26 January 2024

A Provisional Revised Prajñāpāramitā Chronology

In the process of revising the history of the Heart Sutra, it has become clear that Conze's Prajñāpāramitā chronology is faulty in many respects. In this essay, I will discuss some of the main faults with the existing chronology and then propose a substantial revision, notably deprecating his use of the term "abbreviation". 

In "The Development of Prajñāpāramitā Thought" (1967) Conze outlined nine stages of development:

  1. The initial formulation represented by the first two chapters of Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā (Rgs).
  2. Chapters 3-28 of Rgs.
  3. Incorporation of matter from the Abhidharma.
  4. Concessions to the Buddhism of Faith.
  5. The last third of the Large Prajñāpāramitā
  6. The short Sutras.
  7. Yogacarin commentaries.
  8. Tantra
  9. Chan.

Later, Conze (1978) boils this down to a fourfold chronology:

  1. The basic text (ca. 100 BCE – 100 CE)
  2. Expansion (ca 100 – 300 CE)
  3. Abbreviation (300 – 500 CE)
  4. Tantric/Magical influence (600 – 1200 CE).

There is some revision of this chronology in Stefano Zacchetti's (2020) authoritative encyclopedia entry for Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras in the Brill Encyclopedia of Buddhism, but even Zacchetti largely accepts Conze's views on the Heart Sutra. Unfortunately, neither Huifeng (2014) nor any of my research on the Heart Sutra made it into his article. Zacchetti's contribution to Prajñāpāramitā Studies was huge and his early death was a great loss to the profession. However, he did not go far enough in critiquing Conze and revising the chronology.


Conze's rationale for dating the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā very early was never sound. The first translation of Rgs into Chinese was in 991CE, by Fǎxián 法賢 (T 229). As Zacchetti (2020) says "... external evidence clearly points to a much later date of composition of this text, as all its witnesses, including the Chinese translation, are comparatively late". Zacchetti also notes that Rgs is not included in Xuanzang's compendium of Prajñāpāramitā texts. 

Far from being an early exemplar, the Rgs played little or no part in the development of Prajñāpāramitā thought or literature and was a decorative after-thought.

Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā

This makes Aṣṭasāhasrikā clearly the oldest Prajñāpāramitā text. The Split Collection manuscript of Aṣṭasāhasrikā has been carbon-14 dated to 74 CE with a two-sigma range of 47-147 CE (Falk 2011: 20). This date is consistent with paleographic dating of the manuscript. Thus we can place the existence of a written text in the first century, but we don't know when it was first written down, or when it was first composed. 

Aṣṭasāhasrikā was first translated into Chinese in 179 CE by Lokakṣema (T 224). The procedure of subtracting a century or two from the date of the earliest Chinese translation was never credible, despite being widely applied. Note, for the record, that the oldest extant Pāli text is from the fifth or sixth century. Which makes the oldest physical evidence for Prajñāpāramitā some 300-400 years older than the oldest Pāli text. As far as I know, the idea that the Pāli canon was written down around the beginning of the Common Era first occurs in a fifth-century Sri Lankan text: the Mahāvaṃsa.

My sense of Aṣṭa is that the written text reflects an older, probably oral tradition. Everyone seems to agree that the first Chapter of Aṣṭa is likely older than the rest and possibly represents the "original" Prajñāpāramitā text. The first chapter has no narrative structure but is an episodic (almost disparate) collection of independent dialogues. Aṣṭa often seems like a roughly edited selection of brief stories featuring fragments of dialogues between figures that feature in early Buddhist texts.

The fragments in Aṣṭa show a clear affinity to ideas found in early Buddhist texts, suggesting that Prajñāpāramitā is conceptually much older than its oldest texts. Anālayo (2021) argues that the practice of withdrawing attention from sensory experience (so that it ceases) seems to predate Buddhism since this is precisely what the Buddha learns from his pre-awakening teachers: Āḷāra Kālama and Udaka Ramaputta.

Later chapters of Aṣṭa still lack any sense of narrative, except for the story of Sadāprarudita (Chapters 31 and 32), but are more thematically consistent. Huifeng's PhD thesis identified several "chiastic" structures in the earliest Chinese translation of Aṣṭa. A chiastic structure involves a mirror image. Topics are introduced from the beginning to the middle and then recapitulated in reverse order from the middle to the end. Huifant identified chiastic structures in Chapters 1 and 2 and in Sadāpraruidita chapters. He also proposes that the entire text has a chiastic structure. This conflicts with the broadly accepted notion that the text was built up piecemeal from a core variously said to comprise Chapters 1 and 2, just Chapter 1, or some part of Chapter 1. Joseph Walser (2018: 130-134) gives a good overview of the "quest for the ur-sūtra"

While I don't know enough to comment on this, it does seem to me that no chapter of Aṣṭa has just one topic.

Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā

The Vajracchedikā—which Conze placed in a later period—is now widely believed to be from an earlier period. However, the rationale for this early dating is unclear and difficult to check. Curiously, Zacchetti's (2020) account of the Vajracchedikā ignores the issue of its place in Conze's chronology, which risks people interpreting this as approval. 

It seems likely that Vajracchedikā was initially considerably shorter since there is in fact a clear ending at verse 13a. More text seems to have been tacked onto the end, which fits the same pattern of evolution of other Prajñāpāramitā texts. 

Harrison (2006) does not mention dates, but merely alludes to comments made by Gregory Schopen (1975: 153):

It is, however, worth noting that a number of Japanese scholars have suggested a date for the Vaj which is considerably earlier than the one suggested by Conze, and that the exact nature of the relationship between the Vaj and the [Aṣṭa] is far from clear.

The main text then points to a footnote which lists several sources of interest:

Two of these sources are repeatedly cited by other scholars also.

Nakamura, H. (1964). "A Critical Survey of Mahāyāna and Esoteric Buddhism chiefly based on Japanese Studies." Acta Asiatica 6: 64-65.
Ui, Hakuju. (1958). "Chronological Survey of the Vajracchedikā-Prajñāpāramitā." Nagoya-Daigaku-Bungakubu Kenkyu-Ronshū XXI: 49-51.

Ui (1958) is not available in any UK library as far as I can see. Cambridge, Oxford, and SOAS libraries all have this periodical, but their runs are incomplete and Vol XXI is missing from all three. Cambridge also lacks the early numbers of Acta Asiatica. None of these is online as far as I can see. So as of today, I have been unable to consult any of these (I haven't given up).

The citation, "Trans, by Hanayama Shōyū, 'SVRPL' (cf. n. 8) 55-61." refers to

Hanayama, Shōyū 花山勝友. (1966) "A summary of various research on the Prajñāpāramitā literature by Japanese scholars." Acta Asiatica 10: 55-6

Again, I have yet to get access to this. Schopen notes that:

"Ui says 'judging from its contents, this sūtra gives us the impression that it is a very old sūtra" (p. 56); and "... the latest date of the establishment of the Diamond Sutra will be 200 A.D. or probably 150 A.D., though we cannot decide the earliest possible date of this sūtra" (p. 60)."

However, it's not clear on what basis Ui is making this judgement. Although the article is widely cited, no one seems to say what was Ui's rationale for this date. And I can't find any more recent research.

The first translation into Chinese is Kumārajīva's T235 Jīngāng bōrě bōluómì jīng «金剛般若波羅蜜經» in 402 CE. However, extant commentaries have been attributed to both Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. This would help except that the dates of these two are not certain and such attributions cannot be taken at face value: numerous texts are attributed to both of them apocryphally. Asaṅga is assumed to have lived in the fourth century. Jonathan C. Gold asserts that Vasubandhu lived in the late fourth or early fifth centuries (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But there does not seem to be any consensus on their dates.

So Vajracchedikā seems to have existed by the end of the fourth century. If there is evidence compelling us to push this date back, I cannot find it (yet). I occasionally correspond with Paul Harrison and I know that he is writing a book on Vajracchedikā and has his own ideas on dates, partly based on the Central Asian manuscripts. Nothing he has published so far makes this any clearer.

Note 5 Feb 2024. Harrison has responded to an email saying that he believes Vaj was originally composed in a Prakrit based on Central Asian fragments. And that composition in the second century, per Ui (1958), seems likely. 


Dates for the composition of the extended Prajñāpāramitā texts, particularly Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, are uncertain. There are two Chinese translations from the third century: Guāng zàn jīng «光讚經» (T 222) by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE; and Fàng guāng bānrě jīng «放光般若經» (T221), by Mokṣala in 291 CE. The earliest Sanskrit witness is the Gilgit Manuscript dated to the sixth or seventh century.

Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā retains the basic organisational plan of Aṣṭa, and includes more or less all of the text, but intersperses new material that is twice the length of the shorter text. Jan Nattier (2003: 62, n. 19) has likened the process to slicing bread and filling the spaces.


While Aṣṭasāhasrikā certainly underwent massive expansion, notably producing Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, (and several variants) there never was a period of "abbreviation" of Prajñāpāramitā. No Indian text was ever abbreviated. The closest we get to this in Indian Buddhist literature is passages quoted in anthologies. 

