Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Question on Translating the Heart Sutra

This is from my post at E-sangha on a thread about the Heart Sutra. "Bee j" was asking about a line in Red Pine's translation.

bee j,May 23 2008, 09:04 AM

they see through delusions and finally nirvana

the few versions i've read online (for example, yours also Gregory) always mention 'attain nirvana' but here Red Pine has expressedly chosen this wording . he states that he chose to do this to illustrate that bodhisattvas see through not only delusions concerning the existence of samsara, but also of the existence of nirvana. further, they see through delusions concerning the non-existance of nirvana as both terms cannot be applied to that which is beyond duality.

what do you folk make of his choice? curious to know

Basically, whether "attain" is there depends on the Sanskrit source that one uses to translate from. There are two Sanskrit versions, one is the shortest and the other is the longer version. The longer version is associated more with Tibetan sources while the shorter version is associated more with the Chinese. The longer has an introduction setting up the scene with Buddha inspiring and empowering both Sariputra to ask Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva his question and Avalokitesvara to answer.

The shorter version of the Heart Sutra has: viparyasa-atikranto nishtha-nirvanah.
The longer version of the Heart Sutra has: viparyasa-atikranto nishtha-nirvanah-praptah.

"prApta" means "attained to, reached, arrived at, met with, found, incurred, got, acquired, gained."

Some interlinear translations could be:
viparyasa -atikranto -nistha -nirvana -prapta
upside down views- transcend -final(ly) -nirvana -attained
delusion -surpassed -lastly -nirvana -found
error -overcame -in the end -nirvana -arrived at

The question is whether prapta should be included or not. Red Pine says,
"Several copies of the longer version of the Heart Sutra add the verb prapta (attain) at the end of the phrase nishtha nirvana (finally nirvana). Conze also included it in his Sanskrit edition of 1948/1957 (cf. Buddhist Wisdom Books), but he deleted it in his second edition in 1967 (cf. Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies(. Other translators and commentators, either aware of this variant or thinking it must be implied, have taken this phrase to mean something equivilent to 'finally attain nirvana.'"

It shows Red Pine is taking a position when he says several copies of the longer version add the verb, because one could just as well say the short version dropped or lost the verb.

Red Pine feels that including the verb attain after the word nirvana can't be correct because earlier the sutra says "no attainment, no non-attainment." Red Pine adds,
To avoid this problem, 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 grammer in the absence of prapta.

Notice that Red Pine makes the somewhat circular argument that prapta doesn't belong there and since it is not there the phrase can be read as a verb surrounded by two nouns as objects instead of a noun-verb and adjective-noun-verb. That argument can be turned around just as well to say that the grammar of having a noun-verb-adjective-noun and read to mean direct object-verb-adjective-direct object with both direct objects referring to the same verb is so odd that the prapta as the verb to the second noun should be there and must have been inadvertently dropped in the shorter version.

In other words, considering the grammar, it is more reasonable to take the prapta as lost in the shorter version than added in the longer version because the longer version is more grammatically correct. This is logical,

Also it is more reasonable to consider the verb dropped in the shorter version because of the natural process of condensation of the Heart Sutra into shorter and shorter versions. But this too is a subject of some controversy because people don't agree which came first, the longer or the shorter.

As Donald S. Lopez, Jr. succinctly writes,
The Heart Sutra exists in two basic versions, a shorter version and a longer, with the shorter beginning with Avalokitesvara contemplating the meaning of the profound perfection of wisdom and ending with the mantra and the longer adding a prologue, in which Buddha enters into samadhi, and an epilogue, in which he rises from the samadhi and praises Avalokitesvara.

Traditionally, a sutra has some basic parts that are all there in the longer version but are not all there in the shorter version. In fact, the shorter version doesn't really qualify for the title of Sutra because it is missing necessary parts. The primary parts of a sutra are (1) the opening statement "Thus have I heard" indicating that the text is the Buddha's words (Buddhavacana), (2) a statement of the location where the teaching was delivered, (3) the statement of the audience of monks or Bodhisattvas present and the identification of the monk or Bodhisattva (or layman) who is the primary interlocutor of the Buddha that resulted in the Sutra being delivered, and (4) the central content of the sutra.

