23 September 2022

Just How "Crazy" is the Heart Sutra?

I recently read Karl Brunnhölzl’s absurdist article “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever” in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar (September 29, 2017). I composed this response and sent it off to the magazine asking that they consider printing it, but they did not respond at all (Unlike Brunnhölzl, I have no caché in the world of North American celebrity Buddhism).

Brunnhölzl adequately covers the basic ground as established by D. T. Suzuki and Edward Conze, and even cites Sangharakshita, the founder of the Order I was ordained in. However, based on 10 years of forensic research and fourteen published articles on the Heart Sutra, I thoroughly disagree with Brunnhölzl (and Sangharakshita) over what the Heart Sutra is about or how it was intended to work.

Brunnhölzl begins by stating:

“One thing we can safely say about the Heart Sutra is that it is completely crazy. If we read it, it does not make any sense.”

He goes on in this vein for quite some time. Why do people say things like this about the Heart Sutra? We know, from Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilisation, that “crazy” is an ambivalent term in Europe and her colonies, especially since the 19th century Romantic/Idealist movement in Europe (and the parallel of Transcendentalism in the USA). In the romanticized view, the madman often stumbles on the truth precisely because they lack rational faculties. In reality, being crazy is an entirely unromantic catastrophe. Madness is a terrible affliction and people who are insane are inevitably the most unhappy people of all. We should really stop trying to make it sexy.

By asserting the "craziness" of the Heart Sutra, Brunnhölzl can be seen to both acknowledge that the Heart Sutra is confusing for most readers and to celebrate that ongoing confusion as a positive. Like many Buddhists who tell us that we cannot possibly understand the Heart Sutra, he then goes on to tell us (without a hint of irony) exactly how to understand the Heart Sutra. And he does so without apparent confusion on his part. Conze was a master of this old rhetorical trick of intimating that he was a Master of secret knowledge that we was willing to share with us. 

When I read the text closely and across canonical languages, however, I arrive at a very different conclusion. For a start, there are several mistakes in the Sanskrit text, as edited by Conze. I have outlined these errors in my published articles and shown how to resolve them and have recently submitted some revised editions to a peer-reviewed journal (fingers crossed). There are also several ancient mistakes in the Chinese text. These were detailed by Matthew Orsborn aka Huifeng (2014). And when we deal with all these textual errors the whole business of paradox and contradiction simply disappears. There are no contradictions in the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is not "crazy", not even a tiny bit. Then again, nor is it a text for beginners. It has a context and that context can take some years of study to understand. And I've had to do that without a teacher. 

At any time since Conze published his edition in 1948, the mistakes he made could have been repaired. Illustrious scholars (including Brunnhölzl), deeply versed in Buddhist canonical languages and doctrines, have read the text and simply overlooked all of these problems. It appears that when one expects nonsense in a text, one is unable to distinguish between simple grammatical errors and genuine mysticism. Readers should keep in mind that all modern translations are based on faulty recensions of the text. If something doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably a mistake.

The “crazy” approach of asserting that all contradictions are true (A is not-A) was very much an aspect of D.T. Suzuki’s approach to Zen Buddhism and was taken up enthusiastically by Edward Conze. Conze had already arrived at similar conclusions while he was a grad student. His dissertation on Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction was published in 1932, but subsequently burned with other Marxist tracts by the Nazis (meaning that Conze's doctoral-level academic qualification was incomplete). Both men’s views on this were shaped by their reading of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā (incongruously) known as the Diamond Sutra. In 2006, Paul Harrison showed that Suzuki and Conze had misread the Vajracchedikā. The apparent contradictions they saw there are based on a misunderstanding of the Sanskrit grammar (which does not occur in the Tibetan translations). Richard H. Jones has independently confirmed this in his work. Rather, the Vajracchedikā takes what is generally called a “nominalist” approach of asserting that abstractions are not entities, they are ideas about entities. Just because we have a name for an idea, does not make it a thing. 

There are no contradictions in the Heart Sutra and no contradictions in the Diamond Sutra. There are only contradictions in the minds of Buddhists who cannot adequately parse a Sanskrit text.

Another problem highlighted by both Jones and Huifeng is the tendency to read Prajñāpāramitā through a Madhyamaka filter or, worse, as unadorned Madhyamaka. Although there is a old Buddhist tradition of doing so, it is wholly unjustified and distorts the message of the texts. We need to be clear that Prajñāpāramitā is neither Madhyamaka nor proto-Madhyamaka. I suspect, but cannot yet prove that Madhyamaka had begun to influence Prajñāpāramitā by the time the Large Texts (in 18k, 25k, and 100k lines) began to be produced. 

