Saturday May 16, 2009

Queen of Hearts

I wrote a few months back about the Heart Sutra, making that modest proposal that, if the Heart Sutra is a text that seems to be rife with negation – on a rough count, in the Chinese version, the negating characters 無 or “wu” and 不 or “bu” appear in total something like 30 times, making up somewhere around 12% of the whole text – then one faithful reading of the text might be to negate the sutra itself. Sadly, my wu-ing of the Heart Sutra (or, for that matter, my saying “bu” to the Heart Sutra) did not woo many of you. Some of you, indeed, wu’d my wu-ing and said “bu” to my bu-ing, moves that seem to me to be themselves very much in the spirit of things. And a couple of you were bold enough to say that, for all my bu-ing and wu-ing, the Heart Sutra had a very clear and unambiguous meaning, and that I had simply failed to understand it.

Perhaps. There are many things that I simply fail to understand. But I want to sidestep this charge, and ask what I think are some interesting questions about interpretation. Such questions are particularly pressing when it comes to classic texts such as the Heart Sutra. I am struck, on leafing through some of the commentaries written on the Heart Sutra, by two things. The first is the air of certainty that so many commentators have, the boldness with which they say: the sutra means this. The second is the curious fact that these various commentators do not seem to agree on those things about which they seem to be most certain. This raises the question of who has the right interpretation.

Of course, this in turn assumes that there is such a thing as the right interpretation, and I’m not sure that this is the case. There may, however, be wrong interpretations – or, at the very least, interpretations that don’t get us anywhere. To interpret the Heart Sutra as a manual for troubleshooting your broken computer, for example, will probably not do much either to help you fix your computer or to enhance your understanding of the Heart Sutra. But even when we have done away with these kinds of unhelpful or unenriching interpretations, it is hard to find our way to the interpretation that really nails the text. Could it be that the very thing that calls for interpretation is the fact that the text is uninterpretable, in the sense that whatever meanings may be found in the text are not there on the surface, but need to be drawn out?

It might be helpful to imagine a sliding scale of interpretation. At one end are relatively unambiguous things, for example the zookeeper’s cry of “Run! The lions have escaped!” Of course, this could be interpreted in various ways. It could, for example, be a piece of zookeeper performance art… But my bet is that most of us, when hearing this as we stroll through the zoo, would have the sense to run and hide in the café. The café is a good place to hide, because they have coffee there. And cakes. The doors closed, over a steaming mug of coffee and a slab of cake, it is possible to debate the finer points of interpretation in relative comfort. And, whilst discussing these points, it might happen that a lion strolls pass the window, or a doctor rushes to the aid of the zookeeper who has had his mind addled by workplace stress, so clarifying the situation a little. Often, that is to say, we have neither the need nor the leisure to indulge in long processes of interpretation and, when it comes to lions at least, it pays to err on the side of caution. This, then, is one end of the spectrum. At the other end are are rather more ambiguous and – it has to be said – rather less urgent utterances. For example – oh, you know – the claim that form is emptiness and that emptiness is form. You need more than one slice of cake, I feel, to untangle the interpretive knots in texts such as these.

Texts that are richly interpretable such as the Heart Sutra generate whole traditions of interpretation that seek to bring out the hidden meanings, to make the texts themselves utterly clear and lucid. And whilst these traditions are often interesting in their own right, they tend not to converge on single meanings, but to diverge. Various Buddhist commentators may agree that the Heart Sutra is saying something really important; but they may well disagree on what this really important thing is. This absence of convergence suggests that there is not, in fact, a single hidden meaning in there that – with sufficient thought, meditation, discussion, coffee, cake or whatever – can be drawn out. Not only this, but traditions of interpretation tend to also to deaden us to the sheer liveliness of texts like this. Sinologist Stephen H. West talks about the way that texts such as the Heart Sutra can easily become . Traditions of interpretation strip texts of their obscurity, and replace them with clear, lucid meanings; but in doing so, they also strip texts of a lot of their power. As West suggests, it may be by saying “bu” to these traditions, or by wu-ing readers off the straight-and-narrow with new and idiosyncratic approaches, that we can free classic texts from a kind of imprisonment.

Here it might be possible to suggest an answer to the question of what it is that makes a classic text in the first place. My hunch is that successful classics are all, in a sense, uninterpretable, in that they do not give us a single, clear and unambiguous meaning. And it is for this very same reason that successful classics are texts that that give rise to interpretations, that ask of us that we interpret them nevertheless, that bug us, gadfly-like, into making some kind of sense of them. And this, I think, is why the Heart Sutra is worth reading. Not because it tells us unambiguous truths about deep sources of wisdom; but because – like many other classics besides – it is, in its refusal to be pinned down, richly generative of new thoughts and new possibilities.

