16 March 2018

Self: The Endless Refrain

For people who ostensibly don't believe in such a thing, Buddhists talk a lot about self. Often in an unsophisticated and even naive way. Discussions on the subject, which recur endlessly in online forums and social media, tend to conflate all manner of ideas and philosophical positions, often with a view to establishing an ideological position. Many Buddhists are entranced by the idea that they don't exist, and will tell us with irony that they do not. The adoption of highly politicised techniques from Vedanta has only made it worse, as we now have wildly egotistical people telling anyone who will listen, and many who won't, that they have eliminated their ego, as if they had one before but don't now. On the other hand, people I know do seem to be getting some good results in attaining cessation and becoming self-less. But even they seem to struggle to give the experience any intellectual clarity.

As modern Buddhists we have inherited a complex of legacy ideas about self from the Asian traditions. Our Buddhism has been reinterpreted through the lens of Victorian orientalism and combined with the legacy ideas of Freud and his bastards. And in recent decades the results neuroscience investigation of selfhood have complicated the discussion. The result is widespread vagueness as to what is even meant by "self".

Given the huge range of viewpoints even within Buddhism, I doubt it is possible to bring clarity to this issue in a way that will suit everyone. However, I think the approach of treating self as an experience that we all have, and that is thus subject to the same rules as other experiences, is coherent with a majority of practice-focussed Buddhist views. 

Absolute Being

One of the massive legacy problems we have is that while Buddhism was emerging and reaching its peak, the "philosophers" of India were mostly engaged in a search for absolute being. Absolute  being is called different things by different groups: brahman, ātman, Brahmā, puruṣa, jīva, amṛta, sattva, and so on. 

Absolute being is a construct; an abstraction from mere existence. The idea seems to be that if anything exists, then we can abstract from that a kind of principle of existence, with (more or less) only the quality of being. The reasoning seems to go like this: If two things are red, then they have redness in common, so a quality "redness" must exist over and above any given instance of red. Similarly, if two things exist, then existence must be a quality that things can posses, and we can imagine an absolute being - an object whose only quality is being. The being that gives being to all beings.

The absolute in this sense is similar to Plato's noumena. It underpins phenomena, in the sense that phenomena are like projections of the noumena, an image that comes from Plato's famous analogy of shadows cast on the wall of a cave as real things pass in front of a light source. A lot of Buddhists seem to have a Platonic worldview in which a higher or transcendental reality exists and our experience of phenomena is an illusion. 

In India the idea arose in a milieu of advanced meditation. In all likelihood they were regularly able to observe the complete cessation of sense and cognitive experience while remaining conscious. When one is in this kind of state, there is awareness, but it is contentless. The Sāṃkhya view was that behind or underneath the phenomenal world exists a passive viewer, the puruṣa. Phenomena exist in a quessient state, but through ignorance may unfold into a fully fledged phenomenal world (prakṛti). Religious practices roll back those phenomena to reveal the puruṣa.
It is pure consciousness: it enjoys and witnesses Prakṛti’s activities, but does not cause them. It is characterized as the conscious subject: it is uncaused, eternal, all-pervasive, partless, self-sustaining, independent. It is devoid of the [qualities], and therefore inactive and sterile (unable to produce). IEP
This is pretty much a description of being in the state of emptiness. Nothing arises or passes away, there is no sense of time passing, no spatial sense. There is just a bare awareness that does not do anything. It often described as "luminous" and sometimes mistaken for being "primordial" or the "ground of being" and so on. Clearly, non-Buddhists were experiencing this state. Descriptions that seem related can also be found in the early Upaniṣads, for example.

Brahmins talked about absolute being in two ways. From the universal point of view, as Brahman, and from the personal point of view as ātman. And this dichotomy leads us into looking at the flaws in believing in absolute being. Modern Buddhist discourse about absolutes has been strongly influenced by Theosophy, especially through such prominent figures as D. T. Suzuki, and Edward Conze. Theosophy was and is a mystery cult loosely based on a narrow range of Indian texts in English translation. Madam Blavatsky, for example, relied heavily on Wilson's Vishnu Purana and Dowson's Hindu Classical Dictionary (Vidal 1997: 11). The influence of Theosophy on modern Buddhism is probably on a par with the influence of scholars of Indology. So, next, I will look at why absolute being is problematic. 

The Problem With Absolutes
The word “absolute” literally means something which is not relative in any way, in other words something which is beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations with anything in manifestation and surpassing any similarity of any kind with manifested and objective being. — Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK
The basic problem with all absolutes is that all humans are relative. Absolutes are eternal and don't change. We are temporal and contingent. As such, the absolute is "beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations". So how do we relate to something that is beyond the possibility of relations? How does a human being experience the absolute if all experience is temporal and contingent? And it's not just Buddhists who face this problem. How does a Christian come into relationship with God? And so on. If the acme of your religion is absolute being, then you'll never know it. 

Some kind of interface that spans both worlds is one answer. Angels, for example. Shamans are another. Or messiahs in human form. Another approach is to argue that the absolute somehow becomes "manifest" or has avatars (from the Sanskrit ava-tara "descend"). This manifestation of the absolute is usually via some black-box process, and sometimes given succor by scientists - for example, via the idea that our universe is a holographic projection from a higher dimension (which is a fancy version of Plato's cave). Note also that the absolute is usually associated with particular cognitive metaphors. The Absolute is UP in heaven; and the angels, messiahs and avatars DESCEND to earth; from spirit to matter, etc: (For more on this see Metaphors And Materialism)

The ability of meditators to experience emptiness—contentless awareness—seems to short-circuit this problem. In emptiness (śūnyatāyām), the boundaries of self fall away, the subject/object distinction breaks down, one feels connected to everything or that one is everything, time stops. There are no causes and no effects. Nothing arises, nothing passes away. In short, we seem become the absolute. Or do we?

Early Buddhists, already familiar with cessation, were highly critical of the idea that one could find the absolute in experience. They encouraged some to look for something unchanging in their experience, knowing that it could never be found. They counselled others not to bother looking. Experience is characterised by constant change, they pointed out. Therefore, you cannot experience the absolute. Even if you enter the state of emptiness through meditation, at some point the meditation ends and one begins to experience again, unless one dies in meditation. So that meditative experience is ipso facto not absolute. Others argue that even if it doesn't last, one is "in touch" with the absolute while one is in that state. We may be temporal, but the absolute is always there to dip into. Later Buddhists developed more sophisticated critiques against this view. If something exists absolutely then we must always experience it, or never experience it. That the experience comes and goes denies that the absolute can be experienced. In other words, if the absolute were able to be experienced in any way, we would, ipso facto, always experience it and experience nothing else.

This is more or less the Advaita Vedanta argument, except that they propose that we mistake this experience of the absolute for something else. How one could mistake the absolute for the relative is anybody's guess. The very nature of the absolute means that there is an absolute and unmistakable distinction between absolute and relative. Errors of this kind ought to be impossible rather than ubiquitous. 