In this view, the longer version of the Heart Sutra is itself a condensation from the very much longer Prajnaparamita Sutras. But some people believe the Heart Sutra was first written as a dharini or long mantra for recitation, not as a sutra. From this view Heart Sutra had later additions of the prologue and epilogue to make it look like a sutra. If this later view is correct then in fact it is not a sutra at all because there is no Buddhavacana, in fact the Buddha is not present at all, and so this is not the teaching from the words of the Buddha. In the longer version, it is stated that the location is the Vulture Peak and the Buddha, in the opening, is in samadhi and the whole interaction between Avalokitesvara and Sariputra. is stimulated and instigated and empowered directly by Buddha from within his samadhi. And in the ending the Buddha arises from samadhi and confirms the teaching as correct. Thus the longer, even though it is not very much longer has all the essential traditional components of a Sutra.

So each person needs to determine for him or her self whether they see the longer version as the more appropriate with the shorter version a condensation of it, or they see the shorter version as the more authentic with the longer version adding parts to convert a dharini or mantra into a sutra.

It should be remembered that the Heart Sutra is the only major Prajnaparamita text in which Avalokitesvara appears. There are doctrinal reasons for this because the greater Prajnaparamita Sutras deal with the path and with compassion while the Heart Sutra is totally condensed to the essence of enlightenment. The inclusive presence of Avalokitesvara embodies all the material of the greater Prajnaparamita that is left out, and in fact demonstrates graphically that the wisdom imparted by Avalokitesvara is not separable from the compassion and the Bodhisattva path that Avalokitesvara also embodies.

So Red Pine's strongest argument is not based on the grammar ro the history of the text but upon the view of the teaching presented in the text.
Thus, bodhisattvas do not reach or attain nirvana but overcome all delusions, including those that concern the ultimate goal of nirvana, namely, views taht see nirvana as either permanent or not permanent, pleasurable or not pleasurable, self-existent or not self-existent, pure or not pure. Nirvana is dimply the final delusion. Thus Mahayana sutras never tire of telling us that bodhisattvas do not attain nirvana and even avoid it, that their goal is elsewhaer, namely the liberation of all beings. This is also the view of the Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Lines, which states that while bodhisattvas lead others to nirvana, nirvana itself is a dream or delusion.

Except for the last sentence, I agree with what is stated but I don't agree that it determines the question of whether prapta is rightfully in the text or not. For example the Diamond Cutter Sutra says the Dharma is no-Dharma therefore it is called Dharma; it doesn't do away with the word Dharma. The Prajnaparamita also says that beings are no=beings therefore they are called beings; it doesn't stop using the word "beings". Similarly the Heart Sutra says the equivalent of attainment is no-attainment therefore it is called attainment. The longer sentence or string of ideas presented beginning with the "Therefore Sariputra" begins with "Therefore sariputra, without attainment, ....." and ends with "... final nirvana attained." This is in fact the view taken by the last sentence of Red Pine's quote above even though he doesn't appear to be aware of it. If bodhisattvas lead others to a dream, then there would be no talk of "leading" or of "nirvana" at all. But beings attain nirvana even though beings are no-beings, nirvana is a dream and they do it without attainment.

So without a convincing historical reason to leave out prapta nor a convincing teaching reason, I'm left with the question of the grammar which I also don't find convincing. We should remember that Red Pine is taking two steps in his presentation: first he says prapta should be out, and then as his second step he is saying that both delusion and nirvana are direct objects of the verb atikranto. I can see no grammatical justification for that. Even without the sentencing-ending verb of prapta, the noun-verb pairing of viparyasa -atikranto (delusion-overcome) has no internal suggestion or grammatical clue, at all, that the verb "overcoming" also includes the following adjective-noun pair of nistha -nirvana.

The point is that when prapta is left out of the line, then grammatically there is a missing verb after nistha -nirvana, and the question remains, which verb should be implied: a repetition of the preceding verb, or the historical verb present in the longer text?

Thus if prapta were left out the line would literally read: "delusion overcome final(ly) nirvana."

To read it as Red Pine does means you have to read into it either the repetition of the verb as "delusion overcome final nirvana overcome" or read into it a missing conjunction such as "delusion overcome likewise final nirvana."

My view is that with the evidence of the longer text having prapta written down, then the obvious historical or traditional implication of the missing ending verb is that it is prapta and not atikranto.

