14 April 2023

Nattier's Response to Fukui on the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra

When I first read Nattier's article, "The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?" (1992), ca 2007, I found the case compelling. I could immediately see how the method was applied to the evidence and how this led to certain conclusions, namely that the Heart Sutra could only have been composed in Chinese.

Subsequently Huifeng and I independently published confirmation of Nattier’s research. We both applied the same method to other parts of the text and reached the same conclusion. Nattier’s results from comparing versions of the “core section” apply to the text as a whole. Sixteen years and fourteen published articles later, I'm completely convinced by the evidence we have, that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese, on the model of a chāo jīng 抄經 (digest text). Although I have also stated what kind of evidence would refute my view.

I was, therefore, amazed to learn that the Chinese origins thesis is not only rejected amongst Japanese academics, but that they consider the thesis to have been refuted. The issue is difficult to understand because the principal documents are in Japanese and, as a non-Japanese speaker, I can only get glimpses of the arguments through translations and the occasional article published in English. Still, I have been afforded many such glimpses since 2007 and have begun to see the outlines of their arguments.

A key moment in the modern history of Heart Sutra studies was the 1994 publication of a rebuttal of Nattier (1992) by the theologian Fukui Fumimasa (1934–2017), who was not only a senior academic, but also head priest at a major Buddhist temple. Japanese society being what it is, an older man who has high status as an academic and as a priest enjoys a kind of prestige that we can scarcely imagine in Europe and her colonies. In effect, Fukui cannot be publicly contradicted. In Japanese academia such men are considered untouchable. Contradicting one of the big men would be career suicide for a Japanese academic.

Fukui’s denunciation of Nattier was, therefore, a big deal. And it set the tone for Japanese scholarship that followed. A number of articles by other Japanese theologians began to appear. As I say, non-Japanese speakers only get glimpses into the world of Japanese Heart Sutra studies. I'm piecing this together from fragments and hearsay.

By contrast, Jan Nattier was at the time an early-career academic, a youngish woman, and an American. From what I can tell, this combination of qualities meant that she was not taken very seriously in Japan, which may account for the patronising tone of Fukui's criticism. And yet, Tanahashi (2014: 77) reports Fukui's comment that Nattier (1992) "shook the Japanese academic world". Fukui is reported as saying (in Tanahashi's translation)

"As the Prajñā Heart Sutra is one of the most revered sutras in Japan, it would be a matter of grave concern if this were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China."

One might be forgiven for thinking that Fukui therefore took Nattier's article very seriously indeed. And yet, as we will see, his attempt as a rebuttal cannot be taken seriously. His assertions are full of misunderstood English idioms, trivial arguments that don't address the issues raised by Nattier, and many kinds of logical fallacy.

Note the essentially theological nature of Fukui's remark. That a text is "revered" is at best incidental to philology. Nor would it be "matter of concern" for philologists, let alone a grave concern, if the text was composed in China using extracts of other (genuine) Buddhist texts. The provenance is what it is. The ideal philologist (or historian for that matter) is concerned to establish the facts of the matter, where and to the extent that they can be established, and to present them in some kind of coherent framework that helps to answer questions about the text. Of course, in practice we never attain the ideal, but we do aim to make progress towards it. This is in fact one of the criteria for getting published, i.e. that the article makes progress.

It is the religious who worries about how the facts will look or, more to the point, who worries how they will look, if the provenance pointed to by the facts is not the traditional provenance. Because let's face it, being wrong about the most popular Buddhist text in Japan leaves Fukui et al with some explaining to do. The potential loss of face entailed may be literally unimaginable for a European.

That said, secular academics might also feel some embarrassment if they are forced to admit how very wrong they have been about the Heart Sutra and Prajñāpāramitā generally. They should certainly be embarrassed that none of them noticed mistakes in Conze's Sanskrit text, for example. Or that we still don't reliable editions of our basic texts. In Europe and her colonies, many academics in the field of Buddhist Studies are also religious. Perhaps not to the extent of being abbots or head priests in religious organisations, but they are believers who experience enhanced disappointment when some aspect of their religion is contradicted by facts.

In any case, despite the obvious flaws in the arguments of Fukui, no one stepped up to defend Chinese origins until Huifeng (2014) was published. European academics continue to display an intense reluctance to talk about the issue. Most prefer to support the status quo and continue to refer to the emic view of the Heart Sutra as an Indian text composed in Sanskrit. Jonathan Silk is widely considered a leading Heart Sutra scholar on the basis of his 1994 edition of the Tibet text as it occurs in the Kanjur (ignoring the Tibetan texts found at Dunhuang). And yet Silk is one of those who continue to refer to the "Sanskrit original" despite being shown, step by step, that the Sanskrit is a back-translation from Chinese. Another senior scholar privately told me, he's "not qualified" to assess our work, because he "doesn't know Chinese". Despite exposing T 250 as an apocryphon, Shōgo Watanabe also resists our conclusions about T 251 and promotes the idea that there is insufficient evidence and that we must return to the Sanskrit manuscripts. The mask slipped a little in 2019 when he criticised our conclusions as "unnatural". Not a term I ever expected to see in a scholarly context.