Moreover, the Heart Sutra definitely does not fit Conze's paradigm since it was composed in China in the mid-650s. It is incorrect to think of Vajracchedikā as an "abbreviation". Rather it is a short text targeting a particular type of wrong view about the relation between experience and abstract concepts. 

It is not plausible to think of the short Tantric texts as "abbreviated" either. As with Vajracchedikā, these are not "abbreviations" because this would imply the existence of some longer text that they were abbreviations of. No such longer text exists. They are simply short texts composed by Tantric Buddhists, with a Prajñāpāramitā flavour to them.

In my view, the development of Madhyamaka metaphysics was a wholly separate and unrelated process, though the two do share some antecedents. The mythology linking Nāgārjuna to Prajñāpāramitā is a late tradition and not entirely coherent, given the strikingly different emphases and conclusions of the two traditions.

Provisional Revised Chronology

In retrospect, we can speculatively identify a zeroeth phase of Prajñāpāramitā, as found in texts such as the Cūḷasuññatā Sutta (MN 121) and the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). Prajñāpāramitā has numerous antecedents in early Buddhist literature and, if legends can be taken as indicative, this form of practice predates Buddhism. For example, the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26) points to the Buddha learning precisely this style of meditation, aimed at the cessation of sensory experience, from his pre-enlightenment teachers.

There is a major caveat here. While we can identify antecedents to Prajñāpāramitā it is a mistake to think of these as proto-Prajñāpāramitā. The prefix proto- implies a teleology: the idea that these earlier ideas and practices necessarily became Prajñāpāramitā (and only Prajñāpāramitā). In fact, there is no such necessity, and these particular antecedents are also antecedent to other forms of Buddhism. Buddhism is notable for constantly diversifying into new forms and converging from time to time in new syntheses (on the limitations of the branching tree model of evolution compared to a braided stream model, see: Evolution: Trees and Braids 27 December 2013).

The first phase of Prajñāpāramitā literature proper is what we now call the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. The first Prajñāpāramitā text was likely considerably shorter (based on extant witnesses that grow over time) and was probably originally just called Prajñāpāramitā. Arguments about an ur-text underlying the extant manuscript witnesses are speculative. This period is likely still intimately connected with an ancient tradition of meditative practice focussed on attaining cessation and dwelling for long periods (up to seven days) in the absence of sensory experience. As noted, this approach has clear antecedents in early Buddhist texts and likely predates Buddhism (based on Buddhist accounts).

The second phase involves both the expansion of Aṣṭa and the composition of the Vajracchedikā. In the first case, the basic Prajñāpāramitā text (in roughly 8000 lines) was expanded into versions of 10,000, 18,000 and 25,000 lines, incorporating a great deal of new material as well as unpacking some of the abbreviated expressions. Contra Conze, I don't think this involved Abhidharma or "concessions to the Buddhism of faith". A subsequent expansion of the 25,000-line text to 100,000 lines did not add new material, but mainly consisted of a full and complete expansion of all the abbreviated expressions. If there was still a distinct Prajñāpāramitā practice community, it had begun to adopt an approach that was both more eclectic and more scholastic.

A third phase was the composition of commentaries such as the Abhisamayalaṅkāra and the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, which were highly influential in Tibet and China respectively. These commentaries are quite clearly scholastic rather than practical. Thus I assume that Prajñāpāramitā as a distinct form of practice is no longer visible, though I think some form of this practice probably still existed and was passed on within other traditions (I think here particularly of Mahāmudra).

The fourth and final phase reflected the absorption of elements of Prajñāpāramitā into Tantric Buddhism and the disappearance or submergence of any remnants of Prajñāpāramitā as a distinct approach to Buddhist practice. This coincides with the production of a number of short texts expressing a Tantric worldview and the emergence of Prajñāpāramitā as a Tantric deity. Whether these are really Prajñāpāramitā texts is moot and I am inclined to lump them with Tantra.



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

Conze, Edward. (1967). "The Development of Prajñāpāramitā Thought." In Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies, 123-147. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. [First published In Buddhism and Culture, Dedicated to Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki in Commemoration of His Ninetieth Birthday, ed. S. Yamaguchi, 24–45. Kyoto: Suzuki Gakujutsu Zaidai].

———. (1978) The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. (2nd Ed.) Tokyo: The Reiyukai.

Falk, Harry. (2011). The ‘Split’ Collection of Kharoṣṭhī Texts. ARIRIAB XIV (2011), 13-23. https://www.academia.edu/3561702/split_collection

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Schopen, G. (1975). "The phrase ‘sa pthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet' in the Vajracchedikā: Notes on the cult of the book in Mahāyāna." Indo-Iranian Journal 17(3/4): 147-181.

Walser, Joseph. (2018). Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Emptiness, Power, and the Question of Origin. London and New York: Routledge.

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2020) “Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras.” In Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism Online, edited by Jonathan A. Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, and Vincent Eltschinger (Unpaginated). Leiden: Brill. https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-buddhism/prajnaparamita-sutras-COM_0017 [accessed 6 Sept 2023].

19 January 2024

On the Evolution of the Heart Sutra

The evolution of the Heart Sutra has been largely obscured by the historically dominant narratives and by the reluctance of Buddhist Studies to go beyond description and seek explanations. Watanabe Shōgo (1990) and Jan Nattier (1992) showed that the historical narratives about the Heart Sutra are pious fictions and pointed to another, rather unexpected history: the Heart Sutra was composed in China in the mid-seventh century. Their insights were subsequently confirmed by Huifeng (2014), and then I started publishing on this topic in 2015, both confirming the existing observations and adding a few of my own. While the field of Buddhist Studies (and the Buddhist world) has yet to catch up, it is now certain that the Chinese origins theory is correct.

Part of my contribution has been to step outside the usual descriptive mode of Buddhist Studies and propose explanations for the origins and evolution of the Heart Sutra. To date, my main focus has been on origins since this seemed to be the most urgent problem. More recently, I have begun to look at how the text evolved once it appeared ca 656 CE. In particular, I published an article on the varieties and relationships between the extended versions (Attwood 2021a).

In this essay, I will present a first attempt at an overview of the origins and the evolution of the Heart Sutra. I will explain why the variant texts on the Heart Sutra were produced and why they took the form that they did. In particular, I will argue that all of the major variants were created to bolster the perceived authenticity of the Heart Sutra. That the Heart Sutra appeared to lack authenticity in some eyes is hardly surprising given what we now know about its origins.

The centre of this argument is a simplified version of the stemma (or genealogy) of the Heart Sutra that I published in 2021. This diagram shows the relationships between the main inputs to the Heart Sutra and the five main versions that subsequently appeared.

Here a solid arrow represents the lines of descent, and the dotted arrow reflects the fact that Chinese extended versions repeat the text of Xīn jīng (T 251) where they overlap. Vertical spacing reflects relative chronology.

There are two processes to consider: an initial convergence in the Xīn jīng and a subsequent divergence into numerous versions of the text.

As much as the Xīn jīng reflects a convergence of texts, it also reflects a convergence of Indian and Chinese Buddhism. This may not be obvious since writing about Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism tends to happen in different academic contexts that don’t communicate very well. This is sometimes referred to as “the silo mentality”. Even when there is some crossover, such as when scholars of Pāli literature study Chinese translations of Āgama texts, they see the Chinese translations as reflecting Indian culture rather than Chinese culture. Little or no attempt is made to read translated Āgama texts as Chinese texts.

This may be understandable in the case of Āgama texts but it doesn't work in the case of the Heart Sutra. The text was created in a Chinese Buddhist milieu and this is important for understanding it. However, the principal ideas in the text—Avalokiteśvara bodhisatva, Prajñāpāramitā, and dhāraṇī—all come from, and must understood in terms of, Indian Buddhism as well. Understanding the Heart Sutra requires us to have a foot in both camps, which may explain why the text has been so neglected and many of the articles that appear in print are low quality.


The late Stefano Zacchetti (2005: 32) says that Kumārajīva's translation of Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Pañc) occurred during the period 29 May 403–13 Jan 404 CE. The Móhē bānrě bōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T 223; Móhē) was completed with the help of several expert assistants and was a significant improvement on previous translations. In parallel Kumārajīva and his team translated the *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa an extensive commentary attributed to Nāgārjuna. The Dàzhìdù lùn «大智度論» was completed on 1 Feb 406 CE.

During the process of translating the commentary, it became clear that Móhē required some revisions. Zacchetti says that these were complete by 18 May 404, but also says in a footnote (128) that one of Kumārajīva's principal assistants, Sengrui (僧睿; 371–438 CE), in his preface to the sutra, mentions revisions continuing to be made throughout the process of producing the Dàzhìdù lùn. The commentary and its text have guided the Chinese understanding of Prajñāpāramitā from that time onwards.

While we still don't know for sure who composed the Xīn jīng, it seems increasingly likely to have been Xuanzang. His name is associated with the earliest mention of the text, he is named in the oldest artefacts, and the earliest commentaries were by some of his close associates. My thorough exploration of this evidence has been submitted for peer review and with luck will be published in 2024. In this essay, after long and detailed consideration of the evidence, I assume that Xuanzang was the author. This is a provisional conclusion that may be subject to revision if some plausible refutation appears (implausible refutations already exist, but can be safely ignored).