Also the presence of the adjective nistha meaning final or finally also separates the word nirvana as a noun from the preceding verb atikranto. Even when the word prapta is left out the phrase reads, "delusion overcome finally nirvana." There is no purpose for the word final or finally if it did not imply the final result of the whole string of points immediately preceding it: beginning with the "Therefore Sariputra": (1) without attainment, (2) bodhisattvas rely on Prajnaparamita (3) dwelling serenely (4) without obstacles in awareness (5) overcoming delusions and (6) finally nirvana [is attained]." As this is the attaining without attainment., the attainment of no-attainment of the Prajnaparamita, there is no teaching or grammatical basis for leaving out the concluding prapta form the shorter version unless it is clear by the translator's usage that the whole sentence ends with the final realization of nirvana, not the overcoming of nirvana as a delusion.

As a last note, I don't agree with Red Pine that "see through" is an appropriate translation of atikranto. I can find no visual image in either the root ati or kranta:

ari - ind. [probably neut. of an obsolete adj. %{atin} , passing , going , beyond ; see %{at} , and cf. Old Germ. {anti} , {unti} , {inti} , {unde} , {indi} , &c. ; Eng. {and} ; Germ. {und} ; Gk. $ , $ , Lat. {ante} ; Lith. {ant} ; &3473[12,2] Arm. {ti} ; Zd. {aiti}]. As a prefix to verbs and their derivatives , expresses beyond , over , and , if not standing by itself , leaves the accent on the verb or its derivative ; %{as} , %{ati-kram} ( %{kram}) , to overstep , Ved. Inf. %{ati-kra4me} , (fit) to be walked on , to be passed RV. i , 105 , 16 , %{ati-kra4maNa} n. see s.v. When prefixed to nouns , not derived from verbs , it expresses beyond , surpassing , %{as} , %{ati-kaza} , past the whip , %{ati-mAnuSa} , superhuman , &c. see s.v. As a separable adverb or preposition (with acc.) , Ved. beyond ; (with gen.)over , at the top of RV. AV.

krAnta - mfn. gone , gone over or across ; spread , extended ; attacking , invading , gone to or against ; overcome (as by astonishment) Ragh. xiv , 17 ; surpassed ; m. a horse L. ; (in astron.) declination W. ; (%{A}) f. N. of a plant (a kind of Solanum) L. ; a species of the Atyasht2i metre ; (%{am}) n. a step (%{viSNoH@krAnta} , `" the step of Vishn2u "' , N. of a ceremony S3Br. xiii ; cf. %{viSNu-krama}) S3Br. Mn. xii , 121 ; (in astron.) a certain aspect when the moon is in conjunction with a planet.

Both roots of the word are movement or spacial images, not visual images. So acceptable translations of arikranto would include: stepping over, going across, overcoming, surpassing, transcending, etc. It should be noted that arikranto, with both of its roots including the meaning element of "gone", becomes a precursor or harbinger of the word gate (from the Sanskrit gata meaning "gone") that is central to the Heart Sutra's tantric mantra.

Nothing in either ati or kranta remotely suggests "seeing" or any other visual function or image. In my view, Red Pine is inserting here his own imagery into the translation for the purpose of making his construction of "seeing through both delusion and final nirvana" seem more plausible.

My conclusion on Red Pine's book is that it includes a lot of valuable material, including his own historical and linguistic commentary, but I have several points of disagreement with his translation, including some I have not raised here.

In my translation of the traditional shorter version I deliberately reinsert the opening "Thus have I heard" to indicate it is a sutra and not a mantra, and I insert the word "attain" (prapta) for clarification and conformation with the larger version.



Kiran Paranjape said...

Whatever the translation, the meaning should be understood.

The very essence of whole Indian philosophy is to see through the veil of physical mundane world & perceive the absolute truth behind it.

Expect more from you in the future.

Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Mr. Paranjape, Thanks for your comment. Your brief statement highlights the difference between "Indian philosophy" and the Buddhist teaching.

Buddha's teaching was a revolution from Indian philosophy because Buddha teaches that when the veil of the physical mundane world is lifted that there is no absolute truth "behind" it to be perceived. All perception is part of the physical mundane world and when the veil is lifted there is only emptiness that is neither perception nor non-perception. Beyond perception and non-perception the Buddha teaches "there is this", the functions of the six senses without a veil or any mundaneness.
See the Lesser Discourse on Emptiness for how the pre-Mahayana teachings explained this.