Thus Fukui has become the posthumous poster boy for orthodox Japanese theology which rejects Chinese origins and then scrambles around for reasons to reject it. Those who follow in his footsteps seem to genuinely think that Fukui refuted Nattier. I don't have direct access to Fukui's writing, he only wrote in Japanese, but I do now have access to an unpublished rebuttal of Fukui by Jan Nattier. And today, I'm typing up my notes on this.

Nattier's Response

In 2019, I was corresponding with Jan Nattier about the Heart Sutra and she shared her unpublished response to Fukui (1994), which I read with interest. I urged Nattier to make this response more widely available and last week (Apr 2023) she kindly uploaded the response to academia.org. Re-reading it after four years I was again struck by how poorly Fukui did in trying to refute Nattier. And by this time I had also seen other articles that were said to be influential in Japan. I have subsequently published two formal critiques of other scholars work on the Heart Sutra (Attwood 2020, 2022), including a number of Japanese scholars. I also composed informal reviews of other works on my blog (cited in the bibliography below).

My method here is to use Nattier's response to take a back-bearing on how Fukui thought about the Heart Sutra with a view to better understanding his objections; and to show that he certainly did not refute our Chinese origins thesis. And with his methods he could never refute it.

Core Section

Nattier first raises what seems to be the central issue for Fukui, the notion of the "core" of the text. Nattier referred to the quoted passage that was the focus of her article as "the core passage". As she says, this term "core" was not intended as a value judgement, nor as a metaphysical statement, it is just that the section falls in the middle of the text, which Nattier divides up for methodological reasons.

In fact, Heart Sutra manuscripts tend not to divide the prose text up into sections at all. I haven't seen all the surviving manuscripts but I have seen a majority of them, and they are all like this. Both in Sanskrit and in Chinese. The famous Hōryūji manuscript has neither word nor sentence breaks, let alone paragraphs or sections. Each akṣara (roughly "a syllable") stands alone on the page. So all divisions of the text, for whatever reason, are entirely arbitrary and imposed on the text by scholars.

For Fukui, however, correctly identifying the "core" of the text requires a radical shift in outlook. For Fukui the core of the text is the "mantra", which strongly implies a Tantric outlook (Fukui was head priest of a Tendai temple, in which tantric Buddhism is practiced). He apparently claims to have shown that a shift in the general title of the text from Duō xīn jīng «多心經» to Xīn jīng «心經» can be interpreted as evidence that the emphasis shifted from the mantra to emptiness only in the fifteenth century.

Nattier notes that Fukui is making a theological argument rather than a scholarly one. For example, Nattier notes that if we are saying that some part of the text represents "the core" (as a value judgement) then it simply begs the question, "represents the core, for whom?" And Fukui has nothing to say about this. That the Heart Sutra means different things to different people, at different times, can be amply demonstrated by glancing at any two commentaries taken at random.

By "theological" here, I mean a religious outlook that aims to legitimise and authenticate some religious doctrine. Theology takes doctrine as a starting point; as a given. Theologians collect and collate evidence in support of that doctrine. As a science undergraduate I called this "cooking" the result, not sure of the origins of that phrase. Cooking a result amounted to making the data fit the expected norm. One did this in school, for example, to hide experimental failures that might adversely affect one's grades. It is of course, fatal to the process of doing science to allow cooking in real world situations. Theology seems to me to be entirely concerned with cooking the results.

Fukui apparently argues, and Nattier apparently agrees that Xīn jīng «心經» would have been interpreted as meaning "mantra text". As Nattier points out, even if Xīn jīng «心經» were perceived as meaning "mantra text" this does not translate into a belief that Buddhists were focused on the mantra. For example, Nattier reminds us, the undated commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk do not think in Tantric terms. They encompass Madhyamaka and Yogācāra thought, with a clear preference for the latter. Long before the fifteenth century, these earliest Chinese commentators focused almost all their efforts on explicating the emptiness doctrine (albeit it from a Yogācāra point of view).

We can short circuit this discussion by looking at my 2017 article: "‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra." There I showed that word mantra does not occur in the Chinese Heart Sutra.

