposed this before Nāgārjuna. But he said that everyone believed it. Nāgārjuna appears to have lied about this. What puzzles me is that no one really cares about the lie. Many people seem to prefer this lie. 

The svabhāva of a dharma, according to Abhidharma lore, is the sui generis quality that gives us the ability to identify it. For example, it's important to all Buddhists to distinguish skillful (kuśala) motivations (cetanā) from unskillful (akuśala) ones. If I experience a moment of greed or generosity, I identify it as such by introspecting the content of the experience. The fact that I can identify an experience as motivated by greed or generosity doesn't imply anything like Nāgārjuna's autopoietic dharmas. As far as I can see, there is no way to even infer autopoietic dharmas from any early Buddhist doctrine. We have different kinds of experiences and these are identifiable by certain characteristics. No one disputes this, not even Nāgārjuna. 

However, Nāgārjuna also assumes that to be real a dharma must have svabhāva in his autopoietic sense. This axiom is incoherent, but is blindly accepted by all and sundry; even Graham Priest, the academic logician, seems to fail to see this basic logical error in Nāgārjuna's argument. Since he can (trivially) prove that no dharma can be autopoietic, he then deduces that dharmas are not real, that they don't exist. But this definition of "real" is completely incoherent. Not only did Buddhists never use this definition of real, they weren't even interested in the question of the reality or unreality of dharmas. They were interested in the arising and ceasing of dharmas; especially in the light of a state in which all dharmas cease except for the asaṃskṛtadharma, i.e. emptiness. Emptiness is asaṃskṛta because it does not occur due to the presence of a condition but rather occurs when all conditions for sensory experience are absent. 

In order to square the circle, Nāgārjuna has to introduce the nonsense idea of a "relative truth", which is not true at all. The ultimate truth, in this view, is that dharmas don't exist, because they are not self-creating. I can see no good reason to take Nāgārjuna seriously as a philosopher or even, frankly, as a Buddhist. He seems to have entirely missed the point of Buddhism and has gone off on a tangent. And still, he is routinely cited as "the most important Buddhist philosopher". 


The term "emptiness" is generally used in an incoherent way by Buddhists, especially in statements containing the idea "emptiness of...". We can never legitimately ask "empty of what?" let alone "emptiness of what?" because this is not how the container metaphor works. 

The idea that the proposition "form is emptiness" is meaningful now seems doubtful. Moreover, when we look at the kinds of post hoc arguments put forward to justify this proposition, they simply don't make sense. In addition, we know that it used to make sense when presented in the form: "appearance is an illusion." A sensory experience is like an illusion. I doubt anyone would argue with this.

It is also true that in the state called "emptiness" there are no dharmas because that state occurs only when all dharmas have ceased and no new dharmas are arising. This sense of the term is far more coherent than the general religious consensus that emptiness is reality. 

The incoherence reaches its apotheosis in Madhyamaka rhetoric about the emptiness of dharmas, by which Mādhyamikas mean that they think dharmas don't exist, since they tie existence to self-creation and it is trivial to show that dharmas cannot be self-creating. Nāgārjuna insists on an incoherent definition of what "real" means and uses that to argue that the concept of existence is incoherent. Prior to Nāgārjuna no one ever used this definition of real. Apart from his devotees, most Buddhists still don't use this definition. 

The standard ways we have of talking about this all seem to miss the point. Early Buddhists did not venture opinions on the existence or nonexistence of dharmas, except in the case of the sarvāsti doctrine. Even the Sarvāstivādins did not argue that the existence of dharmas was due to self-creation. The logic of sarvāsti is completely different but not difficult to follow. If a past dharma can be the cause of a present effect, then the doctrine of dependent arising itself says that it presently exists since imasmin sati, idaṃ hoti and imasmin asati, idaṃ na hoti. If the dharma doesn't exist now, then it cannot be a factor in the arising of a dharma in the present. This central argument is not even considered by Nāgārjuna, let alone refuted. 

