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Deconstructing the Heart Sutra, with Jayarava Attwood


Buddhist scholar Jayarava Attwood speaks with host Michael Taft about the history of the Pali Canon, how ideas about karma & dependent arising contradict each other, the shifting grounds under the apparent solidity of the suttas, monism vs. pluralism, meditation as a subjective or objective practice, and the fact that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a forgery,

Jayarava is a longtime member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, who writes about the history of ideas in Buddhism. Since 2012 he has been mainly focused on revising the text and history of the Heart Sutra, and also writes about karma and how it changed over time. His blog explores the clash between modernity and tradition with respect to Buddhism. He also works in various art forms, including music, painting, photography, and calligraphy.


On the anupalambha meditation practice:

Show Notes

0:25  – Introduction

2:29 – How Jayarava got involved with the Triratna Buddhist Order and learned Pali

5:47 – The history of the Pali Canon; figuring out when the texts were first recorded; how accurately the original words were memorized

11:45 – Fitting together the concepts of karma and dependent origination; how different Abhidhamma groups and others tried to resolve the contradictions

17:07 – How rebirth became a burden to escape from, rather than a good thing; different concepts of afterlife

21:12 – Differences in source texts; how translations are influenced by commentaries

25:32 – History of the Heart Sutra

30:19 – Jan Nattier’s discovery that the Sanskrit HeartSutra is not original but a translation from Chinese, and how often this sort of thing might have occurred with other texts; Matthew Orsborn’s paper showing errors in previous interpretations of the Heart Sutra. “It’s not saying, ‘Okay, form doesn’t exist. It’s just an illusion.’ It’s saying when you get to a certain point in your meditation, form stops arising. It’s not that there’s no form; it’s just that, for you in that moment, form doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t arise.”

36:45 – Description of a meditation practice of paying attention to what’s absent; insight arising after cessation

42:12 –  If you do this sort of critical analysis of Buddhism and parts of it fail, what’s left? The practices and ways of talking about them; the value of practice in modern life

46:11 – The problem of bundling mindfulness with religion, the usefulness of secular mindfulness; multiple ways of teaching are valuable; monism versus pluralism

54:01 – Discovering the nature of subjective reality, rather than seeing reality as it really is

59:16 – Outro

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5 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Heart Sutra, with Jayarava Attwood”

  1. Does retro causality not throw a monkey wrench into any seeming contradiction between karma and dependent origination given that it (necessarily) negates the idea that “the condition and the effect must be coincident in time?”

    1. @Bane. What is “retro causality”?

      Note that it is dependent arising itself that sets the the criteria of coincidence in time. I work through the reasoning here: All I say, in relation to this is that you can’t have both this and karma which requires effects manifesting long after the conditions have ceased. The apparent paradox led to some key doctrinal innovations of the Abhidharma period.

  2. Intellectually ……… fascinating. But – my goodness Jayarava – if you’re an “old white guy” I wonder what that makes me 🙂
    Yes – Mike from Manuka Rd, Glenfield, Auckland. You came to mind during “active” meditative practice (painting wall boards which I find useful. Action and breath and nothing else exists – except in this case ……. you! After the 3rd day of this happening I asked my bro about you and here we are).
    I believe the forgery of religious text spans all disciplines and eras. My own feeling is to look past it once identified to the point where I can quantify it’s use or otherwise to me in my own practice. If I cannot identify it’s application to me personally I will forgo it. This has happened before and then once a point of growth is reached I discover usefulness. Which may be entirely the wrong way to go about it but I have been down a few “wrong paths” in my life… None of which appear to have done any harm – unless said harm appears on the next turn of the Karmic wheel ?

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