20 October 2017

The Horror of Apocrypha.

People often react positively when I say that I study the Heart Sutra. They often seem imagine that the holiness of the text must rub off on me (I wish!). In reality, I don't find the Heart Sutra particularly interesting, except as a case study in the history of ideas in Buddhism. Unfortunately I found a sixty year old mistake in Conze's edition as I was beginning to learn Sanskrit back in 2012 and for me that meant figuring our how to fix it (see Attwood 2015). But it also meant looking to see in what other ways it was broken. As much as anything, what fascinates me now is that people continue to translate the text even though it is broken in several ways, both by Conze and original translator. What goes on in the mind of a translator who stumbles on a passage that simply does not make sense, but publishes something anyway?

The English language literature on the Heart Sutra mostly celebrates irrationality and mysticism, which goes a long way to explaining why no one noticed that the text did not make sense. It reminds me of that popular formulation of the laws of thermodynamics (aka Ginsberg's Theorem), which I can paraphrase for our purposes as: you can't understand, you can't hope to understand, there is nothing you can do that will bring about understanding. Call this Conze's Theorem, though it could equally well be Suzuki's. If someone accepts Conze's Theorem then their chances of spotting grammatical errors plummets. 

Amidst all the smoke and mirrors we don't usually see that, like many philosophers, priests and mystics actively get in the way of understanding. They impede us by asserting falsehoods, contradicting themselves, and above all by trying to convince us to take up the defeatist, fixed mindset (in the Professor Carol Dweck sense) that Conze's Theorem represents. If anyone actually understood, all the priests would be out of a job, or they would have competition. On the other hand, there is a symbiotic relationship between those who confuse and those who wish to be confused (or to justify their state of confusion or be absolved of responsibility for it). Priest and congregation co-exist and feed off each other.

A friend who likes to produce his own translations of the Heart Sutra, partly based on our long discussions about it, was criticised recently for "taking the mystery out of it". What can I say? The mystery of the Heart Sutra is how Buddhists get away with promoting magical thinking.

The Horror...

Anyway, sometimes my desire to understand forces me (reluctantly) to read books about the Heart Sutra. It's a bit like, having dropped my glasses in the toilet while having a piss, I have to fish them out before I flush, just in case they go past the U-bend. For some reason I had high hopes about Kazuaki Tanahashi’s book. I think it might have been the nice cover. The book does have a very nice cover (right). As the subtitle suggests this was an attempt at a comprehensive account of the Heart Sutra. However, like Red Pine, there was a mismatch between the author's expertise, the subject of the book, and the scope of his ambition. Tanahashi is even less proficiency than Red Pine in Sanskrit and appears to be entirely reliant on third parties, who apparently mislead him on many occasions. His commentary on the Sanskrit text is full of errors of lexicon and morphology and, as a result, quite unreliable.

I'm not even going to mention the new English Heart Sutra contrived with help from Roshi Joan Halifax. Instead in this essay I want to focus on how Tanahashi deals with the news, delivered in 1992, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, in Chinese. It was not Indian and not written in Sanskrit, and therefore not a sūtra. Tanahashi devotes almost four pages to outlining Nattier’s ninety-page article in a fairly neutral manner. His gloss is more or less accurate and he states that he thinks it is plausible (2014: 73-76). 

Then in a separate chapter, he notes the horror with which the article was received in Japan. He cites the late Japanese scholar, Fumimasa-Bunga Fukui (福井文雅), as saying “it would be a matter of grave concern if [the Heart Sutra] were proved to be an apocryphon produced in China” (2014: 77). Fukui (who died in May 2017) was a major figure of the Japanese Buddhist establishment, though almost completely unknown in the West because he didn't write in English (e.g. he only has a Japanese Wikipedia entry). Fukui, unsurprisingly given this attitude, is not convinced by the evidence presented, though Tanahashi does not really say anything about Fukui's reasoning. 

Tanahashi also records Red Pine’s objection, which I have already dealt with to some extent (Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar". 13 October 2017). However, unlike Pine, Tanahashi declares himself satisfied by the case that Nattier has made for the Heart Sutra having been composed in China. On the surface this is a victory for reason (sorely needed), but watch what happens next.

It Cannot Be Ruled Out.

The chapter that starts off assessing Nattier's thesis veers off on what seems to be a tangent. Tanahashi notices that T250 is closer to T223 and dubs it the “alpha version”. Despite the fact that T250 differs considerable more from the received Sanskrit text than T251, Tanahashi proposes it as the source text for the Sanskrit. He is concerned here to rally facts that support the identity of Xuánzàng as the translator, a case which in reality is very weak. Someone as familiar with the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature as Xuánzàng undoubtedly was, would be unlikely to make so many idiomatic mistakes or to misread the Chinese text.  The reasoning becomes increasingly specious, but it comes around to an unexpected conclusion:
“Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang’s Sanskrit version could be accepted as an authentic scripture.” (84)
So having accepted the rational argument against the text being authentic, Tanahashi uses deduction to show that after all it is authentic. The reasoning here is quite something and it might be instructive to diagram it.
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.
Note that Axiom3 assumes that the Heart Sutra complies with Axioms1 & 2. Nattier shows, however, that the Heart Sutra was composed in China some time between 404 CE and 672 CE. And so we get the syllogism:
If the Heart Sutra was composed in China, it did not come from India, therefore it is not the word of the Buddha, and therefore it is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1: The Heart Sutra is not an authentic sūtra.
Conclusion1 is the complete opposite of Axiom3. One or other must be false. Nattier in fact downplays this conclusion, presumably out of sympathy with her many Asian Buddhist Colleagues. But anyone can see the implications for this most popular of all East Asian texts. To put it baldly: it's a fake. Anyone who promoted it is a fool. Even if you did understand it, the understanding itself would not be authentic. This is the fear anyway. In my view the Heart Sutra is an authentic expression of early medieval Chinese Buddhism, but that's probably not enough for the traditionalist. 

Buddhist religious authority is partly predicated on the authenticity of the sūtras, and for Japanese Zen Buddhists this sūtra has a central and vital role. The Heart Sutra is the central mystery in the mystery religion that is modern Zen Buddhism (especially after D T Suzuki’s influential Theosophy inspired presentation of it). Axiom1 is the warp upon which the Zen Buddhist priests weave the weft of their religious authority. If Axiom1 is no longer a given, then the whole fabric of the religious tradition may unravel. Zen Buddhism is in danger of losing all credibility: hence the horrified reaction in Japan to Nattier’s article.

So, for obvious reasons, Conclusion1 is unacceptable: Fukui and Pine reject the evidence out of hand. Pine goes as far as denying that there is any evidence.

Tanahashi is, unlike Red Pine, honest enough to admit that Nattier’s case for Conclusion1 goes beyond any reasonable doubt. However, he is still committed to the three axioms. Therefore, he looks for a weak point in Nattier’s case. Her 1992 article is 90 pages long and covers a lot of ground. One of the subjects she covers is the attribution of T250 to Kumārajīva and T251 to Xuánzàng.

Traditionally, of course, T251 is attributed to Xuánzàng as translator. While Nattier casts enough doubt on this attribution for it to be abandoned, she leaves open the possibility that Xuánzàng produced the Sanskrit translation. This is a very appealing possibility to many Buddhists and in it Tanahashi finds his salvation.

Having definitely identified Xuánzàng as translator Tanahashi constructs a fantasy that goes like this. Buddhists, he says, meditate and sometimes, in meditation, they receive divine revelations. Stories of meditating monks receiving instructions from Maitreya or Mañjuśrī are exceedingly common in Buddhist folklore. In these stories, the figures are usually bodhisatvas and they play the role of a virtual-buddha who provides the necessary imprimatur to meet Axiom2 (sūtras are the word of the Buddha).