The nature of dharmas is irrelevant in light of the fact that dharmas arise and cease, depending on where our attention goes. To say that dharmas lack svabhāva in Nāgārjuna's sense is trivial. To say that they have svabhāva in the Abhidharma sense is also trivial since we routinely recognise hundreds of different kinds of experience (for which we have thousands of words). The key to understanding Prajñāpāramitā lies in another direction entirely. The main point is that attention can be withdrawn from sensory experience. When we withdraw attention from sensory experience, it ceases, leaving us in a particular state characterised by some kind of basic awareness without any experiential content. That is, in a state of emptiness.

While it is not essential to my critique of Madhyamaka, it helps to understand the cognitive metaphors of emptiness and how cognitive metaphors function generally. This is so because "the emptiness of dharmas" is a cognitive metaphor: DHARMAS ARE CONTAINERS. But this is only true if dharmas exist and are capable of acting as metaphorical containers.

Still, it is only Madhyamakas who believe that in order to exist, to be real, a dharma must be self-creating. "Self-creation" is an odd choice for the content of that container. I can imagine a thing being self-creating, but I cannot imagining a thing containing self-creation. Self-creation doesn't fit the cognitive metaphor. 

So even if we could legitimately ask "empty of what?" the answer "empty of self-creation" is nonsense on several levels. For example, it would require us to relate to "self-creation" as content. To my mind this simply doesn't work. "Self-creation" is not a suitable target for the source domain of things we put in containers, except in the very broadest sense that IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. The idea of self-creation might be the content of a metaphorical container, the fact of self-creation cannot be.  

On the other hand, the emptiness of the mind, i.e. the concept of the absence of mental content in meditation, is not plagued by these inconsistencies and incoherences. In English it is natural to use the container metaphor for this. It is not so natural in scriptural languages, but, nevertheless, the absence of dharmas in meditation is the key concept here, not the absence of being self-creating. The whole idea of self-creating dharmas is a red herring. 

The metaphysical speculations that attract us as explanations for emptiness are largely based on prior indoctrination. In my reading, such speculations are absent from both early Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā. This is not to say that metaphysics is generally absent from or irrelevant to Buddhism.  All ancient Buddhists believed in karma and rebirth, for example. These involve commitments to metaphysical views that we now know to be false, though few Buddhists will admit to this. 

The methods of cognitive linguistics are a powerful tool for thinking critically about Buddhist doctrines. That said, most existing applications of these methods have been in the service of tradition, i.e. used purely descriptively by scholars who have no interest in critiques of Buddhist philosophy. Whatever the reason for it, this side-stepping manoeuvre allows those people to continue evangelising for traditional Buddhism without ever confronting the inevitable antinomies between Iron Age or Medieval thought in India and present day science and philosophy. Many Buddhists seem attracted by the idea of subsuming all knowledge within Buddhism. This tends to involve a rather blasé form of dualism in which science is merely concerned with the "physical" and Buddhism is concerned something that we often see called "spiritual".

Unfortunately, this exceptionalist discourse appears to obscure and devalue the real contribution of Buddhists, i.e. the cultivation and exploration of states of contentless awareness. I see this as a lose-lose scenario. I see the neuroscience community studying this phenomenon and developing their own terminology for it, though at present we still see a proliferation of different terminologies. At some point, an objective account of the methods and consequences of meditation will eclipse the religious accounts. Those who insist on the religious accounts, with all their incoherence and misdirection, will be relegated out of the conversation and become irrelevant. I'd prefer to see experienced meditators staying in the game, but as long as they cling to outmoded forms of talking about emptiness, they will not be part of the conversation for much longer. 



Attwood, J. (2017). "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13,52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.

