Showing posts with label Chinese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chinese. Show all posts

10 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. II

Wu Zetian
In Part I of this essay, I introduced the early medieval Chinese bibliographers who made catalogues of Buddhist texts that were prescriptive and proscriptive; i.e., they tried to determine what was and was not an authentic text. I also introduced the idea of the digest text (抄經) and pointed out that the Heart Sutra is a prime example of such a digest. I then showed that the bibliographers also thought of the Heart Sutra as a digest rather than as an authentic sutra and that the earliest commentators also seemed to agree. However, I raised a question about identifying the shénzhòu texts as the Heart Sutra.

Now, in Part II, I introduce some background on the turbulent politics of the time in which the Heart Sutra emerged. I then look again at Xuanzang and the reliability of texts about him as historical sources. The two early commentaries of the Heart Sutra, by Kuījī and his colleague Woncheuk, both seem to understand that the Heart Sutra is a digest text. Finally, later Tang catalogues add to the myth of the Heart Sutra by supplying a translation date that is widely and uncritically cited by scholars, and other elements of backstory. The Damingzhoujing emerges for the first time. This sets us up for Part III which discusses the evidence presented and various ways of accounting for it.

Some Notes on Tang History

When we read about the history of Xuanzang, we generally read all about him interacting with the second and third Tang Emperors, Taizong (太宗; r. 626–649) and Gaozong (高宗; r. 649–683). Even though she is a key player from about 650 onwards, most accounts tend to leave Wu Zetian (624–705) out of the picture. For example, Kazuaki Tanahashi's "Comprehensive guide" to the Heart Sutra (2014) provides many historical details but doesn't mention Wu Zetian at all. I'm grateful to Jeffrey Kotyk for alerting me to this issue in some emails we've been exchanging on this subject.

Wu Zetian is a difficult character to get a fix on because Chinese historians of her own time openly hated her. The men who wrote China's official histories were Confucian scholars who were appalled by the thought of a woman wielding power (over them). Under their pens, she becomes a kind of caricature of evil and her accomplishments are overlooked. And it only gets worse over time.

Wu Zetian (武則天) was born in 624 CE. Her mother was from the Yang (楊) clan and was thus related to the Sui Emperors.* This gave her the status to become, aged 14, a mid-ranked concubine of Emperor Taizong. When Taizong died in 650, tradition demanded that childless concubines be sent to a monastery to live out their lives. Aged 26, Wu Zetian was assigned to Ganye Temple (感業寺) in the capital, Changan. However, she appears to have cultivated a relationship with a younger son of Taizong. As fate would have it, this son ended up becoming crown prince and then Emperor Gaozong. Gaozong recalled Wu Zetian from the monastery and made her his concubine at a much higher rank. She reputedly had her rivals disposed of (horribly), but in any case, just a few years later in 655, aged 31, she became wife to Gaozong, and thus Empress Consort. She had two sons with Gaozong: Li Xián and Li Zhe.
* It is probably a coincidence that the man named in the colophon of the Fangshan stele is also a Yang.
Andrew Eisenberg (amongst others) has argued that standard accounts of Wu Zetian's rise to Empress leave out a great deal. The early Tang court was riven by factionalism that began in the latter part of Taizong's reign and was inherited by his son, Gaozong. Out of the various factions, one emerged that was led by Zhangsun Wuji (長孫無忌), a kingmaker who had been instrumental in helping to put the Li family on the throne, thus founding the Tang Dynasty, in the first place. The Zhangsun faction seriously threatened the power of Gaozong, not by undermining his position as Emperor per se, but by taking control of the executive branches of government. Leveraging the Fang Yi'ai (房遺愛) affair, Zhangsun Wuji was able to instigate a major (violent) purge of Gaozong's supporters in 653 leaving him isolated. In this revision of history, the ascension of Wu Zetian to the throne is part of a move by Gaozong and his ally, General Li Ji, to counter the growing power of the Zhangsun faction. Indeed, Eisenberg argues that Wu Zetian's accession was the culminating manoeuvre of a bloody retaliatory purge of their leaders. Zhangsun Wuji, himself, survived until Gaozong had him executed along with his family in 659. Wu Zetian may have taken part in the violent factionalism on the side of Gaozong, but manipulation, manoeuvring and murdering were the norm at the time. Gaozong and his palace allies, particularly Li Ji, were far from passive in these matters.

Buddhist histories tend to portray China as a rather pacific state at this time. They may recall the chaos that brought down the Sui (581–618), but they tend to buy into the myth of Tang as a golden age. In fact, the early Tang may have been glorious in its own way, but it began in rebellion and was marked by rebellions (Wu Zetian and Ang Lushan), and was effectively ended by the Huang Chao Rebellion (even if it took a while to die). The battle for control of the world's largest and richest Empire has slow periods but has been more or less constant for 3000 years.

