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 have 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 loathe 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 that 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 their 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 acknowledges 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.

Mathes, Klaus‑Dieter. (2021). "The Eight Indian Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra’s Famous Formula 'Form Is Emptiness; Emptiness Is Form'." In Gateways to Tibetan Studies: A Collection of Essays in Honour of David P. Jackson on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday. (2 vols. Indian and Tibetan Studies 12.1–2). Edited by Volker Caumanns, Jörg Heimbel, Kazuo Kano and Alexander Schiller, 659–84. Hamburg: Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg.

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

Wayman, A. (1984) Buddhist Insight: Essays. Motilal Banarsidass.

Eckel, M. D. (1987) "Indian Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra: The Politics of Interpretation." The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10(2): 69-79.

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