Johnson, Mark. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

11 November 2022

On the Indo-Tibetan Commentaries and Methods in Buddhist Studies

I have almost no interest in popular translations, or commentaries, since these all repeat the same mistakes and result in cliches that I know to be untrue. I do try to be completist when it comes to academic publications on the Heart Sutra (at least in English). Being completist in this sense is seldom rewarding because the standard of work coming out in this field is typically quite poor. I've published a couple of critical reviews now (2020, 2022) as well as posting quite a few more on my blog (e.g. here, hereherehere, and here). 

The eight Indo-Tibetan commentaries on the Heart Sutra have received a relatively huge amount of attention in the form of two books by Donald Lopez; one a study and the other a complete translation with reflections on themes in the commentaries. Other commentaries, such as those by Kuījī and Woncheuk, have also been translated but, at least in English, they have not been studied with anything like the same level of attention. And what have we learned? This is summed up in the conclusion of recent article by, long-established scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Klaus-Dieter Mathes:

We have seen how the quintessence of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, the formula “form is emptiness; emptiness is form” has been interpreted in eight Indian commentaries from nearly all possible Mahāyāna views and approaches. (Emphasis added)

This is no more that what Alex Wayman had observed in 1984, i.e.

“The writers seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition, but rather were simply arranging their particular learning in Buddhism to the terminology of the sūtra.” (1984: 309)

Or Malcolm David Eckel in the same decade:

“... to approach the Indian commentaries in the hope that they will somehow yield the ‘original’ meaning of the text is to invite disappointment... what they thought it meant was shaped as much by the preoccupations of their own time as it was by the words of the sūtra itself. (1987: 69-70)

Mathes cites neither Wayman nor Eckel. Nor does he cite my (2017) article: "Form is (Not) Emptiness" which was directly relevant to his topic. Nor does he cite Huifeng (2014) which is also relevant. Mathes does cite Jan Nattier, but it is the most bizarre reference to her work that I have ever seen:

"The Heart Sūtra lends support to a simultaneist realization of emptiness, and for that reason Jan Nattier has even argued that it was a Chinese composition and brought to India by Xuanzang."

Leaving aside the fact that I don't know what "a simultaneist realization of emptiness" means, the logic here is not valid. The reason we—Nattier, Huifeng/Matthew Orsborn, Jeffrey Kotyk, and I—conclude that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese has nothing to do with "a simultaneist realization of emptiness" (to my knowledge none of us has ever used such terminology). Our argument is philological. Nattier (1992) showed that the core passage in Hṛd was too different from that in Pañc for Hṛd to have copied directly from Pañc. On the other hand Xīn and Mōhè are more or less identical, with a few tweaks to include some of Xuanzang's preferred translations. Clearly, Xīn copied from Mōhè. In addition, it's apparent that the differences in Hṛd are the result of some kind of paraphrase that is consistent with being back-translated into Sanskrit from Chinese. Huifeng (2014) and I (in various papers) have extended this observation to other parts of the text and shown that the patterns Nattier observed in the core section generalise to the other half of the text also. Moreover, I (Attwood 2018b: 19-22) showed that tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ is a calque of sānshì zhū fú 三世諸佛 “buddhas of the three times”, while Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature has a strong preference for the unabbreviated “buddhas of the past, future, and present” (atītānāgatapratyutpannā buddhāḥ).

I wouldn't mind so much but, outside of our circle, Buddhist Studies scholars seem loath to give Nattier the basic respect of accurately describing her evidence, methods, and conclusions. The recent notable exception is Sarah Mattice's (2021) book which devotes fully 19 pages to this task. Mattice has devoted more space to this issue than all the naysayers and fence-sitters combined. Compared to this, Mathes' distorted account may be the worst example of this I have seen by an academic. Of course, his article was published too late to take into account my recent overview of this issue in JIABS (Attwood 2021), but most of the earlier works on this topic were available. And Nattier's article is thirty years old this year (2022). 

In a couple of polemical reviews (2020 and 2022 forthcoming) I take academics to task for not doing a proper literature review before conducting their research. This is not simply because they don't cite me, though of course this is an issue for me. I've published fourteen articles on this topic and they are all widely available. In Mathes case, half a dozen of my articles could have been cited. 

