I've written close to thirty essays on the Heart Sutra since I read Jan Nattier's 1992 article and attempted to précis it. In rediscovering this text I've known for more than twenty years through studying the manuscripts and Chinese canonical versions, I have very seldom been tempted to write about modern English translations or commentaries. The translations are mostly awful and the commentaries all about what the exegete wants the sutra to say, not about the sutra itself. This essay is, however, about a modern translation that is also to some extent a commentary.
In 2014 the popular Zen priest, Thích Nhất Hạnh (TNH), produced a new translation of the Heart Sutra. You can see it alongside the previous, more standard translation, here. Whenever someone like him does something like this, the result is usually greeted with a wave of sycophantic over-praising (the same happens in my own Buddhist movement). TNH's own website refers to the translation as "profound and beautiful". This is really not true. Only a disciple of the man, suffering from lack of perspective, would say this. To an outsider the new translation looks turgid and peculiar. In some ways this is no surprise, because the Heart Sutra is tightly packed Buddhist jargon that doesn't translate easily. See also David Chapman's content analysis of the Heart Sutra.
A lot of new translations are motivated by vanity or a desire to establish one's credentials as a "Zen master". They add nothing to our knowledge of the text and make no contribution to the field of literature either. They are usually the worst kind of Buddhist Hybrid English. For example, many translators, TNH included, try to imply that the Heart Sutra is in verse by laying it out like a poem. The Heart Sutra is not in verse. It's not a poem. The Heart Sutra is prose. In fact there is only one Prajñāpāramitā text in verse and that is the bridesmaid of the genre, Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (not even translated into Chinese until the 10th century).
In this case the translation is motivated by something more serious. TNH's office tells us that:
"The reason [TNH] must retranslate the Heart Sutra is because the patriarch who originally recorded the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skilful enough with his use of language. For this reason, it has caused much misunderstanding for almost 2,000 years."
Of course the Heart Sutra is nowhere near 2000 years old, it is perhaps 1300 years old. Obviously TNH is either unfamiliar with, or rejects, Jan Nattier's Chinese origins thesis, which by contrast I take to be established beyond reasonable doubt. The single most important piece of modern scholarship on the Heart Sutra has yet to penetrate Plum Village. The idea that a "patriarch" recorded it badly is certainly novel and we could dwell on this idea of a perfect sutra, imperfectly recorded, but I want to move on to the main point. The problem according to TNH is that there is a contradiction in the Heart Sutra. I independently identified this contradiction only recently and given the Buddhist establishment's reaction to any suggestion of imperfection in their scriptures I was both surprised and intrigued to find TNH fessing up albeit via a spokesperson. So what is the problem?
"...the mistake doesn't rest in the formula, 'form is emptiness' rather, it resides in the unskillfulness of the line, 'Therefore in emptiness there is no form.' "
The trouble is that the two statements are contradictory in a way that cannot be swept under the carpet as some kind of paradoxical crypto-wisdom. If one is saying that "emptiness is form" in one breath and in the next saying "in emptiness there is no form", then that is not paradoxical, it is simply contradictory. As TNH says: "This line of the sutra can lead to many damaging misunderstandings."
So all credit to TNH. He's found a(nother) mistake in the Heart Sutra and gone public about it. Buddhists are typically strongly averse to admitting such things. We really ought to pause and allow this to sink in before considering what TNH did in response to this discovery.
While it is radical of TNH to admit finding a mistake in a Buddhist text, his response is an anticlimax. He characterises the problem as an imperfect recording of the text by some ancient "patriarch", and in response changes the wording of the text so that the problem simply disappears. TNH appears to believe he has insight into the intended meaning and the ability to correct the wording to convey this.
Now, TNH likes to cite the Sanskrit text, because he still believes that this is the original, most authentic version of the text. As I say he appears to reject the Chinese origins thesis. But as I will show he is in fact translating from Chinese and only citing Sanskrit in order to add gravitas to his words. (Compare Nattier's comments on which Mahāyāna texts have become popular in the WEIRD world). It seems a bit disingenuous, but appears to be standard procedure in the world of Zen translations.
