There Is No Author

When Judy Roitman learned her favorite dharma text was actually a patchwork of phrases and poems lifted from other sources, she started looking into the authorship of Buddhist texts. What she found surprised her.

By Judy Roitman

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

A long time ago, I was sitting my first retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center, which was, in those early years, located in a small house in Allston, Massachusetts. The teacher was Zen Master Seung Sahn, early in his long career of spreading Korean Soen teaching throughout the world. In my first interview, he asked a question. I couldn’t answer it. In my second interview, he asked the same question. I knew the answer he wanted, but it felt fake so I didn’t give it. In the third interview, he asked the same question. I knew the answer he wanted, but I didn’t give it, crying out, “That’s your answer, not my answer!” 

You’d think that, as a math professor (which I was at the time), I’d know better. Imagine a calculus student refusing to say that the derivative of sin(x) is cos(x) because “That’s your answer, not my answer!” But, of course, Zen could not possibly be like calculus. Having read Hesse and Watts and Kerouac and Ginsberg, I was convinced that Zen was about extreme individualism, that Zen masters were extreme iconoclasts, that the inner journey was exactly that: inner, isolated, the lone heroine attaining a cosmic vision that would shatter her world and make it whole.

Now consider the following rather anti-iconoclastic statement that, in my youth, I would never have imagined to have anything to do with Zen: “Preaching of the dharma depends on the examination of the ancients. Words are the shoots of this mind, so how can you leave it up to your conjectures/judgment?”

This is not an anti-Zen statement by some stuffy anti-Zen cleric. It was written by the great sixteenth-century Korean master So Sahn Hyu Jong and is a self-referential commentary on the method of his manual of monastic training—still used today in Korean training temples—and known in this country under the titles Mirror of Zen (translated by the American monk Hyon Gak) and Handbook of Zen Practice (translated by John Jorgensen).

The sutras were written down centuries after the Buddha’s death in either Sanskrit or Pali, neither of which is a language the Buddha spoke.

Mirror of Zen has been a spiritual lodestar for me. Ever since it appeared in 2006 I have taken it with me on long solo retreats, a reliable companion along with Chinul and Nagarjuna to shake me out of whatever self-absorbed delusion I’d fallen into. It’s a slim book; I’ve easily read it over twenty times. But away from retreats, the semi-scholar in me was frustrated. Mirror of Zen is organized into very short chapters (many less than a page), each one supposedly beginning with a quote, followed by a usually brief commentary by So Sahn and sometimes even a short poem by him. But the quotes aren’t identified. I was told that nobody knew where they came from. Then, in 2015, John Jorgensen’s Handbook of Zen version came out, and it turned out that nearly every phrase and every sentence—even the poems—came from somewhere else. The entire book was a collage. In some places, even the sentences were a composite of phrases 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 disciple 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 compelling 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 Buddha’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 emanate from an individual mind. They would have no validity otherwise. To paraphrase So Sahn, you cannot 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.

The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.

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 tradition 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 on Buddhist principles, as in the case of John Cage. These techniques serve to ground the text in something much larger than the individual.

However, Barthes goes much further than writers using such techniques as creative tools. He is speaking of anything anyone has ever written, from memoir to cookbook to, yes, Buddhist sutras. He is saying that you don’t have to try to erase control or erase the self; according to him, nothing an individual writes is in fact written by an individual. There is no author. Everything we write, everything we say, is drawn from innumerable sources. We don’t own any of it. We only arrange it. 

In many cultures, this is not exactly news. Consider traditional haiku, one constraint of which is seasonal words prescribed by tradition, listed in saijiki texts. There are thousands of these words, and they have to be used in particular ways. You’d better not use a spring word in your summer poem. The haiku masters didn’t sit around scratching their heads looking at unfamiliar tables of words as they tried to figure out what to do next; they absorbed the system completely so that what they wrote was as natural as adjusting your pillow while you sleep (to find this pillow, look in the thirteenth-century koan collection The Book of Equanimity).