It is of course well known that Xuánzàng travelled to India. In his final manoeuvre, Tanahashi imagines that the revelation from Avalokiteśvara conveniently took place in India. This allows him to construct the following syllogism:
If Xuánzàng had “received” the [translated] text in India [Axiom1], it would have to be seen as a scripture of Indian origin! Therefore, technically speaking, by the traditional Chinese standard that regards all sutras created in India as authentic, Xuanzang's version could be accepted as an authentic scripture (84).
Axiom1: Authentic sutras come from India.
Axiom2: Authentic sutras are the word of the Buddha.
Axiom3: The Heart Sutra is an authentic sūtra.

The essential axioms are satisfied and the horror of the prospect that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon is banished, just as Xuánzàng himself banished the demons of the Gobi desert by reciting the Heart Sutra by magic. As Tanahashi says, this possibility “cannot be ruled out”. He is of course right. Just as we cannot rule out the possibility of the tooth-fairy. 

However, Tanahashi cannot cite a single source for this idea. There is nothing in Xuánzàng's own account of his journey to suggest any of this happened. Nothing in the biographies composed by his contemporaries. Not even a suspicious looking legend. There is nothing for anyone to base such speculation on. We associate Xuánzàng with the Heart Sutra, because shoe-horned into his travelogue is a single mention of the text; and because his two main disciples wrote commentaries on the text (which are, curiously, undated - the Chinese dated everything). Xuánzàng is famous precisely for bringing Sanskrit Buddhist texts to China, and translating then into Chinese after he arrived. He was a prolific translator so we have a very good idea of what to look for and the Heart Sutra has none of the tell-tale signs. What is apparent is that someone has inexpertly altered the text to make it look more like a Xuánzàng production, but they didn't do a very good job of it.

So no, we cannot prove that it didn't happen, but there is also no reason to believe it did, except for Axioms1 & 2. 

One weakness that Tanahashi did not exploit, is that while he was in India, Xuánzàng is believed to have made a Sanskrit translation of the Chinese apocryphal text known in English as The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. However, in this case the text is widely acknowledged to be an apocryphon. In trying to establish the authenticity of the Heart Sutra, it would be risky to pair it with a known forgery. Tanahashi avoids this potential complication by not mentioning it (though it is equally likely that he was simply ignorant of this fact). 

Having proved to his own satisfaction that the Heart Sutra is authentic, despite also accepting that Nattier has proved that it is not authentic (in that sense), Tanahashi proceeds as though his fantasy is reality. Just three pages later, he says:
“However, when Xuanzang translated the Hridaya into Chinese, there is no doubt that he referred to the α version [i.e. T250], which he might have believed to be the Kumarajiva translation” (87)
This is a neat trick. He begins by making a show of rationality, of gravely considering and accepting the validity of Nattier’s argument, despite the horrifying consequences that have made his prejudiced contemporaries in Japan (and elsewhere) reject it outright. Nevertheless, he proceeds as though Nattier got it completely wrong and the Heart Sutra is everything the Japanese Zen tradition says it is. The level of self-deception and desperation involved is shocking even to this relatively cynical author.

Oh, and the lack of doubt that Xuánzàng consulted T250 is convenient cover for the fact that T251 is not a separate translation at all, it is T250 that has been lightly edited: two lines have been removed, one from the beginning and one from the middle of the quote from the Large Sutra (T223) and/or it's commentary (T1509); and 3 word have been changed to reflect Xuánzàng's preferred "spelling" (Avalokiteśvara, Śāriputra, and skandha).

"We Fear Change.

With apologies to the copyright holders

Anyone familiar with the history of science probably knows about Thomas Kuhn's description of how science makes progress. It is down to him that we use the word paradigm as much as we do. Scientists supposedly resist paradigm change because they stake their careers on the old idea. However, in science, though there may be resistance, attitudes, theories, and practices do change, because scientists respond to evidence (my lifetime has seen many paradigms shift). In religion, it can be a very different story, even in the religion whose unofficial motto is "everything changes". Ideally in science, theory is evidence led. Religion is almost always the opposite: theory leads evidence. Evidence is either made to fit the theory or it is simply discarded as irrelevant. As we have seen in this case.

In all likelihood both Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi are good men; they are sincere and wrote their books in good faith, not consciously intending to impede understanding by giving false information or creating confusion. They most likely care deeply about the traditions they've given their lives to. They don’t see themselves as deceiving anyone, nor the self-serving nature of their deceptions. In all likelihood, they are just as deceived by their own words as others are (though happy to accept the benefits that accrue to them as a result). The axioms of their worldview override other concerns. Such axioms underpin the deductive logic of the rejection of any counter-factual information. This is the characteristic of a religious mindset.

However, it leaves them vulnerable. Sooner or later, someone like me was going to examine their work and point out the fallacies, biases, and mistakes in their work. The problems that don't just detract from their efforts but characterise them. Everything that is wrong with religion as a cultural institution is on display in Tanahashi's attempt to both accept and subvert the Chinese origins thesis. The rhetoric, the pretence, is that they are concerned with ultimate reality and that they accept that everything changes. But a simple truth such as the Heart Sutra being a Chinese composition, causes such consternation that they revert to type: they obfuscate, deny, and misdirect.

The reality in this case is that the Heart Sutra is changing. It has changed in the past, and it will change again. Buddhism is changing, it has changed in the past, and it will change again. If change is the nature of reality, then the changes wrought by Jan Nattier should be joyfully embraced by Buddhists. Instead, they are fearfully rejected and replaced with fantasy versions of reality. And this is sanctioned by followers because they don’t want things to change either. All too often Buddhism seems like a tragedy blurring into a farce.

The final irony is that, if you could ask the Heart Sutra itself, it would reply: in emptiness there is no Heart Sutra. And the mainstream, the paradigmatic, metaphysical interpretation would be that the Heart Sutra doesn't exist! And laughably, it is precisely my epistemological interpretation (based on Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāḷi suttas) that rescues the text from this ignominious fate. It's only me arguing that of course the text exists, it's just that perception of it is not governed by the same rules as the existence of it. 

The uncomfortable truth is that text that everyone knows and loves, is full of errors. And faith is getting in the way of fixing them. 



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

Pine, Red. (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.

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

13 October 2017

Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar".

When I mention to anyone that I work on the Heart Sutra, there is a better-than-even chance that that person will declare that they like Red Pine's book on the text (2004). This small book purports to be a translation from the Sanskrit along with a commentary. However, Pine is not very good at Sanskrit and there are a load of mistakes in his book, and his commentary is sectarian, to say the least. My Amazon UK review of his book suggests that it is "a facile book on modern Japanese Zen rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra." I say this whenever his name comes up, but his reputation survives intact. The response is usually along the lines "We trust him, we don't trust you (so fuck off)". The last may be sotto voce, but sometimes it is expressed just like that.

Facts don't necessarily win arguments or establish reputations; and nor do falsehoods necessarily lose arguments or destroy reputations. No one alive today can doubt this truism. Nevertheless, I still try to deal in facts and here are some facts about Red Pine's attempts to understand the Heart Sutra.

One of the characteristics of Pine's approach is his outright rejection of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China.
"... we are shown no proof that the Heart Sutra was originally composed or complied in Chinese, that any part of the first half was extracted from the Large Sutra or any other Chinese text, or that the mantra was added later."  (2004: 23)
Pine instead proposes a "lost manuscript thesis". That is to say, he argues that the Heart Sutra quote from the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is from a (now lost) sūtra with the same name, and with the same meaning, but written in an entirely different Sanskrit idiom from any other Prajñāpāramitā text. In other words, he believes that the Indian sūtra existed in at least two prose versions, which paraphrased each other; meaning that one of them was in the standard idiom of all other Prajñāpāramitā texts, and one was in an idiom unknown except for the passage in the Heart Sutra. The fact that the Chinese Heart Sutra is coincidentally identical to Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati is apparently irrelevant (note: it is T250 that is character for character identical; T251 has a line removed in the middle and a couple of key terms changed). 

In taking this perverse approach, Red Pine is asserting that the Sanskrit text is original and authoritative and that the Chinese text is just a translation. But as we will see, this is not what he believes in practice. I draw your attention to Section VI of Conze's edition and to Red Pine's "translation". 

The mystery of Section VI.