Like other commentators, TNH sees the line: rūpam śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam as the heart of the Heart Sutra. He translates this as (I preserve his formatting)
Listen Sariputra,this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
There are two things to say about this. Firstly TNH has inverted the order of these pairs of statements from the Chinese text of T251 (the best known version of the Chinese text, attributed to Xuanzang). Judging by other features of his translation TNH is apparently translating from the Chinese, but here he has used the order found in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. The order in T251 reflects the order in the source text T250, Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, which in turn reflects the word order in the Sanskrit version of that text in surviving manuscripts. So in fact T251 is the more authentic version of this passage and the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is the odd one out. It is not necessarily more authentic to adopt the reading from the Sanskrit, especially when one is translating from Chinese.
The second thing to say is that translating rūpa as "body" in the context of the five skandhas is peculiar. It is normally taken to mean "form" as a representative of the kinds of objects with which the sense faculties can collide to produce experience. The Heart Sutra itself spells this out when it places form alongside sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles and mental objects (dharmas). And "form" is what was originally used by TNH. It's not clear why he now translates this as "body". Sue Hamilton does suggest that rūpa refers to the "locus of experience", but this is a bit more complex than just "body". TNH seems to depart from the mainstream in this choice for reasons that are far from clear.
This formula "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" is, for most people including TNH, the central idea in the Heart Sutra. And TNH's project is to rehabilitate the sutra so that this part of it stands. And thus he changes the wording of the conflicting part of the sutra, from
Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perceptions, nor mental formations, nor consciousness. (Plum Village Chanting Book, 2000)
That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
What the Sanskrit text says is Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyām na rūpam... i.e. "Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness there is no form, etc" or "with respect to emptiness there is no form". The Sanskrit word for "emptiness" (śūnyatā) is in the locative plural case (śūnyatāyām) and can be read either as "in emptiness" or "with respect to emptiness". In either case it is saying that there is no relationship between form and emptiness, whereas the earlier line states that the two are identical. A flat contradiction. TNH gets around this by changing the text so that it now says that the skandhas are not separate entities. This is by no means bad doctrine from a Mahāyānist point of view, but it is also not what the text says. So TNH's "translation" is something that he has made up to solve an apparent problem (a post hoc rationalisation).
I find it fascinating that TNH feels he is able to change the text to resolve this conflict. It is by far the most interesting detail across the whole the modern fascination with this text that I know of, and perhaps the only one worth writing about. Apparently, when sutras don't make sense, we can simply change them! Most commentators fail to even notice the contradiction, so they are not interesting at all. However, having stepped into the light, TNH fails to live up to his promise because he immediately sweeps the problem under the carpet. But at least he has acknowledged that there was a problem.
My own approach to this problem has been blogged about and at some point I hope to get it published in a journal. (See Form is Emptiness. Parts I, II, and III). I employed a method developed by Jan Nattier and Nobuyoshi Yamabe, which was to track the quotation back into the source texts of the Heart Sutra, i.e. the Prajñāpāramitā texts. And in doing so I discovered that someone in ancient times had tampered with the text of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhastikā or 25,000 text. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā or 8000 text, the line is:
na hi anyā sā māyā anyat tad rūpam | rūpam eva māyā | māyaiva rūpam |
Illusion is not one thing and form another. Form is only illusion. Illusion is only form.
