Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

03 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. I

In this essay, the first of three instalments aimed at revising the history of the Heart Sutra, I will focus on the early medieval Chinese tradition of bibliography up to the Tang Dynasty. In particular, I will show that bibliographers saw what appears to be the Heart Sutra as one of a class of non-authentic texts known as a "digest texts". I note that the view of the Heart Sutra dramatically changed during the Tang. In Part II, I will make some salient points about the early history of the Tang. I will examine how early commentators saw the texts and how, slightly later, bibliographies contributed to the myth of the Heart Sutra. In Part III, I will assess the information presented in Parts I and II. I will sketch out three alternative scenarios and show that only one of them fits all of the facts. It will also argue that, despite the apparent fraud involved in its inception, the Heart Sutra still has value as an epitome of formless sphere (arūpa-āyatana) meditations and an epistemic approach to emptiness.

Chinese Buddhist Bibliographies

Sēngyòu (僧祐 445–518) was the senior Buddhist monk in the Southern Liang Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Wu (). In 515 CE, Sēngyòu completed his catalogue of scriptures held in the imperial library, entitled 《出三藏記集》Chūsānzàng jìjí Collection of Records about the Production of the Tripiṭaka (T2145). Unfortunately, Wu was not satisfied with it and immediately commissioned Sēngshào (僧紹) to make another one, which was completed in 518. Even this catalogue did not suffice, and another was produced by Bǎochàng (寳唱) in 521, which Emperor Wu adopted as the official catalogue of the dynasty.

This said, it is Sēngyòu's catalogue, the Chūsānzàng jìjí, that was historically influential and survived down to the present. This was because of the way that he tackled a long-running problem for Chinese Buddhism. Buddhist Texts had been arriving in China since the 2nd century, sometimes in ones and twos and sometimes in larger batches. At first, they mostly arrived in the memories of Buddhist monks, with few written texts. The texts were not part of a systematic, organised collection like the Pāli Canon. Rather, they were a selection of sūtra, vinaya, abhidharma, avadana, and dhāraṇī texts, mixed with commentaries (upadeśa, bhāṣya) and treatises (śāstra). Many had no recorded translator and no information about their provenance. 

The situation was complicated by two Chinese developments, which began very early on in the transmission of Buddhism. One was the production of fake texts (偽經). Some modern scholars prefer to hedge this term with faux neutrality: "indigenous productions", "apocryphal texts", etc. But the bibliographers thought of them as 偽 "fabricated, artificial; falsified, feigned, sham, counterfeit, forgery, deception" (Kroll 2015: 473).

Some of the fakes were openly signed by the author, so presented less of the problem in terms of identifying and classifying them. Others were intended to be passed off as Chinese translations of an Indic source text. These were sometimes difficult to spot and several remain in the modern Canon. Dozens of such fakes were in circulation in China by the 6th Century. This was alarming on two levels. Firstly, they often mixed in elements of popular Chinese culture of the day, especially Daoist mysticism, and were perceived as diluting and/or corrupting Buddhism. Secondly, having fakes in circulation undermined the project to convert China to Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a foreign religion and as such inferior to Daoism and, especially, Confucianism. If Buddhism was just bastardised Daoism, then they had no need of it.

The second development was the 抄經 or digest text. According to Sēngyòu, “digests were produced by Chinese people who cut the existing translations into pieces and arranged them to their liking.” (Storch 2014: 64). 抄 has been translated several ways, i.e., "digest", "extract", and "condensed", but I like "digest" because of the easy allusion to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books (my grandfather was a subscriber). The 抄經 were the Reader's Digest of their day. We might also think of them as mashups. They served several purposes. For example, they often served as an overview or introduction to the main themes of a larger text, pulling out the essential points from long, abstruse texts that would have been daunting to read had they been well translated (and often the pioneering translations were problematic). Or they were a source of edifying sentiments. They might even be used for magical purposes, for warding-off ill-fortune or for securing a better rebirth.  Sometimes the attraction was simply that they were short. However, digests or mashups could easily distort the message of the text or of Buddhism, so were distinguished from genuine texts. 

These digest texts were far more common than fake texts. Sēngyòu's catalogue lists 2,162 texts in total. Of these 20 or about 1% were counted as outright fakes. Of the anonymous texts, 450 were digest sutras. That's about 20% of all the Buddhist texts in circulation in 515 CE.

Bibliographers undertook to deal with the problem of authenticity. They proposed criteria by which  texts could be evaluated and categories reflecting different levels of confidence. Sēngyòu's catalogue was not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive and proscriptive. In her study of Sēngyòu's catalogue, Tanya Storch (2014) boils his fifteen categories down to five.
  1. Unquestionably authentic texts, with a title, a connection to India, and translated by a respected translator.
  2. Other translations, especially later translations of the same texts
  3. Anonymous translations
  4. Digest texts
  5. Suspicious or fake texts.
Sēngyòu's attitude towards the digest texts was tinged with hostility. They served a purpose, but many went too far and distorted the original (Storch 2014: 64). That said, Sēngyòu was generous by comparison with latter-day bibliographers, most of whom classed digest sutras as fakes.

The first wholesale systematic translations of Buddhist texts were only completed in the late 4th to early 5th Centuries, by the Kuchan monk, Kumārajīva, and a large team of Chinese monks. This enabled more systematic study of the texts and fostered efforts to categorise them. Kyoko Tokuno (1990) points out that while all this high-level scholarship and categorisation work was going on, a digest which summarised the content of a long abstruse text was a valuable tool. However, once the Chinese Canon began to take shape, in the 6th and 7th Centuries, such digests could be dispensed with and, on the whole, they were. In 594 another Bibliographer, Fǎjīng 法經 (i.e., Dharmasūtra), complains that Sēngyòu was too lax in his treatment of digests. Rather than listing some digests with anonymous sutras, Fǎjīng and his colleagues shunted them all into a distinct category.

The point is that digests were common by the 6th Century, widely recognised for what they were, and treated differently than authentic sutras by Chinese bibliographers. And this demarcation became increasingly strict after Sēngyòu's time.

The Heart Sutra as Digest

The Japanese scholar, Fukui Fumimasa (1987: cited in Nattier 1992: 175), was the first modern scholar to suggest that the Heart Sutra was not, in fact, a sutra. He argued that, in the titles of texts, the term 心 "heart" (Skt hṛdaya, citta) was interchangeable with terms for dhāraṇī such as 咒 and 陀羅尼; therefore, the title 心經 should be translated as Dhāraṇī Scripture. Jan Nattier found this argument "quite convincing". Although Nattier (1992) and Tanahashi (2014) both cite portions of Fukui's argument, the full version has only appeared in Japanese to date and I have not had a chance to assess his overall argument. Dhāraṇī is certainly a plausible reading. However, I think Nattier herself points to a better answer, although she doesn't adopt it.

There are two parts to this. Nattier firstly points out that the Heart Sutra had long been thought of as an "extract" [i.e., digest] in China. Kuījī 窺基 (632–682) was a Chinese student of Xuanzang and his successor, Woncheuk 圓測 (613-696), was a noted translator and scholar in his own right who was assigned to assist Xuanzang. Both wrote commentaries on the Heart Sutra. In exploring their attitudes to the Heart Sutra, Nattier says:
"In sum, the statements of both Kuījī and Woncheuk indicate that at least some Buddhists, already in the 7th Century CE, considered the Heart Sutra to be, not a separate sermon preached by the Buddha, but an extract made by certain "sages who transmitted the Dharma" from the Large Sutra of Kumārajīva" (1992: 207 n.33).
The wording used by Woncheuk is 簡 "selected, gleaned" from 諸般若 "various Prajñā(pāramitā sūtras)" (T 33.543.b.18). Kuījī talks about the Heart Sutra being "separately produced" (別出) (T 33.524.a. 8-9, 26-7). Kuījī seems to mean is that it is not part of the prajñāpāramitā collection (總). He is apparently referring to the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra T220, translated 660-663, by Xuanzang, et al. However, Alan Sponberg points out (in an unpublished translation referenced by Nattier) that he refers to the sutra being "produced" (出) rather than "preached by the Buddha." And this explains why it does not have the introduction or conclusion expected of a sutra. In other words, both Kuījī and Woncheuk did not think of the Heart Sutra as an authentic Indian sutra; they both saw it as a digest text.

Secondly, Nattier cites a private communication from Robert Buswell (1992: 210 n.48) who proposed to Nattier that the Heart Sutra might be an example of a ch'ao-ching or "condensed sūtra". Though Nattier's article does not supply the Chinese characters for the Wade-Giles romanisation, they are in fact 抄經, which I am translating as "digest sutra". In 1990, Buswell had edited a volume called Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha in which there was an article by Kyoko Tokuno on how Chinese bibliographers dealt with fake sutras and digests. The next section reviews this evidence, but we can already say that the Heart Sutra perfectly fits the description of a digest. It is composed of various extracts from the Dajing by Kumārajīva (T223). The Dajing is a long and abstruse text (its commentary more so), and in some ways, the Xīnjīng does epitomise the content of it. The redactor has altered the text a little to incorporate Avalokiteśvara which, though it has given some modern exegetes paroxysms, was probably unremarkable at the time: Guanshiyin was simply the best known and loved bodhisatva, why would he not appear?

The Heart Sutra is a Chinese digest of the Dajing. It was one of hundreds of such texts that circulated in China, though with decreasing frequency as the mature canon emerged. Importantly, this was no secret as leading exegetes of the Tang Dynasty recognised it. And, as we shall see in the next section, this was how Chinese Bibliographers saw the text as well.