Sometime between 654 CE and 26 December 656 CE, Xuanzang composed the Bānrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng «般若波羅蜜多心經» (T 251; Xīn). The earlier date reflects when the dhāraṇī was translated in the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901) by Atikūṭa. Since dhāraṇī transcription in China was never standardised, where we see an identical transcription in two different texts it is highly likely that one copied from the other. Given the nature of Xīn, which is mainly copied passages, I provisionally assume that Xuanzang copied the dhāraṇī from the Tuóluóní jí jīng. This means that Xīn could not have existed before this date. Note that Watanabe Shōgo (1990) definitively refuted the idea of Heart Sutra texts existing prior to the composition of the Xīn.

The later date is when the text is first mentioned in Buddhist literature, i.e. in the Biography of Xuanzang, Dà Táng dà Cí’ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù «大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序» (T 2053), composed by Yàncóng 彥悰 in 688 CE. The best translation of the Biography is Li (1995), but see also remarks on its historicity in Kotyk (2019).

There is no evidence of the Heart Sutra, of any kind, from any place, before 654 CE. From that date onwards, evidence in the form of inscriptions, manuscripts, catalogue entries, and commentaries proliferated and began to spread to neighbouring polities in Tibet, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. There is no evidence of any kind from India and it now seems extremely unlikely the Heart Sutra was ever known there. The so-called Indo-Tibetan commentaries are better thought of as Tibetan commentaries attributed to Indian authors (a legitimising strategy).

Xin consists of some copied passages from Móhē, to which Xuanzang added some touches of his own (notably some novel "spellings" and the figure of Guanyin) and the dhāraṇī. Xīn became the standard Heart Sutra from that time onwards in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It is Xīn that people refer to when they say "The Heart Sutra is the most popular Mahāyāna text".

This part of the stemma also emphasises that passages from Pañc found in Hṛd did not arrive there directly. Contra the historically dominant narrative, the copied passages arrived via a Chinese intermediary, i.e. Móhē. That is, the passages copied from Pañc were not copied directly in Sanskrit from a Sanskrit source. Rather they were selected from Móhē, and only later were they (inexpertly) translated back into Sanskrit.

As Jan Nattier (1992: 170) pointed out, Hṛd bears all the hallmarks of a "back-translation". These include “unmatched but synonymous equivalents” for some Sanskrit terms and “incorrect word order, grammatical errors that can be traced to the structure of the intermediary language, and incorrect readings (due to visual confusion of certain letters or characters in the intermediary language)”.

Thus the Heart Sutra can be explained as the the result of a series of convergent processes and reflects also a convergence of Indian and Chinese Buddhist cultures. However, the text soon began to diverge into numerous versions and it is to these that that we now turn.


From the Xīn we see three main lines of development that, as yet, cannot be precisely dated.

  1. The creation of the Dàmíngzhòu jīng (T 250) and its attribution to Kumārajīva
  2. The creation of the Sanskrit text titled Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya.
  3. The creation of two extended texts.

Note that the dotted line from Xīn to the Chinese extended sutras (T 253, 254, 257) reflects the retention of the Chinese text of Xīn where they overlap. The phrase "two extended texts" refers to (1) the Chinese text of T 252, and (2) the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatikā-prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya nāma dhāraṇī “Dhāraṇī named The Heart of the Perfection of Insight in Twenty-five [Lines]”. The Pañcaviṃśatikā was subsequently translated into Chinese (T 253, 254, 257).

I will take each of these versions in turn and try to show that each adds something that was perceived to be missing from the Heart Sutra. I don’t argue that there was any coordination between the three processes and, indeed, they seem to have occurred independently and over quite a long timeframe. However, together with the hagiographic stories about Xuanzang, they were embraced into the established myth of the Heart Sutra as an Indian Buddhist text.

1. Dàmíngzhòu jīng

The Heart Sutra was associated with Xuanzang from the outset and this might have been enough to ensure its place as an authentic Indian Buddhist sutra. The four early Chinese commentaries, however, still exhibit some anxiety on this score. The commentaries are:

  • Bōrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng yōuzàn «般若波羅蜜多心經幽贊» “Profound Explanation of the Sutra of the Essence of Prajñāpāramitā”, by Kuījī 窺基 (T 1710)
  • Fú shuō bōrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng zàn «佛說般若波羅蜜多心經贊» “Explanation of the Sutra of the Essence of Prajñāpāramitā” by Woncheuk 圓測 (T 1711)
  • Bōrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng shū «般若波羅蜜多心經疏» “Commentary on the Sutra of the Essence of Prajñāpāramitā” by Jìngmài 靖邁 (X 522)
  • Bōrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng lüèshū «般若波羅蜜多心經略疏» “Brief Commentary on the Sutra of the Essence of Prajñāpāramitā” by Fǎzàng 法藏 (T 1712).

Fǎzàng's commentary is traditionally dated to ca. 702 CE and he died in 712 CE. The other four are not dated, but Kuījī and Woncheuk died in 682 and 696 CE respectively. Jìngmài’s precise dates are unknown but he was roughly contemporary with Xuanzang. Thus they all date from the late seventh or early eighth centuries, and span perhaps twenty years (682–702).

Each commentator notes that the Heart Sutra lacks the expected introduction and conclusion of an authentic sutra. They also note that it consists of extractions from Prajñāpāramitā, which at that point in history seems to have been a reference to Móhē. All four men went ahead and composed their commentaries, but they left some ambiguity. Each of the subsequent developments in the Heart Sutra seems to address this ambiguity.

One approach to securing the authenticity of the text was to create the impression that previous translations existed, notably a translation attributed to the greatest of all the Chinese translators, Kumārajīva, i.e. Móhē bānrě bōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經» (T 250; hereafter Dàmíngzhòu jīng). Note the title does not include the word xīn 心 "heart". Many of Kumārajiva's translations from the early fifth century are still in use today.

The idea of a Kumārajīva translation and the title it was given (Dàmíngzhòu jīng) were used to make links to another story about an even earlier translation, titled Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪. This created the myth of the "lost translation" by Zhī Qiān 支謙 (fl. 3rd century).

Watanabe (1990) thoroughly debunked this story, pointing out that it relies on a two-step process: (1) the false attribution of the shénzhòu text to Zhi Qian—in the catalogue Lìdài sānbǎo jì «歷代三寶紀» (T 2034), compiled by Fèi Chángfáng 費長房 in 598 CE—and (2) the conflation of this shénzhòu text with Dàmíngzhòu jīng. The debunking of this story (some 34 years ago) has not stopped commentators from continuing to use the idea of the "lost translations" to push back the date of translation and assert the validity of the claim that the text is Indian in origin. To be clear, neither Kumārajīva nor Zhi Qian translated the Heart Sutra. This is a false trail, deliberately laid.

In fact, the first evidence of the Dàmíngzhòu jīng, of any kind, is a mention in the Dàtáng nèidiǎn lù «大唐內典錄» "Catalogue of the Inner Canon of the Great Tang" (T 2149), published in 730 CE. As far as I can tell there are no physical texts of Dàmíngzhòu jīng before the eleventh century. The idea that a translation by Kumārajīva could be lost and then rediscovered some three hundred years after his death is extremely far-fetched and scholars have long doubted this attribution, starting with Matsumoto (1932).

That a text produced after Xīn might be retrospectively attributed to Kumārajīva to bolster its perceived authenticity is entirely plausible. It is not merely theoretical to say that Dàmíngzhòu jīng might have been used this way since this is exactly the use that has been made of it in practice. Indeed, we may say that legitimising Xīn is more or less the only use that has been made of the Dàmíngzhòu jīng. In stark contrast to Xīn, there are no commentaries on Dàmíngzhòu jīng, for example, and no prominent inscriptions or famous manuscripts. To my knowledge, Dàmíngzhòu jīng was never transmitted outside of China or translated into another language.

Dàmíngzhòu jīng, then, seems to have been created with the intention of making Xīn appear to be more authentic by pushing back the date of its composition.

2. Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya.

In the historically dominant view, Xīn, the main text used in China, is a translation of this authentic Sanskrit version of the text. What some scholars still call "the Sanskrit original" proves that the Heart Sutra is an authentic Indian Buddhist sutra.

This view is spoiled by a detailed analysis of the text which shows that Hṛd definitely could not have borrowed its copied passages directly from Pañc. Rather the passages were clearly copied into Xīn from Móhē and then translated back into Sanskrit, leaving numerous telltales of the "back-translation" process. This was the gist of Nattier (1992) but has been confirmed numerous times by Huifeng (2014) and yours truly (see especially Attwood 2021b). The Sanskrit text is a translation of the Chinese. As such, it is not a stretch to refer to it as a "Chinese forgery".