This is a reference to an old Buddhist simile, that form is like an illusion. The simile becomes a metaphor: form is illusion. And the metaphor is reified to form is an illusion. The problem is that the editor who substituted śūnyatā for māyā made a grammatical blunder. The form of this statement in the Heart Sutra simply doesn't make sense: it's bad grammar and it has broken a perfectly good metaphor. There are other examples of poor editing in the Heart Sutra that I detail in Part III of my essay Form is Emptiness. So my argument is that, if there is a problem in the Heart Sutra, it is with this part. The fact is that that statement "form is emptiness, emptiness only form" is nonsense. This does not take away that fact that the statement has symbolised something important for Buddhists for many centuries. Many Buddhists felt, and still feel, that what they were trying to do was inconceivable (literally beyond the conception of the unawakened mind). And as Mahāyānism became more and more theistic, mystical, and magical it served Mahāyānists to embrace paradox as an expression of this inconceivable goal. And the formula, being paradoxical, gave scope to exegetes of all schools who could claim to understand and interpret this phrase for the rest of us. Though of course ultimately we have to have insight to understand it. I no longer see this line of reasoning as useful or meaningful.
Contra TNH I take the second phrase with śūnyatāyām to be a reference to śūnyatāvihāra or śūnyatāsamādhi, i.e. a (meditative) state of emptiness, described in the Pāḷi Suttas (MN 121, 122) as one in which no experiences arise. The skandhas are the processes by which experience arises. In the state of emptiness these processes seem to be suspended. In emptiness, therefore, there is literally no rūpa, no vedanā, no saṃjñā, no saṃskāra, and no vijñāna. There's no paradox here. It is a simple description of a meditative state. And note that if rūpa meant "body", then the traditional interpretation would suggest that the body disappears in śūnyatāvihāra. Of course, from the point of view of the meditator their body does disappear. But this is not an objective fact. The meditator in emptiness has no way of stepping outside the experience to be objective, because "outside" and "inside" cease to have any meaning in samādhi.
So my solution to the problem is very different to that proposed by TNH. I take "form is emptiness" to be nonsense creating by a zealot who mindlessly mangled a perfectly good simile that can be found intact in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā. And I take "in emptiness there is no form" to be descriptive of what goes on in the (meditative) state of emptiness. This is unconventional, since most commentators find little connection between the Pāḷi word suññatā which usually means something like "absence", as in the absence of experience, while the Sanskrit word śūnyatā is a quality ascribed to dharmas, e.g. sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā "all dharmas are characterised by emptiness", though it can also refer to the absence of essence or svabhāva. I suspect that allegiances will play a major role in deciding what facts are most salient to this issue, and that this will determine which solution sounds more plausible.
Since I'm looking at this translation, I want to make a few more comments on it. I will focus particularly on the first paragraph. This is the part of the text I know best and is the subject of my published article on the Heart Sutra (Attwood 2015). The problems evident in this brief section will illustrate my wider point about the value of this translation as doctrine and as literature. This is what TNH came up with for a translation.
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.
There is much that is awful about this. Like the other recent Zen inspired "translations" the method seems to be to spell out in phrases what is meant by words and pad out the text, thus making it rather turgid. It turns the text into a kind of commentary. The layout hints at free verse (short lines without rhyme or meter), however, as I say, the Heart sutra is not a poem. It's a short extract from a longer work in prose.
The Heart Sutra is simply impenetrable to someone who is not versed in the context. Even some aficionados do little more than wallow in their confusion with regard to this text. No translation that is faithful to the source text is going to be easily comprehensible. The sutra is mostly jargon. Padding it out with expository phrases that are themselves jargon, is not going to improve the situation and makes for rather turgid prose (or pseudo-verse or whatever).
I said that this translation is primarily from the Chinese. How do I know? Because no Sanskrit witness to the Heart Sutra in manuscript or inscription, nor any Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā text, has an equivalent of the phrase 度一切苦厄 "overcame all suffering". It breaks down as: 度 "overcome" (sometimes used to translate pāramitā); 一切 "all", 苦厄 duḥkhatā or states of suffering. The inclusion of this phrase tells us that TNH was looking at the Chinese text. The other hint of this can be seen later in his translation in the phrase, the "most illuminating mantra". Which is an interpretation of 大明咒. The Sanskrit has vidyāmantra, which cannot be interpreted in the same way. I have blogged on how the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā parallels of this phrase all have vidyā translated (by Kumārajīva) as 明咒 (See Roots of the Heart Sutra 15 Aug 2014). Later when Buddhists had taken up the use of mantras it seemed more natural to take the two characters as two words "shining mantra". This is further evidence in support of the Chinese origins thesis - the discrepancy is difficult to explain any other way.