The Heart Sutra in Early Catalogues

One of the ways that writers have referenced the authenticity of the Heart Sutra is to mention that it occurs in various catalogues. However, these references inevitably treat the catalogues as homogeneous and descriptive. As we have seen, the bibliographers took an active approach: both prescriptive and proscriptive. Thus any reference to the catalogues should consider which category any given bibliographer puts the Heart Sutra. I will now do this (for the first time as far as I know).

The first thing to consider are the so-called "lost translations". These were supposedly listed in the catalogue by Dàoān, 道安 in 374. Although this catalogue is itself lost, Sēngyòu reproduces much of it in his catalogue (T2145) completed in 515 CE. He listed two texts which might be versions of the Heart Sutra (T 55.31.b.10-11), these are
  • 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪一卷 = Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu in one scroll.
  • 般若波羅蜜神呪一卷(異本) = Bōrěbōluómì shénzhòu in one scroll (different version).
Sēngyòu's annotation, 異本 "different version", suggests that these are versions of the same text. Unfortunately, neither survives, so we have no idea of the content of either, just the titles. The two texts are not named as 經 "sutra" but shénzhòu (神呪), literally "divine spell", but perhaps meaning "incantation". The term might be interpreted at this point in history as vidyā (See Attwood 2017a).

The two shénzhòu texts are listed under the heading: 失譯 "lost translator" (i.e., anonymous). As we have already seen, this meant that Sēngyòu was suspicious of them. Later catalogues attribute them to translators Zhīqiān (支謙) and Kumārajīva, respectively. However, as Nattier says these attributions "are clearly after the fact and can be easily discounted" (1992: 183).

Nattier further suggests that the practice of using 般若波羅蜜 to transliterate prajñāpāramitā was introduced by Kumārajīva in 404 CE and so placing them in Dàoān's catalogue seems anachronistic. However, 般若波羅蜜 is used throughout T224, the earliest translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra by *Lokakṣema, ca. 179 CE, so it would not have been out of place in 374.

The reference point of Kumārajīva is still important because all of the extant Heart Sutras in Chinese are excerpts from his Dajing. This is beyond any doubt and thus any reference to the Heart Sutra before 404 CE, when that translation was completed, is problematic. Since Dàoān was writing in 374 CE we have a problem. Below, I will show that there are at least two different ways to resolve this problem.

In any case, what needs to be emphasised is that if the first references to the Heart Sutra are in this 515 catalogue, then they are listed in it as having no translator. Dàoān seems to only have listed texts he had to hand, so it seems very likely that the shénzhòu texts existed in 374 CE. What Sēngyòu was looking for in an authentic sutra (in 515 CE) was a definite connection to India, a famous translator, elegant expressions, and integral rather than digested content. What we have in the Heart Sutra, if it is the Heart Sutra, is an anonymous digest with no obvious connection to India.

The 《大隋眾經目錄》 or Dà Suí Catalogue (T2146) compiled in 594 by Fǎjīng also lists titles 《 摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.123.b.22-3) under the heading of Mahāyāna texts "produced separately" (別生). As Tokuno notes, this category was invented by Fǎjīng to contain the digest sutras. He considered them inauthentic in the sense that they were mere digests of genuine texts, but not actually fake in the sense of original compositions. Note the similarity to Kuījī's term "separately produced" (別出): produced, not preached. In this catalogue, 197 sutras are listed as fake, so there has been a dramatic rise in the number of them. Another point here is that Fǎjīng has added the word 經 sūtra to the titles of the shénzhòu texts. Even so, we can say that Fǎjīng follows Sēngyòu in treating these titles as separate from authentic sutras.

Note that Fǎjīng used the phrase 神呪經 36 times and there are about the same number of 呪經's as well.

The  《歷代三寳記》 Records of the Three Treasuries Throughout Successive Dynasties, compiled by Fèi Chángfáng (費長房 ) in 597 CE (T2034), is not listed with other catalogues in Taishō Vol. 55 but with histories in Vol. 49. Fèi Chángfáng's approach to digests and fakes was somewhat different to other bibliographers in that he lists texts in chronological order of when they were translated, and he treats very few texts as being inauthentic. He has come to be known for controversially attributing texts to translators without foundation (Tokuno 1990: 44-45). His approach seems to have been to "minimize the number of scriptures of questionable pedigree" in order to "enhance the credibility of the textual basis of Buddhism" (Tokuno 1990: 46). Fèi Chángfáng lists the 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 with an annotation (T 49.55.c.1). Unfortunately, the annotation has many variations in different versions of the Canon. The Taishō editors opted for 或無經字 "perhaps not a sutra". One variant is 異本 "different source" while the Song (宋) edition combines these, i.e.,  異本或無經字 "different source or perhaps not a sutra". The title is listed under 譯經後漢 "Sutras translated after the Han Dynasty". Despite this and Fèi Chángfáng's tendency to see sutras as genuine, has his doubts about this one.

When Fèi Chángfáng notes "different source" he may be thinking of his entry 《摩訶般若波羅蜜呪經》*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-vidyā-sūtra (T 49.58.b.9), listed under 譯經魏吳 "Sutras Translated During Wei (魏) and Wu (吳). Along with Shu (蜀), these two kingdoms made up the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). Fèi Chángfáng's annotation here is "See the Catalogue of Bǎochàng" which is unfortunately no longer extant, despite (as mentioned above) being selected by Emperor Wu of Liang as his official catalogue; the annotation continues "or just say 般若波羅蜜呪經". In other words, he probably has neither text to hand and is unsure whether the two titles represent two distinct texts or variant titles for one text. It's not clear on what basis he has separated them when others have always listed them together. 

The defect of the Dà Suí Catalogue was that did not differentiate between extant and non-extant texts, but preserved entries in previous catalogues even where no copy of the sutra could be found. Therefore, a new catalogue was commissioned by Sui Emperor Wen. A group of experts, led by the Yàncóng (彥琮), completed the highly influential 《內典文全集》 Complete collection of Buddhist scriptures (T2147) in 602 CE. Yàncóng was a skilled and systematic translator and an expert on Prajñāpāramitā. Yàncóng's catalogue again lists 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 (T 55.162.a.24-5) suggesting that they were extant texts in 602. They are placed under the heading 大乘別生 or Mahāyāna Produced Separately, i.e. digests of Mahāyāna sutras. And, again, they are kept separate from the authentic sutras. Although there are eight titles with the phrase 心經, none of them appears to be the Heart Sutra.

If we accept that the shénzhòu texts are the Heart Sutra, then we must also note that pre-Tang Dynasty bibliographers were almost unanimous in treating the texts digests as anonymous and produced separately (i.e., digests). In other words, they did not understand these texts to be authentic sutras. The only exception is Fèi Chángfáng, and even he is doubtful. So, if we take this road, then we already have proof that the text was not an authentic sutra produced in India. We need not make special arguments about the Sanskrit text, except to say that there is no such tradition of making digests in India. The digest sutra is a distinctive feature of China.

However, this still leaves the problem that all the extant Heart Sutras quote from the Dajing translation of 404 CE. I will not finally tackle this problem until Part III. At this point, I wish to complete my survey of the early catalogues. We have arrived at the Tang Dynasty and we see the sudden appearance of the title: 《摩訶般若波羅蜜心經》 Mahāprajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, aka the 《心經》 or Xīnjīng.

The Heart Sutra in Tang Catalogues

Whereas the Suí Emperors were enthusiastic about Buddhism, the early Tang Emperors, with the exception of Wu Zetian, were not. I'll say more about Wu Zetian in part II. The lack of enthusiasm for Buddhism is reflected in the fact that fewer catalogues of Buddhist scriptures were produced during three centuries of Tang than during the four decades of the Sui. However, the catalogues that were produced were highly influential in the formation and structuring of the Chinese Buddhist Canon and are important in the story of the Heart Sutra. The Tang Dynasty begins in 618 CE, but the first catalogue of Buddhist texts was not produced until ca. 627-650 and it was soon lost, so that nothing much is known about it.

It is not until 664 that the, now famous, 《大唐內典錄》or Catalogue of the Inner canon of the Great Tang, aka Nèidiǎn Catalogue, is compiled by Dàoxuān (道宣). 664 is also the year that Xuanzang died and it is well into the period during which Wu Zetian was de facto Emperor. Another catalogue was hastily prepared after Xuanzang's death in 664 to incorporate his new translations (presumably his Prajñāpāramitā translations), but this was largely the same as Yàncóng's catalogue and is otherwise unremarkable.

For the history of the Heart Sutra, the Nèidiǎn Catalogue is important because it is the first catalogue to use the now familiar title 《摩訶般若波羅蜜心經》*Mahāprajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sutra (Xīnjīng), and it is the first to attribute the text to Xuanzang. One of the first things we notice is that the titles 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪經》 and 《般若波羅蜜神呪經》 have disappeared from view. They were mentioned as digest sutras in the Yàncóng catalogue of 602, which excluded non-extant texts, so we presume they existed then. Now, they are not mentioned at all. Instead, we find the well known Xīnjīng. It is a subtle point, but note also that it is not the Heart of Prajñāpāramitā (i.e., not a general summary of Prajñāpāramitā) but the Heart of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā(-sutra). As we have seen, Kuījī took this to be a reference to Xuanzang's massive anthology of Prajñāpāramitā texts, but this was also the title of Kumārajīva's Dajing translation (from which the Heart Sutra was extracted). 