It seems that the Sanskrit text was produced at around the same time as Dàmíngzhòu jīng was being created, i.e. in the late seventh or early eighth century. To date, we have no information on who did the translation or when. There is an ambiguous reference to "a Sanskrit text" (fàn běn 梵本) in Woncheuk's commentary (T 1711), though he does not name Hṛd and might have been referring to Pañc, since he says:

The reason there is no introduction or conclusion is that [this text] selects the essential outlines from all the Prajñā texts. It has only the main chapter, without an introduction and conclusion, just as the Guānyīn jīng is not composed of three sections (Adapted from Hyun Choo 2006: 138: emphasis added).

The Guānyīn jīng «觀音經» being originally the twenty-fifth chapter of the Miàofǎ liánhuá jīng «妙法蓮華經» (T 262; Skt. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra), where it is titled Guānshìyīn púsà pǔmén pǐn 觀世音菩薩普門品 “Chapter of the Universal Gate of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva”.

I assume that a manuscript of Hṛd was forged for this purpose, and passed off as an Indian “original” since later copies of a Sanskrit text do exist (such as the famous Hōryūji manuscript). A Sanskrit manuscript is the sine qua non of authenticity for a Buddhist text in China.

Now that it has been revealed to be a back-translation, Hṛd has little philological value. Those existing studies that treat this text as "the Sanskrit original" have to be deprecated. In a forthcoming article in Asian Literature and Translation, I revise Conze's unparsable Sanskrit edition of Hṛd to make it parsable. But even this was perceived as a dead end by one of the reviewers. Study of the Sanskrit text is now quite pointless except as a unique historical artefact from early Tang China.

It is not that rare for a Chinese Buddhist text to turn out to have been composed in Chinese. Examples of this have been well documented, even in antiquity. It is exceedingly rare for a Chinese text to be translated into Sanskrit. A few examples of this have been noted. To my knowledge, the Hṛd is unique for having been successfully passed off as an authentic Indian text.

The single most important sign of the authenticity of a Buddhist text in Tang China was precisely the existence of a Sanskrit manuscript. Once again, Hṛd appears to have been created to fill a perceived gap in the authentication of Xīn.

3. Extended Texts

All of the early commentators on Xīn comment on—and attempt to explain—the absence of the usual introduction and conclusion that we expect in Buddhist sutra (I cited Woncheuk on this above; the others make similar comments). The extended text is an attempt to supply exactly these missing sections and this appears to have happened at least twice.

The first extended text appears to be Pǔbiàn zhì cáng bānrě bōluómìduō xīn jīng «普遍智藏般若波羅蜜多心經» (T 252). This text has an introduction and conclusion that are substantially different from all other extended Heart Sutra texts. The introduction is much longer and has specific details —like the presence of 100,000 bhikṣus and 70,000 bodhisatvas—that are absent in all the other texts. At the same time, the conclusion of Pǔbiàn is much shorter and more perfunctory. It is quite striking that the significant differences here have been almost entirely overlooked by other scholars. For more, though still incomplete, detail see Attwood (2021a).

All the other extended texts are clearly from one source, probably in Sanskrit, though with Tibetan and Chinese translations. The Chinese versions of the extended text (i.e. T 253, 254, 257) appear to be genuine translations from Sanskrit. That said, all the Chinese versions, including Pǔbiàn, retain the text of Xīn and only retranslate the extensions.

Ben Nourse (2010) has noted several variant extended texts in the Dunhuang cache. He suggests that these may be hybrids of standard and extended texts, but an alternative explanation might be that they are additional attempts at creating an extended text. More work needs to be done on the Dunhuang texts.

So for a third time, we see the Heart Sutra being modified to better fit a Chinese preconception about authenticity, in this case, that a real sutra has an introduction and conclusion. Only here, however, do we see two (or possibly more) attempts at the same modification.


I have been engaged in explaining the origins of the Heart Sutra for around twelve years. It already seems like old news to me and I find it frustrating that no one in Buddhist Studies seems willing or able to keep up with my oeuvre. At some point, the textbooks will have to change and I only hope I live long enough to see this. How this affects Buddhists is anyone's guess, but I suspect that they will continue to resist all attempts at a deflationary explanation.

The evolution of the Heart Sutra beyond its origins has been of even less interest to the field (and of no interest to Buddhists). The existence of multiple versions is, of course, well known. However, the dates of these versions have been obscured by presuppositions and this has hampered any attempts to understand how the text evolved. Watanabe (1990) debunked the attributions to Kumārajīva and Zhi Qian, making it clear that Xīn is the earliest version of the text. But his work has largely been ignored (including by me until 2023). The dhāraṇī tells us that Xīn cannot have existed before 654 CE, when Atikūṭa transcribed it in Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901). This is our starting point.

As we have seen, Xīn diverged into four other versions—ie. Dàmíngzhòu jīng, Hṛd, Pǔbiàn, and Pañcaviṃśatikā. I have argued that we can see these versions as the result of three processes:

  1. One attempt to push back the date of composition
  2. One attempt to create a "Sanskrit original"
  3. Two attempts to provide the missing introduction and conclusion.

In other words, the evolution of the Heart Sutra was driven by conscious attempts to make the origins of the Heart Sutra fit preconceived notions of authenticity in China. These attempts largely succeeded and the associated ideas were incorporated into the historically dominant narratives of the Heart Sutra as an ancient Indian sutra text.

What my work shows is that the Heart Sutra was never ancient, Indian, or a sutra. It was created in the mid-seventh century, in China, and is modelled on a chāo jīng 抄經 "digest text" (a Chinese genre of Buddhist text). And this created anxieties related to authenticity that were addressed in a variety of ways.

I hope that it is becoming clear to my readers that the historically dominant narrative, the myth of the Heart Sutra, is largely a fiction, created quite consciously (thought without much coordination) by Chinese Buddhists. If the Heart Sutra had been merely another ancient Indian sutra, it would have been quite prosaic, notable only for its popularity in East Asia. The idea that it was composed in China and deliberately (and successfully) passed off as an ancient Indian sutra is far more interesting (even a little exciting for a textual scholar).

While I am still not an expert in Chinese Buddhist texts, if I am right about this, it makes the Heart Sutra unique amongst Buddhist texts. Moreover, I think I am right because my approach has a great deal more explanatory power than the historically dominant narratives: expanding on existing work, I have explained the origins of the text in detail. I hope this essay shows that my approach can also explain subsequent developments in the Heart Sutra as well.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2021a). "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

——. (2021b). “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.

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.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006). "An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch’uk’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra)." International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture 6: 121-205.

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

Li, Rongxi (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Berkeley, CA.: Numata Centre of Buddhist Translation and Research.

Matsumoto, Tokumyo. (1932). Die Prajñāpāramitā Literatur. Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat zu Bonn.

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

Nourse, Benjamin. (2010) "The Heart Sutra at Dunhuang." Paper presented at the North American Graduate Students Conference on Buddhist Studies. Toronto, Canada. April 10, 2010.

Watanabe, Shōgo. (1990). “Móhē bānrě bōluómì shénzhòu jīng and Móhē bānrě bōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng, As Seen in the Sutra Catalogues.” Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū 39-1: 54–58. [= 渡辺章悟. 1990. 「経録からみた『摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪経』と『摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪経』」印度学仏教学研究 39-1: 54–58.]

Zacchetti, Stefano. (2005) In Praise of the Light: A Critical Synoptic Edition with an Annotated Translation of Chapters 1-3 of Dharmarakṣa’s Guang zan jing, Being the Earliest Chinese Translation of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā. (Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, 8). Tokyo: The International Research Institute of Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.

05 January 2024

We Will Never Know What Language the Buddha Spoke

“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Stefan Karpik (2023) has proposed that “serious attention be given to the Theravada tradition that the Buddha spoke Pali” (2023: 41). Both this and an earlier paper (Karpik 2019) make linguistic arguments about the Pāli language, arriving at conclusions that question the existing paradigm on the history of Pāli and its relation to other Prakrits. Karpik then argues that these new conclusions tell that the Buddha spoke Pāli. In this essay, I will review these papers and some related material. In this first section I'll outline a broad response to the claim that we can know what language the Buddha spoke, in the context of some responses to Karpik and a resume of the milieu that he has emerged from. I'll identify some unexamined assumptions that Karpik makes (in common with others in his milieu). In the next section, I'll consider the historicity of the Buddha, then the issue of historicity itself. Finally, I will make some remarks about historical facts that can be gleaned from Pāli texts and then conclude with a summary.

My first response to Karpik (2019a, 2023) is that, while the philological methods that Karpik employs allow him to make interesting and even compelling conjectures about the history of Pāli, these methods do not allow him to infer anything at all about what language the Buddha spoke without relying on some major assumptions that I don't find interesting, let alone compelling. Something I will reiterate below is that the issue of what language the Buddha spoke is entirely extrinsic to the issues of the history of Pāli. Karpik's conclusions are compatible with literally any position on the historicity of the Buddha. However, the historicity of the Buddha is the hill that he has chosen to die on.

