26 October 2017

Studying the Heart Sutra

As everyone knows by now, for the last 5 years I have specialised in studying the Heart Sutra. Apart from identifying several grammatical errors in the standard Sanskrit version, I've also made or substantially confirmed a couple of ground breaking discoveries about the text.
It is a curious thing about Western Buddhism that we privilege texts which we believe to have a Sanskrit "original". It is curious partly because Sanskrit did not come into popular use amongst Buddhists until about the 4th Century of the Common Era. Anything actually composed in Sanskrit, is quite late.

In fact, for well over 1000 years, the Heart Sutra was the most popular text in East Asia in it's Chinese version and probably few people were even aware that there even was a Sanskrit version. They might have understood that it notionally came from India, but the study of Sanskrit was never widespread outside of India and most people wouldn't have known any Sanskrit (much like now). Asians knew the Heart Sutra as the Xinjing and recited it in Chinese, or some approximation of the Chinese (in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam). The Tibetans had a Tibetan translation from about the 10th Century and used that exclusively (it also has errors in it!).

For a brief period in the 20th century, the Sanskrit text came to the fore. An old palm-leaf manuscript preserved in Japan was dusted off and became the primary focus of the study of the text. A number of very late Nepalese manuscripts were found. A couple of stone inscriptions from China were added. And from these Edward Conze constructed his edition. His version of the Sanskrit text (more like an original composition) became established in the minds of Westerners as the "original".
Then in 1992 Jan Nattier showed that the Sanskrit text is a translation from Chinese! The Heart Sutra was composed in China. This is quite a big deal for the most popular sacred text in the Buddhist world.

How have Buddhists reacted to the revelation that their most popular text was a fake, composed ~1100 years after the Buddha is supposed to have died? Mostly with denial or indifference. I'm still not sure whether the latter is admirable insouciance or something more dubious or insidious.

25 years after Nattier's amazing 90 page article (which I still consider the best example of academic writing in our field) there is still not much reaction - even when her idea is acknowledged, it is without any drama. The word apocryphon is sometimes used as a euphemism for "fake", but other than that no one seems bothered.

Nattier's article has had almost no impact on my own Buddhist Order. I suppose as a preeminent scholar of the text, I bear some of the responsibility for that, though I have written 32 essays on my blog which touch on aspects of the Heart Sutra. If anyone were really looking, they'd have found them.

Several people have lately encouraged me to teach on the Heart Sutra at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre. I think probably next year, but yes, I think that might be good.

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