The Nèidiǎn Catalogue is organised around ten divisions. We expect a digest sutra to be in Section 7: 歷代諸經支流陳化錄 "A record of scriptures throughout successive dynasties that appeared as a result of rearrangement through the process of independent circulation." (cf. Storch 2014: 133). But the text does not appear here. Instead, it occurs with the bone fide sutras in sections 1-4. Notably, section 3 is a list of texts to be included in a Buddhist Canon (having eliminated fakes, and so on) and section 4 lists "the most important scriptures". So this Heart Sutra is not only authentic, but has a high status amidst authentic sutras. Can this really be the same text?

We can now usefully return to the question of the identification of the shénzhòu texts as the Heart Sutra. Clearly the title (摩訶)般若波羅蜜神呪經 is not Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra at all, but *(Mahā-)Prajñāpāramitā-vidyā-sūtra or, perhaps, *(Mahā-)Prajñāpāramitā-dhāraṇī-sūtra. Certainly there is some similarity, especially to the alternative Chinese Heart Sutra, the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 or Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidyā-sūtra, where 大明呪 = mahāvidyā. Elsewhere, I have argued that 神呪 and 明呪 are synonyms (Attwood 2017a). It is certainly possible that the name suddenly changed. Such things happened, especially in the Prajñāpāramitā; for example, the 小經  or Xiǎojīng had several different names, sometimes including mahā (大 or 摩訶):
  • 《道行般若經》179 CE
  • 《大明度經》225 CE
  • 《摩訶般若鈔經》382 CE
  • 《小品般若經》404 CE
The difference here is that all these texts are extant and can study and compare them. I've done this, tracing passages like "the epithets" or "form is emptiness" from the Heart Sutra to each one, via the Dàjīng. The Xiǎojīng was always considered to be authentic and was plausibly attributed to known translators, even though it was thought by Chinese translators to be a redaction of the Dàjīng (they did not yet see the process of expansion that is obvious to us in retrospect). 

Somehow, in the years since 602, the digest has become a sutra, changed its name, and entered the Chinese Canon of authentic texts with a bullet. At least this is what most scholars of the Heart Sutra would have us believe. The trouble is that we can plainly see that the Heart Sutra is a digest. And we know that the Tang Dynasty commentators knew this and wrote about it. 

We also know that, whatever did happen, it had to have happened by 661 CE, because we have the Fangshan stele, which records 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯 "Translated by Traipiṭaka Dharma-master Xuanzang, by imperial decree." (see The Earliest Dated Heart Sutra Revisited, 22 June 2018), and this after he went into seclusion to finally translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts he'd brought with him, that had sat unlooked at for 15 years while he focussed on his priorities.

One alternative story would be that sometime after 602, but before 661, a brand new digest was redacted from Kumārajīva's Dajing, but including some minor modifications reflecting translation conventions introduced by Xuanzang (the most celebrated translator of the day). This new text was passed off as a translation by Xuanzang. While this story is still quite implausible at face value, it has the advantage of not being at odds with all the known facts and the opinions of ancient scholars who, on the whole, seemed to know their business quite well.

So the question now is, what happened in those 59 years? I will begin to try to answer this question in the next installment by looking at the historical context.


  1. Part II (10 August 2018). The historical background, Xuanzang, and the emergence of the Heart Sutra
  2. Part III (17 August 2018). Assessing the evidence, and outlining the true history of the Heart Sutra


Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017b). ‘Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13, 52–80.

Eisenberg, Andrew. (2012) Emperor Gaozong, the Rise of Wu Zetian, and factional politics in the Early Tang. Tang Studies 30, 45-69.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch’uk’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra). International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. 6: 121-205.

Jorgensen, John. (2002). 'Representing Wŏnch'ŭk: Meditations on Medieval East Asian Biographies' in Religion and Biography in China and Tibet, edited by Benjamin Penny. Routledge.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223.

Satyadhana. (2014) 'The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary.' Western Buddhist Review, 6, 78-104 .

Sen, Tansen. (2003) Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade. The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations 600-1400. Association for Asian Studies; University of Hawai'i Press.

Storch, T. (2014). The History of Chinese Buddhist Bibliography. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala

Tokuno, Kyoko. 1990. 'The Evaluation of Indigenous Scriptures in Chinese Buddhist Bibliographical Catalogues' in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, edited by Robert E Buswell. University of Hawaii Press, 31-74.

29 June 2018

Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography

In this essay I'm going to try to show some of how I evaluate sources of information using a case study of the two mentions of the Heart Sutra in the standard biography of Xuánzàng written by Huìlì and Yàncóng. This involves a detailed assessment of such qualities as authenticity, veracity, accuracy, precision, and reliability. What knowledge can we obtain from a text, using which kinds of methods? What kinds of caveats apply to this process?

On the 5th day, 12th Month of Yǒnghuī 6 (永徽六年十二月五日) i.e., 6 January, 656, Xuánzàng sent a letter to the emperor celebrating the birth of a new prince the month before. He wrote in a letter: "I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case." (輒敢進金字《般若心經》一卷并函 T 50.272b.12). This piece of information is quite a big deal because this is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra with a precise date that I know of. It is five years before the earliest physical evidence (661 CE) and definitely before Xuánzàng began translating Prajñāpāramitā texts in ernest (660 CE). But this important date is seldom, if ever, discussed in the literature on the Heart Sutra

The information comes from the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a Tang Dynasty (唐) biography (傳) of Xuánzàng (aka "the Dharma Master 三藏法師傳 of the great Ci'en Temple 大慈恩寺") by 慧立 Huìlì and 彥悰Yàncóng from about 688 CE (henceforth, Biography). I say "biography", but as Xuánzàng never puts a foot wrong and is portrayed as conforming to an ideal, the text is clearly part of a trend to elevate him to the status of Buddhist saint. As such, we might better refer to it as a hagiography. Chinese Buddhist saints are quite different in character from Indian Buddhist saints, which is something that requires its own study (and I don't propose to get into it here). Unlike some hagiographies, the Biography was composed quite close to the subject's lifetime, in a literate society that kept good records in both the religious and imperial spheres, and partly by someone who knew the subject personally. So Xuánzàng is not presented as doing many miracles, but more as behaving in an exemplary manner in social, political, and religious spheres. He is, in short, the archetype of a good Buddhist living in a fundamentally Confucian society.

The Biography is included in the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka as text no. 2053. T2053 was translated by Samuel Beal in 1911 (I use a 1914 reprint), and more recently by Li Rongxi  for the BDK English Tripiṭaka (1995). Huìlì was a younger contemporary of Xuánzàng, who knew and worked with him. Yàncóng recounts the  story of how the Biography came about in a preface. Having written down the the Biography, Huìlì lost confidence and buried them "fearing that the contents of his writing might be incomplete and inadequate for the public" (Li 1995: 3). However, on his death bed he asked his students to dig up the manuscript. Within a few years it had become divided and scattered. Some parts were lost. Around 688 CE, the students managed to collect up the remaining works and commissioned 彥悰 Yàncóng to edit it into a book. What remained of Huìlì's work amounted to five scrolls, and Yàncóng added five more. The result is the now famous biography. 

However, there is a slight difference between how Li tells the story in his translator's introduction and how Yàncóng tells it. Li suggests that Huìlì's account ended with Xuánzàng's return to China in 645 CE. If Yàncóng does not supply this detail, then who does? It probably originates from a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by Beal in his introduction:
The five chapters added by [Yàncóng] are probably those which follow the account of [Xuánzàng]'s return from India, and relate to his work of translation in China. (1914: xix)
As far as I can tell, there is no basis for this "probably". Beal is guessing. What Yàncóng says in Beal's own translation is that he was engaged to "to re-arrange and correct the leaves which their master had written and hidden in a cave." (xix).  But compare Li "Then I mixed the original text with supplementary annotations, extending it into a work of ten fascicles" (1995: 9). What this suggests to me is that Huìlì provided the framework for the whole text and Yàncóng expanded on it in general.

Li is not beyond adding little details to pad out the story. Take the example of the famous story of the sick man giving Xuánzàng the Heart Sutra, which occurs earlier in the Biography:
慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。(T 50.224b.8-9)
Li: "With a feeling of pity, he took the man to his monastery and gave him money to purchase clothes and food." (26).
However, when I parse this sentence what I get is:
慜 benevolent 將 will 向 to 寺 temple 施 bestow 與 give 衣服 clothing 飲食 food and drink 之 going 直 straight 。
i.e.,  feeling benevolent, [Xuánzàng] took [the sick man] straight to the temple, and gave him food, drink, and clothing. [my trans]
There is no mention of "money" or "purchasing" in the text. And, given that we generally understand monks as not handling money, this added feature is incongruous, although, of course, some monks did handle money (and I haven't checked which kind Xuánzàng was). So the translation here is more precise than the source text (it supplies extra details), but it appears to be inaccurate (because the details don't arise from the source text).

I started out assuming that Li must be fairly reliable to be employed as a translator by the prestigious BDK organisation. Based on assessing these two details, I conclude Li is less reliable than my initial assessment of him. Samuel Beal's translation is, "Pitying the man he took him to his convent, and gave him clothing and food" (1914: 21). Beal, writing in a different era, uses language with an archaic feel to it. We might also wonder why he chose "convent" (usually associated with nuns in English) for 寺. On the whole, however, his translations seems more more accurate, and thus more reliable than Li at this point.