Conze's edition chops up the Heart Sutra into sections to make it easier to comment on. The earliest manuscripts of the Heart Sutra do not have sections. In fact, they don't even have sentence or word breaks. They have no punctuation at all. In Conze’s edition the passage reads:
VI. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo Prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ.
This section has already been examined in detail by Huifeng (2014), but there is work to do yet on the Sanskrit. I am about to submit a short article tackling the mistake introduced by Conze, and am working on another article which tackles what went wrong with the original (back)translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. Here, I just want to look at Red Pine's approach and what it reveals about his methods.

The second sentence in particular is puzzling. Jan Nattier notes that it seems "abbreviated at best", but doesn't seem to clock why. Others seem to gloss over the problems. What Pine says is this:
“I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta” (2004: 137)
If we look at the Sanskrit text it is apparent that there are problems with this passage. The two words viparyāsātikrāntaḥ and niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ are both bahuvrīhi compounds or compound adjectives. The two words in the compound work together to describe a noun: "one who has overcome delusion" and "one whose extinction is final". But there is no noun for them to describe. Nor does the sentence have a verb or anything that might substitute for one - and just as in English, a sentence without a verb is a contradiction in terms.

A compound cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces under any circumstances. It is never allowed.  There is nothing vague about this rule. For one thing, were we to do that to viparyāsātikrāntaḥ, as Pine does, we would leave  viparyāsa with no case ending and thus no relationship to the other words in the sentence (grammar is all about relationships between words). The role of the compound in the sentence is entirely determined by the second member of the compound, which does have a case ending (in this case masculine nominative singular).

The passive past participle atikranta cannot function as a finite verb under any circumstances. The root verb ati√kram does not mean "see through" it means "go beyond, transgress, transcend". Given the Prajñāpāramitā idiom, it probably ought to be samatikranta, which cannot be construed as "transgress", but that is a another story.

Pine has misread the sentence and, in asserting that there are any "vagaries" here, has gone completely off piste. The problem, as my forthcoming article will show, is that Conze has incorrectly put a full stop (US "period") in the middle of the sentence, stranding the three adjectives (atrastaḥ is the third) apart from the noun they describe, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ. Note that the Chinese text in the CEBTA version of the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka has a semicolon at this point, rather than a full stop. Conze had little or no facility with Chinese and never checked the Chinese texts when preparing his Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts.

This is completely obvious to anyone educated in Sanskrit: adjectives taking the case of their noun is very basic stuff (you probably learn this in the first or second week of study).

Why is it so obvious in this case? Because the noun nirvāṇa is invariably neuter (nominative singular nirvāṇaṃ), but in the Heart Sutra it has a masculine ending, -nirvāṇaḥ. The only time this is permitted is when a word is used as an adjective for a masculine noun, in the nominative singular: adjectives take the gender, case, and number of the noun they describe. Thus niṣthānirvāṇaḥ can only be a bahuvrīhi compound, an adjective, and can only be related to a masculine noun in the nominative singular, and could not be anything else. The only candidate noun within 20 words in either direction is bodhisatvaḥ, in the previous "sentence". When we remove the full stop we have one perfectly good Buddhist Sanskrit sentence.

Conze blunders again and the whole (Buddhist) world blindly follows him off the cliff.

The essential problem, then, is that cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ is not a well formed sentence. It's just a qualifier and three adjectives, with no verb, no subject, and no noun to be described. When we remove the full stop, and merge it with the previous sentence, we supply all three. That is why Pine is struggling, but he doesn't see it. And rather than take the simple and obvious solution he abandons Sanskrit grammar altogether and claims that Sanskrit grammar itself is "vague". Given that he has abandoned grammar, why does he choose the particular configuration he does? If he is abandoning the rules of grammar then he might have opted for any combination of words. The answer lies in the Chinese text.


The text that everyone in Asia considers to be the Heart Sutra is T251. It differs from T250 at this point, but only in a minor way (I will deal with this in the article, but not here). The Chinese parallel to the Sanskrit phrase cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in T251 is:
A word for word translation would be:
unattached (無罣礙) because (故),there is no (無有) terror (恐怖),going beyond (遠離) delusions (顛倒) [and] illusions (夢想 ),final (究竟) nirvāṇa (涅槃).
Here the particle 故 gives the first word the same sense as the Sanskrit ablative of cause, it is a qualifier meaning "because, since". The previous sentence concluded that "[the bodhisatva's]  mind 心 is unattached 無罣礙". So the qualifier links the two phrases, in the manner of "; because of that...". Then we have a statement that appears to logically follow from it, i.e. "because he is unattached, he is without fear". Then we have a verb "he goes beyond" and it has a direct object "delusions and illusions" and an indirect object "final-nirvāṇa". So it says:
[his mind is unattached]; since it is unattached, [the bodhisatva] is not afraid; he goes beyond delusion and illusion to final extinction.
I want to draw your attention to two things here. Firstly the sentence structure of the Chinese is completely different to the received Sanskrit and some of the words are different. I've already pointed out that the second part of Section VI cannot be a standalone sentence in Sanskrit. But in Chinese, we do have a well formed sentence with verbs and nouns (the subject is implied, but it is the bodhisatva in the preceding phrase). Translating this we don't struggle, at least we certainly don't have the kind of problems thrown up by Conze's Sanskrit edition.

Secondly compare how Red Pine has construed the Sanskrit text to make atikranta the verb (= 遠離), viparyāsa a standalone noun (= 顛倒), niṣthā an adverb (= 究竟), and nirvāṇa a standalone noun (涅槃). To make it plain, Red Pine has chopped up the Sanskrit sentence, abrogating the rules of Sanskrit grammar, to make it read (more or less) like the Chinese, but with a concession to his Zen ideology. The concession is that he takes niṣṭhā as an adverb "finally" related to the "verb" atikranta, rather than part of the adjective "final-extinction". This allows him to construe the possibility of "finally seeing trough nirvāṇa". Again Sanskrit does not allow parts of compounds to come adrift and act independently, so this reading of the Sanskrit is wrong. I don't think it works in Chinese either, though at a pinch it might be a plausible reading. A broader look at the phrase 究竟涅槃 in Chinese shows that it is always a single compound and not an adverb-noun combination. But Red Pine does not seem to know this.

The main point I wish to make here is that Red Pine prioritises the Chinese text over the Sanskrit (and not just here either).

As I noted above, Red Pine says that he considers the Sanskrit text to be the authentic original Heart Sutra. The Chinese text is merely a translation. But when he meets a problem in the Sanskrit text he does not deal with it in Sanskrit (even though there is a simple and obvious solution to his problem), instead he uses the Chinese text as a guide to butchering the Sanskrit, to make it read like the Chinese.

I discovered this some weeks ago and I still laugh out loud every time I explain it to anyone. Despite what he says in relation to the Chinese origins thesis, and despite claiming that he is translating from Sanskrit, in practice Red Pine treats the Chinese text as authoritative and translates from Chinese (on more than one occasion). 

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?" The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
Now to give him his due, Red Pine is almost unique in admitting that he had any problem at all translating this part of the text. Most religious translators hide their struggles and their methods from their readers giving the illusion of greater understanding than is humanly possible. In this case Conze's edition is unreadable and untranslatable. A sentence with just a qualifier and three adjectives is nonsense and nonsense cannot be translated into sense. But strangely enough all the English translations seem to make sense. How does that happen? 

What goes through the mind of the translator faced with a text that doesn't make sense, but who wishes to be known as an expert in understanding that text?

Presumably the demands of status mean that these translators simply lie about understanding the text, and then lie to themselves about having lied. And do a lot of hand waving to distract anyone from seeing the lies. They feel safe in the knowledge that very few of their readers bother to learn Sanskrit and that scholars play no corrective role in the process.

And they do get away with this cheating, this intellectual fraud. Time after time.

Surely the publisher of Red Pine's book, Counterpoint Press, also has some responsibility (as do other publishers of non-fiction books)? Counterpoint Press edited the book and presumably sub-edited the English in it. Why was the Sanskrit not sub-edited? No one seems to have bothered to check a dictionary at any point. It seems that they did not do any fact-checking or due-diligence, such as having an expert read the manuscript. At best the complacency of the publisher has facilitated the ongoing deception. 