However, having been in the state of emptiness, one may find that the world doesn't come back the way it was. One might feel that the bounded self, the sense of ownership, the internal monologue are all attenuated or absent. Without a sense of ownership over experience, the push and pull of desires and aversions have no momentum. Mental suffering (cetasika-dukkha), as distinct from physical pain (kāyika-dukkha), may well cease. One may be left in a state of ongoing bliss. The transformation wrought by the experience of (what we call) emptiness continues to inform Indian religious culture even today. And it is starting to inform Modern Buddhist culture to much greater extent as more people speak openly about the experience of cessation/emptiness.

That said, India religious culture, like European culture, has its scholastic side. Arguments about the number of devas you could balance on the head of a pin were formulated and considered. Such discussions tend to reify experience and hypostatise it. Events become entities. Similes become propositions. Metaphors and abstractions become concrete. Jokes lose their punch lines. Descriptions of the experience of emptiness became thoroughly entangled with metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality, the role of consciousness in world, and the whole mess we are familiar with in European philosophy. The bullshit-fest was, if anything, more elaborate in India. Then Buddhism came to Europe and mated with the European tradition, spawning modernist Buddhism or Buddhist modernism depending on your point of view (perhaps both).

There is a fork in the road here. Either we can go down the root of detailed arguments about the pros and cons of this or that philosophical view on self, repeating historic arguments and probably never coming to a conclusion. Or we could short-circuit the whole thing and decide to rethink the idea of self. I think the former approach has had a good run and it's time for something new. 

Does the Self Exist?

When we use a word like "self", it comes loaded with presuppositions and assumptions, few of which ever make it to the light of day. So, asking such a question is never straightforward. Which self are we talking about? But we can short-circuit the discussion, to some extent, by arguing that, whether or not some kind of entity corresponds to it, we definitely all experience ourselves as selves. We start out with a first person perspective on experience; i.e., the feeling or thought that sensory experience is "happening to me", that the sensations are "my sensations", and that this body I inhabit is the location of "my experience". 

We don't have direct access to anyone else's experience or their point of view. We can infer that they have experiences in the same way that we do (the intentional stance, or theory of mind). Experience appears to have an object (i.e., to be "intentional") and a subject. And this dichotomy is encoded in the grammar of all human languages, leading to universal theories of language and grammar.

But if we look closely at this first-person perspective we find that it is not based on an entity. The first person perspective is relatively easy to disrupt. And the ways that it malfunctions suggest that it must be virtual rather than real. Our sense of self can become distorted or attenuated in meditation, for example, or through taking tiny quantities of psychedelic drugs. Just a few micrograms of LSD is enough to seriously disrupt one's sense of self.  Applying strong magnetic fields that disrupt the brain can do the same. Our brain generates our first person perspective on experience as part of conscious experience and disrupting brain function has predictable consequences for our sense of self. We learn that self is not essential or inherent in consciousness, because we can have experiences without any sense of self.

What is Experience?

Experience is part of a virtual model of the world, generated by the brain, which creates a simplified simulacrum that enables us to function efficiently in the world (finding food, finding mates, avoiding predators, etc.) We might then ask, what is the ontological status of a virtual model? In other words, do experiences exist or not? Are they real or unreal? I don't think mainstream philosophy has made much progress on this. Early Buddhists already recognised some of the difficulties involved.

Although it is not explicit, it seems to me, after long reading of Pāḷi suttas, that the authors must have believed in a mind-independent objective world. They say nothing about it, but there are some hints. For example, they say that experience is like an illusion (māyopama). This simile makes no sense unless there is a contrast with something that is not like an illusion; in other words, something real. This real world held no attractions or interest for the communities of men and women who were spending time in states induced by meditation. For them it became clear that, in talking about experience, it wasn't helpful to characterise it as either existent or non-existent, as real or unreal. The nature of the object of perception was more or less irrelevant to their project because one of the principles they embraced was turning away from sense experience, from contact with the mind-independent world.

Experience is a subset of everything. It is not separate from reality, but included in it. However, mind-independent objects and mental objects (from a first person perspective) follow different rules. No matter how convinced you are that you can fly, if you jump off a tall building you will inexorably plummet to the ground. Gravity is not a matter of belief. But you can imagine or dream that you can fly. You can, at times, experience yourself flying. Or to be more precise, you can virtually experience it. Here, the precise meaning of "virtual" is important.

"Virtual" comes from the same root as virile and virtue. It means "excellent, potent, efficacious." (from the same root we get Sanskrit vīra "man, warrior". However, in the mid 15th Century, the word "virtual" began to be used in the sense "being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact" (OEtD). When we dream we can fly, we may completely suspend disbelief and experience it as if we were flying, though in reality we are not flying. "Virtual" here, then, means as if.

Experience is a virtual representation of the world, created by our brains, that feels as if it is real. So real that most of the time we don't notice. So real that we take experience to be reality. Some philosophers even argue that the distinction I'm making is not useful and we are in fact experiencing reality. Those people have apparently never taken drugs or done meditation.

If experience is a virtual reality, and selfhood (or the first person perspective on experience) is a kind of experience, then selfhood is part of a virtual reality. Not real; not unreal; but virtual. As if real.

Metaphysics versus Phenomenology

Some of my friends phrase this distinction as the difference between a metaphysical self and a phenomenal self. I'm not always sure what they mean by this. But I presume that by "metaphysical" they mean existent. In other words, this is another way of talking about self as an entity. This is so easily ruled out that we don't need to consider it. The self could not be an entity and behave the way it does. 

By phenomenal self, I take my friends to be talking about the first-person perspective on experience. On the whole, I try to avoid calling this "a self". The trouble with this type of language is that it can be all too easily mistaken for some kind of metaphysical stance. We try to fudge things by saying "there is a phenomenal self", but people just hear "there is a... self". By referring to our sense of selfhood, or our sense of being a self, we can avoid this, to some extent. But to be accurate, most of the time I am actually thinking about a first-person perspective on experience rather than a self. I'm not sure that "self" is even a useful word for this. I'm sure that "soul" is completely the wrong word. 

One might argue that the perspective has to be someone's perspective although I don't think this is helpful. The first-person perspective is a function of having sense organs located in a body that is a locus of experience. Since aspects of that perspective, such as the direction of my gaze, are subject to my will, it feels like I am in control, that the experience is mine. It is definitely limited in space to one body. As much as I can make my body seem to disappear in meditation, I cannot then inhabit another body or take control of their limbs or the direction of their gaze.

It is not that we have a self that has a first person perspective. It is that the brain generates a first person perspective on experience and from this we infer a self. The first person perspective is seeing itself as a self. This is not a bad first approximation of what is going on in experience, and it is as far as most people get, unless they have a mental health crisis, take psychedelic drugs, or get good at mediation. Most of us have no reason to question our early inferences.

For me, a qualified self is still overstating things. At best, the sense of being a self is a perspective on experience generated by the brain.

What About Ego?

When Freud (1856–1939) was writing about the mind, he used three metaphors for functions that minds carry out: Ich, Es, and Über-Ich ("I", "It", and "Over-I"). In this model the Ich function mediates between the desires of the Es function and restrictions of the Über-Ich function, to enable human beings to operate as social beings. Unrestrained, the Es function is how the Victorians thought of animals (though they were largely mistaken about this). Without emotions the Über-Ich function makes for an inhuman tyrant. According to Freud, it is the Ich function that mediates between these two basic forces in our inner life and also mediates between us and the world. To not have an Ich function is catastrophic. But also, if the Ich function is unable to impose order on the other functions, one or other of them will dominate leading to animalistic or inhuman behaviour.