The phrase "the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore", with its strange use of capitalisation, is TNH's translation of the Chinese 般若波羅蜜多 or Sanskrit prajñāpāramitā. There is much for which we can castigate Conze, but in this case, "perfection of wisdom" is adequate and has the advantage of being widely used and understood. Prajñā doesn't mean "insight". In most English speaking Buddhist circles "insight" is used to translate vipaśyanā. Prajñā is then the product of insight. Choosing an idiosyncratic translation when there is a widely used and accepted translation is usually a bad choice for a translator, because it places a burden on the reader. A weird phrase like "the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore" only makes a text worse, because now the reader has to parse this strange phrase and pause to consider what it might mean. Likely as not we end up translating it back into something familiar. As I've said this is not a text that one can make accessible to non-specialists using long expository phrases in place of jargon terms. One is condemned to spend years learning to understand the jargon or remaining ignorant. In the latter case, one most likely resorts to the magical thinking that characterised the original milieu of the Heart Sutra and is often the modern response to a confusing text.
The first part of the text in Chinese reads: 觀自在菩薩 行 深 般若波羅蜜多時 If we break down we see: 觀自在 Avalokiteśvara 菩薩 bodhisatva 行 practice 深 deep 般若波羅蜜多 prajñāpāramitā. The particle 時 on the end suggest that this is an ongoing action and we usually translate it as "while" or "when". TNH reads 深 as an adverb of 行 "practicing deeply" [with American spelling] whereas most translators understand 深 as an adjective of prajñāpāramitā. That is, it is the prajñāpāramitā that is deep (gambhīra) rather than the practice. Typically in Middle-Chinese we would expect an adverb to be placed immediately before a verb that it modified (so say my grammar books). In this case the character 深 comes immediately after 行. So reading it as an adverb is doubtful. The Sanskrit is: gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo. Here gambhīra is clearly an adjective, but it does seem to apply to carya 'practice', i.e. the deep practice of perfection of wisdom. In fact it appears to be an adjective in the Chinese as well, though an adjective of 般若波羅蜜多 or prajñāpāramitā. As a point of English grammar an adverb also usually precedes the verb it modifies, so "practising deeply" ought to be "deeply practising", but this is subordinate to the observation that here "deep" is unlikely to be an adverb.
THN has interpolated that Avalokiteśvara is not "practising the deep prajñāpāramitā", but he is "practising deeply with prajñāpāramitā". So he arguing that prajñāpāramitā itself is not a practice, but a substantive, and that Avalokiteśvara has it. The Sanskrit contradicts this with prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ 'the practice of perfection of wisdom'. TNHs translation appears to be incorrect. According to TNH, Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva, is "practising with prajñāpāramitā". Weirdly, THN then inserts another adverb "suddenly" that has no counterpart in any version of the text in Chinese or Sanskrit. Avalokiteśvara "suddenly discovered that that all of the five Skandhas are equally empty". But Avalokiteśvara is a fully formed bodhisatva, "with prajñāpāramitā", and is thus quite conversant with the emptiness of the skandhas. It's not something that a bodhisatva like Avalokiteśvara can "suddenly discover", because part of being a bodhisatva with prajñāpāramitā is that he already knows it. So this would seem to be quite a serious error in understanding what is going on. Either Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisatva, or he "suddenly discovered that that all of the five Skandhas are equally empty", but not both. Nor does either the Chinese or the Sanskrit allow for the verb to be "discover". The former has 照見 which I will discuss in the next paragraph, while the latter has paśyati sma "he saw".
