It has been nearly three decades since Jan Nattier’s article “The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?” sent shock waves through the Buddhist world. Her thesis—that the Heart Sutra was written in Chinese, then translated into Sanskrit rather than the other way around as was believed—has been met with strong opposition by various Buddhist communities. The following pronouncement appeared in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (edited by Donald Lopez and Robert Buswell): “Although there is as yet no scholarly consensus on the provenance of the text, if her argument is correct, this would make the Heart Sūtra by far the most influential of all indigenous Chinese scriptures.”
Such a cautious reception belies Jayarava Attwood’s assertion in his article “Losing Ourselves in the Heart Sutra” (Spring 2021) that the Chinese origin of the Heart Sutra has been proven and renders somewhat fanciful his claim that, through similar philological methods, he has recovered a lost interpretation and a forgotten practice. Furthermore, attempting to reduce the Mahayana view of emptiness presented in the Heart Sutra to an enigmatic rendering of an earlier practice seems dubious.
Attwood tells us, “The Heart Sutra does not deny the existence of things as such. Rather, it states a truism about having lost ourselves in meditation so that we no longer experience form or self or world. However, this meaning was lost.” Drawing on Matthew Orsborn’s work on the Heart Sutra, which would replace aprāptitvād, “because there is no attainment,” with anupalambhayogena, “by means of the yoga of nonapprehension,” Attwood asserts that the famous negations are qualified twice, first by emptiness, then by the yogic practice. To determine whether this could serve to justify demoting the ontological interpretation of the Heart Sutra (and, by implication, the Perfection of Wisdom literature of which it is an exemplar) and elevating the somewhat less revolutionary epistemological interpretation advocated by Attwood would require further analysis. Having rediscovered a practice “that has been lost to us for centuries” would surely be a momentous discovery, though the practice as Attwood describes it sounds more like mindlessness than mindfulness. Seeking to draw a parallel with concentration (samādhi) or trance (dhyāna), the practice sounds so effortless, even facile, as if losing track of things (which sounds suspiciously like absentmindedness), losing track of the object of meditation, “losing track even of losing track” were the way to awakening. This is, of course, not the way attainment of the four absorptions, the four brahmavihāras, and the four immaterial spheres is traditionally described, and the reference to Bhikkhu Analayo’s Compassion and Emptiness, which discusses these practices in detail, fails to clarify or resolve the murkiness; one does not get lost but rather absorbed in the practice.
—Eric M. Zsebenyi, Naropa University graduate and Tricycle contributor
Jayarava Attwood responds:
A brief popular magazine article that condenses over 100,000 words of published research (requiring a working knowledge of Sanskrit and Chinese grammar and idiom) can be an easy target for criticism. Still, I thank my sometime sparring partner, Eric Zsebenyi, for attempting a critical reading.
Zsebenyi’s letter begins by stating that there was “strong opposition” to Jan Nattier’s conclusion. The most common reaction among English-speaking scholars, in my reading, was indifference. Most simply ignored Nattier’s 1992 article and continue to do so. Moreover, the handful of published critiques of Nattier’s work tend to be thoroughly confused about her methods and conclusions, as my recent article “Studying the Heart Sutra” in Buddhist Studies Review (March 2020) showed.
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience.’”
Nattier concluded: “The Heart Sutra is indeed—in every sense of the word—a Chinese text.” Matthew Orsborn and I have checked Nattier’s reasoning, applied her methods to other parts of the text, and arrived at the same conclusion. For example, three of my articles published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies—“Epithets of the Mantra” (May 2017), “Form is (Not) Emptiness” (November 2017), and “The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra” (November 2018)—all strongly support Chinese origins. A forthcoming article in a premier Buddhist Studies journal will review the overwhelming evidence in favor of Chinese origins, which now goes far beyond Nattier’s initial study of the “core passage.” On this basis, I do indeed consider Nattier’s conclusion to be well founded.
The scholar and translator Bhikkhu Bodhi has said, “The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” Applying this observation to Prajñāpāramitā, using ideas drawn from Sue Hamilton’s epistemic reading of Pali suttas, has proved a fruitful avenue of research. I intend to continue to pursue it, especially in light of recent neuroscience studies of “contentless awareness” by such researchers as Thomas Metzinger, and Ruben Laukkonen and Heleen Slagter.
The practice of “genuine, undistorted, pure descent into emptiness” (yathābhuccā avipallatthā parisuddhā suññatāvakkanti) outlined in the Cūl. asuññata Sutta (MN 121) involves “inattention” (amansikāra) to what is “present” (asuñña) allowing it to become “absent” (suñña), through a series of stages (āyatana) until all sensory experience ceases and one “dwells in emptiness” (suññatā-vihāra). Several recent studies—notably the 2016 book Old School Emptiness by Orsborn (then writing as Shi Huifeng)—make the obvious connection between this canonical practice and Prajñāpāramitā. Orsborn also, crucially, begins to disentangle Prajñāpāramitā from Madhyamaka.
My scholarship on the Heart Sutra can in most cases be obtained online. I’m happy to supply copies of articles to anyone via email: email@example.com.
—Jayarava Attwood is a Buddhist scholar from New Zealand now based in Cambridge, UK. He was ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2005.
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