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Buddhadharma : Spring 2017
68 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 7 lifted from one source or another, glued together, and arranged. In other places, entire poems were simply slipped into the text. It gets worse. It turns out that this is in fact a basic technique for writing Buddhist texts, even the most influential and beloved—such as, for example, the Heart Sutra, which Jan Nattier describes as a “mash-up,” going on to say that this is, in fact, standard Buddhist practice. Does this invalidate such texts? The sutras—reportedly 84,000 of them, but who’s counting?—are, according to tradition, mostly a record of dialogues among Shakyamuni Buddha, his disciples, and other buddhas and bodhisattvas, unerringly remembered by his dis- ciple Ananda, who dictated them to the assembly after the Buddha’s death. Their traditional claim to authority rests on their claim to this historical circumstance. The Heart Sutra is supposed to be a record of words actually spoken in the presence of the Buddha by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara to the Buddha’s disciple Shariputra. That’s the story we’re told. It is not supposed to be cobbled together from scattered phrases centuries later. The compel- ling evidence that the Heart Sutra was compiled by a Chinese monk who aggregated key lines and phrases from existing Chinese texts that may or may not have been translations of Sanskrit texts, and that the Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra was in fact a back translation from Chinese, calls the sutra’s authenticity into doubt. Or does it? The historical evidence indicates that, rather than being transcriptions of any buddha’s or bodhisattva’s words as dictated by Ananda, the sutras were written down centuries after the Bud- dha’s death in either Sanskrit or Pali, neither of which is a language the Buddha spoke. But the people who put them together didn’t make it all up. They did it, as So Sahn (or, perhaps, his sources) puts it, by “the examination of the ancients.” Why does this validate, rather than invalidate, the text? “Words are the shoots”; they die unless they are rooted. The texts are meant to embody a community’s truths. They are not supposed to ema- nate from an individual mind. They would have no validity otherwise. To paraphrase So Sahn, you can- not depend on your conjectures or judgments (and not, let me add, your feelings and opinions either). The tradition does not exactly change with time. Rather, it continually reinvents itself from earlier sources, like a really good sourdough starter passed down from generation to generation and added to over decades, the additions indistinguishable from their predecessors. Sources give rise to sources that cannot be pulled apart. It’s not that this leads to that. This and that are not different. They echo, but it is simultaneous echo. You cannot really say first or second. To pull something like this off, you have to completely absorb the tradition you are in. It is not a matter of authorship. It is a matter of embodiment. In 1967, the French literary critic Roland Barthes penned an influential essay called “The Death of the Author” in which he wrote, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture...the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.” Although some of Barthes’ writings were influenced by his readings of Buddhism, here the influence seems to be avant-garde writers such as Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, working in a tra- dition that tried to erase the individual author. In search of this erasure, the most avant of the avant- garde used techniques such as collage, randomness, pastiche, and, decades after Barthes wrote, internet searches, iterative machine translations—and yes, in the mid-twentieth century, some of this was justified JudY RoiTmaN (Zen master Bon hae) is a guiding teacher in the kwan um School of Zen and a poet. She lives in Lawrence, kansas. The tradition does not exactly change with time. Rather, it continually reinvents itself from earlier sources. tracyrasmussen