We expect religieux to fudge things from time to time because they have an agenda that includes overriding ideological concerns. We understand this and while we may not endorse it, at least it is no great surprise to find that a religious translator has manipulated a text to make it fit their preconceptions; or told us what they think it ought to say rather than what it actually says (especially in cases where they demonstrably do not understand it, as here). We expect religieux to have exaggerated reverence for a printed text and not to think about how the text might be wrong (Thich Nhat Hahn is the sole exception to this that I'm aware of, but as I explained, his solution is to hide the problem by manipulating the translation. This is just an exercise in hand waving). 

What of academia? Many of the people who have studied, translated, and commented on this text were academics of quite high standing. Conze's first edition (1948) was published in a prestigious journal, where it was supposedly peer-reviewed. How did all of these experts in Sanskrit, miss the fact that the neuter noun nirvāṇa was in the masculine gender in this text and not see the implications of this? Any undergraduate student could spotted this and have told us what those implications were. 


The fact is that Buddhists have been poorly served by religious teachers and academic experts alike. In the case of the Heart Sutra, huge, possibly irreparable, damage has been done by D T Suzuki and Edward Conze and their Theosophy inspired nonsense. Yet both are almost deified and occupy a kind of pantheon of Buddhist Modernism. Conze has been described by Sangharakshita as "one of the great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century". He was a poor editor and translator, and while his views were influenced by Buddhism (amongst other things), I'm not convinced he was a Buddhist at all.

Red Pine's popular book is full of egregious errors and, as we now know, a degree of deception, inconsistency, and hypocrisy. At best it is a facile book on modern Japanese Zen ideology, rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra. But there is no doubting that it is popular. So it too has done huge damage.

Where we might have expected correctives from the supposedly objective scholars based in universities, dispassionately studying the languages and documents of Buddhism, we simply see more of the same in most cases (with a few notable exceptions). The most basic level of scholarship has been left incomplete, while scholars pursue ever more obscure objectives. I'm told by insiders that this might be so that they can avoid confrontation with anyone else in the field. Criticism that might affect anyone's career prospects is scrupulously avoided and even suppressed as journals refuse to publish it. Still, Conze has been dead for 43 years, I can't see how criticising him is going to hurt anyone.

Another problem, of course, is that the field is tiny and funding for it in the West has become scarce. Most of the major projects are based in Asia, under the guidance of Buddhist organisations and funders, meaning that scholarship is beholden to those with strong religious ideologies. Dissent is not really possible under such conditions.

The Heart Sutra is frequently referred to as "the most popular Mahāyāna text in the world". Most undergraduates in Buddhist Studies read it. Probably many of them read it in Sanskrit. So actually what I said about any undergraduate spotting the mistake is probably wrong, because several generations of them have not spotted it, or they spotted it and stayed quiet. And so simple grammatical errors have persisted in the most popular Buddhist text for almost 60 years (the anniversary of Conze's edition is in 2018; he died in 1974). 

I'm repeating myself in complaining about Buddhist Studies as a discipline (if "discipline" is the right word). But here I am working systematically through the shortest text in popular use (260 Chinese characters and about the same number of words in Sanskrit) and still finding mistakes in the text and trying to figure out how anyone could have translated the resulting mess. Something is deeply wrong in the world, if an autodidact, amateur, independent scholar is the one finding these fundamental problems. They should have been ironed out by academics decades ago. Conze should never have been allowed to publish his critical edition with errors in it for a start, but they should have been corrected long before now. 

Ironically, in the final analysis, this set of circumstances can only stand because Buddhists themselves are complacent and not paying attention. Perhaps we are in a kāliyuga after all?



Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. 

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

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

Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.

25 August 2017


There's been quite a lot of talk of "meta-rationality" lately amongst the blogs I read. It is ironic that this emerging trend comes at a time when the very idea of rationality is being challenged from beneath. Mercier and Sperber, for example, tell us that empirical evidence suggests that reasoning is "a form of intuitive [i.e. unconscious] inference" (2017: 90); and that reasoning about reasoning (meta-rationality) is mainly about rationalising such inferences and our actions based on them. If this is true, and traditional ways of thinking about reasoning are inaccurate, then we all have a period of readjustment ahead.

It seems that we don't understand rationality or reasoning. My own head is shaking as I write this. Can it be accurate? It is profoundly counter-intuitive. Sure, we all know that some people are less than fully rational. Just look at how nation states are run. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to realise that I don't understand reasoning. After all, I write non-fiction. All of my hundreds of essays are the product of reasoning. Aren't they? well, maybe. In this essay, I'm going to continue my desultory discussion of reason by outlining a result from experimental psychology from the year I was born, 1966. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason, Mercier & Sperber (2017) describe this experiment and some of the refinements since proposed.

But first a quick lesson in Aristotelian inferential logic. I know, right? You're turned off and about to click on something else. But please do bear with me. I'm introducing this because unless you understand the logic involved in the problem, you won't get the full blast of the 50-year-old insight that follows. Please persevere and I think you'll agree at the end that it's worth it.


For our purposes, we need to consider a conditional syllogism. Schematically it takes the form:

If P, then Q.

Say we posit: if a town has a police station (P), then it also has a courthouse (Q). There are two possible states for each proposition. A town has a police station (P); it does not have a police station (not P or ¬P); it has a courthouse (Q); it does not have a court house (¬Q). What we concerned with here is what we can infer from each of these four possibilities, given the rule: If P, then Q.

The syllogism—If P, then Q—in this case tells us that it is always the case that if a town has a police station, then it also has a courthouse. If I now tell you that the town of Wallop in Hampshire, has a police station, you can infer from the rule that Wallop must also have a courthouse. This is a valid inference of the type that Aristotle called modus ponens. Schematically:

If P, then Q.
P, therefore Q. ✓

What if I tell you that Wallop does not have a police station? What can you infer from ¬P? You might be tempted to say that Wallop has no courthouse. But this would be a fallacy (called denial of the antecedent). It does not follow from the rule that if a town does not have a police station that it also doesn't have a court house. It is entirely possible under the given rule that a town has a courthouse but no police station.

If P, then Q.
¬P, therefore ¬Q. ✕

What if we have information about the courthouse and want to infer something about the police station. What can we infer if Wallop had a courthouse (Q)? Well, we've just seen that we cannot infer anything. Trying to infer something from the absence of the second part of the syllogism leads to false conclusions (affirmation of the consequent)

If P, then Q.
Q, therefore P. ✕

But we can make a valid inference if we know that Wallop has no courthouse (¬Q). If there is no courthouse and our rule is always true, then we can infer that there is no police station in Wallop. And this valid inference is the type called modus tollens by Aristotle.

If P, then Q.
¬Q, therefore ¬P. ✓

So given the rule and information about one of the two propositions P and Q we can make inferences about the other. But only in two cases can we make valid inferences, i.e. P and ¬Q.

If P, then Q.PQ

Of course, there are even less logical inferences one could make, but these are the ones that Aristotle deemed sensible enough to include in his work on logic. This is the logic that we need to understand. And the experimental task, proposed by Peter Wason in 1966, tested the ability of people to use this kind of reasoning.

~Wason Selection Task~

You are presented with four cards, each with a letter and number printed on either side.

The rule is: If a card has E on one side, it has 2 on the other.
The question is: which cards must be turned over to test the rule, i.e. to determine if the cards follow the rule. You have as much time as you wish.

Wason and his collaborators got a shock in 1966 because only 10% of their participants chose the right answer. Having prided ourselves on our rationality for millennia (in Europe anyway) the expectation was that most people would find this exercise in reasoning relatively simple. Only 1 in 10 got the right answer. This startling result led Wason and subsequent investigators to pose many variations on this test, almost always with similar results.

Intrigued they began to ask people about the level of confidence in their methods before getting their solution. Despite the fact that 90% would choose the wrong answer, 80% of participants were 100% sure they had the right answer! So it was not that the participants were hesitant or tentative. On the contrary, they were extremely confident in their method, whatever it was.