For example, Mathes, unlike the vast majority of Buddhist Studies scholars, has noticed a problem in Conze's 1967 revised edition of the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. In the first sentence, pañca skandhās (nominative plural) is impossible to relate to the rest of the sentence and the transitive verb, vyavalokayati sma, has no object. In 2015, I published this observation along with the solution which was inspired by two variant manuscripts, i.e. we add an anusvāra to the dhā-akṣara to give us pañca skandhāṃs (accusative plural). With this slight change we solve both problems at once: pañca skandhāṃs is the missing object of vyavalokayati sma. Now, I don't expect a Nobel Prize for this observation but I do expect to be credited as the first scholar to publish it. This is the tacit agreement that we all make; if you get there first, other scholars will acknowledge this and give credit where it is due. Mathes doesn't do this and it's bad form. 

Mathes does not notice the other big mistake in Conze's text, though one can see from his translation that he struggled to know what to do with it. Conze's misplaced full stop after acittāvaraṇa leaves the end of the sentence hanging; it is a "sentence" with no verb and no subject, i.e. not a valid sentence. Simply removing the full stop allows one to parse the now combined passages as one sentence. Mathes' approach is to break the text apart until the garbled grammar ceases to be an issue: 

Therefore, Śāriputra, because bodhisattvas have no attainment, they rely on, and abide in, the perfection of insight. They have no mental hindrances. Because their minds are without hindrance, they have no fear. They pass completely beyond error and go to the fulfillment of nirvāna.
Mathes has curiously misconstrued the Sanskrit here. The absolutive in the first clause, āśritya is generally translated as a gerund "having relied on" or a present participle "relying on". The text clearly says something like "having relied on prajñāpāramitām", but viharati "he dwells" cannot also relate back to prajñāpāramitā in this sentence; whatever "dwelling" is being dwelled, it is subsequent to "relying on prajñāpāramitā". Contra Mathes, one thing this passage cannot say is, "[they] abide in the perfection of insight.". The bodhisatva is the agent of both verbs, but prajñāpāramitām only goes with āśritya here. It might have said something like that if āśritya were in the form of a finite verb such as āśrayati.

Most translators, Conze included, take acittāvaraṇaḥ to be the state in which the bodhisatva dwells, though I admit this has never made sense to me. The case is masculine nominative singular, meaning that acittāvaraṇaḥ ought to be an adjective of some other noun in the masculine nominative singular and there is only one in this sentence, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ. Note that this relation was obscured in Conze's (1948) original edition and in the popular (1958, 1975) edition (Buddhist Wisdom Books) because his text has bodhisattvasya (genitive singular). In the revised  (1967) edition, he repairs this blunder. 

In Conze's editions, what follows, after the erroneous full stop, is a conjunction and a series of adjectives of the bodhisatva who relies on Prajñāpāramitā. There is absolutely no need to make these into separate sentences, let alone into four separate sentences. The revised text and my translation read

tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaś cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrasto viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ | 

Therefore, Śāriputra, because of being in a state of non-attainment, the bodhisatva who is without mental hindrance dwells having relied on perfect paragnosis; because of the nonexistence of mental hindrance he is not afraid, transcends delusions, and his extinction is complete. 
This is not beautiful prose by any means, but it does at least translate the text as given. It's not until we dig into the Chinese text and the relations between the two that the Sanskrit emerges as a garbled version of a much more straightforward Chinese text:
Since the bodhisatva relies on perfect paragnosis their mind is not attached anywhere; being detached they are not afraid, transcend illusions and delusions, and attain final extinction.