The reasons for rejecting his conclusions are obvious. Karpik accepts the modern consensus that the Buddha lived in the fifth century BCE. There is simply no evidence related to the Buddha from this period or within about 500 years of this date. All that we think we know comes from Buddhist scripture composed in a later period and how we interpret scripture depends on which assumptions we make and/or do not make. And such assumptions are not explored in Karpik's articles. The date itself is based on a series of assumptions and speculative interpretations of Buddhist scripture. Moveover, there is no evidence of any language other than Sanskrit and a Northwestern Prakrit being spoken at that time (this evidence comes from the Sanskrit Grammarians Yāska and Pāṇini). It's interesting to see Karpik relying on a consensus on dates, when his project is to undermine another consensus amongst virtually the same small group of scholars. 

The simple fact is that there is no evidence from that time period on which we can base a history of the Buddha. This is not to say that the myth of the Buddha as found in Buddhist texts is not important. Nor do I argue that the Buddha did not exist. We cannot base an argument for the historicity of the Buddha on the evidence we have, since it all comes from religious texts composed long after the time in question, and then only according to particular, biased, readings of those texts. We simply don't know. 

There has been little response to Karpik (2019a) from academics working in the field already. The notable exception is from Bryan Levman. Levman has been actively publishing on the history of Pāli for some years (2008, 2010a, 2010b, 2016, 2019, 2020a, 2020b, 2021, 2022, 2023). Levman's (2019) critique of Karpik (2019a) on philological grounds is the most extensive response and strongly argues against Karpik and for the utility of the current consensus.

Karpik seems to have been given a "right of reply" to Levman since his rebuttal appears in the same issue of JOCBS. Karpik (2019b) repudiates all of Levman's points and criticises him quite severely for ignoring facts, using faulty methods, and even misunderstanding linguistic technical terms. Note that these are serious accusations in an academic context: Karpik implies that Levman is incompetent.

While I don't entirely follow (or care about) the linguistic arguments, the idea that someone as well versed in this topic as Levman got everything wrong and effectively doesn't understand his area of expertise seems far-fetched. On the other hand, my research on the Heart Sutra shows that such situations in which the "experts" in Buddhist Studies are flatly wrong about everything are certainly possible. So I'm not a priori against the idea, but the proposition that Levman is substantially wrong on the facts is prima facie unlikely. Edward Conze was a charlatan of the first order, but Levman seems on the level to me.

Other responses have been cursory. Mark Allon (2021) mentions Karpik (2019a) in passing, grouping him with Richard Gombrich and others who believe, without evidence, that the Buddha spoke Pāli. Allon, a leading expert on Middle Indic, certainly does not seem to take Karpik's argument seriously. Similarly, Roderick Bucknell (2022), another expert on Middle Indic, mentions Karpik (2019) but only in passing. He seems unpersuaded as well. 

In the end, I don't know enough about linguistics to adjudicate on the linguistic issues. I think Karpik could be right. I found his articles persuasive. I also found Levman persuasive and he could be right as well. That said, I think I do understand the historical points that Karpik seeks to make and I note that Levman shares many of Karpik's presuppositions on this matter. It is this historical aspect of Karpik's articles that I will be addressing.

Karpik's contributions have emerged from a particular milieu based in Oxford, UK. Richard Gombrich founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS)—until recently associated with Oxford University—in 2004 to promote the study of Buddhism. Gombrich was also instrumental in founding the Numata chair in Buddhist Studies at Oxford, now held by Kate Crosby.

When Gombrich retired as director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (OCBS) in 2020, Wynne was anointed his successor (I gather from Gombrich that he was the only candidate). They co-edited the OCBS journal (JOCBS) in 2019 and then Wynne took over in 2020. Wynne (2006) had already contributed to the "debate" on the Buddha's language, concluding:

"I therefore agree with Rhys Davids, and disagree with sceptics such as Sénart, Kern and Schopen, that the internal evidence of early Buddhist literature proves its historical authenticity." (65)

Wynne (2006: 66) ends on a characteristically pugnacious note: "The claim that we cannot know anything about early Indian Buddhism because all the manuscripts are late is vacuous, and made, I assume, by those who have not studied the textual material thoroughly." Like Karpik, then, Wynne sees the people whose interpretation of scripture conflicts with his as not merely wrong, but as incompetent. He apparently believes that no one could read the same scriptures as he has and come to a different conclusion. Which would be a first in the history of interpreting religious scripture if it were true. 

In a more recent JOCBS article, Wynne (2019a: abstract) states that "early Buddhist discourses are largely authentic, and can be regarded as a reasonably accurate historical witness." Wynne certainly proves that this is his belief, but his conclusions are based on a reading of Buddhist texts that assumes their authenticity and the historicity of the Buddha. Wynne (2019b) has also weighed in, via a JOCBS editorial, on the specific topic of the language the Buddha spoke. Again the assumption throughout is that the Buddha is historical and that the Pāli suttas are a "reasonably accurate historical witness".

Also emerging from the Oxford milieu are two notable longer works. An extensive apologetic tract by Therāvadin bhikkhus Sujato and Brahmali (2013), published as a supplement to JOCBS 5, which again assumes the historicity of the Buddha and the authenticity of the the Pāli Canon and then presents evidence that "proves" the authenticity of the Pāli texts.*

* Sujato has recently stated that he is "not Theravādin", though he still uses his Theravāda ordination name, still wears Theravāda robes, and still allows people to refer to him using Theravādin honorifics like "Bhante" and "Venerable". Given that he was kicked out of the lineage that ordained him, one wonders why he persists in the fiction that he is a bhikkhu at all.

And Gombrich's (2018) own contribution, which also supports the idea that the Buddha was probably historical and that Pāli was probably the language he spoke. Gombrich, a good Popperian, leaves room for doubt.

To date, all of Karpik's publications have been in JOCBS under Wynne's editorship.

I will happily stipulate that Karpik (2019a) makes an interesting and persuasive argument for Pāli being the ur-language of the Pāli canon. Similarly for his argument that Pāli was a single language with natural variations rather than a koine or argot; that it need not reflect an artificial language or a mashup of dialects, and that at least some suttas were probably composed in Pāli. I am persuaded of the possibility of a community of Buddhists in India using Pāli in daily life and recording their ideas about Buddhism in that language. The idea that texts were composed in some other language and translated into Pāli does look questionable. Karpik (2023) extends this argument to include the Asoka inscriptions under the heading of Pāli.

What puzzles me is why Karpik, Gombrich, Wynne, and even Levman, all think that their conclusions about the history of Pāli, or even conclusions of this general type, have any bearing at all on the problem of what language the Buddha spoke. Knowing what language the Pāli texts were composed in or knowing the relationship between that language and the language of the Asokan edicts tells us nothing at all about the Buddha. I can’t see that one has any bearing on the other, except when we assume a priori that it does. As Karpik explains, in criticising Levman, when the assumption leads the conclusion:

This is a circular argument known as "begging the question" or petitio principii, where one assumes what one wishes to prove in order to prove it.

Karpik accuses Levman of relying on this informal fallacy. It is obvious, however, that this same fallacy is central to Karpik's historical arguments about "the Buddha". The unexamined assumptions that Karpik appears to rely on include:

(1) that the historicity of the Buddha, qua founder of Buddhism, is not in doubt

(2) that the Pāli literature faithfully records the utterances of the “historical Buddha”

(3) that the Pāli literature can be taken literally 

(4) that the Asoka inscription have some clear relation to spoken language in different parts of India at the time.

Let us try to see, then, the role these assumptions play in Karpik's articles. 

On the Historicity of the Buddha

As already noted, Karpik’s method leans heavily on the assumed historicity of the Buddha. For example, “The Buddha would have known of the precise transmission of the Vedic texts” (2019: 17). I’m not sure how Karpik knows this and he doesn’t say. My impression is that Brahmins learned the Vedas in private and that their mnemonic methods were not used by Buddhists because they did not know about them. There is no mention of such techniques in the Pāli texts to my knowledge (and as it happens I have comprehensively studied references to Brahmanical religious belief and practice in the four Nikāyas for an unpublished article).

A few pages later: “The evidence suggests a single, intentionally fluid, oral transmission from the Buddha.” (19). I agree that he has made a case for oral transmission, but “from the Buddha” is not a conclusion that he draws from the evidence presented. Rather, “from the Buddha” relies on a background assumption about the Buddha and his role in founding Buddhism. The evidence presented does not speak to this issue at all.

Stories about the kings mentioned in the Pāli are discussed as though they, too, are historical. We see statements like, "In the Buddha’s day, king Pasenadi of Kosala and king Ajātasattu of Magadha had each defeated the other in battle (J II.237)" (Karpik 2019a: 21). Just as for the Buddha, there is no evidence that either Pasenadi or Ajātasattu is historical, and no evidence for battles between them other than stories in scripture.

Note that the source Karpik cites here is a Jātaka story. The Jātaka and Avadāna literature is explicitly allegorical and/or mythological in character and predicated on (the supernatural) idea of the Buddha "remembering his past lives". And yet Karpik's interpretation of this literature is presented as an equally reliable and valid source of historical information as, say, the suttas. Karpik seems to accord this special status to every text that he cites in support of his thesis. And at this point his brutal methodological criticism of Levman starts to look disingenuous, since Karpik himself appears to be unclear on what kind of inferences his own methods can validate.