The people taking part were not stupid or uneducated. Most of them were psychology undergraduates. The result is slightly worse than one would expect from random guessing, which suggests that something was systematically going wrong.

The breakthrough came more than a decade later when, in 1979, Jonathan Evans came up with a variation in which the rule was: if a card has E on one side, it does not have 2 on the other. In this case, the proportions of right and wrong answers dramatically switched around, with 90% getting it right. Does this mean that we reason better negatively?
"This shows, Evans argued, that people's answers to the Wason task are based not on logical reasoning but on intuitions of relevance." (Mercier & Sperber 2017: 43. Emphasis added)
What Evans found was that people turn over the cards named in the rule. Which is not reasoning, but since it is predicated on an unconscious evaluation of the information, not quite a guess either. Which is why the success rate is worse than random guessing.

Which cards did you turn over? As with the conditional syllogism, there are only two valid inferences to be made here: Turn over the E card. If it has a 2 on the other side, the rule is true for this card (but may not be true for others); if it does not have a 2, the rule is falsified. The other card to turn over is the one with a seven on it. If it has E on the other side, the rule is falsified; if it does not have an E, the rule may still be true.

Turning over the K tells us nothing relevant to the rule. Turning over the 2 is a little more complex, but ultimately futile. If we find an E on the other side of the 2 we may think it validates the rule. However, the rule does not forbid, a card with 2 on one side having any letter, E or another one. So turning over the 2 does not give us any valid inferences either.

Therefore it is only by turning over the E and 7 cards that we can make valid inferences about the rule. And short of gaining access to all possible cards, the best we can do is falsify the rule. Note that the cards are presented in the order in the same order as I used in explaining the logic. E = P, K = ¬P, 2 = Q, and 7 = ¬Q.

Did you get the right answer? Did you consciously work through the logic or respond to an intuition? Did you make the connection with the explanation of the conditional syllogism that preceded it?

I confess that I did not get the right answer, and I had read a more elaborate explanation of the conditional logic involved. I did not work through the logic but chose the cards named in the rule. 

The result has been tested in many different circumstances and variations and seems to be general. Humans, in general, don't use reasoning to solve logic problems, unless they have specific training. Even with specific training people still get it wrong. Indeed, even though I explained the formal logic of the puzzle immediately beforehand, the majority of readers would have ignored this and chosen to turn over the E and 2 cards, because they used their intuition instead of logic to infer the answer.


In a recent post (Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability, 20 Jul 2017) I explored some of the consequences of this result. Mercier and Sperber go from Wason into a consideration of unconscious processing of information. They discuss and ultimately reject Kahneman's so-called dual process models of thinking (with two systems, one fast and one slow). There is only one process, Mercier and Sperber argue, and it is unconscious. All of our decisions are made this way. When required, they argue, we produce conscious reasons after the fact (post hoc). The reason we are slow at producing reasons is that they don't exist before we are asked for them (or ask ourselves - which is something Mercier and Sperber don't talk about much). It takes time to make up plausible sounding reasons. we have to go through the process of asking, given what we know about ourselves, what a plausible reason might be. And because of cognitive bias, we settle for the first plausible explanation we come up with. Then, as far as we are concerned, that is the reason.

It's no wonder there was scope for Dr Freud to come along and point out that people's stated motives were very often not the motives that one could deduce from detailed observation of the person (particularly paying attention to moments when the unconscious mind seemed to reveal itself). 

This does not discount the fact that we have two brain regions that process incoming information. It is most apparent in situations that scare us. For example, an unidentified sound will trigger the amygdala to create a cascade of activation across the sympathetic nervous system. Within moments our heart rate is elevated, our breathing shallow and rapid, and our muscles flooding with blood. We are ready for action. The same signal reaches the prefrontal cortex more slowly. The sound is identified in the aural processing area, then fed to the prefrontal cortex which is able to override the excitation of the amygdala.

A classic example is walking beside a road with traffic speeding past. Large, rapidly moving objects ought to frighten us because we evolved to escape from marauding beasts. Not just predators either, since animals like elephants or rhinos can be extremely dangerous. But our prefrontal cortex has established that cars almost always stay on the road and follow predictable trajectories. Much more alertness is required when crossing the road. I suspect that the failure to switch on that alertness after suppressing it might be responsible for many pedestrian accidents. Certainly, where I live pedestrians commonly step out into the road without looking.

It is not that the amygdala is "emotional" and the prefrontal cortex is "rational". Both parts of the brain are processing sense data, but one is getting it raw and setting off reactions that involve alertness and readiness; while the other is getting it with an overlay of identification and recognition and either signalling to turn up the alertness or to turn it down. And this does not happen in isolation but is part of a complex system by which we respond to the world. The internal physical sensations associated with these systems, combined with our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, about the situation are our emotions. We've made thought and emotion into two separate categories and divided up our responses to the world into one or the other, but in fact, the two are always co-existent.

Just because we have these categories, does not mean they are natural or reflect reality. For example, I have written about the fact that ancient Buddhist texts did not have a category like "emotion". They had loads of words for emotions, but lumped all this together with mental activity (Emotions in Buddhism. 04 November 2011). Similarly, ancient Buddhist texts did not see the mind as a theatre of experience or have any analogue of the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor (27 July 2012). The ways we think about the mind are not categories imposed on us by nature, but the opposite, categories that we have imposed on experience. 

Emotion is almost entirely missing from Mercier and Sperber's book. While I can follow their argument, and find it compelling in many ways, I think their thesis is flawed for leaving emotion out of the account of reason. In what I consider to be one of my key essays, Facts and Feelings, composed in 2012, I drew on work by Antonio Damasio to make a case for how emotions are involved in decision making. Specifically, emotions encode the value of information over and above how accurate we consider it.

We know this because when the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is disrupted, by brain damage, for example, it can disrupt the ability to made decisions. In the famous case of Phineas Gage, his brain was damaged by a railway spike being drive through his cheek and out the top of his head. He lived and recovered, but he began to make poor decisions in social situations. In other cases, recounted by Damasio (and others) people with damage to the  ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex lose the ability to assess alternatives like where to go for dinner, or what day they would like doctor's appointment on. The specifics of this disruption suggests that we weigh up information and make decisions based on how we feel about the information.

Take also the case of Capgras Syndrome. In this case, the patient will recognise a loved one, but not feel the emotional response that normally goes with such recognition. To account for this discrepancy they confabulate accounts in which the loved one has been replaced by a replica, often involving some sort of conspiracy (a theme which has become all too common in speculative fiction). Emotions are what tell us how important things are to us, and indeed in what way they are important. We can feel attracted to or repelled by the stimulus; the warm feeling when we see a loved one, the cold one when we see an enemy. We also have expectations and anticipations based on previous experience (fear, anxiety, excitement and so on).

Mercier and Sperber acknowledge that there is an unconscious inferential process, but never delve into how it might work. But we know from Damasio and others that it involves emotions. Now it seems that this process is entirely, or mostly, unconscious and that when reasons are required, we construct them as explanations to ourselves and others for something that has already occurred.

Sometimes we talk about making unemotional decisions, or associate rationality with the absence of emotion. But we need to be clear on this: without emotions, we cannot make decisions. Rationality is not possible without emotions to tell us how important things are. Where "things" are people, objects, places, etc. 

In their earlier work (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) of 2011, Mercier and Sperber argued that we use reasoning to win arguments. They noted the poor performance on the test of reasoning like the Wason task and added the prevalence of confirmation bias. They argued that this could be best understood in terms of decision-making in small groups (which is after all the natural context for a human being). As an issue comes up, each contributor makes the best case they can, citing all the supporting evidence and arguments. Here confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. However, those listening to the proposals are much better at evaluating arguments and do not fall into confirmation bias. Thus, Mercier and Sperber concluded, humans only employ reasoning to decide issues when there is an argument. 