Credit for this discovery goes to Nobuyoshi Yamabe. Rather than publish, he pointed it out to Jan Nattier in a letter. The observation made its way, at the last minute, into Nattier (1992) as footnote 54a (typesetting was a lot more clunky in the early 90s). Nattier added a few more examples to flesh out Yamabe's, and my contribution was to provide a comprehensive survey of the relevant texts.

I was able to show, per Yamabe, that where the Heart Sutra has zhòu 咒 or zhòu 呪 (same character written two different ways), the source text in Kumārajīva's Large Sutra translation (T 223) has míngzhòu 明呪. By referencing the extant Sanskrit manuscripts we showed that Kumārajīva was translating vidyā, not mantra. Hence the epithets sections of the Sanskrit Large Sutra manuscripts refer to Prajñāpāramitā as mahāvidyā, anuttarā vidyā, and asamasamā vidyā. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra by contrast suggests (using very different syntax also) that Prajñāpāramitā is a mahāmantra, mahāvidyāmantra, anuttaramantra, and asamasamamantra. This can be explained as a simple mistranslation from Chinese into Sanskrit, but I don't see how it can be explained if the passage was copied from the Large Sutra in Sanskrit. Copying, in this way, ought to be inherently conservative. Even where scribal errors distort words, the syntax of a sentence should not change to something completely different.

Moreover, where the character zhòu 呪 occurs on its own in the Heart Sutra, where it introduces the incantation, it almost certainly means dhāraṇī. This seems to be the case because the incantation that follows is not a mantra, since it has none of the characteristic features of a mantra. Rather, it has all the characteristic features of a dhāraṇī. Samuel Beal (1865) translated the word zhòu 呪 as dhāraṇī, based on a Tang Dynasty commentary, long before the Sanskrit text was known in Europe.

We can be quite confident that the Heart Sutra was not a "mantra text" and does not contain a mantra. The answer to what kind of text the Heart Sutra is can also be found in Nattier's footnotes (48). Robert Buswell, also wrote to Nattier, and pointed to the possibility of the Heart Sutra being a chāo jīng 抄經, i.e. a "digest text" or "condensed sutra". A chāo jīng 抄經 consisted of copied passages intended to convey the gist of a larger text. Many hundreds of these texts were produced in China, in one early medieval catalogue, chāo jīng 抄經 make up around one in five Buddhist "translations" in circulation. European scholars have long overlooked this genre and the catalogues of Buddhist translations which are our main source of evidence about them when writing about the Heart Sutra.

Thus Fukui's first complaint is shown to be invalid. He not only mistakes the wording of the text, he also mistakes the meaning of the words. In responding to this, Nattier was far more accommodating than she needed to be and had the tools at hand to solidly refute Fukui. But perhaps the ideas in her footnotes still appeared to be unclear at that time.

Nattier then shifts to consider twelve more specific criticisms.


The reader may have to bear with me to some extent, because, a) I have nowhere near as much patience as Nattier displays; and b) I've written about some of the issues raised by Fukui and resolved them in ways that refute his conclusions (before I knew what his conclusions are).

Having dealt with the issue of the "core", Nattier then moves onto considering several points made by Fukui with only her summaries of his complaints to guide us (given in Arial font). In reproducing what follows, Chinese transcriptions are converted to Pinyin and characters supplied.

A. There are no sources that state that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal scripture (Jap. gikyō 偽経), while sources accepting it as a translation by Xuanzang are voluminous. For example, an inscription dating from 672 credits Xuanzang with the translation of the sūtra. Nattier must show that this inscription is a forgery. If she cannot do so, her entire argument becomes unreasonable.

It is entirely true that none of the traditional commentaries on the Heart Sutra refer to it as "an apocryphon", but so what? This is a plain old fallacy that logicians call an "argument from popularity" (argumentum ad populum). It doesn't matter how many people believe something, popularity does not make a proposition correct or meaningful.

It is surely a fact that, by the time the earliest artefacts appeared, it was widely believed in China that the Heart Sutra was a translation from Sanskrit by Xuanzang. A belief is not a fact, even if everyone we know believes it. A belief is an emotion about an idea. Note that we actually have an earlier inscription, the Fangshan Stele (13 March 661), that also credits Xuanzang as the translator. But, again, so what? This attribution has no bearing on Nattier's methods or conclusions. And we know that Chinese attributions cannot always be trusted.

Here Nattier (1992: 206, n.33) raises an issue that I also explored in Attwood ("The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest." 2020). Both Kuījī and Woncheuk did not see the text as a sūtra preached by the Buddha. Rather they refer to it as bié shēng 別生 "separately produced", which means they didn't think of the text as a sutra preached by Śakyamuni. So not only is Fukui's argument inherently fallacious, it's simply wrong to say that no one ever questioned the authenticity of the text.