How does anyone assess when a translator is more or less reliable without reference to the source text in the source language? Very often my friends and colleagues make a kind of aesthetic judgement on the grounds of which one reads better. Often the more "poetic" a translation is the more folk like it. Which seems like nonsense to me. Is it fair to judge a translation on a handful of sentences? When we are only interested in a handful of sentences, the importance of them with respect to the text as a whole is magnified.

In this case Li's small amendment to include a reference to giving money has a major impact on my study. Had I taken Li seriously, I might have decided that I needed to spend time looking into the issue of use of money by monks in medieval China. This is a potentially fruitful avenue to go down if it relates to my task at hand, but the fact is that it doesn't. It's just a lapse on the part of a translator. Fortunately, I like to try to see how source texts look before taking translations seriously. Any reader who does not check the source text (for whatever reason) is always at risk of being misled.

譯 = Translator?

One of the interesting things about the Biography is the style of the attribution. In some past explorations of the attribution of the Heart Sutra we've seen that 譯 means "translator". Dictionaries are quite unequivocal on this point. However, in the Biography the attribution is:
沙門慧立本 譯彥悰箋.  
"Originally composed by Monk Huìlì, edited by Yàncóng, with annotations."
Here 沙門* means that Huìlì (慧立) was a Buddhist monk. The character 本 means "origin, root" and tells us that the text originates with Huìlì.  Next, 箋 means "annotation" or "commentary". We know from Yàncóng’s (彥悰) preface that his role was that of editor of Huìlì’s manuscript and notes, 譯 here must mean “editor/edited”, rather than “translator/translated”. However, this work  was composed in Chinese, so 譯 cannot mean "translator" as nothing was translated. This is an important detail because it contributes to another aspect of my work on the Heart Sutra: the relationship between Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. When I checked I found that Xuánzàng is credited with being the 譯 of his own travelogue, also composed in Chinese. 
* 沙門 is pronounced like 'shaman', deriving from Prakrit ṣāmana (Sanskrit śrāmaṇa). There is a possible link with English shaman: Sanskrit śrāmaṇa → Prakrit ṣāmane → Middle Chinese 沙門  ʃamuən → Siberian/Tungus šamān → Russian shamán → German schamane → English shaman (attested 1698).
It might be fair to assume that if many texts that are translations refer to a person as the 譯 in relation to it, then that person is the "translator" and that 譯 must mean "translated [by]". But we have two examples of the character being used in contexts where it cannot mean "translate". The dictionary  definition seems to be incomplete. There is another sense which is something like "worked on", which is distinguished from "authored".

Keeping track of such small details is integral to this kind of work, because the accumulation of details is what adds up to a case. The only problem is that some intellectuals tell us that no accumulation of details adds up to a case. 

Critical Thinking and Historiography

Advocates of critical thinking sometimes suggest that there is only one rational way to go about seeking knowledge, i.e., through refutation. This is supposedly based on Karl Popper's principle of conjecture and refutation. In this view, there is nothing to be gained by looking for confirmation or, in my case, the accumulation of details. We can never confirm a theory; all we can hope for is to refute it. This, they say, is because of the so-called black swan effect. The story goes that Aristotle, when formulating his outline of logic, took it as axiomatic that "all swans are white". This allowed him to confidently construct deductive syllogisms like
All swans are white.
Bruce is swan.
Therefore, Bruce is white. ✓
Until one discovers that Bruce is Australian and he is actually a black swan and the deduction is false. The problem here, and with all deductive reasoning, is that it all revolves around axioms, i.e., propositions that one accepts as truth before proceeding to infer some new fact by deduction. If the axiom is false, then all inferences from it are also false. The argument proceeds to say that it doesn't matter how many white swans you meet, you can never be certain that all swans are white. It only takes one black swan to disprove the axiom that all swans are white and all inferences from the axiom fall apart.

The "black swan" argument is that you can never arrive at the truth through seeking confirmation of an axiom. Indeed, proving that any axiom is true is a very difficult thing to do. It is possible in mathematics. However, in any system of mathematics it is also possible for something to be true or false, but for this to be impossible to prove. So the search for truth quickly gets bogged down. And this is why scientists tend to avoid the idea of truth, and instead seek accurate and precise descriptions of reality (i.e., the day to day focus is on the epistemic aspects of their work). The attitude is "let the philosophers argue over the nature of that reality, as long as we can predict how it's going to behave". Scientists and philosophers are often dismissive of each other, largely because scientists stray into the area of speculating about the (ultimate) nature of reality (metaphysics) and because philosophers often speculate without reference to empirical knowledge - which is far and away the most reliable form of knowledge.

This critical thinking approach, call it hyper-critical thinking, leads to an impasse. It seems as if all claims to truth are either false now or soon will be. And thus it may seem that there is no point in even seeking knowledge, because in common sense and classical philosophy we equate knowledge and truth. Meanwhile, in the real world, very general rules of thumb turn out to be surprisingly useful in day to day life. We mainly get by on heuristics, or generalised approaches to solving problems that are good enough. Truth, as an abstract or an ideal, turns out to have surprisingly little practical value. Law courts, for example, use the heuristic of establishing something beyond reasonable doubt, which may be very far from the ideal of truth.

The hyper-critical approach to knowledge is a more or less useless strategy for studying history. History is always written from a point of view. That point of view includes the axioms that the historian explicitly accepts about history and historiography (the writing of history) as well as the implicit axioms they accept uncritically (bias, prejudice, cultural conditioning, etc.). In Justin L. Barrett's terms, historians, like everyone, have  reflective and non-reflective beliefs. And by now historians all know this. Very few historians, especially trained historians, ignore these problems. But just in case they do, few serious readers of history ignore these problems. We know that history is not "truth", but that doesn't matter. No one is much interested in truth in the absolute sense. History provides us with an understanding of events, from a point of view. Historians and readers alike know that multiple points of view are available. History is not science, much less abstract philosophy.

Equally, historians are aware that new information surfaces all the time. A history written in 1900 or 1950 is likely to be out of date for this reason. We would usually like our records to have been recorded as close to the events as possible, and our histories written as close to the present as possible. But the fact that there are always going to be new takes on history should not, and does not, paralyse historians, or prevent them from publishing. The black swan effect is a given. Two years ago I blogged an essay about "the oldest dated Heart Sutra" unaware that in Chinese academic circles an older version had been common knowledge for almost sixty years. Unaware of the fact, I continued to suggest that the oldest Heart Sutra was dated 672 CE right up until the last couple of weeks.  History is not only written by the winners, but it is rewritten by the better informed amongst the winners' descendents.

Approaching the subject

Coming back to the to passage from the Biography that I started our with: "Xuánzàng presented the Emperor Gāozōng with a copy of the Xīnjīn on 6 Dec 656." There are two ways to approach a statement like this.

On one hand, we may doubt the authenticity and veracity of the statement and look for ways to refute it. We may, for example, check that the dates coincide with other records of the reign of Gāozōng and the birth of the prince. We could check if there is any record of the Emperor receiving such a gift in the imperial records. Some documents from that time still exist in some form. We might query whether the conversion to the Gregorian calendar is accurate (since I used an online black-box converter this would be a good question). In this approach we think of Huìlì and Yàncóng as unreliable, motivated witnesses and we interrogate them like prosecuting attorneys. We try to pick apart their story. Some might argue that such a procedure is the only way to deal with historical sources. The Greek historian is known both as The Father of History and The Father of Lies. Pre-modern historians were not always critical when it came to their sources.

The other approach is to assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Huìlì and Yàncóng are at least sincere in their statements, that they have not set out to deceive us. They may themselves have been deceived, but Huìlì was contemporary with the subject and Yàncóng only one generation removed. Many living people who knew Xuánzàng would have been available to Yàncóng as witnesses. Also, one or both of them seem to have had access to official records of both state and religious institutions. Apparently, one or both had access to the correspondence between Xuánzàng and Gaōzōng (in the days before carbon paper). In this approach, we may look for corroboration of dates. In doing so we may turn to the very same sources as those who set off looking to refute the statement. We may look for a state record of receiving the gift, or a letter of acknowledgement from the Emperor. Such a letter is reproduced in the biography, but does it occur anywhere else.

The trick is not to ask is it true or false. We know at the outset that what we are seeing is not the truth in any abstract sense. We understand that someone is expressing their values through the medium of a biography (or hagiography). So we know to look at a text like the Biography as an anthropologist might. What interests us as historians is how reliable are our witnesses? What level of confidence should we have in them? What biases do they have? In this sense, good history is naturally Bayesian in its approach. We look at the givens and we make an initial assessment of the veracity. The different scenarios from complete falsification to existentially accurate and precise. Then we look into the matter, gather evidence and see how that affects our perceptions of the possibilities.

We will never establish an existential truth beyond the actual existence of the text we are studying. There is a biography and it is text no. 2053 in the Taishō. The accuracy of the authorship, the date, and provenance of it are all matters of conjecture. What we seek, rather, is a plausible account that, ideally, fits all the facts. If, for example, we know for certain that the Heart Sutra is not a translation, then we need to account for the stories that state Xuánzàng translated the text. This may involve factors such as the ambiguous use of language and the pious desire to connect Xuánzàng with the Sutra.

Precision vs Accuracy

One of the problems that we face is that the biography gives us a precise date: 永徽六年十二月五日. The precision is admirable and can, with some effort, be translated with equal precision into the more familiar Gregorian Calendar, 6 January, 656. Precision to the day might be undermined if all the other references to the event are less precise. If a dozen other texts say "sometime in 656" then the precision of Huìlì and Yàncóng might seem suspicious. In general, however, Chinese sources do keep track of events to this level of precision quite routinely. Two prominent exceptions are the commentaries on the Heart Sutra attributed to Xuánzàng's successors, Kuījī and Woncheuk. But since these almost certainly post-date the date of 656, they don't really matter in terms of establishing the provenance (except that Woncheuk appears to refer to a Sanskrit text). 