(Image courtesy of AlohaOrchid )

# · David Chapman

Will, could you let us know which commentaries you have read? And, ideally, a quick sketch of the ways in which they disagree?

I guess I am still of the opinion that the text is straightforward, but I have not read many commentaries, and am certainly prepared to be wrong.

I would guess that disagreement would arise not from the text per se, but due to different ideas of what “emptiness” means. (That, of course, is famously subtle, and has given rise to endless scholarly debate.) The bit with the mantra is also puzzling, as we discussed earlier, but probably an add-on.

If the Sutra is taken as defining emptiness, then of course I would agree that it’s impossibly vague. But I don’t think it is meant to be doing that.

# · D

Not even the heart of the great teachings can keep from denigrating itself. Such wonderful teachings guised as nothing at all!

# · Ted Bagley

What a text like the Heart Sutra, or Shobogenzo for that matter also, show us is that there are things we know, but we don’t know we know them. Maybe what can bug one the most is that the text could just not be saying what it is saying.
Bravo to your post.
Gadflies to the heard!

# · Will

David, that is a very good question, and I confess – partly because I haven’t got the stack of books that I need for a fuller answer – that my response will be slightly less precise than you might like. However, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in Donald Lopez’s two books on the Heart Sutra – “The Heart Sutra Explained” and “Elaborations on Emptiness” (particularly the latter book), which between them give an account of how the Heart Sutra has been very differently understood/read/used/interpreted thoroughout history. So I imagine that many readers in the West would not see it as a text for repelling demons, but there is a long tradition of Heart Sutra as a tool for exorcism; nor would many think of it as an invisibility spell, but one story from Japan repeated by Lopez claims that this is precisely one of the things that the text can do (if any readers can successfully use the sutra in this way, then they will be awarded a thinkBuddha gold star for attainment).

What I am not doing is saying that the text is “impossibly vague”. I think I’m saying that in it’s difficulty/subtlety/slipperiness (and this difficulty/subtlety/slipperiness is part of the reason it invites commentary, in a way that a shopping list doesn’t) it demands interpretation and can, as Lopez suggests, be put to very many different uses.

None of this says “bu” to the clarity that you find in the text, however; but I would suggest that this clarity is not situtated just in the text itself, but rather in the text in relation to a tradition (and a community) of interpretation. And I wonder whether your own claim to clarity is not also won at the cost of “bracketing out” the debate about emptiness – or, for that matter, any of the other terms that recur in the text – and at the cost of bracketing out the “bit with the mantra” as just an add-on.

But to come back to the more positive aim here – rather than just saying boo-bu-不 to the Heart Sutra, what I’m interested in is the question of what happens when you let back in those tricky things that, in any particular interpretation, you have bracketed out.

I think clarity is important and useful. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, I think perpelxity can be a good thing as well. And, besides, poking around questions like this, turning up stones to see what lurks beneath, is a whole load of fun…

Thanks Ted for your comment. Do you mean gadflies to the “herd”, or gadflies to the “heard”, as in “Thus have I heard” – words which curiously enough do not appear in the Heart Sutra, again as Lopez points out.

But that’s enough for the time being. I’m having more practical problems with emptiness just at the moment: I’m writing on a library computer, and the space bar is partially stuck, making typing something of a struggle…

# · David Chapman

Ah — OK — I think we are not substantively disagreeing, then.

Certainly the ritual uses of the text are very varied. That seems to me orthogonal to the question of what it says.

What it says seems straightforward, if one brackets the question of what “emptiness” means. It says that everything is empty; emptiness is form and vice versa; hooray. What that means is where it seems the slippery interpretation comes in.

But this is not a problem particular to the Heart Sutra. A very large fraction of the Tibetan scholarly tradition consists of nth-order commentaries on emptiness — that is, supposed elucidations of someone else’s supposed elucidation of someone else’s supposed elucidation of … of someone’s supposed elucidation of some Prajnaparamita text.

So I think the issue is not with the Heart Sutra as such, but the question of emptiness itself.

If we want to be daring, we could ask obnoxious questions like

  • Are these people actually talking about the same thing? Or are they talking past each other because they are using “emptiness” to mean different things?
  • Are any of them talking about anything at all? Is there an emptiness under the verbiage, or is this scholastic speculation about a phlogiston?
  • How can we know whose account of emptiness is right? Is it meaningful to ask which account(s) is/are right? What would it mean to be wrong?

I think these skeptical questions are worth asking, rather than taking as given that the commentarial tradition is valid in its own terms.

However, I actually would give positive answers. I think “emptiness” is a real, specific thing, about which it possible to be right or wrong. So after stepping back from the disputation, I would be willing (in principle) to step back in and argue for a particular point of view.