Another example occurs in Karpik's (2019b) rebuttal of Levman (2019):

In common with MOTT (Multiple Oral Transmission Theory) advocates, Levman gives no account of why the underlying layer was discarded and lost, despite repeated injunctions in the suttas to memorise them to the letter (Karpik 2019: 14-15). (Emphasis added)

Here again, Karpik is interpreting scripture rather than putting forward an argument based on evidence. His argument is that certain religious texts say it should not happen, therefore it cannot have happened. But this reasoning is clearly faulty, even at a common sense level.

Gregory Schopen has noted that where we have archaeological evidence for early monasticism, it almost invariably contradicts the texts. Wynne (2006) argued that Schopen's scepticism—he always sides with archaeology over texts—is "extreme" and takes the opposite view, that the texts are usually trustworthy. At best the conflict between text and archaeology leaves us with unresolveable uncertainty. Note that the scholars who seem loathe to acknowledge this uncertainty are all practising Theravādins or Theravāda-adjacent. Note also that the disagreement seems to take the form of denunciation. The suggestion is always that those who argue that we don't know and cannot know are somehow disingenuous, "extremist", and/or incompetent. While it seldom rises to the level of an ad hominem fallacy, the language used is not consistent with academic standards of discourse.

Karpik's (2019a) discussion then turns to the subject of where the Buddha lived and taught, as though the Pāli texts straightforwardly describe his actual life. Karpik provides four pages of charts of locations attributed to suttas, and simply treats these as factual records of where the Buddha visited. He even notes Schopen’s (2004) article outlining his discovery of a Buddhist Vinaya text that shows that locations were allowed to be made up when they were missing. And, of course, they were/are missing in very many cases.

It is, of course, true that the Buddha is popularly believed to be an historical figure. No one denies this. Interestingly, Bryan Levman shares Karpik's belief on this score. However, as David Drewes (2017) has pointed out, academic historiography has a rather higher bar for historicity than religious or popular belief and, all things considered, the Buddha does not meet this bar.

We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. Stuck in this awkward situation, scholars have rarely been able to avoid the temptation to offer some suggestion as to what was likely, or ‘must’ have been, true about him. By the time they get done, we end up with a flesh and blood person – widely considered to be one of the greatest human beings ever to have lived – conjured up from little more than fancy (Drewes 2017: 1).

A straw man argument that we commonly see employed against Drewes, is that he argues that "the Buddha didn't exist". This fake argument was raised, for example, by leading Middle-Indic scholar, Oskar von Hinüber (2019: abstract):

David Drewes reviewed the opinions of a number of western Buddhologists on whether or not the Buddha was a historical person and in conclusion claimed that the Buddha never existed." (Emphasis added)

Actually this is not true. Drewes never makes this claim and what he does say is far more nuanced:

Although the idea that the Buddha cannot be considered a historical figure may seem radical, my argument is really a minor one. Though there has long been an industry devoted to the production of sensational claims about the Buddha, nothing about him has ever been established as fact, and the standard position in scholarship has long been that he is a figure about whom we know nothing. My only real suggestion is that we make the small shift from speaking of an unknown, contentless Buddha to accepting that we do not have grounds for speaking of a historical Buddha at all (2017: 19)

Drewes is writing for academic historians not for religious believers. However, this distinction is often blurred in Buddhist Studies because so many Buddhist Studies scholars are heavily invested in normative Buddhist traditions (e.g. Gombrich, Wynne, Sujato, Brahmali, and Karpik). Academic historians not having grounds to use the term "historical Buddha" is not the same thing as saying "the Buddha never existed". What Drewes says boils down to this: academic historians don't know and we should stop saying "we know".

The specific category error of mistaking an epistemic argument ("we don't know") for a metaphysical argument ("he doesn't exist") is so common in Buddhist thought and academic Buddhist Studies that it ought to have a name. This fallacy poisons all of Edward Conze's work, for example. And most of the commentary on the doctrine of anātman. Highlighting this fallacy and correcting it is central to my own revisionist history project on the Heart Sutra. I believe we would get closer to the truth of Buddhism by abandoning all metaphysical claims related to Buddhism and reframing them as epistemic or phenomenological observations. While this is still a minority view, there are some interesting academic contributions such as Hamilton (2000), Shulman (2008), Gombrich (2009), Heim & Ram-Prasad (2018), and Jones (2022).

Not only does von Hinüber (2019) misrepresent Drewes' conclusion, but his method of validating his own claims consists entirely of interpreting scripture. In one sense, then, von Hinüber's article ought to give Karpik heart, since it shows that even the most educated and highly regarded experts are capable of serious missteps. On the other hand, when we pay attention to what Drewes actually says, it clearly vitiates Karpik's claims to know anything at all about the Buddha. The only (potentially) valid inferences that Karpik draws concern the history of Pāli, but even then he makes a number of unexamined assumptions about when Pāli was spoken. We—i.e. people who write about Buddhist history in academic journals—still don't know if the Buddha was a real person or not. His historicity certainly fits certain religious presuppositions, but the arguments in favour of it all involve interpreting scripture.

Drewes is not arguing for one position over another here. He is arguing that we don't have enough information to take any position. As historians, we may choose to indulge in speculation when evidence is lacking, but this has to be clearly marked as such so as not to confuse readers. An inference drawn from interpreting evidence is significantly more meaningful than speculation based on interpreting scripture or speculation designed to mask a lack of evidence.

Drewes points out that that this distinction is seldom if ever drawn in Buddhist Studies. Certainly, Karpik does not make this distinction. At the very least, speculative conclusions must be hedged ("it appears...", "it seems...", "it may be the case..."). Notably, Gombrich (2018) does this. Karpik's choice of language suggests certainty, i.e. that this is a valid conclusion based on clear evidence. How can anyone be certain that their interpretation of scripture amounts to a fact? 

Similarly, Jonathan Walters (1999: 248) notes:

I think it is fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda there has been a marked shift away from attempting to say much of anything at all about “early Buddhism”… more recent scholars have tended to regard early Buddhism as unknowable.

Walters goes on to demonstrate the kinds of historical facts that can be obtained from studying suttas. They are records of something after all. The argument is over what they are records of and when. Long experience of dealing with religious texts tells us that the parsimonious approach is to take the texts as reflecting the beliefs of the community that wrote down the stories. For example, we could say with some confidence that the authors of the Pāli canon believed that the Buddha was an historical character. But then we have to put this in the context of their belief system, their worldview. Karpik appears to share that Iron Age worldview and treat it as self-evident and this blinds him.

On Historicity

There are numerous facts that can be stipulated for the sake of exploring this issue. There certainly was a period of Indian history, beginning in the seventh or sixth centuries BCE and extending over several centuries, known as the Second Urbanisation; the first urbanisation being the Indus Valley civilisation. The cities named in Pāli suttas correspond in many ways to archaeological sites associated with the Second Urbanisation (though most were only found with the help of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang's  seventh century travelogue).

All this tells us is that the stories in the suttas were composed after the second urbanisation was well underway, when all the named cities were well established and prosperous. That is to say, some time in the latter half of the first millennium BCE. Since they don't mention Asoka, we may infer (though we don't know) that the composition of new suttas in Pāli had ceased by the mid-third century BCE at the latest. Though composition of Buddhist texts per se in India continued apace while there was life in Buddhism. 

The archaeology of the Second Urbanisation has a striking feature that Karpik might have cited in support of his thesis but did not. This is the "two cultures" hypothesis. The exposition of this hypothesis in Geoffrey Samuel (2008) is useful and still the best I have read. Based largely on the distribution of ceramic technology, we see two distinct cultures in Northern India at this time: one in the west consistent with the Brahmin's home territory (the Kurukṣetra or Āryavarta), and one centred on the central Ganges Valley consistent with the cities of the second urbanisation. It seems to me that the relative uniformity of the material culture of the region is a sign that we might expect the kind of linguistic uniformity that Karpik proposes. Since this is evidence from the actual time he wishes to discuss, it is surprising that Karpik overlooks it. Still, none of this evidence supports Karpik's assumptions about the Buddha.

Similarly, the geography described in Pāli suttas, the fauna and flora, are all quite accurate where they pertain to the material world. Of course, the Pāli literature is a religious literature and as such it does not limit itself to describing the material world. Alongside descriptions that appear consistent with a modernist worldview, we can read in detail about places such as Brahmaloka, numerous Devalokas, and Niraya, the Buddhist hell. Brahmās, devas, and asuras are every bit as "real" as human beings in Pāli suttas. Our human world, which is incidentally flat, is said to be comprised of four continents arranged symmetrically around Mt Meru. Alongside descriptions of elephants and cattle, we read about nāga, yakkha, gandhabba, kiṃnāra, and many other supernatural species. 

While modern scholars, including Karpik, are apt to exploit this natural/supernatural distinction and interpret natural and supernatural descriptions on different criteria, it’s not clear from the texts themselves that the authors of the texts made this distinction. There is no shift in linguistic register, for example, when describing Sāvatthī or Brahmāloka; or between elephant and yakkha. If we look at the Buddhist traditions of Asia and Southeast Asia, living Buddhists tend not to make this distinction, either. 

