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.

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