Nattier also points out that the Biography of Xuanzang (T 2053) composed by Yàncóng 彥悰; 688 CE), still naively used as a source historical evidence throughout the Buddhist world (see Kotyk 2019), doesn't mention Xuanzang translating the text. The general reader may not appreciate the impact of this absence. The Biography makes a point of describing all of Xuanzang's translations and the circumstances in which they occured. And that list coincides with other evidence of Xuanzang's translations. None of these mention Xuanzang translating the Heart Sutra.

The first literary mention of Xuanzang as translator, apart form attributions on inscriptions (which date from Xuanzang's lifetime), occurs in the Kāiyuán shìjiào lù «開元釋教錄» (Record of Śākyamuniʼs Teachings Compiled During the Kaiyuan period. T 2154); compiled in 730 CE by Zhìshēng 智昇. Earlier catalogues don't mention this.

The inscription Fukui refers to is better known in English as the Beilin stele, and his thinking on this appears to be reproduced in Tanahashi (2014). Fukui and Tanahashi seem to be unaware of the Fangshan Stele which is somewhat older (661 CE) and attributes the Heart Sutra as a translation by Xuanzang during his lifetime. But so what? We have shown that the Chinese text is definitely not "a translation" and that the Sanskrit text definitely is a back-translation from Chinese. Ergo, the text was not "translated by Xuanzang" and we must seek an alternative explanation for the attribution.

In a telling note Nattier (6, n.11) points out that the phrase attributing the text to Xuanzang is ambiguous because "a substantial number of the canonical sutras that a labelled 'imperially commissioned translations' [zhào yì 詔譯] ... are not new translations at all, but only slightly touched-up renditions of versions that already existed in Chinese". Thus the tag 譯 might not necessary indicate "translator/translation" in the strict sense, but might stretch to the collator of a chāo jīng 抄經 (this is something a Sinologist needs to investigate by looking at attributions on other chāo jīng 抄經).

In light of this comment, I went and looked at the attributions of some of Xuanzang's translations. The attribution of T 220 (Xuanzang's Prajñāpāramitā translations), for example, takes the standard form:

Sānzàng fǎshī Xuánzàng fèng zhào 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯
“Tripiṭaka Dharma-master Xuanzang translated with imperial authorisation.”

The phrase 奉□詔譯 might also be read, "translated with the blessing of the Emperor" or "... by order of the Emperor". The space before the character zhào 詔 "edict" is there as a sign of respect for the Emperor, although there was also a taboo against writing the name of the reigning emperor. Note that the Emperor paid for the translations, he paid for the upkeep of the monks involved, and he paid for the monasteries the monks lived in. Getting his approval was necessary because it came with the financial backing of the Chinese Imperium. The formal role of the state in supporting Buddhism meant that even emperors hostile to Buddhism, such as Tàizōng 太宗 (r. 626–649 CE) and Gāozōng 高宗 (r. 649–683 CE) were constrained to continue state support for the religion.

The attribution on the Fangshan Stele (661 CE), which predates the completion of T 220 by a few years, follows the same pattern. The attribution of the canonical Xīn jīng is different in the Taishō based. The main text says:

Táng sānzàng fǎshī xuán zàng yì 唐三藏法師玄奘譯
Tripiṭaka Dharma-master Xuanzang translated

And a variant reads:

Táng sānzàng fǎshī Xuánzàng fèng zhào 唐三藏法師玄奘奉詔
“Tripiṭaka Dharma-master Xuanzang, imperial authorisation.”

The variant is obviously a simply scribal error where a copyist has omitted the expected character 詔. The main text is more interesting because 譯 on it's own does mean "translation" (as well as translator, and "to translate" in all conjugations), but as Nattier says, it was also used for redactions of existing translations. And mention of imperial sponsorship is missing here. I don't know why.

In any case, the attribution has to be taken with a grain of salt, because we have shown that the Chinese Heart Sutra is not a translation from Sanskrit, it was composed in Chinese, using passages from T 223 and T 901.

Fukui's comment that "Nattier must show that this inscription is a forgery. If she cannot do so, her entire argument becomes unreasonable" is incoherent. Between us, Kotyk and I have shown that the Heart Sutra was composed ca 654-656 CE. To see an inscription of it in 672 is not some big reveal. The existence of the Beilin stele and the even older Fangshan stele simply tell us that the text must have existed by then and be attributed to Xuanzang by Chinese Buddhists. The attributions of Chinese Buddhist texts are still being checked and are often disproved, even now.

B. Nattier's division of the Heart Sūtra differs from that of traditional Buddhist scholarship. There is no authority for her division, and it cannot be accepted.