That, obviously, has to be a point of view situated in a particular historical framework. In my case it combines Dzogchen with Nietzsche and his lineal descendants in 20th Century Continental philosophy.

# · Will

You are right, I think, these questions arise not only with the Heart Sutra but also with the wider range of Prajnaparamita-like texts; although, of course, the Heart Sutra is a conveniently snappy little text to get going on to raise some interesting questions. And my sense is – although I’d need to do a fair amount more reading – that one can take these questions in very different directions, depending on whether one looks at the various Tibetan traditions, the various Chinese traditions, the various Japanese traditions…

Your combining of Dzogchen with Nietzsche and his lineal descendants sounds interesting stuff, by the way.

# · Ted Bagley

Could the heart Sutra be an expression of the is-not-no logic of a speaking being of language that the Diamond Sutra is talking about?
I thought heard/herd was a nice homonym.

# · David Chapman

Yes — there is actually quite a large literature connecting Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and form with the Continental tradition. With regard to Prajnaparamita, there’s a bunch of stuff on “Nietzsche and Nagarjuna” and so forth. On the Zen side, there was a whole Kyoto School of academic Japanese philosophers grounded in Buddhist philosophy and in dialog with German Phenomenology. They had at least some influence on Heidegger — more than he was willing to admit, I suspect, although his essay “Conversation with a Japanese” acknowledges some parallels at least. Herbert Guenther, who was trained in and taught German Phenomenology, was one of the first and most influential translators of Tibetan texts into English. He too pointed out extensive parallels. Each of these has spawned much subsequent academic publication in English, Japanese, and probably German.

There are two problems with this lot. First, most of it is written assuming you already know both traditions. Longchenpa and Heidegger, for example, are two of the most difficult philosophers in history. A monograph that can only be read by those who have a thorough understanding of both has somewhat, um, limited impact.

Second, although the parallels are many cases remarkable, pointing them out has no more than academic value. I mean, so what? And, although I have read only a small fraction of the Buddhism-and-Continental-philosophy literature, my impression is that almost none of it goes beyond observing the similarities. As a result, it has had almost no impact on either Buddhist or Continental philosophy — much less on the broader culture. For this exercise to be of real value, one tradition has to illuminate the other in a way that allows real progress.

I think there is an important opportunity here. The way that ordinary Westerners think about everyday problems of meaning is now heavily influenced by the Continental (Existentialist) philosophical tradition. Although most people are unaware of it, the ways they think about problems such as how to choose a career, how to face serious illness, whether to stay in a relationship, and issues of workplace ethics, derive in part from Nieztsche, Sartre, Camus, and so forth. However, that lineage reached an impasse. Its central question is the problem of nihilism; and no satisfactory answer was found.

Buddhist philosophy has an answer to that. The answer, in fact, follows from “emptiness is also form”. If that provides an answer, and if it is true that everyday life-dilemmas are now couched in terms of the Existentialist tradition, then it ought to be possible to inject Buddhist answers into the broad culture. That might be enormously useful to millions of ordinary people.

This would require rewording those Buddhist answers in terms that now make sense to ordinary Westerners as a result of the influence of the Continental lineage. I’ve got a draft of a book that tries to do this. Whether it can work — and whether it is worth pursuing — is not so clear…

# · Will

Thanks for the further thoughts, David. I’ve read some of the continental philosophy / Buddhist material, and my own interests in this area have been in ethics, shuttling between Shantideva and Levinas for several years: a curious cocktail, but a stimulating one.

If I recall, there’s an account of the extent of the influence of Buddhism and Daoism on Heidegger’s thinking in “Heidegger’s Hidden Sources”. Guenther is another matter: Heideggerian philosophy on steroids goes to live in Tibet. Terrifying. I’ve just pulled out my copy of “Meditation Differently”, his commentary on Dzogchen where he says (sounding like Heidegger) “This is not an abstract speculation, but the close attention to how it is that we are here”, before going on to passages like this:

Hegel has, without ever comprehending [the] full significance, summed up what in Dzogchen teaching is presented, in a detailed exposition, as the individual’s experience of Being’s lighting up (snang-ba) that, as pointed out in a previous chapter, is Being’s holomovement (gzhi-snang), making its presence felt as the first symmetry break occurring in it as the self-transformation of its pure energy/intensity-‘stuff’ (ngo-bo, ka-dag), into its ‘ownmost’ intensity (or actuality/spontaneity, rang-bzhin, lhun-grub) suffused with Being’s resonance-intensity (thugs-rje) becoming its ec-static (supraconscious) intensity (rig-pa)…

This is such a terrifying lump of text (and it is not even Guenther at his worst) that – for reasons that can only be guessed at – as I was typing it out first time around, the computer crashed and I had to reboot. So I think that you are indeed right that texts such as these that demand unfeasible levels of knowledge of two different traditions are limited in their usefulness (if we must understand, for example, Longchenpa and Heidegger – both in the original languages – before we can have any insight into our lives, then most of us, myself included are doomed).