And then there is the dharma combat ceremony used in Japanese Soto Zen temples to confirm a priest is past the novice rank. In the West, the ceremony is spontaneous dharma combat used to verify a priest’s understanding. However, the Japanese Soto ceremony is completely scripted, using lines from ancient Chinese poetry. As the scholar William Bodiford says, “When Zen priests perform these words, they live the reality depicted in the Chinese poetry they study.”

We don’t have to go to Asia for examples. The classical Jewish prayer book is largely a repetitive pastiche of biblical quotations. For a contemporary and highly secular example, consider hip-hop. Here is Hilton Als describing Kanye West’s “No More Parties in LA”: “Featuring Kendrick Lamar, [it] samples work by Walter (Junie) Morrison, of the seventies funk band Ohio Players, as well as Ghostface Killah’s 2000 track ‘Mighty Health.’ The intro is courtesy of Johnny (Guitar) Watson’s 1977 tune ‘Give Me My Love’ and the bridge comes from Larry Graham’s 1980 song ‘Stand Up and Shout About Love.’ This reads like Jorgensen’s footnotes to So Sahn.

We are embedded. Whether we recognize it or not, our practice is always embedded in something. For many—perhaps most—people reading this, your practice is embedded, or at least sourced, in some so-to-speak traditional tradition that came from Asia to the West within the last seventy years or so. American culture encourages us not to take that kind of tradition too seriously, to look instead for that inner voice, that inner self, to be ourselves at all costs. But, as all Buddhist teachers like to ask: Who is this? Nobody works in isolation. Even the forest hermit—perhaps especially the forest hermit—has a context much larger than her own life. To believe there is an inner voice, an inner self—this delusion is the curse of the author, an author far more invasive than the author Barthes is talking about, the author who writes not words on a page but the book of self. This inner voice continually telling us who and what and why we are, where we come from, where we are going, and what we should do about it, this author of our self-concept—guess what? There’s no there there.

The notion of self as collage, as particles temporarily glued together and coming apart, is basic to Buddhism—this is what the five skandhas are about. The notion of innumerable beings reflecting and being reflected by each other—this is Indra’s net. The notion of the very nature of being as mixed, fluid, without boundaries, not resting on any one thing—this is codependent origination. In The Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says, “However many beings there are… I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. And why not? … No one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self, or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul” [Red Pine’s translation].

Ding dong, there never was an author in the first place.

Easy to say. Hard to do. A friend of mine has a condition that might cause him to go blind. “If I go blind, I will kill myself,” he says, with passion and great sincerity. When things go well, we think we are immune. When things go badly, we hit the limits of our self-concept and are overcome. Somebody says something and suddenly it is as if our head is in a vise, being squeezed from different directions at once. We cannot see what is in front of us. All we can see is our fear, our anger, our delusion. We think this is the normal human condition. We think there is an author. We think this author is us. And we believe everything the author writes.

A long time ago, I was on a solo retreat when I suddenly felt possessed by a demon. The demon was inside me, looking out through my eyes. There was nothing flashy, no sensory hallucination, just a sudden realization: there is a demon inside me who has taken over and is looking out through my eyes. I was terrified. I promised myself that if I woke up the next morning with this demon inside me, I would check myself into a mental hospital. I kept up my practice—what else could I do? And then, suddenly, while doing walking meditation on my little porch, my view changing as I moved past one tree and then another, I realized: nobody looks out through my eyes. The world comes in through them. The demon vanished.

Ding dong, the witch is dead. Ding dong, the author is dead. Ding dong, there never was an author in the first place. And so in my fourth interview on my first retreat, I suddenly realized: this teacher is trying to teach me something. I should try to learn it. I gave the answer I knew he wanted, without worrying about whose answer it was. I stopped, if only for a moment, trying to write my own life.

Judy Roitman

Judy Roitman

Judy Roitman (Zen Master Bon Hae) began practicing Zen in 1976 with Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Cambridge Zen Center. Two years later, she helped found the Kansas Zen Center with, among others, her husband Stan Lombardo. She was granted authorization as a teacher (inka) in the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1998 and received dharma transmission in 2013. She has also had a long and distinguished career as a professor of mathematics (although now retired from academic life) and as a poet.