Again my response is, so what? As Nattier says, she divides the text this way for methodological reasons. Nattier acknowledges that she uses the term "core" before defining it, but the definition is there for anyone who kept reading. Moreover, her choice of "core" to label the core passage doesn't have the value laden interpretation in Nattier's mind that it appears to have in Fukui's. It's just in the middle.

Points B, C, D & E are variations on the theme "Nattier can't divide the text up that way because it is not traditional" and "Fukui valorises the mantra over the body of the text so Nattier is wrong about everything." In my view, Nattier is too generous in her discussion of these trivial complaints. I will skip over them.

F. The interpretation that "the mantra was added later to the core passage" is an error of the same kind. This kind of thinking is probably due to the interpretation that the core (kakushin) or essence (honshitu) of the sūtra is in the idea of emptiness. But this is an interpretation that was established only during the Ming dynasty, around the fifteenth century. Before that, the essence of the Heart Sūtra was correctly (tadashiku) [sic!] seen as ni the mantra at the end.

Fukui seeks to understand the text primarily as a mantra, as befits his role as a senior cleric in a Tendai temple. As we have seen however, Fukui was comprehensively wrong about this: there is no mantra, Prajñāpāramitā is superlative vidyā, and the incantation in the text is a dhāraṇī.

Moreover, we can say with some confidence that the dhāraṇī was copied from Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901), translated by Atikūṭa ca. 654 CE.

The transliteration of dhāraṇī using Chinese characters was a very hit and miss affair. There was some crossover where a dhāraṇī used Buddhist technical terms, however, no standards were ever adopted and each translator adopted a different, not always consistent, approach. As such the source text is often obscured and cannot be reconstructed with any confidence, even using Middle Chinese phonology.

Thus we can say that if a dhāraṇī in a Chinese source is identical to another source then they are likely the same dhāraṇī transcribed by the same translator. Either one copied the other, or both copied a third source. In the case of the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī, we find exactly the same dhāraṇī in the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經». Similar dhāraṇī have been noted, but the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra is identical to the one in Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經». If we stipulate that the Heart Sutra is a text largely composed of copied passages, then it makes sense to think that the dhāraṇī was copied as well. And given that the dhāraṇī in the Tuóluóní jí jīng is identical to the one in the Heart Sutra, we can infer than the Heart Sutra author copied it from there.

Note that inference also gives us a fixed date, 654 CE, before which the Heart Sutra cannot have existed because the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» was first translated into Chinese in that year, by Atikūṭa.

G. Taking as her basis the fact that sources documenting the existence of the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra in India prior to the eighth century are lacking, while there are many references to the Chinese Heart Sūtra prior to the eighth century, Nattier makes this a major reason for the argument that the Sanskrit text is a back-translation (han'yaku) from the Chinese. But how many sūtras are there for which we have evidence of their existence in India propor to the eighth century?

Nattier is quite polite here, given that this assertion is an outrageous falsehood. This is a classical example of the straw man fallacy. As she patiently explains, Nattier (1992) does not make this argument from absence. The lack of evidence from India is circumstantial, not probative. Nattier knows, full well, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The argument that the Heart Sutra is a back-translation is, in contrast to Fukui's blatantly false assertion, supported by numerous examples of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra paraphrasing the text of the Large Sutra and several of these paraphrases being blatantly non-idiomatic. I now often cite the occurrence of avidyākṣaya in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra as an illustrative example. Every other known Buddhist text refers to "cessation of ignorance" in the nidānas as avidyānirodha (nirodha is also the word used in Pāḷi and Gāndhārī texts). Avidyākṣaya can be explained as a plausible, but non-idiomatic, translation of wúmíng jǐn 無明盡. If it occured on its own, we might simply scratch our heads at this oddity (not that academics ever have). However, there is a pattern of this type of unexpected deviation from Buddhist norms across the whole of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. I think Nattier (1992) establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt, but Huifeng (2014) and I have made this as certain as anything ever is in our field.

Fukui's last comment is another example of the argument from popularity fallacy.

H. Isn't it a contradiction to argue that the mantra is "a perfectly good Sanskrit mantra... a genuine Sanskrit mantra" while at the same time saying the grammar of the passage concerning the six senses is not right, thus having both good and bad grammar in one and the same text? Moreover, the conclusion of studies up to now is not that the mantra is "a flawless (kanpeki) Sanskrit mantra" as she says. And the fact that it is not her "own ear" to which the grammar of the passage on the six senses sounds wrong makes it lose its persuasiveness.

Let me state right away, that there is no grammar in the "mantra" [not a mantra], it's just a list of words in the nominative singular case (of a Prakrit language). Of course, there is no mantra either, which does not help Fukui's case.