Nietzsche (1844–1900) also wrote about two forces human society. The two were of chaos and order, which he dubbed Dionysian and Apollonian after the two Greek gods. Like Freud, Nietzsche saw life as a battle between these forces. However, rather than settling for a detente overseen by the meditating influence of the Ich, Nietzsche (possibly influenced by the Upaniṣads) saw a transcendent type of human being who had resolved his inner conflicts and risen above the human, all too human, level. Like Freud and other men of his day, Nietzsche systematically dismissed women as inferior. It is worth mentioning Nietzsche because his rhetoric remains popular amongst Romantics. The controversial, but popular, conservative Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, for example, often seems to be channelling Nietzsche and apparently sees this kind of conflict between order and chaos in much the same way.

Such things are not rocket science for anyone who is human. We are social animals and as such we are constantly trying to balance individual desire and social obligation. Whether we project balancing these forces onto the world as archetypes (Dionysus and Apollo), or conceive of them them as internal functions in psyche (as Ich and Über-Ich), they resonate, to some extent. And there are differing opinions as to whether individual liberty or collective obligation should take precedence, though clearly without both a society cannot function. 

One of the classic pop-culture references to this accommodation is the friendship between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock in the Star Trek stories. Kirk is hedonistic, impulsive, and moody. Spock is logical, controlled, and detached. Of course, neither could be a pure archetype, because Kirk has to be the Captain. He also has to be cunning, decisive, a planner and a leader. Similarly, Spock is only half Vulcan. But generally speaking, Kirk without Spock is rash, ruthless, and reckless. Spock without Kirk is cold, calculating, and (potentially) cruel. Had they been more purely Es and Über-Ich, a third party would always have been required to mediate. When mediation is required, it comes in the form of the physician, McCoy a "man of science" who is nonetheless highly sentimental. He plays the role of Ich function portrayed as the healer of the psyche.


When Freud's work was translated into English his German terms—Ich, Es, and Über-Ich—were translated, not into English, but into Latin. The idea seems to have been inspired by medical jargon which even today prefers Latin derived words to those with Anglo-Saxon heritage (the 1000 year old English prejudice against Germanic vocabulary is another story). And so today we discuss Ego, Id, and Super-Ego. Reification may have happened anyway, but it was helped along by the quasi-medical Latin. What were functions of the psyche, became entities that make up the mind. Freud's metaphors became three homunculi living in our heads. Which was, and is, deeply unhelpful.

This manifests in Buddhism as people talking about "the Ego" as something to be disposed of, cut off, and done away with. If we accept Freud's model and we get rid of Ich, what is it that moderates between Es and Über-Ich? If there is nothing, and the other aspects of the psyche are left unchanged, then the result is a chaotic battle in which one or other of the two forces in our psyches will likely win, leading to hedonism or nihilism; or, in Nietzsche's terms, to chaos or totalitarianism.

Early Buddhists identified three thoughts about experience that were problematic: 'I am this', 'this is me', 'it is mine'. These coincide very well with characteristics of the first-person perspectives defined by Thomas Metzinger. Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  • mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  • selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  • centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".

I've mentioned before that these seem to substantially overlap early Buddhist views on selfhood. And precisely these three qualities are problematic in the Buddhist view, but also they disappear in the state of emptiness.

As a thought experiment I want to consider simply stripping away these properties from an ordinary person. Let us say that we take away the sense of ownership, particularly over the body. This is something that victims of trauma often experience. When you are, for example, beaten or raped, you lose control of what happens to you. And that sense of ownership may be damaged. One may feel so vulnerable around other people that one develops social anxiety or even social phobia. If you walk into a room full of people and lose your sense of self, it is disorienting and frightening.

Similarly, if someone does not experience "I am someone" they may be unable to relate to other people. In the state called "depersonalisation" one stops feeling like a person. Events swirl around you and you cannot respond to them or make connections with other people. It can be very distressing to be cut off in this way.

If I am not the centre of my subjective self, then mental events may seem to be the result of an external agency. It may seem that other people are controlling our thoughts and actions. Our internal monologue may become a hectoring external voice, some other person telling us what to do.

This is a flavour of the the mass of ways in which loss of a sense of self or first-person perspective can leave us wounded and debilitated. All of these events would constitute what is nowadays called a "mental health crisis". If ongoing, such experiences often result in hospitalisation. It has long bothered me that Buddhists seem ignorant of this side of psychology and that they apparently trivialise problems of this kind. Buddhists are often sincere in their beliefs, but sincerity doesn't really mitigate ignorance or stupidity. We have some very dangerous ideas about the mind and its functions.

Going Beyond Self

And yet, something happens in practice that is typically not the same as a mental health crisis. The loss of a sense of self as one goes into samādhi might be scary, but it is not the same terror as comes from a psychotic break. The similarity of language for describing the two has long fascinated me. But it seems to me that, whereas mental health problems are subtraction and division, the effects of meditation are addition and multiplication. 

In other words, I do not believe the interpretations of those meditators who report  that they do not experience themselves as having an Ego. The complete loss of Ego per se would be a catastrophe. Rather, I suggest, that we have to take a step back and look more holistically. We need to think of the Ich, Es, and Über-Ich becoming integrated into a holistic and harmonious structure in which the contest between Ich and Über-Ich is resolved, relieving us of the need for Ego to mediate. When our internal struggles are over, we are free to respond creatively to the people around us, no longer concerned with seeking pleasure or with imposing order. So that would be a Freudian analysis, but I think Freud is deeply problematic, so I wouldn't want to rest there.

My Buddhist analysis goes like this. The fundamental problem we have is that we respond to pleasure with desire for more pleasure; that we are averse to pain and avoid painful situations is also problematic, but, really, pleasure-seeking is the focus. More precisely, we associate happiness with pleasure. Everyone wants to be happy, so we seek out pleasures to make us happy.

Evolution has tuned our body-mind to seek out the things we find pleasurable, because they have survival value. The things we find pleasurable are meant to motivate us. But the evolution argument ends at the beginning of civilisation. When social change outstrips our ability to genetically adapt, we run into problems. One of the problems of civilisation (eventually) is a surplus of the things that we find pleasurable. We can satiate our desires more fully and more often, but what happens when we do this is that we become insensitive to pleasure. We get caught in the addictive loop of seeking more pleasure and more intense pleasure in order to find that feeling of satiation. For example, we add more sugar, more fat, more salt, more chilli to our food, in order to try to recapture the simply pleasure of eating. And it doesn't work. We are always left wanting more. At the extreme the amounts of sugar, fat, and salt are long-term lethal. Or we become obese (though I think obesity is complex, and also involves  attempts to deal with stress by eating. Eating stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system).

When we reach a more integrated state in which the sense of self is less central, we become less prone to the addictive cycle. The aspect of self that claims ownership over experience plays an important role in a healthy mind. Simply eliminating it leads to chaos. Integrating it allows us to opt out of the cycle.