The new book expands on this idea but takes a much broader view. However, I want to come back and emphasise this point about groups. All too often philosophers are trapped in solipsism. They try to account for the world as though individuals cannot compare notes, as though everything can and should be understood from the point of view of an isolated individual. So existing theories of rationality all assume that a person reasons in isolation. But I'm going to put my foot down here and insist that humans never do anything in isolation. Even hermits have a notional relation to their community - they are defined by their refusal of society. We are social primates. Under natural conditions, we do everything together. Of course, for 12,000 years or so, an increasing number of us have been living in unnatural conditions that have warped our sensibilities, but even so, we need to acknowledge the social nature of humanity. All individual psychology is bunk. There is only social psychology. All solipsistic philosophy is bunk. People only reason in groups. The Wason task shows that on our own we don't reason at all, but rely on unconscious inferences. But these unconscious (dare I say instinctual) processes did not evolve for city slickers. They evolved for hunter-gatherers.

It feels to me like we are a transitional period in which old paradigms of thinking about ourselves, about our minds, are falling away to be replaced by emerging, empirically based paradigms that are still taking shape. What words like "thought", "emotion", "consciousness", and "reasoning" mean is in flux. Which means that we live in interesting times. It's possible that a generation from now, our view of mind, at least amongst intellectuals, is going to be very different. 



Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) 'Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

See also my essay: Reasoning and Beliefs 10 January 2014

11 August 2017

Fixing the Broken Heart Sutra.

In this essay I do several things. I show that Conze bungled the editing of the Section VI. of the Heart Sutra (Section VII in my nomenclature) and how to fix the received text. I review research by Huifeng which shows that the original Sanskrit translator also bungled, and go into detail on how to fix his mistakes. I incidentally show that Red Pine is also a bungler. By doing the basic philology that should have been done a century ago, I explain the grammar of this passage of the Heart Sutra and how to better construct it in Sanskrit. I give a revised Sanskrit text that is far more consistent with existing Chinese texts. I once again ponder the dire state of Buddhist philology. 

One of the many linguistic puzzles of the Heart Sutra is the construction nāstitvād that one finds in Conze's Section VI. I have been worrying away at this problem for five years and just now had a breakthrough, but it requires some context. The text in Conze's revised, 1967 edition and 1975 translation of the Heart Sutra tells us 
Tasmāc Chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo  prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 
Therefore, O Śāriputra, it is because of his non-attainmentness that a bodhisattva, through having relied on the perfection of wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can be upset, and in the end attains to Nirvāṇa (Buddhist Wisdom Books).
Almost everything about this translation is wrong. It is one of the most egregious examples of Buddhist Hybrid English in the entire canon of Buddhist translations. The English is execrable and incomprehensible. "Non-attainmentness" is a rather ugly neologism. And what on earth is a "thought-covering" (and why is it hyphenated)? Nor have other translators ever really got to grip with this passage. Those who purport to translate it from Sanskrit have failed to see a very basic mistake in Conze's Sanskrit (incidentally repeated by Vaidya in his edition). Red Pine simply dismisses the rules of Sanskrit grammar at this point with hand-waving and produces a translation that fits his preconceptions but has nothing to do with the underlying text (See p.137 of his book). 

As with previous essays of this kind I will make frequent use of the Chinese. In a previous essay, I worked through Huifeng's treatment of the Sanskrit acittāvaraṇaḥ in light of the Chinese text. I accepted that he was right to reinterpret the passage, but disagreed on the definition of the key verb. He wanted 罣 to mean "hang" and I insisted on the more basic meaning of "stick".

The Chinese passage in T2521, which most East Asians take to be the Heart Sutra, reads (though note that the punctuation is modern):
以無所得故,菩提薩埵依 般若波羅蜜多故,心無罣礙;無罣礙故,無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想 ,究竟涅槃。
And this means more or less the same. I'll work through the differences as we go.  The first difference is to notice that the Chinese text has no "therefore Śāriputra" here.

Next, Huifeng has shown that aprāptitvād is an incorrect translation of 以無所得故.  In fact, Kumārajīva most often uses these characters to represent anupalambhayogena. And Huifeng makes a very good case for taking this word with the previous section and as ending a sentence. So if we make these corrections we get a working text that looks like this

Tasmācchāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ… na prāptir nābhsamayo anupalambhayogena ॥  
Bodhisatvo prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. 

Now, bodhisatvo does not just start a new sentence, it starts a next paragraph or section. Focusing now on this new paragraph, since we have eliminated the possibility that 以無所得故 means acittavaraṇaḥ, it is extremely unlikely that 無罣礙故 can mean acittavaraṇaḥ nāstitvād (and anyway this is a very weird construction). Moreover, there is no verb like viharati "dwell" anywhere in Chinese.

Unfortunately, although he gave an English translation which conveyed the correct reading of the Chinese, Huifeng didn't give a Sanskrit reading (and declined to do so when I pestered him in person). With the help of some colleagues I came up with an alternative Sanskrit reading based on the hints in Huifeng's article:
yo bodhisatvaḥ  prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati ।
The mind of the bodhisatva who relies on perfection of wisdom, does not get stuck anywhere.
The phrase "does not get stuck" could also be "does not get attached"  But how to deal with Cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ? It is at this point that Red Pine simply abandons grammar and simply makes up a translation to suit his purposes. But the fact is that there is nothing very difficult here, except that Conze has once again led us astray.

In his 1948 edition, the last word in the sentence is nishṭhā-nirvāṇaḥ. Let us start here. Nirvāṇa is an adjective and thus properly takes the gender of the noun it describes. Buddhists often use it as a noun, and when they do so it is invariably neuter. The eagle eyed reader will note that here nirvāṇaḥ has a masculine nominative singular ending. This can mean only one thing (and there is nothing "vague" here, contra Mr Pine)  which is that nishṭhā-nirvāṇa is a bahuvrīhi or adjectival compound. And it is describing a noun in the masculine nominative singular case. In Conze's Sanskrit, there is no such noun in this sentence. However, there is one in the previous sentence, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ (and note that -aḥ followed by p is unchanged, so bodhisatvo is wrong in Conze).

This tells us that Conze has blundered (again). Here we have just one sentence. It also tells us that we don't need prāpta. Prāpta (the passive past participle of prāpṇoti "to attain") was added to provide a verbal derivative because, just as in English, a Sanskrit sentence has to have a verb or a verbal derivative acting as a verb. By dividing one sentence, with one main verb, into two sentences, Conze has created an ungrammatical entity. Ancient scribes added prāptaḥ or in one case the verb prāpṇoti, but it was never needed. It also makes Red Pines decision to take atikranto as the verb look silly (not to mention that this leaves viparyāsa undeclined which is also not allowed).

The rules of grammar in any language are not simple. But the person who composed the Sanskrit followed those rules and it is the subsequent editors, translators, and commentators who have been at fault. Conze was an expert in Sanskrit so I cannot imagine why he went off piste in this case. Other experts, some of whom I hold in the highest esteem, have also failed to notice which rules were being applied.