Unfortunately the Chinese Buddhist monk who created the back-translation did a really terrible job of this part of the text; he got the verbs all wrong (and this much is clear from reading Huifeng 2014). Here is an alternative Sanskrit translation of the same Chinese passage showing how it might have been done better: 
yato bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām niśrayati tato 'sya cittaṃ na kvacit sajjati | tena ca atrasto viparyāsamāyāvivikto niṣṭhānirvāṇa || 
“Since the bodhisatva relies on perfect paragnosis, his mind does not adhere anywhere; and for this reason he is unafraid, isolated from delusions and illusions, and his extinction is complete.”
How many translators have looked at Conze's defective edition and rather than asking the obvious questions, simply fudged their translation? All of them. And this is an indictment of Buddhist Studies. If a Sanskrit sentence is not a properly formed sentence, then one can't simply fudge the translation so that it is a properly formed English sentence. At least not in an academic philological study.

Mathes apparently understands that everything in this weird sentence relates back to "the bodhisatva" (the subject of the correct sentence) and we can forgive his use of the plural here as translator's licence. Still, his text here is entirely in the singular, so why not translate it as given? This is a minor point compared to other faults and as a standalone fault might be overlooked. 

Mathes' literature review seems to have been perfunctory at best. I don't know how they teach research methods these days, but when I was learning about doing academic research I was taught that one could not skip this step. And yet I see this time and again: no proper literature review, and apparently no oversight of this failure from editors or reviewers, who are equally ignorant of the literature. At times it seems to me that no one in Buddhist Studies knows the literature of the Heart Sutra, but everyone recalls it as presented in some long distant undergraduate lecture and a handful of now dated sources. And it keeps happening, despite ten years of effort on my part to do better. Somehow Buddhist Studies scholars who are otherwise extremely competent, like Mathes obviously is, let all that go when they write about the Heart Sutra. I previously noted this phenomenon with Harimoto Kengo, for example, a highly competent Sanskritist who wrote yet another underwhelming article on the Heart Sutra.


Like the general public and novels, it seems that most Buddhist Studies academics have one Heart Sutra in them. Some manage to write that article, but few if any ever return to the text. To be fair, Nattier intended to write more about the Heart Sutra, with her husband John McRae (who also wrote one article), but he died before that could be completed. Weirdly, when they tackle the Heart Sutra, many academics abandon doing research and write as theologians. This is a puzzling phenomenon and I hope one day an anthropologist might study it. 

One thing we can say is that the expectation of nonsense appears to be self-fulfilling, in that people don't expect the Heart Sutra to make sense and don't seem too bothered if writing about the text also doesn't make sense. 

I see two main conclusions emerging from reading Mathes' article that are not part of his fairly prosaic written conclusions about the lack of coherence in the Indo-Tibetan commentaries:

Firstly, there was no Indian tradition of commentary on the Heart Sutra. Hence Alex Wayman's point that the commentaries attributed to Indian pandits all take a different approach that is based on the religious professions and presuppositions of the day. There is no unified tradition of understanding the Heart Sutra anywhere in the Buddhist world. We can now safely say that the Heart Sutra was unknown in India. Certainly, apart from the Tibetan texts attributed to India pandits, there is zero evidence of the text in India. If anyone has such evidence then I would urgently like to hear from them.

We now know that at least two of the Indo-Tibetan commentaries were based on a Tibetan Heart Sutra text (via Horiuchi 2021). As far as I know, no one has really investigated the plausibility of these attributions. And some of them cannot be investigated because the putative author is otherwise unknown. The idea that a canonical attribution is prima facie plausible seems doubtful at best. We know that, in Chinese at least, many of these are apocryphal: not least for the Heart Sutra itself, the whole standard history of which is a fiction.

This means that these Indo-Tibetan commentaries can only tell us about Buddhism in and around medieval Tibet. That is to say, they reflect what medieval pandits—possibly Indian pandits or, more likely, their Tibetan followers—made of the Heart Sutra when they encountered it in Tibet, often in the form of a Tibetan translation of the Heart Sutra. However, the sectarian approaches they adopt are all different and thus these commentaries tell us little or nothing about the Heart Sutra, per se. Rather, the Heart Sutra is shoehorned into various sectarian religious systems.