Another way of looking at it is that, while we are self-centred, then we are motivated to feed that sense of self. Claiming what gives us pleasure, pushing away what the unpleasant, we attempt to cling to the pleasant experience as if it existed. But experience is not like a mind-independent object. We can hold a bar of gold, but owning it brings diminishing returns of happiness. Ownership must be continually extended in order to provide happiness. One gold bar is never enough. It is acquisition (novelty) that produces the pleasure, whereas ownership soon loses its savour. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Also, the loss of ownership is a source of misery. And the same dynamic applied to experiences that are fleeting and insubstantial is a recipe for unhappiness. One cannot grasp an experience. It arises, one's attention wanders, and it disappears again. All in a moment.

As one becomes skilled in meditation, one realises that the object is irrelevant compared to the pleasure of simple sustained attention on any arbitrary object. A concentrated mind is a happy mind, but more than this, with glimpses of insight we integrate the disparate aspects of our psyche so that the sense of self is bound up in a greater whole that leaves us without that sense of craving and grasping that plagues modern humans everywhere.

In Conclusion

Discussions about the existence of a self had already been tagged as pointless by early Buddhists more than 2000 years ago. Modern Buddhists need to take note of this and rethink our approach. Self is an experience, generated internally, arising and passing away as the conditions dictate. Under many circumstances this sense of self ceases or does not arise. But we cannot say that having an experience is either real or unreal. Such dichotomies send us down intellectual dead ends with respect to experience.

It seems to me that this cessation of the sense of being a self has to be the result of a forward progression rather than a simple excision. I've seen the results of excising aspects of people's selves and it's ugly and often catastrophic. That is not what Buddhists are doing in meditation.

We need to see self as an experience and Ego as a function. Ego is a milestone on the lower evolution. A human being must develop the Ego function to be happy and healthy. Having an Ego is not an endpoint, but necessary while we also have Id and Super-Ego functions which are in conflict. However, there is also a higher evolution. By integrating these separate functions into a harmonious whole, we may transcend our personality, at least to some extent. We may cease to have, or perhaps to rely on, a first-person perspective to organise our experience. We may find that craving for pleasure is attenuated because there is no longer the same desire to accumulate experiences associated with ownership.

I believe a new doctrinal synthesis is required and that we are better off being proactive and creative in our approach to it than being conservative and reactive. The clash of tradition and modernity is always destabilising. Traditional cultures are often devastated when modernity overruns them. I grew up in the aftermath of one such collision. We would do well to get out ahead of this. It seems to me that accomplishing such a synthesis requires us to step outside the legacies of both Buddhism and Modernism and evaluate what is useful about both and what is not useful.

What remains useful will go beyond mere facts. Facts do not move people. In order to communicate our values effectively we need symbols and images. We have to tell stories that move people. Some of these stories will most likely be ancient, perhaps with a modern twist. We may, for example, decide that the founder figure remains a central organising element in telling our story. We may still tell morality tales about selfish people and the harm they cause.

The focus on experience, I believe, has to take precedence over any metaphysical speculation, particularly in the face of the huge successes scientists have had with describing the world on the human scale (things we can experience with our naked senses). Experience is equally our hermeneutic (the principle on which we base our inquires into doctrine), our heuristic (the process by which we more forward seeking knowledge), and our pedagogy (the underlying principle of how we teach). Everything should be aimed at getting people to look at their experience in a new light, and to seek the altered states provided by meditation to provide insights into experience that are otherwise inaccessible.



Vidal, Denis. (1997). 'Max Muller and the theosophists or the other half of victorian orientalism.' in  Jackie Assayag, Roland Lardinois, Denis Vidal. Orientalism and Anthropology; from Max Muller to Louis Dumont, Pondy Papers in Social Science (24), Institut Français de Pondichéry. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01293966/document

Also check out

Deconstructing Yourself. “Masters of Oblivion” – Michael Taft discusses extinction with Kenneth Folk. Especially the section starting at 48:45 – The preposterousness of eradicating the self

02 February 2018

Lotus: Synonyms in Sanskrit

The lotus is one of the most prolific sources of symbolism and imagery in India—past and present. The growing habit of the lotus, which lifts flower buds above the mud, allowing blooms to unfold without blemish, makes it ideal for conveying ideas related to transcendence and purity. Girls are still routinely named for the lotus flower. Amongst Buddhists, names with lotus symbolism have long been unisex.

There is only one species of lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. However, the situation is somewhat confused because early taxonomists classified them together with water lilies, genus Nymphaea, on the basis of the superficial resemblance of their flowers. Older systems, including one still in use on the sub-continent, still classify the lotus as Nymphaea nelumbo. However, the lotus and water lilies are not closely related in modern taxonomies. They both belong to the clade angiosperm, but are from unrelated orders and families. In other words, the fact that they have flowers and form seeds is about all they have in common, from a biological point of view. Although the standard dictionaries attempt to assign botanical names to the Sanskrit terms, these are all from older, now deprecated, systems and are thus unreliable. 

The true lotus is an important food plant in Asia, especially in China. Young leaves, stems, seeds, roots and rhizomes can all be eaten. The fresh plants are susceptible to microbial infection and, though edible raw, are best cooked for consumption. The flowers of the true lotus are usually white with pink edges, though they may also be plain white, or substantially pink. 

True lotus showing leaves,
bud, flower and seed-pod

So-called blue and red lotus flowers are, in fact, water lilies. The two are easily distinguished. Lotus leaves and flowers tend to be raised above the water on long stalks, whereas water lily leaves and flowers float on the surface of the water. As with roses, most of the water lilies we see now are modern hybrid varieties. 

Water lilies

Although in Buddhism when we say "lotus" we most often think of the lotus flower, Sanskrit has words for specific parts of the plant, especially where those parts are useful, i.e., either edible or used for their fibres. However, I'm mainly interested in names for the flower, here.

I'll take the names roughly in the order given in Apte's English-Sanskrit Dictionary, with a few adjustments to cluster similar terms together. Apte lists 24 synonyms under "lotus", plus some additional names associated with specific colours of lotus.


The word padma is probably the most generic name for the lotus. It simply means lotus. Etymologically, it probably derives from √pad, "step", with the suffix -ma (Cf. dharma from √dhṛ + ma). Kamala is also frequently used but, strictly speaking, means "pale-red" (i.e., pink) or "rose-coloured". Clearly, it comes from the varying pinkness of the flower. The name nalina appears to come from nala, meaning a (hollow) reed, and may be a reference to the flower stalk. 

The name Aravinda or Arvin is quite a common given name in India. Notably, the Bengali form  is Aurobindo. The word aravinda is used to refer to the true lotus as well as both blue and red water lily. The etymology is obscure.  

By contrast, utpala is mostly used to refer to the blue water lily, Nymphaea caerulea (aka Egyptian lotus).  It means to "burst open" from ut, 'up, out', and √pal, 'to move'. The blue water lily flower opens at night. The word utpala can also be used to refer to lotus seeds and to the plant Cheilocostus speciosus, or crêpe ginger. Sometimes the compound nīlotpala (i.e., nīla 'blue' + utpala) is used to specify the blue water lily. It is also called the mahotpala, i.e., mahā-utpala or large water lily.