As Sue Hamilton has said of early Buddhism, it was not concerned with whether or not something exists, nor with what something is or is not. Rather, early Buddhists were concerned with experience and the cessation of experience. Commenting on his repaired text of the Heart Sutra, Huifeng (2014) argued that it suggested the necessity of an epistemic approach to the Heart Sutra. In my recent article (2022) on Prajñāpāramitā and cessation, I started to outline what such an epistemic approach would look like. Here I will précis that approach (at the risk of oversimplification).

Since Jan Nattier’s (1992) landmark article we have known that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese text. This result has been independently verified by Huifeng (2014) and by me (see esp Attwood 2021). Huifeng (2014) showed that where the Sanskrit Heart Sutra text reads aprāptitvād, the Chinese text has a jargon term—yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故—coined by Kumārajīva specifically to translate anupalambhayogena “by means of practising nonapprehension”. This discovery has some major implications. For one thing, this fact can only be explained as a translation error going from Chinese to Sanskrit, not the other way around. The term anupalambhayogena is frequently used in the Large Prajñāpāramitā Text to qualify statements. So, for example, in Chapter 16 of Conze’s Large Text translation (p. 153 ff.) we see this term being used to qualify answers to the question “What is Mahāyāna?” It turns out to be the thirty-seven bodhipakṣa-dharma, but with this qualification, i.e. “by practising nonapprehension” (tac cānupalambhayogena). Note that Conze mistranslates this term as “without a basis” about half the time. 

The essence of Prajñāpāramitā practice, in this view, is nonapprehension (anupalambha). Huifeng, Anālayo, and I all independently realised that this must relate to the Pāli Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121) which describes a meditation practice in which one withdraws attention from sensory experience causing it to stop arising and ultimately leaving the meditator in a state called suññatāvihāra "dwelling in absence [of sensory experience]. In parallel texts from the Chinese Āgama translations, this is referred to as kōng sānmèi 空三昧 (Skt śūnyatā-samādhi) (Choong 1999).

Let us look more closely at what one of the “crazier” passages says. This part of the text begins “In absence” (Ch. kōng zhōng 空中; Skt. śūnyatāyām). That is to say, in the samādhi of absence. In my view, this refers to a person who is meditating and has undergone the cessation of sensory experience (saṃjñā-vedayita-nirodha) and now dwells in the absence (śūnyatā) of sensory experience. In that state, no dharmas can arise because the conditions for their arising are absent. In standard dependent-arising doctrine, the absence of the condition prevents the consequent state from occurring. What follows is a list of lists, in which each member of the lists is negated. What no one realised until Huifeng (2014) was that there is a second qualification that comes immediately afterwards. As noted above, Huifeng shows that the lists are followed by this word, yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 and this means “by practising nonapprehension” (anupalambhayogena) rather than the usual “from a state of non-attainment" (aprāptitvāt). This tells us how the interlocutor arrived in the state in which one or more of the necessary conditions for the arising of sensory experience, usually attention, is absent.

Now, if I am in this state, then by definition there is no sensory experience. The existence of this state is confirmed by numerous accounts of meditation and now by neuroscientific studies. In this state, the skandhas, as the apparatus of sensory experience (c.f. Sue Hamilton 2000), have stopped functioning. The content of experience is minimal or absent. All of the categories of Buddhism are absent for anyone who is in that state. The text does not say that sensory experiences don’t exist, let alone that objects don’t exist. The whole rhetoric of existence and non-existence is irrelevant, as Elder Subhūti tells Elder Śāriputra in Chapter One of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā.

In other words, this is not, as popularly supposed, a statement that “form doesn’t exist” or a repudiation of the basic categories of Buddhist analysis. Instead, this is a straightforward statement about what it is like for sensory experience to stop, and why this state is the acme of Buddhism. It boils down to this: in the absence of sensory experience there is no sensory experience. This is so not crazy that it seems positively boring.

Another famously “crazy” passage comes a little earlier and equates kōng 空 (śūnyatā) with 色 (rūpa). We usually see this translated as “form is emptiness” and so on. Some translators and scholars persist in mistranslating rūpa as “matter” but this is an egregious mistake. In Sanskrit, rūpa means “outward appearance; visage”; it never connotes substance or matter. In Buddhist terms, rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear. We don’t hear the sound of a conch by cramming the shell into our ear canal. Sounds waves emanate from the object and stimulate our hearing sense at a distance. Buddhists intuited that something similar happened with sight, but they didn’t understand the physics of light well enough to just say, “Light reflected from the object hits the eye”. Rather they intuited that something (which they referred to as rūpa “appearance”) was given off by an object and it was this that crossed the distance between object and subject and hit the eye causing a visual experience. This understanding is reflected in the Chinese choice of 色 to translate rūpa. In Medieval Chinese, 色 meant “outward appearance” and in modern Chinese, it means “colour”. Most scholars try to say that rūpa-skandha must be something other than rūpa. Hamilton (2000) opts to refer to it as "body". In my view this must be incorrect. It is rather that rūpa, the appearance of a visual percept is here a metonym for all sensory appearances. (I've explained this recently in a blogpost: Notes on Translating the Skandhas (16 September 2022). 