Nattier notes that this is an odd criticism. Fukui has once again misunderstood Nattier's idiom (which is ironic). The phrase "perfectly good" in idiomatic English means "adequate" rather than "flawless" as Fukui seems to think. When Nattier says that the mantra is "perfectly good Sanskrit" she doesn't mean it is flawless, she means it is not gibberish (unlike, say, some of Conze's Sanskrit sentences).

I'm not going to dwell on Nattier's response because I've already shown that Fukui's views on the mantra are wholly mistaken, or at least, the kind of idiosyncratic sectarian reading of the Heart Sutra we would expect from a senior Tendai priest in the last century.

There is no requirement that a Sanskrit text be well formed across the board. Bad grammar occurs in the ancient world too, and it often occurs in patch. On the other hand Sanskrit Heart Sutra is chock full of grammatical mistakes, both ancient and modern. I have published many articles on this topic. If I can see those mistakes, anyone can.

The last comment refers to Nattier again crediting one of her colleagues, Richard Salomon (a widely acknowledged expert in Sanskrit and Prakrit inscriptions) with providing helpful information (see 1992: 214, n.57). She does this a lot in Nattier (1992).

As it happens another independent like me (I don't know his name) recently wrote to Paul Harrison about a related matter, and he noticed a counter-example to one of our examples (out of 22 examples in Attwood 2022). A compound like na cakṣuḥ-śrotra-ghrāṇa-jihvā-kāya-manāṃsi is rare, but an example of it has been found in the Large Sutra.

The contrast here is interesting. Harrison's interlocutor gives us a model for how one refutes an argument: one gives evidence that contradicts the conclusion. I took up and asserted the idea that compounds like cakṣuḥ-śrotra-ghrāṇa-jihvā-kāya-manāṃsi don't occur in Prajñāpāramitā when they are being negated; the texts prefer to negate each term individually: na cakṣuḥ na śrotra, etc. I had a good pole around the Large Sutra in Sanskrit to see if I could find any counter-examples and could not. A single counter-example weakens our claim. We may still, I think, generalise that this syntax is the most common way of saying it, but we were wrong about this distinction being an absolute. If our argument had been based on this fact alone, we would have been refuted at this point. But this particular argument is incidental and we have published a mountain of much better evidence that Fukui appears to ignore in favour of lesser arguments, which get worse.

I. At first glance Nattier's work abounds in persuasiveness and appears logical. But in fact, in spite of the small quantity of evidence, she presses forth full of self-confidence with decisive-sounding words, thus creating the "optical illusion" of an established theory.

Again, Nattier is very patient here given the outrageous nature of this ad hominem fallacy.

As she explains, Fukui has ignored the strongest evidence and his objections to the weaker evidence only make sense if he is not even thinking about the facts that he has ignored. The evidence has to be taken as a whole. Nattier notes that Fukui doesn't even acknowledge the oddities in the Sanskrit text let alone provide an alternative explanation.

J. Insisting that the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra is a back-translation from the Chinese, her argument gradually becomes more and more unreasonable. For example, she argues that there is no Sanskrit word in the Heart Sūtra corresponding to the Chinese shén 神 of shén zhòu 神咒; but there are many examples of "mantra" being translated into Chinese as shén zhòu 神咒. It is far from unreasonable to simply see shén zhòu 神咒 as a translation from Sanskrit into Chinese. What has she done is to put the argument first and the evidence second.

Note that the argument in I and J is about how reasonable the Chinese origins thesis is, not how accurate or true it is; nor about the explanatory power of the thesis. The truth can sometimes seem unreasonable to religieux because their religious beliefs don't conform to the truth, they conform to the religious orthodoxy.

Nattier again demurs: she acknowledges that that her choice of this example is one of the weakest and she might leave it out if writing the article in 1995. But the method of cherry picking a weak example and saying on the basis of any ambiguity that it destroys the whole argument is example of the nut picking fallacy. As Nattier says, "If Fukui wishes to argue against the back-translation hypothesis, he must confront the evidence as a whole, not simply suggest that a particular word can be viewed better the other way around" (10. Emphasis added).

However, here Fukui is still fixated on the mantra as the most important part of the text (to him at least). And we know that he is simply wrong about this because the incantation at the end of the Heart Sutra is not a mantra.

It is true, however, that some scholars do read zhòu 呪 as mantra. A good example of this can be found in Heng-ching and Lusthaus's (2006) translation of Kuījī's Heart Sutra commentary (T 1710). They routinely translate zhòu 呪 as mantra even though it must be considered anachronistic for the Yogācāra scholar. I can substitute dhāraṇī in their translation in every case with no loss of sense. Even if I had not shown that the gate gate incantation is a dhāraṇī, there is no principial reason to translate zhòu 呪 as meaning "mantra" in a non-tantric context, such as the Heart Sutra.