Other scenarios include the whole event being made up, i.e., high precision but completely inaccurate. It it might be that they got the day, month, or year wrong, causing inaccuracy at different orders of magnitude. A lot of history is written about at the level of precision of the year. For example, we often cite the year of birth and death for a historical figure: Xuánzàng (602-664). On the other hand, earlier in the Biography the authors suggest that the prince in question is born on the afternoon of the Month 1, day 5 and that Xuánzàng's gift was given in Month 2, day 5 giving us precision to the day. 

So, given a precise date, we have to think about how precise it is and how plausible that level of precision is; and how accurate it is. How would we know? Again, the approach is to look for either refuting or corroborating evidence: which either lowers or raises our level of confidence. What critical thinking does, is make it more likely that our confidence will fall to 0% than that it will rise to 100%. We can more easily be convinced that something is false, than that it is true. But most of the time we will be somewhere in the middle.

For example, I think it unlikely that Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but a sutra extract. The practice of copying out extracts is distinctively Chinese. Also, Nattier has shown that extraction was done in Chinese, from Kumārajīva's translation. The story in the Biography makes it seem likely that Xuánzàng received a Chinese text, before he left for India and learned Sanskrit. And the date of 656 CE from the Biography suggests that he had the text before he started to translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts in 660 CE. There is a story that he translated the Heart Sutra in 649 CE, but this first appears some centuries later and is quite obviously apocryphal. So any story we tell about the man and the text, has to fit all these points. And we must ignore that fact that many uncritical authors have told other stories (the 649 CE date is repeated as a solid fact uncountable times). 

Doing Historiography

So, despite what critical thinking nerds might say, it absolutely makes sense to look for confirmation as long as one does it in the right spirit. As historians, we pile up evidence  and then try to weave a narrative in which all the evidence is accounted for. We tell stories in the full knowledge that next year or tomorrow, some new piece of evidence may turn up that changes the story. And we (mostly) acknowledge our biases. No one is pretending that History is a science, though sometimes it may approach being a kind of philosophy.

Histories are always constructed on partial information. The historical record is patchy, though it is often better in China than almost anywhere else because the Chinese were literate and kept records. Knowledge is always partial in any case, but as the centuries pass such records tend to degrade. So while we have what we think are reliable copies of the Biography composed by Huìlì and Yàncóng, the kinds of records against which we might look to evaluate the biography often don't exist (such as the correspondence between Xuánzàng and the Emperor). Which is not to say that evidence never existed, although sometimes this may be the case. As the saying goes "Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence." 

Under these conditions, sitting on the fence and being a tooth-fairy agnostic is not interesting at all. To participate, one has to get off the fence and join the discussion. This is why historians write histories with conviction. As Mercier and Sperber have observed, when making a case, it is natural, reasonable, and rational to make the best case possible and then see what others say. History is not a solitary, one-time occupation, it is an ongoing, collective effort. At any given time a small number of people will be putting forward stories constructed as the strongest case they can make (harnessing confirmation bias) and a majority will be sitting back and arguing over the alternatives. Fundamentally, reason is both collective and argumentative. And so is history. 

Another problem is the motivation of the witnesses. The donor of the Fangshan stele states that his desire is for his family to attain awakening by donating the merit of making the stone sutra to that end. We can probably relate to this. However, what was the motivation of the stone carver, or the monastery who employed him? We don't know. We do know that Chinese monasteries were often extremely wealthy as donors sought to mitigate misfortune or buy their way into Heaven. These carved sutras with donor inscriptions are a bit like the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences -- make a big enough donation and your sins will be forgiven. Monasteries also engaged in usury, farming, and manufacturing to generate income. Do these motivations give us any reason to doubt the details of the artefact or the biography? Sometimes the adage, "follow the money" is apposite in historiography.

Is the association of the Heart Sutra with Xuánzàng historical or is it legendary? We might want to ask the question, who benefits from the association? 

One thing that is clear is that, in 7th Century China, insisting that Heart Sutra was a translation from an Indian text would have added an air of authenticity. The implication was that a sutra from India was ipso facto the words of the Buddha. In the story about Xuánzàng receiving the Heart Sutra from a sick man, we are not told what language the sutra is in. But if we look at inscriptions from the period, they are almost all in Chinese, not Sanskrit. A few Sanskrit inscriptions exist, but only a handful of people could read them (a situation analogous to the present). It's unlikely that Sanskrit was heard outside the monasteries in which translations projects were carried out. 

It seems very likely that there was a conscious effort to promote the Heart Sutra from sutra extract (抄經) to sutra (經). And to focus on the name 《心經》 (Hṛdayasūtra) rather than any of the alternatives such as 《大明呪經》(Mahāvidyasūtra). The assigning of a translator (譯) would have been an essential part of this process, though it may have exploited an existing ambiguity in which Xuánzàng was an editor (譯) of the text. It is so tempting to see T251 as a edited version of T250, attributed to Kumārajīva, that we might not fault Tanahashi for referring to is as the α-version. Actually, we do not know the provenance of T250, though we do know that the evidence for it is later than evidence for T250. 

Questions, questions

In writing up my notes on the Fangshan Stele I was left with a number of questions:
  • Are the precise dates I have accurate? 
  • Are the 7th Century sources reliable? 
  • And how would I know?
  • Where can I find accurate geographical information on Tang China?
  • Do my observations about 譯 add up to anything?
  • What was Xuánzàng's involvement in the Xīnjīng?
I'm puzzled that many experts have transcribed the colophon of the Fangshan Stele without commenting on the words in it, especially the place names and military titles. Or is it just so obvious to experts that they didn't think it needed commenting on? When the experts in epigraphy don't do their job, then historians struggle to know what to make of such inscriptions. I'm also puzzled as to why so little has been made, by other historians, of the clear and dated reference to the Heart Sutra discussed in the Biography. If Xuánzàng gifted a copy of the Heart Sutra to the Emperor in 656 CE, then this really does change the narrative. 

The important point is that historians cannot afford to take witnesses at face value. Questions must be asked. Whether we seek to refute or confirm, we have to evaluate sources. Careful historiography is often our best defence against religious bias. History often reveals the weaknesses of religious stories precisely because it evaluates and compares sources. As a historian of ideas, I am fascinated by how doctrines that some religieux treat as articles of faith have been quite changeable over time. And, in particular, by how historical arguments about doctrine reveal weaknesses visible even in antiquity (without the need to invoke modernity or science). I hope to inspire friends, colleagues, and fellow religieux to be more careful in their use of historical sources, to cast a wide net, and above all to critically evaluate sources. 



Chinese texts from the Online CBETA Reader.

Beal, S. (1914.) The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. By the Shamans Hwui Li and Yen-Tsung. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

10 April 2015

Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?

Over the last couple of years Tenzin Gyatso, aka the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan people has been dropping hints about the tradition of his reincarnation. When China joined in the conversation it was briefly mainstream news, covered by, amongst others, the BBC and the Economist. Some of the news coverage is sort of neutral in a bemused way. The world is still intrigued by a religious leader who has charisma. Some of it (like the Economist editorial) is openly hostile to the Chinese and passionately in favour of the Tibetans and the religious traditions of Tibet.

In answer to the question "Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?" we must, of course, say, "sorry, but no such thing is possible" (See There is No Life After Death, Sorry). The facts of death are not entirely relevant to the question, however, because the continuity of wealth and power is more important than the metaphysics. The wealth and power associated with the office of Dalai Lama is such that without a reincarnation a serious crisis would ensue as contenders sought to fill the power vacuum and control the wealth and property associated with the office - including that in Tibet and elsewhere.

The Tibetan word tulku (sprul sku) means something like "incarnation body". It refers to a select group of Tibetan individuals who are said to have the ability to reincarnate.  That is, they are not simply forced by the logic of the Buddhist doctrine of karma to undergo rebirth in which the connection between the dead and the reborn beings is one of conditionality. Instead, the same being is reborn with their personality. Beings able to do this are thought to be bodhisattvas of the highest order, who come back time and again "to help beings". The fact of Tibet's previous policy of isolation never really comes up in definitions of these compassionate beings who for centuries only reincarnated in Tibet. This is because the myths and superstitions surrounding the institution hide a far more mundane purpose. 

My view has long been that there is nothing particularly "spiritual" about this phenomenon. Apart from the fact that it violates the Buddhist metaphysical rules of life after death (by maintaining a continuity where none can exist), it is more obviously related to political and economic problems faced by a celibate clergy who amass wealth and power. The Catholic church forbade marriage and progeny to its priests in order to prevent the watering down of Church wealth and power by seeing it leak away to progeny. In Japan the opposite happened, with once celibate monks marrying and passing on control of monasteries to their oldest male child (primogeniture is another way to prevent the dilution of wealth through generations). Just so, it is the continuity of power that drives the tulku system. Not only is there personal continuity, but tulkus retain ownership of property.