Another name for the blue water lily is kuvalaya. The etymology of this word appears to be ku, "earth" + valaya, "girdle, bracelet, armlet, etc.". In Pāḷi, Brahmins from the west are sometimes referred to as sevālamālikā "having garlands of sevāla." However, sevāla (Skt śaivāla) is a water plant, totally unsuited to making garlands. Pāḷi commentaries equate sevāla with utpala, which is more plausible. Note that Sanskrit words beginning with ku are often loan words from Proto-Munda. Such borrowing occurred early (words appear in the Ṛgveda) and at a time when the ancestor of the Munda family of languages was common in northwest India, a region where Munda languages are no longer spoken.

The term sarasija means "produced", ja, "from the lake or pond", sarasi. While abja and ambhoja both mean "born", ja, "in the water", ap/ambhas. A lot of the symbolism of the lotus involves highlighting that it emerges from the water as a bud and then blooms. Paṅka means "mud" and another similar term is paṅkaja, "born of the mud".

The two words śatapatra and sahasrapatra refer to flowers with 100 (śata) and 1000 (sahasra) petals (patra). They are lotuses by implication and often have esoteric significance. 

The term kuśeśaya is said to literally mean "lying (śaya) amongst the kuśa reeds." But is also taken to mean "lying in the water", i.e., a water lily. However, this doesn't explain the medial e. I can see no easy way to explain this and we have to say that etymology is obscure. Again, possibly a loan word from Proto-Munda. 

Apte lists paṅkeruha as a name for the Lotus. We also have related words saroruha, sarasīruha, and ambhoruha. The word ruha means "mounted, ascended" from √ruh, "ascend". Then paṅka means "mud", sara, "lake", sarasi, "pond", and ambhas, "water". So we have paṅkeruha, "ascended from the mud", saroruha, "ascended from the lake", sarasīruha, "ascended from the pond", and ambhoruha, "ascended from the water". Sārasa is another adjective meaning "of or related to the pond" that is used to mean lotus. 

Monier-Williams says that tāmarasa is the "day lotus". Rasa is the juice or sap of a plant and tāma is probably from tamas "dark". 

The word puṣkara is used for the blue water lily, amongst many other things such as the bowl of a spoon, the skin of a drum, the tip of an elephant's trunk, and so on, in a series of seemingly unrelated objects. The etymology here is unclear. One is tempted to say that it means "flourishing" or "that which makes one flourish" from √puṣ, "to flourish", and √kṛ, "to make or do". However, Monier-Williams argues against this. It is perhaps instead related to puṣpa, "flower". Nothing seems to connect the various usages which suggests that several words have become confused and merged together over time. It may also be a loan word. 

Bisaprasūna is from bisa, the lotus plant, especially the stalks or edible rhizomes and roots. In fact, bisa effectively means "lotus" and should have been included in the original list. It occurs in several compounds such as bisa-kusuma, "lotus flower", bisa-ja "lotus flower", bisa-tantu "lotus fibre" and so on. Prasūna is from sūna "born, produced" (from √sū, "generate") and means "bud, flower". Similarly, Apte misses out giving mṛṇa, "crushed", as a name for the lotus plant, particularly the fibrous parts, though not usually the flower.  

And finally rājīva, "streaked" or "striped", is used for the blue water lily. 

Apte then includes a few more words that are colour specific. For example, names specific to the white lotus include puṇḍarīka, "that which bears a mark or sign (puṇḍa)" , and sitāṁbhoja, "white and bountiful". The red water lily is sometimes called kokanada, though more specifically this refers to the bright red (koka) colour of the flower. Similarly, raktotpala (i.e. rakta-utpala) means a burst of colour (rakta), especially red colour (recall that utpala is used for the blue water lily). This word is also used for bloodshot eyes. One last name for the blue water lily is indīvara, "the reward of/for beauty" or "whose reward is beauty".

We can extend this list a little by referring to the Amarakośaa thesaurus composed by Amarasiṃha, a Buddhist author in the middle of the first millennia CE. Further synonyms include: saugandhika, "sweet smelling"; kalhāra (or kahlāra), hallaka, "red water lily", rakta-sandhyaka, "reflecting colour", śālūka, "shining"? And finally, Kumuda, "exciting joy", a name used variously for the white lotus and red water lily, but also or many other plants and things that make people happy. 

Further notes

The plant itself, as distinct from the flower, can be referred to by feminine versions of many of the nouns, e.g., nalinī, kamalinī, padminī, mṛṇālinī, kumudinīpaṅkeruhiṇī, and so on. 

Many of the names for lotus are also names for cranes (e.g., kamala, aravinda,). Also, names associated with red colours are also names for copper and deer. 

Most of these can be combined in compounds to form adjectives of women as  "lotus-eyed", -ākṣī, lotus-hued (e.g., padmā) or lotus faced,  -mukhī.


19 January 2018

The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited

In 1992, Jan Nattier published the watershed article in which she made a very strong argument that the Heart Sutra was compiled/composed in China. As I have discussed, the reaction in Japan was one of horror, denial, and rejection. Not much of this has filtered through to the English-speaking world, except through the Zen-based commentaries of Red Pine and Kazuaki Tanahashi. I'm working on quantifying the proportions, but most English-speaking scholars accept or at least do not reject the thesis, while some remain sceptical and on the fence (largely because there has been little follow up).

This essay will outline the case as it stands now; i.e., as stated by Jan Nattier in 1992 and extended by Huifeng in 2014, and by me in 2015 and 2017 (though I will also draw on an article that is out for peer review and two more that I'm working on that I hope to submit in 2018). There are two main areas of interest: 1. where the Heart Sutra is a quotation from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañc) or "Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines" and 2. where it is an original composition. Nattier compared the words and sentence structure mainly from the former, but Huifeng and I have each extended this analysis into the conclusion.

Nattier compared four texts and showed that the most plausible way understanding their history was like this

Pañc (Sanskrit)
Pañc (Chinese)
Heart Sutra (Chinese)
Heart Sutra (Sanskrit)

The result is that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra often paraphrases Pañc. You can get a sense of what this process is like by getting Google translator to translate "form is not different from emptiness" into Mandarin, and then have Bing translator translate it back into English (note Babelfish does much less well).

There are some complications such as the potential confusion between Pañc as it appears in the Sūtra translation (T223) and as it appears embedded in the Upadeśa or commentary (T1509). But these are minor and do not affect the accuracy of the thesis.

Below are ten clues to the Chinese origins of the Heart Sutra. Since the text itself is only about 250 words, this is a very dense cluster of evidence. No.8

Core Section

In this section I will show the text as it appears in the Gilgit manuscript of Pañc, followed by Kumārajīva's translation of a similar Pañc text, followed by the parallel passage in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. And then summarise how this contributes to the Chinese origins thesis. 