So, in the light of this, your book sounds interesting indeed. Let me know when it comes out.

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

You missed a good opportunity to casually use the word hermeneutics there! This is an interesting post though, and the subject is of very great interest to Western Buddhists because we have access to an unprecedented range of interpretive traditions, many of which are mutually contradictory.

Alex Wayman said:

“One feature of these commentaries [in Tibetan] on the Heart Sutra struck me quite forcibly: each commentary seemed so different to the others, and yet they all seemed to show in greater or lesser degree the influence of the Mādhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy” (Secret of the Heart Sutra p.136)

Even though the Heart Sutra was composed in China, the bulk of the ‘not’ stuff comes from the Large Perfection of Wisdom text – most likely the 25,000 line version. It was extracted from the Chinese translation and then back translated in Sanskrit in the 7th century (almost certainly). Has anyone looked at and compared commentaries on the LPW section?

I think the approach still requires some working out. You implicitly deal with some issues which arise out of Western thinking about texts: that a text is an authority; that a text stands alone – apart from e.g. an author, culture, and audience; that a text ‘means’ something – as opposed to a more Eastern perspective that a text ‘does’ something, with the corollary that our job is to understand what it ‘means’ (with the implication that interpretation is just an intellectual exercise). These are issues popular in the academy, but almost unknown outside it.

Of course some Buddhists also take texts as authorities, or even as objects of worship – resulting in totally different hermeneutics! How you ‘interpret’ a text depends on what you believe about it in the first place.

I tend to agree with your conclusion. The value of a text is that it is a starting point for investigation, and that any interpretation which makes it an end-point is likely to be of limited value.

My own view for what it is worth, is that if we take the context for Buddhist theory to be the workings of mind, rather than the workings of world – or as drawing out aspects of the nature of experience – then there is a lot less ambiguity, and it is more clear what to do with texts like the Heart Sutra. What is paradoxical when applied to the world, often makes good sense when applied to experience. I’ve been struck by the continuities between early Buddhism and the Perfection of Wisdom Tradition (in particular) when I take this approach.

Best Wishes

# · David Chapman

I’d like to put in a pointer here to Robert Ellis’s site www.moralobjectivity… , which is relevant in applying the Buddhist philosophy of form and emptiness to problems of Western philosophy, drawing on both the analytical and Continental traditions. He has done a great deal of careful thinking, and most of his conclusions seem right on target to me.

However, he interprets the Middle Way only as a matter of epistemological methodology — as a radical agnosticism. (Whether or not this is the approach taken in scripture or traditional Buddhist scholarship, he does not seem to care — nor do I.) I would like to allow non-duality both phenomenological and ontological dimensions — which it seems he would not.

Jayarava’s response here seems also to go at non-duality phenomenologically. I think I also would give that the highest priority — and would tend to regard matters of epistemology and ontology as implications.

(Robert, if you are reading this: I have been unable to post comments on your blog — that might be why there aren’t any!)

Best wishes all round,


# · Will

I agree, Jayarava, about the paradoxical nature of experience in general (all that parallel processing!), which may be why texts dealing with paradox seem to be touching on the nub of experience, even if when we then try to map them onto the world, we can’t seem to do so very easily. And, I think, you are right: texts and the interpretation of texts as starting-points, not end-points. Hmmm… (and other noises indicative of deep thought).

Well pointed, David! There is indeed an impressive amount of thought over on Robert’s site.

All the best,

# · David Chapman

I’ve now sketched the argument about the Buddhist understanding of the non-duality of form and emptiness as possibly resolving the Western philosophical problem of nihilism, and the need to present this in a form that can be apprehended by non-philosophers, at .

While I’m here, I’d like to recommend a book that may be of interest to many of Will’s readers: David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism. This is an intelligent intellectual history of how 21st century Buddhism came to be as it is — which is relevant to understanding where it may be going. He’s really good in explaining ways Buddhism is re-interpreted in the light of Western intellectual trends, while usefully walking a middle line between the mistaken extremes of dismissing any re-interpretation as “inauthentic” and accepting outright misunderstandings. Particularly interesting is his expansion of Thanissaro Bhikku’s history of the influence of German Romantic Idealism on the Western understanding of Buddhism. On the other hand, he has an unfortunate lack of knowledge of Vajrayana, and often says that idea X is not found in Asian Buddhism (so it must have a Western source) when in fact X was perfectly canonical in Tibet. And he barely addresses the problems of post-modernity (which is what I’m most interested in). But overall it’s excellent.

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