The worldview of the Pāli authors, like other Iron Age societies we know about, was suffused with supernatural entities and magical forces. Part of the appeal of the figure of the Buddha was his "shamanic" ability to master the supernatural, to travel to a devaloka or brahmaloka and converse with the inhabitants. And so on. The Buddha of the Pāli canon regularly performs miracles and magical feats.

If the Pāli descriptions of the material world were truly "authentic", then we would have to accept the proposition that their descriptions of the supernatural world are also authentic, since the texts themselves don't make any distinction between them. 

Karpik and the others who argue for the historical authenticity of the Pāli suttas tacitly bracket out the Pāli texts and passages that don't conform to their view of history and pretend that they don't matter. They also pretend that making such distinctions is uncomplicated, mere common sense. They proceed as though the criteria by which they make this distinction need not even be stated, let alone justified. 

The idea that the Buddha is "historical" or that the texts are "authentic" requires a biased and motivated reading of the texts which eliminates anything "non-historical" or "non-authentic" (without ever offering, let alone discussing formal definitions); and the corollary is that whatever is left from this motivated winnowing is "reliably historical and authentic". That is to say, it is only by consciously exercising a modern bias that such scholars can make and sustain historical claims through interpreting this ancient literature. 

There are numerous problematic absences in the archaeological record. As already noted, no physical evidence from the relevant period has ever been associated with any person named in the Pāli suttas, let alone the Buddha. If there was ever a king of Magadha named Ajātasatthu, for example, he left no evidence behind: no artefacts, no architecture, no coins, no inscriptions, and he is not mentioned outside of Buddhist scripture. There is no external corroboration of his existence from non-Buddhist literature of the period. Nor of any other character mentioned in the suttas.

Arguments from absence are notoriously weak since "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". On the other hand, and this is David Drewes' point, the absence of evidence means we cannot draw any definite conclusions. As historians we must respect such epistemic limits. Where the historical record is silent we are left with uncertainty. Speculating to fill this gap is certainly fun, but taking our own speculations as facts is not consistent with good methodology. Karpik does not seem to understand this. 

We can contrast this with the situation for Asoka. His dates are frequently cited as absolute and other events are dated relative to his dates. However, these dates are far from certain. The reconstruction of the names of Greco-Bactrian kings in Edict no. 14 is certainly plausible and even persuasive. Moreover, there are numerous inscriptions whose texts are plausibly attributed to Asoka. There are artefacts from the time period that correspond to a wealthy and powerful king. The pillar edicts must have been enormously expensive to make and suggest the kind of wealth that only an emperor could command. The consensus, based on this evidence, is that Asoka was an historical person who lived in the mid third century BCE (with some error bars). No such evidence for the historicity of the Buddha has ever been presented and Karpik certainly does not add to our knowledge in this respect. Rather, he assumes the historicity of the Buddha and proceeds as though his presupposition is a self-evident truth. 

When we look at Buddhist historiography, a lot of it is stuck in the Victorian Imperialist conceit known as the "great man of history fallacy". This the idea that history is a description of the lives of a series of so-called "great men" who shaped their times. This is how Victorian gentleman scholars saw themselves. Enriched by the British Empire (a vast and merciless pirate enterprise dedicated to robbing the world), they saw no value in women, people of colour, or the working classes; these classes of people were simply there to be manipulated and exploited by "great men". History is a canvas, our lives are the pigments, and great men the artists. 

In this fallacy, great men operate outside the usual constraints of society, rather in the manner of a Nietzschean übermensch (or its modern equivalent, the self-interested "Randian hero"). This fallacy is universally repudiated by modern historians outside of Buddhist Studies. However, in Buddhist Studies, many authors simply cannot imagine the history of Buddhism in any other paradigm except the great man fallacy. And those who are not focussed on the Buddha are almost invariably fixated on Nāgārjuna or some other magical figure who is imagined as having no connection to Indian history, generally. Buddhism is presented as the story of a series of influential men without any attempt to contextualise them (often because they are not really historical, either).

One result of this overall bias in Buddhist Studies is that differences great and small within Pāli texts, and between them and other early Buddhist texts, are routinely glossed over in favour of the idea of "an underlying unity". And, this "underlying unity", is then supposed to be evidence that points to historicity of the Buddha. I have never understood the "underlying unity" argument since, having read the suttas, it is apparent that no such unity exists. There is far too much pluralism and internal contradiction within the Pāli literature for this argument to be coherent. By contrast, the arguments for the earliness of the Suttanipāta seem rest on on the heterogeneity of the Pāli canon; i.e. because the Suttanipāta (or parts of it) is different, it must be early. So much for "underlying unity" if the past was actually more heterogeneous than the present.

While there are minimal attempts to see the great man, known as "the Buddha", in his social, political, and economic context, such attempts are inevitably in the service of asserting the Buddha's historicity. No attempt is made to consider social, political, or economic factors in the birth of Buddhism, and the fact is that very little such information exists. Karpik doesn't bother with archaeology, even when it would support his case. Indeed, Buddhist historians typically shy away from causal explanations entirely, preferring descriptive accounts that have no explanatory value. Very few Buddhist Studies scholars are interested in explaining Buddhism and its developments, or the relations between Buddhists and other sects. Several scholars (notably Gombrich and Bronkhorst) have discussed the relationship between so-called "early Buddhism" and the religion of the Late Vedic period, but even this often takes the form of speculating about the influence of Brahmanism on the Buddha (rather than on Buddhism). A work like Ronald Davidson's (2002) history of Tantra that discusses socio-political contributions to the emergence of Tantra in Indian religions is extremely rare and thus valuable. But then scholars of Pāli are unlikely to ever look at is, since its outside their silo. 


Another unexamined assumption in Karpik (2019) is that Pāli is old enough to have existed at the putative time of the Buddha. Karpik accepts the consensus that emerged from the Bechert conference on the dates of the Buddha, which concluded that the Buddha died ca. 400 BCE and thus lived in the fifth century BCE. These dates are entirely based on interpreting normative Buddhist texts and there is no evidence whatever of Buddhism from the fifth century BCE. Evidence of Buddhism begins to appear around the time of Asoka, in the 3rd century BCE.

In fact, the oldest extant Pāli text is from the fifth or sixth century CE (Stargardt 1995), some 800-1000 years after the putative death of the Buddha (based on the Bechert consensus). Buddhaghosa composed his commentaries in Pāli, but he was also from the fifth century. The idea that Pāli existed prior to the fifth century CE is conjectural and largely based on normative Theravāda religious tradition. This is not to say that Pāli is not older, but that there is some uncertainty that must be acknowledged by those who chose to write on this topic. Even if we stipulate the historicity of the Buddha (for the sake of argument) the idea that Pāli goes back to the Buddha's time is still a matter of popularly accepted conjecture rather than a matter of established fact.

By comparison, the evidence for texts written in Gāndhārī is very much older, with some manuscripts and inscriptions dated to the second century BCE. The bulk of the Gāndhārī corpus, such as it is, dates from the early centuries of the Common Era (after which the use of Kharoṣṭhī script ceased in India). The Gāndhārī literature, as fragmentary as it is, is obviously much older and at the same time much more diverse, than the Theravāda canon, since it includes Mahāyāna texts.

For example, we have a partial and fragmented birchbark manuscript of the quintessential Mahāyāna text, Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, written in Gāndhārī using Kharoṣṭhī script that is carbon-dated to ca 70 CE ± ~50 years (Falk & Karashima 2012, 2013). Moreover, there is a Chinese translation of this text dated to 179 CE. Again, this is considerably older than the first evidence for the use of Pāli. But this is still not evidence from the fifth century BCE.

The Chinese never received transmission of a coherent body of literature reflecting a Buddhist canon. A physical canon, in the sense of an actual collection of all the texts in the catalogues, didn't exist in China until after the eighth century CE and then it was a local creation based on centuries of bibliographic scholarship. During the first few centuries of the Common Era, texts arrived in China in piecemeal fashion, seemingly at random. As the trickle became a flood, resulting in thousands of translated texts, still no existing canon or sutrapiṭaka arrived whole. While the Chinese did receive the idea of a canon with traditional categories—sutra, vinaya, abhidharma, śāstra, etc—they did not receive an exemplar of such a thing. This is in stark contrast to the countries proselytised by Theravādins. Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Thailand all received and preserved the same canon of texts.

In the end, the Chinese had to create their own canon, and this took several centuries to attain a satisfactory internal coherence. Tibetans also had to invent their own canon from scratch and received perhaps 10% of the extant Pāli suttapiṭaka and then as individual texts rather than as part of a canon. Notably the extant Gāndhārī manuscripts, copied in the centuries spanning the beginning of the Common Era, don't seem to form a canon either. Gāndhārī Āgama texts were not translated into Chinese until the fourth or fifth century and even then the different Āgama collections arrived and were translated separately. If there was a Pāli canon in India, it seems not to have been available to any Chinese pilgrims. These simple facts are inconsistent with the Theravāda version of history.