1. Form is no different from emptiness

nānyad rūpaṃ anyā śūnyatā 
rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā

If we were being pedantic, then na anya X anya Y means "X is not one thing and Y another"; whereas X na pṛthak Y means "X is not different from Y". Two ways of saying that X and Y are the same. However, although it is grammatically correct, the X na pṛthak Y  idiom is not found in the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature, whereas the na anya X anya Y idiom is. (Nattier).

Some confusion arises because there are two Chinese ways of writing this idea: 1. 非色異空 and 2. 色不異空. Version 1 negates 非 the phrase 色異空 "form is different from emptiness". Version 2 only negates the verb/adjective 異 "is different from". To distinguish them we might translate 1 as, "it is not the case that form is different from emptiness" and 2 as, "Form is not different from emptiness". T250 uses 1 and T251 uses 2.

Some older editions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka use 2 in Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Sutra, but Taishō uses 1. Taishō has 2 in the Upadeśa. It's not entirely clear what this means, but it is possible that the whole quoted text in the Heart Sutra comes from the Upadeśa.

2. All dharmas are marked with emptiness

yā śūnyatā na sā utpadyate... 
是諸 法空相不生不滅 
sarva-dharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā anutpannā

In Pañc it is emptiness itself that doesn't arise, etc, and "all dharmas" are not mentioned (the same is true of the later Nepalese manuscripts). However, Kumārajīva's Chinese translation introduces "all dharmas", 諸 法, and syntactically makes them the subject of the sentence, changing the meaning substantially. The Heart Sutra follows Kumārajīva's Chinese translation rather than the Sanskrit text it supposedly quotes from.

The grammatical form also changes. Verbs are replaced by adjectives. See 3.

3.  Emptiness does not arise or pass away

na sā utpadyate, no nirudyate, na saṃkliśyate, na vyavadāyate, na hīyate, no vardhate 
不生 不滅不垢不淨不增不減 
anutpannā aniruddhā, amalā avimalā, anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ.

In the Sanskrit Heart Sutra a series of finite verbs in the 3rd person singular utpadyate are replaced by a series of adjectives in the masculine plural (to go with the noun dharmāḥ). 

And this is precisely the kind of confusion that medieval Chinese introduces. A character like 生 can be used as a verb, utpadyate, or as an adjective, utpanna, or for any other nominal or verbal derivative of ut√pad and probably a number of other verbal roots. How we read it is up to us. Without a very detailed knowledge of the Prajñāpāramita idiom in Sanskrit, we are likely to make the wrong choice in this circumstance. And the translator does. 

Note also that some of the adjectives in the Heart Sutra have similar meanings, but have changed roots. For example, na hīyate, "does not fall short" (< √) is translated as 不增, but then back-translated as an-ūna "not deficient". 

The list in Pañc is used frequently (in part and in full), with the same verbal roots used in this order but with different derivatives (past participles and action nouns). The list in the Heart Sutra is not found elsewhere, meaning that it was created ad hoc, rather than following the usual Buddhist practice of giving standard lists. (Nattier)

This is very strong evidence for the Chinese origins thesis but is often overlooked in discussions of Nattier's article.

4. Negated lists
na cakṣur na śrotraṃ na ghrāṇaṃ na jihvā kāyo na manaḥ 
na caksuḥ-śrotra-ghrāṇa-jihvā-kāya-manāṃsi

Such lists are frequent and often combined into one long compound. However, in Pañc the compounded form is only used for positive forms. Where the terms are negated, as here, Pañc always negates each individually. On the other hand, in Chinese we see the convention of supplying one negative particle for the list as a compound.

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra follows the Chinese convention rather than the Sanskrit convention.  The fact that we find a Chinese convention in a Sanskrit text is again a strong argument for the Heart Sutra being composed in Chinese (Nattier).

Conclusion Section

Leaving behind the quoted section, we move onto the original composition. Since this section was composed in Chinese, arrows go away from the Chinese. Below the Chinese is the received translation. Above the Chinese, the Sanskrit word/phrase marked by an * is an attempt at conveying the meaning of the Chinese more accurately in the light of modern research. If you like, it is how the translator ought to have translated the text if they were more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts. On occasion, we can trace parts of the conclusion to Pañc as well. 

5. Practising non-apprehension

Kumārajīva uses 得 to represent a verbal noun from pra√āp, i.e., prāptiḥ. The author immediately uses the same character in the next phrase and it was, naturally, assumed to denote another word derived from pra√āp, i.e., aprāpritvād. However, Huifeng showed that Kumārajīva invariably translated the Sanskrit phrase anupalambhayogena using this Chinese phrase 以無所得故. The translation aprāptitvād could not have been composed in India because it relies on the ambiguity of the Chinese characters.

What's more, Huifeng argued that this word really goes with the quoted section. This qualifier moves us away from metaphysics and towards and epistemic reading of the text. (Huifeng) That is, it tells us that being in the state of emptiness and practising non-apprehension of dharmas is the only time that "no form" applies. (Attwood)

6.  His mind does not become attached

*asya cittaṃ na kvacit sajjati 
viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ

Huifeng showed that cittāvaraṇa is simply the wrong translation here. 心無罣礙 translates "mind without attachment", where 罣礙 is a verb rather than a noun. He proposed to read 罣礙 as "hang", but I argued that it was more straightforward to read it as "attached". Similarly, the Sanskrit verb sajjati means "attach" or "become attached".  So, āvaraṇa, "impediment", is also clearly the wrong translation.

The phrase na kvacit sajjati occurs in both Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśāti. So, even though this is not a quote, we have a clear view of how Kumārajīva used this combination of characters (though Kumārajīva could be inconsistent, as we have seen). Āvaraṇa is not a bad guess, but it's not consistent with the Prajñāpāramitā idiom. Which argues against composition in India. (Huifeng).

There is nothing in the Chinese that could be read as viharati "he dwells". My supposition is that the translator was struggling for a word here, especially having read 罣礙 as a noun instead of a verb, and did not know the verb sajjati. They had to improvise and this was the best they could do.

7. Not being attached


If 心無罣礙 translates "mind without attachments", then 無罣礙故 means "because [it] is without attachments". The Sanskrit Heart Sutra renders this, "because of the non-existence of mental impediments". The construction nāstitvād "because of the non-existence of" is very strange and appears to be a one-off in Sanskrit. A Sanskrit-reader can see what it means, but there are simpler and more elegant ways to negate a noun (i.e., by adding the negative prefix a-). This construction implies someone familiar with the rules of Sanskrit, who did not feel bound by the conventions of idiom. It also continues the misreading that begins above.

8. Buddhas of the Three Times

atītānāgatapratyutpannā buddhā
tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ

This is the smoking gun. All being well, I'll be publishing something on this in 2018, but this phrase in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could only have come from translating a Chinese text because it involves an idiom that developed in Chinese and is never seen elsewhere in Buddhist Sanskrit texts.

9.  Prajñāpāramita is a vidyā

mahavidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā 
T250: 故知般若波羅蜜是大明呪 無上明呪 無等等明呪 (8.847.c24)
prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro anuttaramantro ‘samasamamantraḥ

In the passage from PañcPrajñāpāramitā was described as a great vidyā (mahāvidyā 大明呪 ) and unsurpassed vidyā (anuttarā vidyā 無上明呪) and an unequalled vidyā (無等等明呪). Kumārajīva uses 明呪 to translate vidyā. But it is mistaken for two words, 明呪 "bright dhāraṇī". 