To understand this passage, we have to dig. We know for example, that the Large Text is an expansion of the Small or 8000 Line Text. Incidentally, the small/large (xiǎo 小/ 大) distinction was invented by Kumārajīva in the fifth century. Although the Large Text contains a lot of new material, we can often identify the corresponding passages in the Small Text. When we do this for the phrase rūpaṃ śūnyatā, we don’t immediately find anything. This is because in the Small Text the phrase is rūpaṃ māyā, i.e. “appearance is an illusion”. This statement does not exist in a vacuum, it occurs throughout Buddhist literature often in the form of a simile: rūpaṃ māyopamaṃ “appearance is like an illusion”. In his book, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism, Choong Mun-Keat (1999) has noted many instances of the word śūnyatā being shoehorned into Buddhist texts which didn’t originally include it. This reflects, I think, the growing influence of Madhyamaka and appears to have affected the Large Text much more than the Small.

The appearance of a sensory experience can be likened to an illusion, i.e. the illusion that is sensory experience. This is in no way paradoxical or contradictory. It certainly does not involve holding contradictory statements to be true. It is not at all crazy. Indeed, the idea that sensory experience is a kind of “illusion” is rather banal these days. We know that experience and reality are governed by different rules. Just because we represent the world to ourselves based on sensory experience, does not mean that the objective world is not real or nonexistent.

The Heart Sutra is demonstrably not “crazy”. The idea that it is or was “crazy” is rooted in misunderstanding the text and its practical context (especially the śūnyatā-samādhi). This is not to say that Buddhists are not fascinated by paradox, because evidently they are. Historically, however, contradiction played no role at all in Buddhist thought before Nāgārjuna. As Huifeng (2016) argues, the association of Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka is not a given. The two earliest known Heart Sutra commentaries, from the late seventh century, both eschew the Madhyamaka connection in favour of a Yogācāra-inspired interpretation. To be fair, the Yogācāra reading is only marginally more coherent. It still stuffs the Heart Sutra in a box that it was not made to fit.

It is not until we begin to read Prajñāpāramitā as Prajñāpāramitā, i.e. until we pay attention to both text and context, that we begin to glimpse what the author(s) wanted us to see. Buddhists have long practised the techniques for bringing sensory experience to a halt. This is an aspect of early Buddhism, with hints that it might predate Buddhism (c.f. Anālayo 2022). And it means we need to step back from Madhyamaka metaphysics and consider Huifeng’s suggestion that we read the text more as epistemology than metaphysics. I find that Buddhism makes a great deal more sense when I take this approach. That is to say, I now read everything in Buddhist texts as being principally concerned with experience and the cessation of experience and I don't have to deal with any contradictions or paradoxes. The craziness is adventitious, not inherent. That is to say, it is projected onto the text, it does not emerge from the contents of the text. Contradiction plays no role in Prajñāpāramitā despite the central role it has in the thought of D. T. Suzuki and Conze 

In this sense, Karl Brunnhölzl was right; studying the Heart Sutra did change my life. Not because "the Heart Sutra is crazy" but because I discovered that the Heart Sutra is not crazy. The Heart Sutra began to make a lot more sense when I dropped all the "crazy" nonsense and the unsupported metaphysical speculation and began to read it as being concerned with experience. Moreover, by applying this hermeneutic across the board, I was finally able to reconcile being a faith-type Buddhist with my love of science. Epistemic Buddhism does not encroach on the subject matter of science (i.e. ontology) leaving almost no room for conflict, whereas metaphysical Buddhism (which purports to inform us on the nature of reality) is almost a complete bust.


Further Reading

Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation. Windhorse Publications.

——. 2021. “Being Mindful of What is Absent.” Mindfulness 13: 1671-1678.

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.

——. (2022). “The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy.” International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture 32(1):111-148.

Brunnhölzl, Karl. (2017) “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever”. Lion’s Roar September 29, 2017. https://www.lionsroar.com/the-heart-sutra-will-change-you-forever/

Choong, Mun-keat. (1999). The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism. 2nd. Ed. Motilal Banarsidass.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

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), 133-159. Hermes Publishing, Oslo.

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. Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Fo Guang Shan. Institute of Humanistic Buddhism.

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.

Nattier, Jan. (1992). “The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15 (2) 153-223

Related Posts with Thumbnails