There are in fact three bahuvrīhi compounds in a row, all of which describe the bodhisatva:
  1. atrastaḥ “one who is without fear”  
  2. viparyāsa-atikrāntaḥ “one who has overcome delusions”
  3. niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ “one who has extinction as his end”
 So our working text now reads
yo bodhisatvaḥ  prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati  cittāvaraṇa-nāstitvād so atrasto viparyāsa-atikrānto nishṭhā-nirvāṇaḥ
A quick comparison with the punctuation of the Chinese text T251 tells us that the editors of Taishō were on the same wavelength (though inconsistently, T250 they side with Conze and break the passage into two sentences!). But we can refine this further. I said above "it is extremely unlikely that 無罣礙故 can mean acittavaraṇaḥ nāstitvād". Based on Huifeng's research the Chinese characters most like mean asaṅgatvād "because of being without attachment". And this gives us
yo bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati asaṅgatvād so atrasto viparyāsātikrānto nishṭhānirvāṇaḥ |
However, when we look again at the Chinese we notice some further issues with these adjectival compounds. Firstly there are four of them in Chinese, and secondly the two key texts T250 and T2521 are different.
T250: 無有恐怖,離一切顛倒夢想苦惱,究竟涅槃。
T251: 無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想,究竟涅槃。
Well take this a step at a time, and it is well worth taking our time because the first part of this provides us with a nice little insight. From the Sanskrit, we are expecting an adjective which means "he is not afraid". What we get is "non- 無 existent 有 terror 恐怖". Typically we read this as "being without fear" to match the Sanskrit. But let's look again at the passage with the previous word added and without the modern punctuation.
This is what the Sanskrit translator saw in the 7th Century. He had to figure out where the breaks come. We can see where the modern editors have put the breaks, but what if the translator became a little confused at this point and bracketed out the wrong characters and thought he saw something like this:
無 [罣礙故無有] 恐怖 遠離 顛倒 夢想
Now, this is an unlikely reading, but I'll tell you why I am highlighting it.  If we take the bracketed characters 罣礙故無有 the phrase 無 [罣礙故無有] 恐怖 says something like "not—because of the non-existence of mental obstructions—afraid". So is 無有 here the source of nāstitvād? There is no other explanation I can think of and no other explanation has ever been offered, to the best of my knowledge. Although the Chinese text is mangled in the process, we know it is not the first time the translator has mangled the text in the process of translating it into Sanskrit. But we also know that the translator does understand that 無 corresponds to the Sanskrit prefix a- or to the negative particle na. Which is to say that he knows better than to use nāstitvād when a- or na would do, and thus nāstitvād is in need of some explanation. If there is another explanation, I'd love to hear it.

Then we have some pairs of characters:
  • 恐怖 "afraid" 
  • 遠離 "goes beyond" = Sanskrit atikranto
  • 顛倒 "delusion = Skt viparyāsa
  • 夢想 "dream thoughts" i.e. illusions = Skt māyā.

In Chines, the order of 遠離 "goes beyond"  and 顛倒 "delusion suggests an active verb. And on this basis it would be possible to quibble with the construction of the Sanskrit. But I propose to leave the basic structure intact here. The translator has also mushed 顛倒 and 夢想 together into the familiar Sanskrit word viparyāsa, when he might have included the concept of māyā. Adding māyā here would be interesting in light of my observation about the relation of śūnyatā and māyā (soon to be published, but preliminary notes blogged) Now we want viparyāsātikrānta to be a descriptive compound and we would read this as "the bodhisatva has overcome delusions." I think we could follow the Chinese more precisely by having viparyāsmāyātikrānta. 

Note that T250 and T251 differ slightly here (added spaces for comparative purposes)
T251: 遠離        顛倒夢想,
T250:     離一切顛倒夢想苦惱.
The extra bits are 一切 meaning "all" (literally, "a single cut") and 苦惱 meaning "misery and trouble" where 苦 is the character most often used for Sanskrit duḥkha. In T250, 離 means "depart, go away"; while in T251, 遠離 has the same meaning, but with greater emphasis. A similar distinction is found in Sanskrit between atikranta and saṃatikranta for example.

The final piece of the puzzle, then, is how to translate 究竟涅槃. As I have explained in another previous essay, niṣṭhānirvāṇa was a poor choice. Kumārajīva uses these characters for a nirvāṇaparyavasānam. In our text it is being used an adjective of bodhisatvaḥ and must be given in the masculine nominative singular: nirvāṇaparyavasānaḥ. This gives us a final text:
yo bodhisatvaḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya asya cittam na kvacit sajjati asaṅgatvād so atrasto viparyāsamāyātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānaḥ |
Of course there are always difference ways to translate passages from one language to another. One only has to look at English translations of the Heart Sutra which continue to multiply and diverge from each other. With the Heart Sutra each exegete appears to be trying to put their own unique stamp on the text rather than all of us working towards a common understanding and a single standard translation. In other words, in the usual Buddhist critique, translating the Heart Sutra is more often an occasion for egoism than for transcending self. Rather ironic really.  

At the very least this essay has shown, again, how poorly the Buddhist community has been served at times by philologists and traditional exegesis. Here is a short text, barely 250 words or characters, that is supposed to be chanted daily by millions of Buddhists, and we still don't have an accurate text to chant.

I have spent a considerable part of the last five years forensically examining this text in Sanskrit and Chinese, with help from key allies, and have been posting my many notes here as I go in the form of more than 30 essays. My third peer-reviewed publication on the text will be out in November 2017. Not everyone is going to be able to follow the argument in this essay, but I hope some of you will at least try. Experience shows that traditionalists will resist any call to change the Heart Sutra and will probably deny that anything is wrong with the text. But people need to know that the familiar Heart Sutra is deeply flawed and in need of surgery. And that the so-called authorities on the text have never noticed this stark fact.

I confess that I am thoroughly vexed by all this bungling. I am far from the best person to be trying to sort this mess out, but the best people have come and gone and the mess remains. Some of them have made huge contributions to the field and clearly had bigger fish to fry, but the Heart Sutra is not exactly inconsequential in Buddhism. That is has been left in this state by philologists does my head in. If I can understand it, why did they not? I'm not special. Something as simple as noticing that a neuter noun is declined as masculine and therefore must be an adjective is just basic Sanskrit. You learn this in the first month of the first year of studying the language. How does anyone miss this, let alone everyone? I also missed it for years. I have studied this passage before and thought about how to translate it. I suppose I'm now something of an expert on the text (if not an authority) but if you look around the internet there are dozens of people with strong opinions on how to understand the text. It's just that none of them seems to actually read the text in Sanskrit and think about how to parse the sentences. 

In particular, in my circles, Conze and Red Pine are treated as reliable guides, but are in fact often, or even mostly, unreliable. Neither of them deserves their reputation for scholarship. Both are bunglers and who have set back understanding of this text amongst Buddhists by decades. Kazuaki Tanahashi is not much better. Though his book is an improvement on Pine's, it is full of careless errors or just plain ignorance of Sanskrit. The dozens of commentaries are just rote recitations of sectarian gibberish. Mu Soeng frankly seems like a lunatic and his opinions on Sanskrit are laugh-out-loud wrong. The Dalai Lama is just going through the motions, reciting some ancient commentary by rote. D T Suzuki is busy doing his Mr Spock impression. It's all so depressing. How does the most popular text in Buddhism come to be treated so shabbily? It is gold. But not for the reasons that any famous Buddhists think it is. 

People often ask me what book they should read on the Heart Sutra. I get blank looks when I say that, in my opinion, it is better not to read any of the books currently available. They are full of inaccurate information. I mean it. The more you read about the Heart Sutra, the more wrong information you are assimilating that will only have to be unlearned in the end. I hope to remedy that situation soon by publishing a small book which gives an overview of recent research on the text (including mine, of course, but a few other people like Huifeng and Jan Nattier). In the meantime beware of fake Heart Sutra news, I guess. You're better off setting the sūtra  to one side and talking to someone who has some real depth of experience in meditation. Come back to it when you have experienced cessation for yourself. That would help head-off the most egregious wrong views. 


Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. Modified version of Conze (1948).

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. First Ed. 1957.

Huifeng. (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

20 July 2017

Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability.

My worldview has undergone a few changes over the years. Not just because of religious conversion or obvious things like that. It has usually been a book that has shifted my perspective in an unexpected direction. Take for example Mercier and Sperber's book The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding.

We all just assume that actions are explained by reasons. If actions are baffling then we seek out reasons to explain them. What is the reason that someone acted the way they did? Given a reason, we think the action has been explained. But has it? How?

Furthermore, when discussing someone's actions we assume that particular kinds of internal motivations are sufficient to explain the actions. We almost never consider external factors, like say peer-pressure. It's not that we're not aware of peer pressure, but that we don't see it as a reason.
So if person P does action A, we expect to find a simple equation, P did A for reason R. R is likely to be expressed as a desire to bring about some kind of goal G, call this R(G). So the calculus of our lives is something like this:

P did A for R(G)

But this is not how reasoning works and it is not how people decide to do things. Most decisions, even the ones that feel conscious, are in fact unconscious. The decision making machinery is emotional and operates below our conscious radar - the result that pops into consciousness is preprocessed and preformed. Essentially, it is what feels right, on an unconscious level.