This adverb "suddenly" appears from nowhere. The Chinese text has the phrase 照見, which is quite unusual. Allow me to quote my own discussion it from my JOCBS article (Attwood 2015: 119):
"照見 zhàojiàn, a difficult term corresponding probably to vyavalokayati sma, but incorporating paśyati sma, i.e. both looking and seeing. 照 can also have a sense of “reflecting”, or “illuminating”, or perhaps “comparing”; while 見 just means “to see”; and on its own would usually correspond directly to paśyati. The two characters can be read like a verbal compound “illuminate and see”, or 照 can be adverbial, giving meanings of the type “clearly see, distinguish”. In Yu (2000) several experts in Chinese literature with varying knowledge of Buddhology approach the Hṛdaya as literature and are split on how to interpret this phrase. Stephen F. Teiser (Yu 2000: 113) translates 照見 as “illuminating vision” (照 as an adverb), while Stephen H West (116) opts for “Shining upon and making manifest” (照見 as a verbal compound). Michael A, Fuller does not translate, but expresses the ambiguity: “I encounter a metaphor when it would have been simpler not to have one: why zhao [i.e. 照]? What is the lore here? Does the wisdom emit light? That is, is such wisdom an active use of the mind that engages the phenomena of the world, or is it simply receptive?"
So in this case the position of 照 immediately before 見 does allow it to be read as an adverb. The problem is that 照 doesn't mean "suddenly" and 見 doesn't mean "discover". So again, TNH has not simply translated the text, he has changed it.
Next TNH translates 五蘊皆空 as "all of the five Skandhas are equally empty". Again this is problematic. 皆 is in fact an adverb meaning "all, the whole, each, every" and the phrase means "the five skandhas are all empty" or less likely "all the five skandhas are empty". So we most likely do read the character 皆 as an adverb, but it's not the adverb he was looking for. It's quite meaningless to add the "equally" to the phrase "all the five skandhas are empty". Emptiness is not a question of degrees. If something is empty, then it is empty. The slightest presence, means it is not empty.
Lastly TNH translates 度一切苦厄 as "he overcame all Ill-being". I was surprised to find that "Ill-being" is a word at all. It is an Americanism (it's in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but not in the Oxford). I suppose we cannot complain about Americanisms when the bulk of a man's followers are American. But to me this is an ugly expression. Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but most of the rest of this paragraph is so badly translated that it is at least worth pointing out that an obscure term like "ill-being" is just as bad as a Buddhist jargon word for the reader. It still makes them stop to comprehend the word.
So many problems in such a short passage. Almost every phrase is mangled in some way. What TNH has done here, is not so much a translation, as it is a paraphrase of the text. As someone familiar with the text in Sanskrit and Chinese my opinion is that he has not done anything to clarify the text, and in many cases he has made it less clear, either through an incorrect translation, an unhelpful interpolation or just poor English grammar. Where TNH may have succeeded is in clarifying what TNH thinks the text means. Which is fair enough, it's just that he's wrong about what the text says.
I could go on to critique the rest of the translation, but I think the point is made and I don't want to labour the point. There's nothing profound or beautiful about this translation. It's awful on many levels. Conclusions
While having little literary merit and despite positively obscuring the underlying text, Thich Nhat Hanh's new translation is none-the-less interesting for the boldness with which the man changes the text in response to perceived problems. And this in a world where most new translations are vanity projects which paraphrase without adding anything. Some of TNH's changes are trivial, such as padding out the text with extra adverbs, or turning a word into a long expository phrase so it conveys the views of the expositor, but in dealing with the problem of the two conflicting statements TNH has attempted to make a more substantial contribution. Not only this but he has had to weigh up the merits of the conflicting statements and choose between them. Since the Heart Sutra is a product of generations of just such interference with written texts, it is interesting to see this process continuing in the present.
Commentators have always interpreted the Heart Sutra with a massive dollop of confirmation bias. To each (and more or less every) translator the Heart Sutra represents a kind of epitome of their existing worldview, be it Yogācārin, Mādhyamika, Tāthāgatagarbhikā or Tantric. The importance of the Heart Sutra in this enterprise is that it is a canonical text that therefore authenticates and legitimises the view of the exegete, whatever the view happens to be. All Buddhists do this, but in the case of most modern exegetes they are reluctant to edit the text itself to conform to this view. We know that the text has been edited in the past. I've given links to examples of this. But consider that not only is each Sanskrit manuscript uniquely different from all the others (though sometimes this is only because of superficial scribal errors), but the three versions of the short text Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka are also different from each other in non-trivial ways (see also Variations in the Heart Sutra in Chinese).