It might be worth re-emphasising that Buddhist monks and monasteries have historically accumulated enormous wealth and wielded considerable political power. Buddhists benefit from a culture of donations to monasteries and clergy and from tax exemption. Occasionally this has bankrupted the state in which Buddhists function. Historical research also shows that far from being passive recipients of cash, monks were almost always involved in commerce and usury. The quaint myth of monks not handling money is a good story, but in fact any long established monastery is probably very wealthy and the current crop of monks are in charge of using that wealth and the power it represents for good or ill. Once wealth accumulates, there are inevitably disputes over who controls it and how that control is passed on from generation to generation. It is in this light that we must see the tulku system in Tibet.

Until the Chinese invasion of Tibetan the monasteries controlled a huge majority of the land and capital in Tibet. Tibet was a religio-feudal state. According to one newspaper report:
"Until 1959... around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world's largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country's wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their eyes or severing their hamstrings." The Guardian. 11 Feb 2009
The idea that Tibet was some kind of paradise when the Chinese invaded is a Romantic fantasy. Which is not to say that the Chinese approach was desirable either. According to the same article, life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950 to just 60 years. Indeed the inequity of life in Tibet was one of the excuses given by the Chinese for invading and sacking the monasteries of Tibet. In this we see reflections of the great Tang purges of the mid 9th century or the similar program in 16th Century Britain. While there is no excuse for the cruelty and violence of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, it will help to see it in the context of historical conflicts between religious institutions and governments. 

The wealth of the Tibetan nation was tied up in monasteries run by an elite of men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy was strictly patriarchal). Wealth on such a scale poses serious succession problems when the owners die. Since the stakes in terms of influence and power are extremely high, the machinations that would go with succession were particularly complex. The Tibetans solved this in a unique way. In its mature form what happens is this: after a leader dies, their estate (land, personal property, and notional charisma) is held in trust for them, usually a designated alternate from amongst the elite takes control, or in some cases a regent is appointed to administer the estate (or in the Dalai Lama's case the state) in the mean time. After 3 or 4 years have passed a search begins, guided by divination and other superstitious methods, for a precocious infant boy born at the right time. The infant must pass some tests, though anyone familiar with children of this age and the role of double blind testing will be able to surmise how the chosen child makes the "right" choices. 

The selected child is then cloistered and rigorously (and to some extent ruthlessly) trained for about 20 years to literally become their predecessor. Because of the psychological conditioning involved in the training, and since the curriculum is always the same, it tends to produce the same kind of individual: one well suited to being in charge of the wealth of Tibet. Just as the Francis Xavier is thought to have said "Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man", so the Tibetans rely on the power of conditioning to shape early promise into just the right kind of ruler. 

One moving account of the harsh training endured by tulkus can be found in the biography of Dhardo Rinpoche (see Suvajra. The Wheel and the Diamond : The Life of Dhardo Tulku. Windhorse Publications, 1991). Of course not all boys make it through the training and become the right kind of man. But those who don't are generally treated with kindness and allowed to retire quietly. In the past the tulkus operated like kings and barons; now they operate like Vatican officials. 

As it happens this is kind of religious totalitarianism was a very efficient form of government and created relatively stable political conditions in Tibetan, and certainly allowed the monks to wield an almost absolute control over the populace that Communist China could only dream of. However, no system is perfect and we know from the present Dalai Lama's own biography that power-struggles occur. The dissension of Kelsang Gyatso against the rest of the Gelugpa Order is an example that has been much studied and commented on in the West. And indeed the succession problems within his movement, the New Kadampa Tradition, or even in the organisation founded in American by Chögyam Trungpa, make for interesting reading. 

The present Dalai Lama is the product of this political system. Negotiations having broken down, the Communist Chinese invaded and annexed China in 1949-50. Gyatso was handed the dictatorship of Tibet aged just 15 because a leaderless Tibet was too vulnerable. However, after nine years of tense collaboration, there was an uprising and subsequent purge of the Tibetan government. Gyatso fled Tibet and became the leader of the Tibetan diaspora. He is still revered as a god in Tibet, however, and this continuing worship of him has been a bone of contention between the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities. It is true that in recent times Gyatso has tried to hand political power to the Tibetan refugee community, instituting elections for the government in exile, but he continues to be the only Tibetan politician known to the outside world, both a figurehead and spokesman for the Tibetan Liberation campaign. He is also the head of the Gelug order and thus controls its extensive property and wealth. 

As time has gone on and it has been increasingly obvious that China is not planning to hand Tibet back to the Tibetans, and that world governments have no interest in getting involved except to complain about China's human-rights record from time to time. China routinely ignores such passive interventions as they know that the world has no leverage with which to make them change. In a sop to the exiles, the UN offered to recognise the same ecclesiastical titles for Tibetan leaders that representatives of the Roman Catholic Church use. Thus devotees now routinely refer to the Dalai Lama by the Pope's traditional title of His Holiness while other important clergy are referred to as Cardinals, i.e. His Eminence.  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso has tried various strategies to shift Chinese intransigence on Tibet: attempts at cajoling, shaming, and finally negotiation and compromise all failed. China has nothing to gain by negotiating.

Tenzin Gyatso has aged well and lived to a ripe old age, but he is now old and will soon die. And with increasing age has come the realisation that his death will either trigger the traditional search for his replacement. The Tibetan community in exile has experimented with non-Tibetan tulkus with decidedly mixed results. The Spanish toddler Osel Hita Torres was "recognised" as important Tibetan leader, Lama Yeshe, by the Dalai Lama and along with the training had many special powers attributed to him as befits a saint. But he balked at the rigorous training and ended up dropping out. Many of his inherited disciples apparently still believe he is Lama Yeshe, though its not entirely clear how they rationalise his apparent indifference to what they believe. 

Over the last five years or so Gyatso has made a number of passing statements about this reincarnation and produced a document outlining the variations on the tradition that might apply (for example this statement from 2011). He has toyed with reincarnating in the West (less often since "Lama Yeshe" crashed and burned), with reincarnating as a woman, and other variations. However, in the last year his message has come into focus on the question of whether he will reincarnate at all. He has hinted that he might not. The hints appear to be testing the water to see how his idea plays out in various spheres. Why would the man/god who has come back to spread compassion amongst all beings for 14 lifetimes, suddenly decide to stop? Is the world now so full of compassion that it does not need any more? Or is it that the Tibetan people no longer need his leadership. Sadly the reasons appear to be far less "spiritual".

It's been obvious for years now that with the Chinese ensconced in Tibet they can and do control who is chosen as a tulku and what training they receive. This was the case with the Panchen Lama, of whom there were two incarnations, one acknowledged by the Tibetan community in exile and one by the Tibetans in Tibet and Chinese government. The former candidate disappeared. A similar thing happened with the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu Order, who also goes by the Vatican title His Holiness. It is apparent that when Gyatso dies that there will be at least two candidates for the post of Dalai Lama. One will be found in Tibet proper, endorsed by the Chinese, and installed in the Potala Palace; and another will be found, probably in India amongst the diaspora and denounced by the Chinese as an imposter. The people of Tibet, being rather superstitious, will be in a difficult position to say the least. They worship the Dalai Lama as the living embodiment of their religion, as a god in effect if not in reality. If the boy who takes over is raised by the Chinese to be open to continued Chinese rule then Tibet loses hope of independence for generations to come. Only the complete collapse of China could undo such a development. Remember that no other world power is even willing to acknowledge Tibet's right to independence, let alone willing to come to their assistance in resisting the Chinese occupation.

We get some sense of how unlikely the suggestion that the Dalai Lama will not reincarnate is likely to be taken. Dhardo Rinpoche also said that he would not reincarnate and his wealth is strictly small beer. But this did not stop the Tibetan establishment from seeking out and installing a boy as his successor. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the Tibetan establish or the Tibetan people would accept the end of the institution of the Dalai Lama. 

This is the situation facing the ageing Tenzin Gyatso. With him will die all hope of independence for his people precisely because he is an embodiment of a bizarre system of religious governance that invests him and his successors with an almost absolute power, not to mention considerable wealth. We can easily imagine that he now curses, albeit it in a kindly and jovial way, the centuries of tradition that has left him in this position. Few of the 14 Dalai Lamas are interesting enough to be remembered as individuals, but he will be remembered as the last before the total control of Tibet by the Chinese. Many people find the Dalai Lama an inspiring figure. He certainly has grace under pressure and embodies many of the values that Buddhists hold dear. But the tradition will mean that the world will treat his reincarnation with all the respect he has earned. And that successor will almost certainly be a Chinese puppet. 

An interesting side-issue is that Tibetan Buddhism is once again becoming popular in Mainland China as restrictions on religious observances are relaxed along with economic strictures of Maoism. Thus, not only will the government control the Tibetan people by proxy, but it will also mean that they retain control over Buddhists who give allegiance to the Dalai Lama. It is this question of loyalty to the state that has undone many of the minor cults that have sprung up over the years, with Falun Gong being a stand-out. For any state, the problem with religious people, of any sort, is where their allegiance lies (the same concern is regularly articulated here in Britain and in the coming election immigration is a major issue). China expects and demands allegiance to the state. Not only is this a Communist doctrine, but it fits with centuries old Confucianist doctrine of filial piety as well. If they are smart, the Communists will be paying attention to history, and in particular how the emperors of the Sui and Tang periods used Buddhism to legitimise their absolute power. Control of the Dalai Lama means his unwavering endorsement of and support for their government. 