Having decided, we may either just do it with a conscious sense of it feeling right (so-called "feeling types") and only produce reasons after the fact (post hoc) when asked; or we may first seek a reason (so-called "thinking types") and then act. Both kinds of reasons are post hoc - the decision to act comes first, then we come up with reasons to support that decision. The number of times that someone asks "why did you do that?" and you come up with nothing, is a sign of this.

The most extreme examples of this occur in people with no memories due to brain damage. Oliver Sachs described the case of a man who asked "What are you doing here?" never knew, because he could not remember. But the part of his brain that still worked would conjure up a likely reason, and since it fit the criteria of a reason, that's what we would say. But he would not remember saying it and asked again, might come up with another equally plausible answer. He was only ever accurate by accident. He was not consciously lying, but not understanding the deficit caused by his injury was speaking what popped into his head.

We are very far from assiduous in generating and selecting reasons. For a start, we all suffer from confirmation bias. We typically only look for reasons to support and justify our decision. Ethics is partly about realising that our actions are not always justified and admitting that. Not only this, but we are also lazy. Once we come up with one reason that fits our criteria, we just stop looking. We typically take the first reason, not the best one, then, having settled on it, will defend it as the best reason.

Of course, we can train to overcome the cognitive biases, but most of us are still bought into the paradigm of P did A for R (G). It's transparent. We don't see it. I know about it and I don't usually see it. It's only when I'm being deliberately analytical that I can retrospectively see the nature of my reasoning. And it is not what we have taken it to be all these centuries. 

I'm never been very convinced by so-called post-modernism. They make the mistake that I would now call an ontological fallacy - they mistake experience for reality. But the mistake is so common amongst intellectuals that they cannot be singled out. This idea about reasoning might well be the kind of epistemic break that would really constitute our either leaving modernity behind or more likely, finally becoming truly modern. The idea that modernity represents a break with medieval superstition, is also clearly not quite right because our reasons are no better than superstition in most cases. 

And of course, some of us are able to see more complex networks of cause and effect. We see political complexities, or sociological complexities, for example. These produce more sophisticated reasons, but even these tend to get boiled down into generalisations or interpreted from ideological points of view. And ideologies make sense to people because of reasons

The whole 2010 UK general election was fought on the basis of a single idea: Labour borrowed too much money. This falsified the situation in a dozen different ways but because it offered a reason for the disastrous economic crash in the UK in 2008, and because Labour could not offer a similar simple reason, it won the day. A lot of the political right appears to be convinced that this explains everything. So the of the whole world has the same economic problems, and economies are incredibly complex, but it all boils down to Labour borrowed too much money. And this—this simplistic, fake fact— is widely considered to be plausible. The UK is leaving the EU for reasons. And so on. 

But here's the thing. Reasons, on the whole, do not explain behaviour. They are just post hoc rationalisations of decisions made unconsciously on the basis of the value we give to experiences and memories, which are encoded as emotions. The reasons you give for your own actions, let alone the reasons you give for mine, do not explain anything. And as I have said, we simply ignore some of the more obvious reasons that any social primate does what it does (because of social norms). It's not a matter of deliberate deception. After all, we all believe that the reasons we give sufficiently explain our actions and that we can accurately gauge the kinds of reasons that are applicable (and we believe this for reasons). The problem is more that we don't understand reasons or reasoning.

How does this affect the issue of culpability? 

Any student of Shakespeare will be familiar with the problem of people being puzzled by their own actions. Shakespeare might have been the first depth psychologist. But if we are discussing the issue of culpability then things get really difficult. One could write a book on the actions for which Hamlet might be culpable and to what degree (probably someone has!). 

The whole notion of culpability has taken a beating lately. Advocates for the non-existence of contra-causal freewill are persuasive because metaphysical reductionism is a mainstream paradigm of reasoning. One hopes that the flaws in such arguments will eventually be exposed—contra-causal freewill isn't relevant or interesting; structure is real; reductionism is less than half the story of reality; etc.—but until they are, discussions of culpability are likely to remain confused. 

Mercier and Sperber's argument about the nature of, and the relationship between, reasoning and reasons is a deeper challenge. Because we now know that even if we get a sincere answer to the question "Why did you do that?", very few of us are even aware that the reasons we give are simply post hoc rationalisations and that they are not sufficient to explain any action. Clearly, our will is always involved in deliberate actions, but we ourselves may not understand the direction our will takes. We generate reasons on demand because society has taught us to do so... for reasons. But at root, most of us are mystified by our own actions most of the time. 

Legal courts still represent a pragmatic approach to culpability. Did P factually do A? Yes or no? If yes, then punish P in the way mandated by the legislative branch of government. As readers may know, George Lakoff has analysed this dynamic in terms of metaphors involving debts and bookkeeping. If action A incurs a debt to society, then P is expected to repay it We still largely operate on the basis that the best way to repay a social debt is to suffer pain, but we have created "more humane" ways to make people suffer that are on-the-whole, less gross but also more drawn out than physical punishment. Indeed we consider inflicting physical harm as barbaric. And why? Oh, you know, for reasons

If you're going to make someone suffer, it's better to inflict psychological suffering on them―through extended social isolation, for example, or enforced cohabitation with unsavoury strangers―than to inflict physical harm. Because of reasons. If my choice was between years of incarceration with criminals and being beaten senseless one time, I might well opt for the latter (well, I wouldn't but some might). Quite a lot of people are beaten and raped in prison anyway, and a majority are psychologically damaged by the experience so a one-off payment in suffering might make more sense. It's more economical. Just because you are squeamish about beating me, but not about psychologically torturing me by imprisoning me, doesn't make your squeamishness more ethical. You are still seeking to inflict harm on me in the belief that it will balance out my culpability for acting against the laws of society... for reasons

Then again, if I am an Afghani, fighting for my homeland against a foreign invader, you might just choose to drop a bomb on me from 40,000 ft, killing me and my entire family, because of reasons

What happens to justice when reasons are exposed as fraudulent? And they may as well we fraudulent because they're only relevant by accident. We see this happening all the time. The UK no longer has the death penalty not because British people don't like killing (Britain has been almost constantly fighting wars it has initiated or encouraged for 1000 years!). Rather we realised that we killed a few too many falsely convicted innocents. That means we have created a debt for which we ought to suffer. D'oh! 

We're for or against capital punishment for reasons. We vote left or right for reasons. We are for or against, this or that for reasons. We love, marry, fight, work, take on religious views and practices, choose our haircut, our friends, etc... for reasons. Good reasons! Sound reasons. Thought out reasons. Wait! We can explain. And you have to take our reasons seriously, because of... other reasons. Don't you see? It all makes sense... doesn't it? 

In other words, our whole lives are based on post hoc rationalisations of decisions we do not understand and cannot explain, but which we are convinced that we do understand and can explain. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's fucked up.

So, how confident should anyone be about their reasons? 

We so often seem very confident indeed (because of reasons), but if there is one other rational person who disagrees with us, then we ought to be at best 50% certain. If it's just a matter of reasons... then 50% seems optimistic, because chances are that neither party has any real idea of why they believe what they do. On most social matters one can usually find a dozen rational opinions based on reasons, and we believe our own reasons (for reasons), or we are persuaded of a different view for other reasons.

What does any of this amount to?

And more to the point, how can we tell what is of value, if reasons are not a reliable guide?

I think Frans de Waal has got the right idea (for reasons). Ethics (i.e. social values) are based on empathy and reciprocity, capacities we and all social mammals evolved in order to make living in big groups possible and tolerable. It all builds from there. Other rational opinions are available, but for reasons, I like this one. I still have no idea what gives something an aesthetic value, but I do believe (for other reasons) that we experience that value as an emotional response. Again, other rational opinions are available.

I cannot help but think that my view, cobbled together from other people's views, makes more sense than any other view I've come across. But then, everyone thinks this already. So then the question is, how do some opinions become popular? And I think Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting things to say on that matter in The Tipping Point. In his terms, I'm a "maven", but not a persuader or connector. 

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