After the advent of Tantric Buddhism in China (7th C) 呪 is used to translate mantra. Tantra subsumed the previously existing spell practices under the category of mantra. This makes no sense from the perspective of a few centuries early where dhāraṇī existed entirely outside the Tantric milieu. Therefore, the Sanskrit Heart Sutra came into being after the advent of Tantra when mantra chanting was finally accepted as a Buddhist practice. That said, Woncheuk (613–696) makes brief mention of having a Sanskrit text, though he does not treat it as authoritative.

The form found in T250 can only have come from T223, while T251 has been modified to reflect the wording of Xuanzang's translation in T220 while keeping Kumārajīva's phrasing.

Note: Mantra recitation is still seen as non-Buddhist and frowned on in Aṣṭa. It doesn't become a feature of Buddhism until the mid-7th Century in India and about a century later in China.

10. True and not hollow

*satyā na tucchakā
satyam amithyatvāt

These are adjectives of prajñāpāramitā and should be in the feminine gender. The translator seems to have misread them as related to a mantra (grammatically neuter). He also misread 虛 which means "hollow, empty, vain" for which tucchaka is a more obvious translation than mithyā "contrarily, incorrectly, improperly".

The translator has a penchant for abstract nouns in the ablative case, which adds the sense of "because of being in the state of [the noun]". So satyam amithyatvāt literally means "truth because there is no contrariness". If these are not adjectives then this is not a well-formed sentence.


We can now conclusively say that the Heart Sutra was composed in China without any equivocation or hedging. Not only is there a weight of evidence, but No.8 is the clincher. The "three times" idiom in the Heart Sutra can only be Chinese. It is not simply that there are some suspicious looking paraphrases, but that there are passages that look like Sanskrit translations of Chinese phrases. In the case of the three times, there is no other way to construe it. The Sanskrit is definitely a translation from Chinese. 

Again, we can unequivocally say that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon. But then so are all Mahāyāna texts. Arguably all Buddhist texts are apocryphal. There is no Buddhist equivalent of divine revelation or the preserved word of god. The best a believer could argue is that the sutras were based on a true story. There is a great deal more internal contradiction and incoherence in the literature than is usually admitted and this militates against a single source. For example, the Pāḷi suttas clearly came from multiple sources.

We can also say that the person who translated the text from Chinese into Sanskrit was unfamiliar with the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature. They had a bias for taking active sentences in Chinese and rendering them as a series of compound adjectives, and a preference for using abstract nouns in the ablative case, even when this was inelegant. They seem to have been forced to improvise on several occasions, by a limited Sanskrit vocabulary. Lastly, they produced a unique form of Chinese influenced Sanskrit—preserving Chinese literary conventions in Sanskrit translation—which to my knowledge has no parallel. In this sense, the Heart Sutra is unique.

To my eye, this does not look like the work of someone who translated millions of words of Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts into Chinese and who is still acknowledged as a master of the art of translation. In other words, the idea that Xuanzang produced this shoddy work is not really credible. It is clearly the work of an inferior and parochial mind whose point of reference for the Prajñāpāramitā tradition was Kumārajīva's Chinese translations. Which ought not to surprise us, because Kumārajīva's translations have always been more popular that Xuanzang's. 

As for Tanahashi's idea that Avalokiteśvara transmitted the text of T251 to Xuanzang in India as a divine revelation (allowing him to claim that it is an "Indian text"), we would want to know why either the bodhisatva or the expert translator would only change a few key terms in Kumārajīva's text, while leaving the worst features—the mistakes—of it intact. This is not credible. 

Of course, I will need to properly frame these ideas and present the evidence to my "peers" in academia. I expect this to happen in due course. I'm hoping to get the last of the necessary corrections published this year along with one or two other papers about the text. Though getting published is less than half the battle. 80% of all articles in the humanities are never cited by another article. To date, I don't think any of my work on the Heart Sutra has been cited. There is little or no interest in the Heart Sutra in academia and little or no interest in critical scholarship amongst Buddhists. 


12 January 2018

Types of Errors in the Heart Sutra

For a short and popular text, the Heart Sutra is poorly understood (or widely misunderstood) and poorly studied. A lot of basic research on the Heart Sutra has been left undone, presumably because it is hard to get funding for this kind of thing.

However, over recent years, Jan Nattier, Matt Orsborn (aka Huifeng), and I have all contributed to a reassessment of the basic text in Chinese and Sanskrit and the relations between the two. I'm hoping to publish the last of the necessary corrections in 2018, though this will leave a number of aesthetic issues and "would-be-nice" corrections to be made. Had I been in academia, the series of articles I've published since 2015 would have been my PhD thesis. Hopefully it will be a book soon.

There are several different kinds of error in the Heart Sutra. In this essay, I review the types of error that I have encountered while studying the sutra and give examples of each. There is a spectrum from errors that are matters of aesthetics to those which render passages unintelligible. And all this in a text of barely 250 words, just imagine what state the rest of the Buddhist Canon is in. 

1. Scribal Errors

These are only relevant for people who read manuscripts (and I may be the only person doing this currently for the Heart Sutra). Some may recall that in 2015 I identified a previously undescribed Heart Sutra manuscript in a newly digitised cache from Nepal. Transcribing and editing it required 142 footnotes to describe all the errors, most of which were simply due to being copied by generations of careless scribes who did not know Sanskrit. 

To give credit where it is due, Conze (1948, 1967) fixed a huge number of scribal errors found in the dozen or so manuscripts he used for his critical edition. Müller (1884) fixed some of the errors in his diplomatic edition of Hōryū-ji manuscript, though ironically many Japanese seem to prefer the uncorrected version.

2. Punctuation Errors in CBETA

CBETA, the electronic version of the Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripitaka, is notorious for its punctuation errors. There's only one big problem in the Heart Sutra, which is between the boundary of section V and VI (Huifeng 2014).

The standard version has: V... 無智,亦無得。VI. 以無所得故,菩提薩埵...
It should be:                      V... 無智,亦無得,以無所得故。VI. 菩提薩埵...

This one is understandable, since 亦無得 marks the end of the quote from T223, but Huifeng (2014) showed that 以無所得故 is, in fact, intended to go with section V. This makes quite a big difference to how we read this section and is key to understanding the meaning of the quoted section. It was also mistranslated into Sanskrit, and this may have been the source of the punctuation errors. I will deal with the Sanskrit errors and how to translate this passage under heading 4.

3. Conze's Editorial Errors

Conze made two main errors in his edition. In section II he read pañcaskandha as nominative plural pañcaskandhāḥ and vyavalokayati sma "he examined" as an intransitive verb (i.e., one that has no patient or object). Instead, the word should be in the accusative plural: pañcaskandhān, and is the object of the verb; i.e., Avalokiteśvara is examining the five skandhas. (Attwood 2015)

Conze also tacitly changed the Buddhist Sanskrit spellings, which are entirely regular across Mahāyāna manuscripts, to classical Sanskrit spellings that are not used by Buddhists: āryya → ārya; and bodhisatva → bodhisattva.