Almost everyone will have noted the irony of the government of China insisting that the Dalai Lama reincarnate per the religious traditions of Tibet. I doubt anyone has failed to grasp why they have weighed in on this matter. For all that the political system of pre-invasion Tibet was oppressive by modern standards and rife with inequalities of all kinds, no one would have wished the devastation wrought on Tibet by the Red Army still full of revolutionary zeal, nor the China-wide catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. The carnage was on a par with the worst ravages of 19th century European imperialism in the Americas, Africa, India and Polynesia. And that is saying something. The continued economic imperialism from China and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture continue to be a source of misery and discontent for some Tibetans. History shows that people's who are colonised and become dispossessed fair very badly. So in criticising traditional Tibet, I am in no way endorsing Chinese rule.

That said, one cannot deny that in this latest move the Chinese are playing the politics of Tibet in a masterful fashion. Compared to the clusterfuck that is modern Western imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese have been very astute in biding their time and preparing the ground for a take-over of the office of Dalai Lama, which will cement the relationship between the two countries. The Chinese have played the long game and are about to win a generational victory. They will almost certainly never have this kind of control over the Uighurs for instance, because there is no single point of leverage like the Dalai Lama. The unique form of government used for centuries in Tibet to maintain almost absolute power over the Tibetan people has been their undoing. It is precisely ability to mould a promising infant into a leader that the Chinese government will exploit to control Tibet in the stead of a dictatorship of Buddhist monks.

When Buddhist countries (and I think we can include China in this) conceive of such anti-liberal, anti-democratic forms of government, it must give us pause to think about whether the goal of a Buddhist world is really worthwhile pursuing. As I've pointed out previously, Buddhists countries all too often have authoritarian, dictatorial, not so say, militaristic governments. At the very least Buddhist countries are no less likely to be dictatorships that those infused with other religions. In practice Buddhism seems to have very little to offer in terms of governance, at least going by historical manifestations. Having studied the history of Buddhism, I find myself strongly in favour of secular democracy (with proportional voting) as the least worst form of government. 


10 July 2009

Kūkai's journey to China : Kentōshi Ships and Weather

To see my Google Map click here

One of the marvels of modern technology is that we have easy access to all kinds of information. I've been trying to visualise Kūkai's journey to China and to understand the scale of it. Using the internet I was able to locate a journal article which discusses the detail of the journey, then using Google Maps I have been able to visualise it and get a sense of the scale of it. The route outlined here relies on an article by Robert Borgen in Monumenta Nipponica.*

Kentōshi (遣唐使), which means 'Envoy to the Tang' i.e. mission to Chinese court of the Tang (T'ang 唐) dynasty,** was used to describe both the people and the ships they went on. We don't have much definite information about the vessels, but it is assumed that they were built on the model of the Chinese junk which were developed in China during the Han Dynasty (220 BCE - 200 AD) which were being used for ocean voyages by the 3rd century. Such Chinese ships visited Japan for trade. We know that the Japanese and the Koreans definitely used Chinese junks as models for later ships. It's often stated that because the ships had a flat bottom and no keel that they could only use the sails when the wind was directly behind them. However the boats used a very large rudder which projected well below the bottom of the ship, and did much the same job as a keel, i.e. it stopped the wind pushing the boat sideways when sailing to windward. They could probably have managed to sail close hauled at between 45-60° to the wind. Which in fact means that they could sail in much the same way as an early square rigged European ship such as Magellan had sailed around the world in.

The idea that the Japanese were poor sailors seems to be an assumption related to their decision to sail in the typhoon season, but as I pointed out in an earlier post (Why did Kūkai sail in summer?), the Japanese envoys were concerned to get to the Tang court on New Years day in order to offer their tribute at the appropriate time, and this must have over-ridden the concerns of the sailors. In fact the Japanese were highly attuned from ancient times to the annual changes to their climate wrought by the monsoon, and I find it very unlikely indeed that they did not understand the wind patterns. Note also that by Kūkai's time, in the early 9th century, envoys from the nation of Po-hai (north of Korea) to Japan regularly timed their journeys to take advantage of seasonal winds.

It's very often stated that the winds were against the ships sailing across the sea to China, but the prevailing wind during the summer monsoon in that region is from the south-east. This means that the Kentōshi ships, sailing south and west, were most likely cutting across the wind - a favourable geometry for sailing. With a wind from the south-east (135°) they could probably have sailed in any direction from say 0° - 75° and 195° to 360°. In fact a line joining Tanoura to Ming-chou is at about 252-3° which in sailing terms is a 'close reach' and probably well within the capabilities of the ships.

It is quite unlikely that they could have made the journey at all if they had to row ships that probably weighed over 100 tons all the way, and it does not seem so unreasonable to me that they relied on sails most of the time - even sailing north from Fu-chou to Ming-chou. Note that all four ships of the mission survived a typhoon, some of them two typhoons, and a 500 mile ocean crossing so they must have been reasonably well built. European ships of a similar size and square rigged could make about 5-7 knots, and, allowing for variable wind conditions and given that they would have paused during the night when they could, I initially guessed that they might average about 20 or 30 miles per day.

Previous missions would have made a quick jump across the straights of Korea probably via Tsushima Island, a journey of about 150 miles with a longest stretch of open water of about 35 miles. On a good day the Kentōshi ships could have sailed that distance in a single long day. From there the boats would have hugged the coast all the way to China. However in the 7th century Japan's long term enemy Silla had, with the help of Tang China, unified the whole Korean peninsular under their rule, leaving the Japanese with no bases on the mainland and a more powerful antagonist as neighbour.

The four Kentōshi ships left from Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka) and headed for Hakata (Fukuoka) on Kyūshū Island, a distance of 330 miles most of which is in the usually pacific Inland Sea. Note however that in 803 when the mission first sailed the boats were almost wrecked by a (rare) storm in the Inland Sea. From Fukuoka the ships hugged the coast of Kyūshū down to Tanoura (since merged into Ashikita), the last stop before heading west across the East China Sea. We don't know how good the navigation techniques were at this time, though simply sailing west would mean hitting China at some point, but the ships ideally would make land near the modern city of Shanghai or north of there. They left from Tanoura on the 6th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23 (ca 14 August 804).

Of the two ships that completed the journey in 804 Ship Two is said to have taken about two months to get to Ming-chou (near modern Ningpo). Now here is a puzzle: Abe, Hakeda, and others give this time frame, but Abe says that the Vice Ambassador who lead Ship Two died in Ming-chou on the 25th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23. This is a mere 19 days after leaving Tanoura. So, assuming this is not a misprint, either the Vice Ambassador died at sea less than half-way across, or Ship Two made very good time crossing the 540 miles, averaging about 30 miles a day. The latter figure is not unreasonable if they met no more storms, and my other assumptions are correct.

Ship One, the ship that Kūkai was on, took much longer to make the crossing, coming to land on the 10th day of the 8th month (ca 17 September 804) after 34 days at sea. They landed near the city of Fu-chou, in Fukien province (modern day Fuzhou, Fujian). It is sometimes said that this was 1000 miles south of where they intended to be, however the map above makes it clear that the distance from Fu-chou to Ming-chou by sea is about 390 miles, and by land about 360 miles to Hang-chou (using a route something like that suggested by Borgen). In a straight line Ship One covered about 750 miles in the crossing, which means they averaged at least 22 miles per day. In fact we know that they didn't go in a straight line because they were blown off course by the typhoon.

On the return journey (late June early July of 805) which was apparently without major incidents Ship One took nineteen days to make landfall at Tsushima (the island in the Strait of Korea); while Ship Two took twenty eight days to arrive at Hizen on Kyūshū Island. This is about 29 and 19 miles per day respectively - quite comparable to the outward journey suggesting that 20-30 miles per day is a good measure of the average speed of the ships.

typhoon over the East China Sea
Typhoon Tokage near Japan
Image Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory
Typhoons make a rather wavy line as they progress towards Japan from the Pacific Ocean, typically they follow the prevailing winds which spiral out from a massive region of high pressure over the Pacific and into a low over continental Asia. In August the typical typhoon would swing around Kyūshū and head up the Sea of Japan - though a lot of variation has been observed. As the typhoon approached the wind would have swung around initially from the south-west, to the west - the winds swirl in anti-clockwise to the centre, and have become a tight knot by the time they reach Japan. On the western side of the storms the winds are blowing more or less to the south and this explains how Ship One might have been sent far southwards. Ship Two somehow escaped this. The trailing edge of the typhoon seems to have blown Ships Three and Four eastwards back to Japan, though this suggests that there was already a significant distance between them and Ships One and Two by this stage.

Borgen's article is an important source of information about ships 3 and 4 from the Kentōshi flotilla - but that is another story. Hopefully you can see that using Google maps in this way really does makes the scale of the journey clearer, and you find my route plausible where I have supplied details not vouchsafed by history. The historical sources are vague on the construction and design of the ships, but I hope my reinterpretation of the Japanese as intelligent and able boat builders and sailors is both welcome and sound - I hate it when historians assume that people are stupid because they (the historians) don't understand what was going on!

* Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28. In this article I also indirectly cite or use information from: Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. (Columbia University Press, 2000); and Hakeda, Y.S. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
** I tend to use the Pinyin version of Chinese transliteration with Wade-Giles equivalents in parentheses at the first occurrence. If there is only one transliteration it is Wade-Giles and I don't have a Pinyin version. Some names have changed substantially since Kūkai's time.

For other materials related to Kūkai and his voyage see my Kūkai bibliography.

Aug 2010 Update.