So why do scholars continue to cite the earlier existence of Pāli and the Pāli canon as an uncontested fact and (in the case of Wynne 2006) refer to dissenting opinions (like mine) as "vacuous"? As far as I can see this claim is based on interpreting the Mahāvaṃsa, a traditional Theravāda (i.e religious) history probably composed in the fifth century CE in Sri Lanka (i.e. hundreds of years and thousands of miles away from the time and place it purports to describe), but purporting to describe a history going back to the Buddha. As with canonical Pāli texts, there is no distinction between natural and supernatural in the Mahāvaṃsa. Modernist scholars tease out the aspects that don't overtly mention the supernatural and treat them as straightforwardly true. This is a methodological bias. It is anachronistic. to say the least, since it assumes that ancient authors made modern distinctions that are certainly not reflected in the Pāli literature.

As far as I can see, the dating of Pāli is not based on evidence; it is based on a biased interpretation of scripture. Again, this is not to say that Pāli was not spoken in the second urbanisation, only that this is not an argument from evidence. It is speculative and should be clearly marked as such. Such speculations seem more plausible to religieux than they do to historians, for obvious reasons.

Buddhists Studies seems to exist in a methodological vacuum (aka the "silo mentality"). Many scholars appear to think, for example, that Buddhist Studies is not part of Religious Studies and shares no methods or theory with the broader field. While it is true that early Buddhism specialists now routinely study the Chinese Āgama translations, this is largely in the service of interpreting Pali and little or no attempt is made, at least by Pāli scholars, to understand Chinese Buddhism or Chinese culture. Having had to make some attempts in this direction, I can only say that after 10 years I have barely scratched the surface.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Silk (2015, 2021, 2022) has raised serious doubts about the idea that philological methods developed to interpret the Bible are straightforwardly applicable to Buddhist texts. But then Silk mainly writes about Mahāyāna texts rather than Pāli, so Pāli scholars simply ignore him. Most scholars of Early Buddhism appear to think that Buddhism is exceptional, even unique, and best studied in isolation from questions of history, anthropology, sociology, and ethnology.

Anyone who has studied Pāli grammar knows that it is a composite language. Grammatical suffixes are (mercifully) simpler than in Classical Sanskrit, but there are numerous alternative forms of declensions, such as ablatives in -ā, -asmā, and -amhā. Pāli shows clear influence from at least two Middle Indic languages. For example, forms like seyyathā (Skt tadyathā) or yebhuyya (Skt yad bhūya) do not conform to the general rules of Pāli phonology. Se and ye derive from Sanskrit pronouns tad and yad; and in Pāli we expect, and generally find, so and yo). Such forms are currently explained as coming from the "Māgadhī Prakrit" since parallels are found in the Asoka Edicts associated with Magadha. 

Karpik suggests that a good analogy for the varieties of language spoken in the North India ca 400 BCE would be US versus British English. This clearly does not work for extant Gāndhārī and Pāli texts written down some centuries later (i.e. the actual evidence). The relationship between these two is more like that between the Scandinavian languages. A Swede and a Norwegian can converse without too much difficulty and both can read Danish. However, they struggle to understand spoken Danish. Similarly, a working knowledge of Pāli is not sufficient to read Gāndhārī (I've tried), and as spoken languages the two were probably mutually unintelligible. One has to specifically learn Gāndhārī in order to understand it.

Pāli also shows signs of influence from Sanskrit, both in loan words such as brāhmaṇa and in Sanskritised grammatical inflexions. The Brahmanical influence on Buddhism is obvious, and easily explained by pointing out that many of the legendary followers of the Buddha are said to be Brahmins, not least Sāriputta and Moggallāna. It's also evident that Buddhists felt they had to compete with Brahmanism to some extent, and hence Pāli suttas are constantly pointing out the faults of (non-Buddhist) Brahmins. Such critiques are far more common and more thoroughgoing than, say, critiques of the Nigaṇṭhā sect. Here again, the Nigaṇṭhā sect is identified with Jainism, but never referred to as such in Pāli, another speculation often treated as an established fact.

Some attempts seem to have been made in antiquity to standardise the language of the suttas, but some parts of the Suttapiṭaka seem to have failed to undergo this same process. For example, we find numerous “Māgdhisms” in parts of the Suttanipāta. While the retention of odd inflexions is asserted to be evidence of antiquity, it is equally plausible to me that the text is the same age as all the rest, but simply escaped the rather clumsy standardisation we see elsewhere. While it may have been canonised late, reflected in its status as a miscellaneous text, this does not make the Suttanipāta "early".

Moreover, despite the emic view, the Theravāda sect itself does not really go back to the mythical First Council (weirdly, these councils are routinely treated as historical, even by sceptics). An etic view of the Theravāda tradition tells us that is a late an offshoot of the Vibhajjavāda movement and has undergone repeated reinvention. The ordination lineage of Sri Lanka died out twice and had to be reintroduced from Burma. The Sri Lankan Theravādins embraced both Mahāyāna and Tantra before Medieval purges created the reformed movement that we now think of as Theravāda. This movement is largely focussed on Abhidhamma thought as expressed in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga and later commentarial works composed in Sri Lanka and Burma. There is nothing very “original” about Theravāda Buddhism. Like other Buddhist sects, Theravādins moved away from reliance on buddhavacana; preferring teachings closer to their own time. We should also note that while the rubric “Theravāda” is often used in an essentialised, monolithic way, there are Theravāda lineages that don’t recognise each other’s ordinations. We have to be wary of Buddhist modernist claims, even when they come from seemingly orthodox quarters.


Stefan Karpik makes some interesting linguistic arguments, some of which may well change how we view the history of Pāli, though experts in Middle Indic languages seem to be unpersuaded to date. This is not my area of expertise, so I can only wait with interest to see how this field develops. I am certainly open to his conclusions and sympathetic with this aspect of his project.

If my experience with the Heart Sutra is any indication, Buddhist Studies experts (including those focussed on philology) can be completely wrong about important things. Literally everyone was wrong about the Heart Sutra , for example. It happens.

That said, when Karpik shifts from drawing linguistic inferences to drawing historical inferences, his methods are fundamentally flawed and his conclusions appear to simply repeat his own pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. When examined, these assumptions and biases vitiate all of his attempts at revising history in the direction of modernist Theravāda orthodoxy. These assumptions include belief in the historicity of the Buddha, belief that the historical Buddha spoke Pali. We also have to include the two contradictory beliefs that we can take the Pāli literature at face value and that we can, at the same time, exclude all the supernatural elements of that literature. There are more unexamined assumptions about how later evidence may be interpreted as evidence of an earlier time. 

What's missing from Karpik's articles is any evidence whatever from the relevant time or place as he defines it, i.e. from Northern India in the fifth century BCE. 

Those of us who write about the history of Buddhism must pay attention to the methods of modern historiography. We cannot, for example, simply plough on without any attempt to identify and counter our own manifest biases. Part of the problem is the conceit that an education in philology makes one an expert in historiography, anthropology, and archaeology. It does not. To paraphrase Mary Midgley (1979), in the field of Buddhist Studies there is now no safer occupation than talking bad history to philologers, except talking bad philology to historians.

As noted above, the very great irony here is that Karpik's views on Pāli are compatible with virtually any view on the historicity of the Buddha. It wouldn't make any difference at all to the linguistic argument if Karpik simply dropped the issue of "the Buddha's language" entirely. And it would make such arguments infinitely more plausible if he did.

These problems should have been picked up by an academic editor or in peer-review and addressed prior to publication. Unfortunately for Karpik, his editor shares exactly the same biases and prejudices, so he seems not to have been challenged on what seem to me to be egregious methodological errors. The OCBS may wish to consider whether it wishes to publish an academic journal or some other kind of publication. If JOCBS is an academic journal then academic standards apply. The editor should not use the journal as a vehicle to promote one religious sect or any religious views. Articles with obvious, unaddressed bias should be sent back to be revised, especially if they otherwise merit publication.

I opened with a famous quote from (the young) Wittgenstein: "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

I have endeavoured here to say clearly what can be said. Historians cannot speak of "the language of the Buddha", since we do not and, in all probability, cannot know what language he spoke (or if he was even a real person). We can only speak of the language of the texts that have come down to us. And by Wittgenstein's dictum we must not speak of "the language of the Buddha", except to say "we don't know what language the Buddha spoke". If we wish to speculate beyond the evidence, this must be clearly marked and distinguished from facts, and cannot be subsequently relied on as an established fact.

Assumptions, knowledge, belief, and speculation have to be clearly distinguished and identified for the readers of academic articles. No one reads an academic article to find out what the author believes; we read them to find out what the author can prove.

Finally, I want to emphasise that mine is an epistemic claim, not a metaphysical claim. The message is "we don't know" not "he/it didn't exist". With my historian hat on, I have no opinion on the existence of the Buddha. One may speculate on such metaphysical issues, but one should not try to pretend that such speculations amount to history.

Ironically, given the amount of ink spilled and the apparently strong feelings on the matter, in the end, the issue of what language the Buddha spoke has little historical significance. It appears to be raised only in furtherance of an agenda that seeks to legitimise a religious view of the past. While religious Buddhists lap this up, those of us who participate in the academic discussion of the history of Buddhism have an obligation to pay attention to and use established historical methods. 



JOCBS = Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies

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