K. In order to make her argument complete, there are additional issues that she would have to discuss. For example:
(a) a comparison of the differences between old-translation (kyūyaku) and new-translations (shin'yaku) terminology, e.g. vs Guānzìzài 觀自在 [two different Chinese translations of the name of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara].
(b) the fact that there is no evidence or argument in the Chinese historical materials (e.g. scripture catalogues) that would support the idea that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphal text (gikyō 偽経). If she wants to claim that is it apocryphal, she must explain where there is no proof of this in the text evidence.
In short, hers is an inferential argument based on logic, and as such it lacks persuasiveness.

As Nattier notes, she does in fact discuss this issue raised in (a) citing pages 187, 190, and notes 82 and 84. And the second point is just a reiteration of complaint A, already dealt with in detail above. As Nattier (p. 11) says, "... the last point is genuinely worrisome: would Fukui prefer an illogical analysis?" As a religious, sure, he probably would as long as it left his worldview and his ecclesiastical status intact.

L. Can reasoning based on such an extremely small body of evidence—that is, only on a comparison of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, the Sanskrit Large Sutra, and the Chinese Large Sutra—really allow one to establish the theory that the Chinese Heart Sūtra is an apocryphon?

Nattier answers, "of course not". But here, I think she means to allow for the uncertainty that never goes away in dealing with ancient history. And for the Popperian doctrine that no theory can be proven, because of the black swan effect; theories can only be refuted. At any time, some evidence may crop up that refutes our arguments: I've even spelled out what kind of evidence would be required to refute our arguments. But Fukui does not have any such evidence. What he has is a series of trivial arguments that make no impact at all on Nattier's conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese.

In fact, our thesis does rest almost entirely on this body of literature. To call it "extremely small", however, when it takes up several volumes of the Taishō Tripiṭaka, is a bit rich.

The situation is a little more clear, some thirty years after Nattier first made her observations, now that we have a decent facsimile edition of the Gilgit manuscript and Kimura's edition of the Nepalese Large Sutra, both of which greatly improve on sources available to Nattier and Fukui in the 1990s. Huifeng and I have also made use of the Sanskrit Aṣṭasāhasrikā, and the Chinese Large Sutra translations by Dharmarakṣa, Mokṣa, and Xuanzang. Some of my articles also look at phrases in the broader Prajñāpāramitā literature as well. And having extended the work, Huifeng and I came to same conclusion as Nattier: the Heart Sutra could only have been composed in Chinese.

Right at the end, Nattier sets out the challenge to her detractors (which is very similar to my own challenge):

In the meantime, though, the data I have collected in my article—whether or not the reader wishes to accept the back-translation theory—must now be confronted in toto by those who wish to affirm or deny the sutras Indian origins. I have suggested one flowchart to diagram the relationship between the Heart Sūtra and the Large Sūtra in their Chinese and Indian versions; those who are not happy with the results are welcome to try their hand at coming up with another.
The textual evidence—especially the virtually word-for-word identity between the core passage of the Chinese Heart Sūtra and its parallel in the Large Sūtra of Kumārajīva, in contrast to the divergence between their Indian counterparts—is anomalous as it stands, and requires that we attempt an explanation. If another scholar finds a better way to account for the totality of this evidence, I will be the first to applaud her success

I agree with every word of this.

Heart Sutra Politics?

Nattier (1992) was published in the leading English language journal for Buddhist Studies: The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (JIABS) and as such it was scrutinised by the editorial board and by at least two anonymous reviewers from the field. Contra Fukui and his trivial objections, the article is well argued, provides ample evidence, follows a clear and simple method (that anyone can understand), and does arrive at conclusions logically. If Fukui were the voice of reason, he'd acknowledge this.

Fukui is not a voice of reason, he appears to be playing his ecclesiastical role as spokesman for his Tendai sect. Instead of reasoned argumentation, he argues from the popularity fallacy, from the nut picking fallacy, from the straw man fallacy, from the ad hominem fallacy, and from general confirmation bias. His thesis about the emphasis shifting from "mantra" [not a mantra] to emptiness only in the 15th century is contradicted by numerous facts, not least of which are the late-seventh century commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk, which don't treat the incantation as a mantra, and which don't treat the text as being about mantra.

Fukui's arguments, though wholly fallacious, found fertile ground amongst his peers who sought to extend the argument against Nattier in similarly ways. I don't want to say that they are all being disingenuous, since they appear to be sincere. But it is the sincerity of religieux who are aggrieved to discover that their unicorn has been exposed as a donkey onto which someone has fixed a narwhal tusk. Which leads to them sincerely shooting the messenger in the hope of suppressing the news.