Since writing this essay I have studied the Diary of Ennin (Ennin, E.O. Reischauer (Translator] Diary: Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law) paying particular attention to his records of wind and sailing directions. Although he records about a dozen combinations, the ships he sails on never seem to sail into the wind, and only run before it. It now seems more likely to me that the ships couldn't manage anything more than a broad reach - about 45° either side of the wind direction, i.e. that they could not use a head wind. I've noted that the prevailing wind at the time of year is from the South-East (or perhaps the East) and this may tally with their leaving from quite far south on Kyūshū - they expected to make leeway to the North while travelling West. Although my lines on the map are straight it seems likely the storm blew them far to the south, and that they then sailed North/N' West to make landfall. I have no idea if the could accurately determine latitude.

17 September 2007

The Heart Sūtra - Indian or Chinese?

Pic of Jan NattierIn this post I want to call attention to an important article, now over 15 years old, but with hardly any recognition outside academic circles. The article is:

Jan Nattier. 1992. The Heart Sūtra : a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.

The editors of JIABS are in the process of digitising their back issues which will be available for free download. In the meantime they have graciously given me permission to offer the pdf to anyone who would like a copy. Click here.

Jan Nattier (left) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University, and a scholar of great merit and interest. The article is a fine example of contemporary scholarship, meticulously reasoned, well structured, and typically for Nattier, well written. This last is a strong feature of Nattier's published work - she can write very well. However the article also offers a startling conclusion with wide implications for Buddhists.

The main argument of the article is that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China, incorporating some verses from the Chinese version of the Large Prajñāpāramita text, and back translated into Sanskrit sometime in the 7th century. Nattier also offers an explanation for the two different versions, one longer and one shorter, of the Heart Sūtra. Page references are to Nattier's article.

Nattier focuses initially on the shorter version of the Heart Sūtra. This has several problematic features which distinguish it from sūtras generally and the other Prajñāpāramita sūtras in particular. Firstly it does not begin with 'thus have I heard'; second there is is no audience reaction at the end of the sūtra; third the Buddha makes no appearance; fourth Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion makes an unexpected appearance, while the usual characters of Prajñāpāramita sūtras (such as Subhuti) do not; and lastly the sūtra contains a mantra, which few other Prajñāpāramita sūtras do, and then only the later tantric sūtras. Any explanation of the origin of the Heart Sūtra should provide some insights into these oddities, and Nattier's article does just this.

It has been known for centuries that the lines beginning with "form is not other than emptiness" and ending with "no knowledge and no attainment" are quoted from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, or Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the Large Sūtra). The first reference to this borrowing is in a Chinese commentary from the 7th century. Nattier spends quite some space looking at the various versions of these verses. They occur in four places:
  • Sanskrit Large Sūtra (using the oldest extant manuscript from Gilgit)
  • Chinese Large Sūtra (trans. by Kumarajiva)
  • Sanskrit Heart Sūtra (Conze's critical edition)
  • Chinese Heart Sūtra (trans. Hsuan-tsung)
Nattier makes several comparisons. Firstly the Chinese Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Large Sūtra. These are laid out side by side and even without being able to understand the Chinese characters, it is obvious that they are virtually identical. Next the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra and the Chinese Heart Sūtra are compared and we find a "virtual word for word correspondence" (p.160). However comparing the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra we find many differences of vocabulary and word order, although the meaning is synonymous. An example is:

Sanskrit Large Sūtra : (na)anyad rūpam anyā śunyata / nānya śunyatānyad rūpa
Sanskrit Heart Sūtra : rūpān na pṛthak śunyatā / śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam

In the list of the nature of dharmas the Sanskrit Large Sūtra uses singular verbal forms, is more repetitious and slightly longer; while the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra uses plural adjectival forms, and is shorter and more succinct. Almost every word, barring some very well known technical terms such as śunyata, are different. Conze explains the differences in repetition as a process of summarising, however Nattier contends that this runs counter to the general Indian tendency to elaboration. In any case the changes in vocabulary are unprecedented and "there is no straight forward way to derive the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra, or vice versa." (p.167)

The best way to understand the progression is that the verses moved from the Sanskrit Large Sūtra to the Chinese Large Sūtra, and thence into the the Chinese Heart Sūtra, and finally into the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra. Which is to say that it is far more plausible on philological grounds that the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra is a translation of the Chinese rather than the other way around.

Nattier proceeds to marshal supporting evidence for this conclusion beginning by considering known examples of back-translation - these are plentiful in Mongolian scriptures apparently. An important sign of back-translation is the choice of "unmatched but synonymous terms" (p.170). Also there may be occurrences of incorrect word order, grammatical errors point to the under lying language. In this case the evidence points to the Chinese Heart Sūtra as being a likely intermediary between the Sanskrit Large Sūtra and the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra: where the former has nirodha (extinction), the latter has kṣayo (destruction) while the Chinese Heart Sūtra has chin which can be a translation of either. This turns out to be true for each synonym in the Sanskrit texts.

Historical evidence also supports the argument. Indian commentaries cannot be dated to before the 8th century, while there is no independent evidence such as quotes in other texts which might place it earlier. By contrast Chinese commentaries are definitely dated in the 7th century, and "..the existence of the Heart Sūtra is attested in China at least a century before its earliest known appearance in India" (p.174)

However there are still some problems. In particular the Chinese were usually very particular when composing apocryphal texts, taking a lot of effort to make them look like Indian sūtras, and yet the Heart Sūtra clearly lacks many important features. Nattier cites a Japanese study (by FUKUI Fumimasa) which she says make a strong case for reconsidering the Chinese title of the Heart Sūtra : hsin ching. Fukui says this should be understood not as saying that the text is the heart, or essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition, but rather represents a "dhāraṇī scripture", ie simply a text to be chanted. It is clear that this has indeed been the function of the text since its earliest mentions. The missing attributes (such as the 'thus have I heard') are less of a problem if we accept that the text is not even attempting to be a sūtra.

Most of the remaining problems occur in the portion of the text which surrounds the quoted verses - what Nattier calls "the frame". She seeks to show that it is plausible for the frame to have been composed in China. For instance the presence of Avalokiteśvara: this is quite consistent with devotional Buddhism in South West, 7th century China, and his presence is less surprising if the text is a devotional text for chanting rather than the essence of the Prajñāpāramita tradition. The presence of the mantra also marks out the Heart Sūtra as different. Nattier points out that the mantra is present in at least three other Chinese texts, and the epithets of the mantra also exist independently. (p.177). The point being that the presence of a mantra need not rule out a Chinese origin.

I think this is the only place where Nattier misses a trick. Donald Lopez, for instance, has commented on the lack of coherence between the mantra and the text.
"The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra". - Lopez. The heart sutra explained. p.120.
The mantra is not of a piece with the sūtra, but appears to have been tacked on. Further Alex Wayman has noted that commentaries on the text lack coherence:
"The [commentators] seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition" - Secret of the Heart Sutra p.136
This observations only strengthen the impression of a text appearing suddenly without a history of exegesis to be referred to. But, back to Nattier's article...

Another feature which supports the idea that the frame was written in China relates to phrases such as "satyam amithyavāt" which Conze translates as: "[It is] true. For what could go wrong". This is clearly an awkward phrase both in Sanskrit and in English translation. The Chinese - chen shih pu hsü or "genuine, not vain" - however is "entirely natural in Chinese". As Nattier says:
"The Heart Sūtra thus diverges from anticipated Sanskrit usage, offering instead a precise replication of the word order of the Chinese" (p.178)
The final mystery is the existence of the two versions of the sūtra. The evidence is good that the short version was the one which was most prominent version in China. All of the extant Chinese commentaries are based on the Hsüan-tsang's (or Xuanzang) 'translation' of the short version. If we accept the idea that the sūtra was back-translated into Sanskrit after being composed in China, then the long version makes sense in the face of Indian criteria for authenticity - which include the appropriate opening, the presence of the Buddha, and the audience reaction to the discourse. The long version supplies all these features that are missing from the short version. From the Indian point of view the short version is not a sūtra at all - which fits with the idea that it was not intended to be one.

On purely philological grounds it seems that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China around the verses quoted from the Chinese version of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra. Internal textual evidence supports this conclusion, as do historical considerations. In short everything points in the direction of the 'Heart Sūtra' being a Chinese liturgical text which only became a sūtra on being back translated into Sanskrit, probably in India in the late 7th century. What is more, the most problematic features of the sūtra become comprehensible if we accept this view.

Nattier spends several pages exploring the role of Hsüan-tsang in the popularisation of the text: it was certainly a favourite of the pilgrim/translator, and he did know it before he left on his trip to India. It seems likely, though it is not proven, that it was Hsüan-tsung himself who introduced the text to India and translated it into Sanskrit when he discovered that the Indians lacked it. We know that exactly this happened in the case of another Chinese apocryphal text, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, which he translated into Sanskrit during his stay at Nālandā.

To those amused, or perhaps alarmed, by this apparent forgery, Nattier points out that "it is now becoming clear that the Chinese were avid producers as well as consumers of Buddhist sūtras... and indeed evidence is accumulating for an important backwash of Chinese Buddhist influence into Central Asia" (p.181). Though the Heart Sūtra may be an apocryphal text:
"...this in no way undermines the value that the text has held for Buddhist practitioners. "Whatever is conducive to liberation" - so the Buddha is said to have told his followers - "that is my teaching"." (p.199)
Nattier's article is a fantastic example of the kind of careful and exacting scholarship which marks her out. The conclusions are monumental, and yet eminently accessible. I highly recommend reading the article. Her work deserves a wider audience, and her conclusions should be informing our understanding of Buddhist history, both social and textual. One thing is clear from this, and her other publications, we Buddhists cannot afford to be fundamentalists when it comes to texts!