TNH's new translation is also interesting because it illustrates the procedure that a Buddhist might take upon discovering a mistake in their texts. The problem identified by TNH is a genuine one. It is not a matter of exegesis or interpretation, there is a flat and unambiguous contradiction in the Heart Sutra that has long gone unnoticed, but which TNH has noticed. I also noticed it, but he beat me to it by a couple of years, so all credit to him. My approach to this mistake is to highlight the problem and foreground it. I want the tension generated to create a change in perspective on texts in Buddhism and this requires holding the tension rather than seeking a resolution.
As it happens the problem in the Heart Sutra seems to be the result of an historic shift in emphasis in Mahāyānism that was inexpertly interpolated into existing texts some time in the early centuries of the Common Era (at least by 179 CE when Lokakṣema translated Pañcaviṃśati). Thus the conflict is also important as a signpost to changing Buddhist values and attitudes. Again, it is only by acknowledging the mistake and allowing it to stand that insights into the history of ideas in Buddhism come into focus.
TNH acknowledges the problem and then "fixes" it by creating a translation that does not contain the problem. He doesn't just translate the text as a neutral observer, but actively changes the text to ensure a reading consistent with his views on Buddhism. He does not completely obscure the history of the text, because in a separate document he acknowledges the problem. But in simply changing the text he removes the tension that might motivate a shift in perspective. He is preserving the status quo. But then this is what we expect of establishment figures, even those who are eccentric translators.
Another legitimating practice TNH uses, which we see quite often in Western Zen commentators on the Heart Sutra, is the invocation of Sanskrit to authenticate a translation from the Chinese. This can only happen in ignorance or rejection of Jan Nattier's Chinese origins thesis. It is supported by the general ignorance of Sanskrit amongst modern Buddhists. Sanskrit is an admittedly difficult language to learn, but the lack of knowledge of it means that commentators can make statements about the Sanskrit text that most of their audience will never question, nor have the skills to investigate. In my experience commentators like Red Pine and Kaz Tanahashi who say they are translating from Sanskrit are pretty poor Sanskritists and heavily reliant on unnamed third parties (probably writing in Japanese) and the Chinese text. TNH's tries to imply that he was using the Sanskrit text, but clearly he was translating the Chinese text from T251.
Just as I would foreground any textual problems, I would like to highlight these practices for dealing with them. It is, I think, a distinctive feature of Mahāyānism that, despite the canonisation of texts they are still open to being changed. It's quite evident from the Chinese Tripiṭaka that this went on a good deal in India. On the other hand, I know of no similar example from the field of Pāḷi studies. So this is a fascinating insight into the world of Buddhist textual production and transmission. Active editing, fixing perceived problems is practised, right up to the present. Though of course TNH has not edited a text in a canonical language, the source text remains the same, but the process of translating the text provides an opportunity to make corrections that monolingual transmission does not.
In the final analysis the new translation by TNH is not very good, either at representing the canonical text, or as literature. The new "translation" is in fact a palimpsest, a new text written over the top of the old. Not an interpretation so much as a new composition which reflects the teachings of the author rather than the teachings of ancient patriarchs.
The Heart Sutra is a bunch of lines taken out of context, mangled by scribes and editors, and elevated far beyond original competency as magical amulet to protect from demons and misfortune. The content of it continues to baffle, but the bafflement itself symbolises something essential for many Buddhists: their bafflement with the world, with Buddhism, and with how Buddhism makes sense of the world (or doesn't).
Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104
Yu, Pauline, et al. [eds] (2000) Ways With Words: Writing about reading Texts from Early China. University of California Press.