I've read and reviewed a number of these articles (see selected blog posts below) including now two published critiques in 2020 and 2022. The articles that I've seen all seem to be quite poorly written and to fail in their stated objective of refuting Nattier. The anecdotal accounts I hear about the unimpeachable status of men like Fukui and his colleagues helps to make sense of this.

We see many scholars who specialise in some other field, write one article on the Heart Sutra and never return to it (Nattier and Huifeng included). Even highly regarded scholars seem to lose their objectivity when they write about this text. Critical thinking goes out the window, and we see a series of theological arguments and apologetics for sectarian Buddhist doctrines.

Nattier's magnificent, era-defining article was thus sabotaged by highly motivated theologians who were able to leverage their exaggerated social status as hierarchs and professors, as well as the intense sexism and, dare I say it, racial bias* of Japanese culture to mobilise a wall of rejection in Japan. And in the face of this, Nattier's European colleagues sat in stony silence and let it happen. Thirty years have passed with little change in academia; progress has come from outside of the ivory towers, from Huifeng (at the time a Buddhist monk in the Fo Guang Shan movement) and I.

* To be fair I think religious apologetics, sexism, and racial bias are rife in European Buddhist Studies as well. I've written about this. Here, I am specifically trying to understand the rejection of Chinese origins by Japanese academics led by Fukui. I think these generalisations are fair.

I'm glad Nattier finally decided to release this unpublished essay to the public. It's good that she now feels able to take the risk of pointing out how weak the arguments against her were back then (and now). As the only scholar actively exploring and writing about this today, I take heart. [Thanks, Jan].

The facts as I understand the are like this. The Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese, in the mid seventh century, from passages copied from T 223 and a dhāraṇī from T 901. It was probably composed by Xuanzang. It was modelled on a chāo jīng 抄經 "digest text" and was acknowledged by Kuījī and Woncheuk to be a bié shēng 別生 "separately produced" text rather than a sutra. The Sanskrit text is a back-translation from Chinese and, as far as I know, none of us thinks Xuanzang was responsible for this. The myth of the Heart Sutra emerged in various texts in the decades following Xuanzang's death in 663 CE.

How believers feel about these facts is a separate issue and that would seem to be their problem, not mine or scholars generally. No one expects a religious believer to have an easy time dealing with reality, especially when they claim to have an exclusive understanding of "the nature of reality" that is denied the rest of us. Ironically, Buddhists who religiously assert that the nature of reality is "everything changes" are the last people to embrace change if it involves their belief system.



Selected Blog posts and Unpublished Essays

"Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis." (24 November 2017). A critique of Ishii Kōsei (2015).

"Review of Ji Yun's 'Is the Heart Sutra an Apocryphal Text? A Re-examination'." (01 June 2018). Ji argues for Chinese origins, but against the term "apocryphon". His article is problematic in many ways.

"Another Failed Attempt to Refute the Chinese Origins Thesis." (13 September 2019). A critique Harada (2002) based on an English language summary in the Wikipedia "talk" pages.

"The Heart Sutra Was Not Composed in Sanskrit - Response to Harimoto." (2021. academia.org).

"Just How Crazy is the Heart Sutra?" (23 Sept 2022). A critique of Karl Brunnhölzl’s absurdist article “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever” in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar (September 29, 2017).

"An Open Letter to Buddhist Studies Academics." (23 December 2022). A request for fair treatment by academics.

Published Works Cited

Attwood, J. (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

———. (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

———. (2022). "The Heart Sutra Revisited." [Review article]. Buddhist Studies Review. 39(2): 229-254. [Critique of five articles on the Heart Sutra appearing in Acta Asiatica 121 and purporting to represent the "frontier" of Heart Sutra research]

Fukui, Fumimasa. (1994) ‘Hannaya shingyō no kenkyūshi - genkon no mondaiten.’ Bukkyōgaku 36: 79-99.

Harada, Waso 原田和宗 (2002). 梵文『小本・般若心経』和訳 [An Annotated Translation of The Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya] (in Japanese). Association of Esoteric Buddhist Studies. pp. L17–L62.

Heng-Ching, Shih & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

Ishii, Kōsei. (2015). “Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier’s Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.” [Translated 2017 by Jeffrey Kotyk]. Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu) 64 (1): 499-492.

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

———. (1995). "Response to Fukui Fumimasa on the Heart Sutra 1995." [Unpublished Essay] https://www.academia.edu/99934922/Response_to_Fukui_Fumimasa_on_the_Heart_Sutra_1995

Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.

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