As such, these commentaries are of interest mainly to Tibetologists and contribute nothing to understanding Prajñāpāramitā as a form of Buddhism in its own right. A corollary of this, which is evident in Chinese commentaries as well, is that while one can read the Heart Sutra as a Madhyamaka text, one is not bound to do so. Some of the Indo-Tibetan and Tibetan commentaries see the Heart Sutra as a statement of, or consistent with, Yogācāra Buddhism. The connection between Madhyamaka and Prajñāpāramitā was not at all obvious to some ancient commentators. Indeed, Kuījī's commentary acknowledges that one can use a Madhyamaka approach, but a Yogācāra approach is superior. 

None of this interests me as much as reading the Heart Sutra as a Prajñāpāramitā text.

Secondly, I think we come back to a point I have made here and in various articles: the methodologies that academics employ when studying the Heart Sutra leave a great deal to be desired. In particular, it seems that almost no one bothers to do a proper literature review before sitting down to compose an article on the Heart Sutra. It looks suspiciously like academics simply grab whatever is to hand rather than making an effort at comprehensive coverage. Having published fourteen articles on this topic in peer-reviewed journals since 2015, I am getting heartily sick of academics being completely unaware of my existence or simply ignoring me. If they do a literature review at all, they are somehow excluding all my published work from consideration, even when it is directly relevant. 

And it's not just me. Sadly, for Matthew Orsborn, his seminal article on the text, i.e. Huifeng 2014 is routinely overlooked. I would argue that no one can begin to understand the Heart Sutra without being au fait with this article. To be fair, it took me a long while to come to terms with it too. Still, in order to be informed on Heart Sutra research, one must read Nattier 1992 and Huifeng 2014 at a minimum. I'm pleased to say that I have just read a draft article by a friend who is attending Dharma Drum College, Taiwan, that does give Orsborn his due. This ought to be published sometime next year (presuming China does not invade before then). 

Nattier has a different problem. Thirty years after her brilliant and insightful article appeared, academics like Mathes are still casually misrepresenting her evidence, methods, and conclusions. Mathes may be the worst example of this I have seen amongst academics. However, it is still the case that most academics refuse to acknowledge Nattier's work on the Heart Sutra, except in Japan where Nattier's work is acknowledged in the context of a series of shoddy polemical articles by older male academics who are also high up in Japanese ecclesiastical hierarchies. 

The final conclusion of Mathes (2022) is more or less the same as what Wayman and Eckels wrote in  the 1980s. And one wonders whether this is an example of publish or perish, since it doesn't add much to what we already know. 

I don't particular enjoy writing these critical responses. I'd prefer to have something meaningful to engage in; I'd much prefer to be learning something. That said, most of the publications about the Heart Sutra emerging in English are very poorly researched and written. Most barely qualify as "scholarship" since the normal methods of research are seemingly in abeyance in most cases, as with Mathes (2022). The situation is so bad that to not comment at this point would amount to complicity in an ongoing intellectual fraud. I want it to be clear to academics that if they publish these kinds of poorly researched and badly argued articles on the Heart Sutra, they can expect me to dissect them in public without fear or favour. 



Attwood, J. (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,J. (2017). "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13,52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.

Attwood, J. (2020). "Studying The Heart Sutra: Basic Sources And Methods (A Response To Ng And Ānando)." Buddhist Studies Review, 37 (1-2), 199–217. http://www.doi.org/10.1558/bsrv.41982.

Attwood, J. (2021) "The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese and Sanskrit Texts." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44: 13-52. DOI 10.2143/JIABS.44.0.3290289

Attwood, J. (2022 forthcoming) "The Heart Sūtra Revisited: The Frontier of Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya Studies. Acta Asiatica [No. 121]. 2021." Buddhist Studies Review, 39(2).

Horiuchi, Toshio. (2021). “Revisiting the ‘Indian’ Commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya: Vimalamitra’s Interpretation of the ‘Eight Aspects’.” Acta Asiatica 121: 53-81.

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