Section II, with sandhi rules applied and Buddhist spelling, should read
II. Āryyāvalokiteśvaro bodhisatvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma pañcaskandhāṃs tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyān paśyati sma. 
In Section VI Conze wrongly inserts a full stop after acittāvaraṇaḥ, breaking the sentence and creating a second non-sentence. (Attwood 2018; forthcoming)
VI. Tasmāt śāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 
Should read
VI. Tasmāt śāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 
However, even with the errors corrected, this is a bad translation. I show why in the next section. 

4. Ancient Sanskrit Translation Errors

Here, we are not speaking of the many paraphrases found in the quoted sections of the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra that occur because of translating back and forth between Sanskrit and Chinese. These are actual mistakes.

In Section V aprāptitvād translates 以無所得故, but Huifeng (2014) showed that it should have been anulambhayogena, "engaged in non-apprehension [of dharmas]." It was confusing because in the previous word the character 得 is used to mean prāptiḥ. And note that since 以無所得故 is not part of the quote, it was the choice of the Chinese author of the Heart Sutra. That said, this usage is in line with the idioms used by Kumārajīva. Early commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk suggest that this passage was misread by the end of the 7th Century.

This changes the whole tenor of the quoted passage. Now it reads "In emptiness, by practising non-apprehension of dharmas, there is no form, sensation, recognition, volition, or cognition". In other words emptiness is not an entity or a quality, it is a state. In that state, attained by practising non-apprehension of dharmas, the experiential world ceases for the meditator. In other words this is an epistemology of deep samādhi rather than an every day ontology. No one is saying that form doesn't exist, they are saying that when someone is not-apprehending form, then for them there is no experience of form. And this changes everything.

Section VI required a major rewrite in two steps. Corrections to Conze's errors are above. Below is the fully corrected Sanskrit incorporating insights from Huifeng (2014), the argument for which will be in Attwood (forthcoming 2018c).
Yo bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittaṃ na kvacit sajjati, asaktvā so atrasto viparyāsa-māyāṃ ca samatikrāmati nirvāṇa-paryavasānaṃ |
The mind of the bodhisatva who relies on perfect gnosis is not attached anywhere; being unattached, [the bodhisatva] is unafraid and goes beyond delusions and illusions to the final extinction [of craving]. 

5. Ancient Editorial Errors

In Section III we see the addition of the phrase: yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā | yā śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ. As Nattier (1992) noted this passage has no parallel in any Chinese text, except those translated from a Sanskrit version with this addition. We can simply eliminate this line.

Note that Kazuaki Tanahashi (2014) eliminates the wrong phrase, and leaves in this one, causing him to mismatch the remaining phrases in Chinese and Sanskrit. It seems that the "translator" could not, in fact, read Sanskrit, which would explain his many other errors in that language. 

In Section VI, especially in the highly influential Hōryū-ji manuscript, we should have
na-avidyā, na-avidyā-kṣayo yāvan na jarā-maraṇaṃ na jarā-maraṇa-kṣayo
Instead we see (with additions in bold)
na vidyā na-avidyā na vidyākṣayo na-avidyāksāyo yāvan na jarāmaraṇaṃ na jarāmaraṇakṣayo
It's as though some later editor confused the point of this part of the sūtra as being about mere negation and also did not recognise the nidānas as a set. 

Also, in Conze's text: na jñānam, na prāptir becomes na jñānamna prāptir na-aprāptiḥ. Some of the manuscripts have this, so it is considered under this heading rather than as Conze's mistake, even though he did fail to correct it. There is a further problem here that comes under Heading no.8.

6. Errors in Modern Translations

Conze mistranslated vyalokayati sma as "looked down" when it means "examined". It's also a transitive verb and so requires an object; the subject has to be examining something, and in this case it is the skandhas.

Most of the modern translations mistranslate śūnyatā in an effort to shoehorn their modern Zen ideology into the text. The word means "emptiness" or perhaps "absence". It does not mean "openness" or any of the other wishy-washy attempts to get ahead of readers misconceptions. The latter seems pointless. I've yet to meet any Buddhist that mistakes emptiness for non-existence precisely because it is drummed into them from the outset.

7. Ancient Chinese Translation Errors

Kumārajīva incorrectly translated the end of Section V. All of the other text, Chinese and Sanskrit have na prāptir na-abhisamayo. For some reason Kumārajīva switched these two and chose an ambiguous translation for abhisamaya that ended up being mistaken for jñāna.

8. Errors in Exegesis

Technically this is not a problem with the text, but a problem with those who interpret it. Between them, D. T. Suzuki and Conze  thoroughly poisoned the well with Theosophy inspired mysticism. We are led to believe that the text does not make sense. Clearly, it does make sense, but only if one understands the context and can eliminate all the accumulated errors. I've included this because it gave rise to persistent errors and obscured many of the other kinds of errors from scholars who might otherwise have fixed the text decades ago.

In this category we might also mention Thich Nhat Hahn's "correction" to the Heart Sutra, which I have already commented on previously. And those comments now attract a solid Vietnamese readership - some of whom wish to inform me that there are no mistakes in the Heart Sutra and that TNH never said there were, and some of whom seem to want to discredit TNH. 


I'm not qualified to comment on the Tibetan text, though I am aware that the Canonical text does contain at least one editorial error that appears to have been transmitted from a faulty Indian Sanskrit manuscript. Instead of verbs "look" and "see", from vyava√lok and √paś, in the introduction, Tibetan has a verb corresponding to vyava√lok twice. (Attwood 2015)

Until the underlying text of the Heart Sutra is sorted out there is no point in continuing to translate it into English. Yet, no doubt, two or three erroneous translations will appear in 2018 to swell the bookshelves of Buddhist bibliophiles. It is likely that they will be produced by charismatic Buddhist "leaders". They may offer a "new translation" of the Sanskrit text, though chances are the translator is unlikely to know any Sanskrit apart from common jargon terms. 

Because the text is full of errors of all these kinds, we can say with confidence that all of the existing translations are wrong and need revising. The alarming truth is that those religious leaders who have translated it to date have been ignorant of most, if not all, of these errors. They have not read the text with an understanding of the context or even the language it is in. They pretend to understand the text because that is what is expected of them by their followers.

The result is that, for some centuries now, the Heart Sutra has been on a procrustean bed in which all kinds of sectarian Buddhists have stretched it to fit their belief system, whatever that happens to be. 



Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). 'Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñā-pāramitāhṛdaya.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104 [open access] 

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a).  ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart SutraJournal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155 [Subscription required until May 2018]

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017b) 'Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies', 13, 52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/164. [sub required until Nov 2018]

Attwood, Jayarava. (forthcoming 2018a). 'A note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra.' [submitted for peer-review Jan 2018]

Attwood, Jayarava. (forthcoming 2018b). 'The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra.'

Attwood, Jayarava. (forthcoming 2018c). 'Problems with Section VI of the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya or Heart Sutra.'

Huifeng, Shi. (2014). 'Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75 [open access]

Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707
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