However she got there, Wu Zetian seems to have been ready to take advantage of her position. She became the de facto ruler of China from 660 onwards due to Gaozong's incapacitation by a series of strokes. Typically, some historians believe that he was poisoned by Wu Zetian. Gaozong recovered for a time, during which they shared power, but he suffered repeated bouts of illness, leaving Wu Zetian in effective control of the Empire.

After Gaozong died in 683, Li Xián was proclaimed Emperor Zhōngzōng (中宗). However, Wu Zetian deposed him after just six weeks and installed his younger brother, Li Zhe, as Emperor Ruizong (睿宗 r. 684–689), though Wu Zetian continued to rule as Empress Dowager and Regent. This resulted in a major rebellion that was put down at great cost. Then, in 690, Wu Zetian declared herself Emperor de jure. Since she was not of the Li family, she could not technically carry on their Dynasty; she called her new dynasty Zhou, after the historic Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–249 BC), in the time of Confucius and Laozi. She was eventually forced to yield the throne back to Li Xián in 705 and died shortly afterwards. A generous view of her might be that, although her rise to power was manipulative and violent, Wu Zetian was a good ruler. She ran the palace as a meritocracy and made reforms that benefited peasants and women. Printing was discovered and developed during her rule (a development that had a profound effect on Buddhism in China as texts became standardised, much cheaper, and widely distributed).

It is significant that, unlike Gaozong or Taizong, Wu Zetian was a Buddhist. She promoted Buddhism as the state religion ahead of Confucianism or Daoism. When she did take the throne, Buddhism provided the rationale for her mandate for being the first (and only) female Emperor. As Tansen Sen (2003) notes, Wu Zetian secured crucial support from Buddhist Clergy from 685–695. In 689, a leading Buddhist monk, Xue Huaiyi (said by her enemies to be her lover) organised the production of a commentary on a Buddhist text (T2879) to link Wu Zetian with prophecies about the return of Maitreya. Later, in 693, the translator Bodhiruci produced a version of the Ratnamegha Sūtra (T660) into which were interpolated passages prophesying a female Emperor in China.

This is the political background against which the Heart Sutra emerged and Wu Zetian may well have been the most important political figure of the time. Buddhist histories tend to portray Taizong and Gaozong as having an interest in Buddhism, but really they were not interested. At this stage, Buddhism was still seen as a foreign religion. It was Wu Zetian who changed that. Which makes her one of the most significant women in the history of Buddhism. But the Buddhists establishment, from apparent self-interest, also got behind her, to the point of forging prophecies of her ascension.


Xuanzang (600?–664), the famous monk, pilgrim, and translator, is entangled in any discussion of the history of the Heart Sutra. Apart from his birth, the dates of Xuanzang are a matter of long-settled opinion. He must have been born at or around the turn of the 7th Century. He became a Buddhist monk and, following the collapse of the Sui Dynasty in 618, he and his brother spent time in Sichuan (四川) Province. He then left China to visit India in 629 and returned in 645 (16 years). Shortly after his return, Taizong died and Gaozong took the imperial throne, though, as we have seen, his rule was soon dominated by Wu Zetian.

As with the references to the catalogues, we need to look again at what we think we know about Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. A key source is his travelogue, 《大唐西域記》 Great Tang Records on the Western Region (T2087), composed in 646, supposedly at the request of the Emperor Taizong. In this memoir of his travels, Xuanzang does not mention the Heart Sutra, though this is not surprising. Taizong was a rationalist emperor who wanted intelligence on his neighbours and their neighbours to help him understand his strategic position in the world.

In the Records, Xuanzang does use the words 神呪 and 呪, a number of times. Both meaning "a chant or incantation" in a general way. They are not used with respect to a specific text. Chanting incantations was simply something Buddhists and Hindus did and they had this in common with Daoists.

The most important source of information about Xuanzang is a hagiography by Huìlì (慧立 ) and Yàncóng (彥悰) known as 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》 Biography of the Dharma Master of the Great Ci'en Temple in the Tang Dynasty (hereafter "the Biography") which dates from about 688 CE. The preface of the text, composed by Yàncóng, suggests that Huìlì produced a text of about 5 fascicles but lost confidence and hid it. After Huìlì's death, Yàncóng reworked the text, producing a final work of 10 fascicles. They can properly be said to be co-authors, though they seem to have worked on it the Biography different times.

The first literary link between Xuanzang and the Xīnjīng occurs in the Biography. Chapter One briefly tells the story of Xuanzang receiving the Xīnjīng from a grateful man he had helped. The story is not told in context, i.e., not as part of the story about his move to Sichuan (or 蜀 Shǔ as it was then called), but comes as an aside when Xuanzang gets lost in the desert and is assailed by demons. He supposedly recited the Heart Sutra to stay safe. The main part of the story goes like this.
初,法師在蜀,見一病人,身瘡臭穢,衣服破污,慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。病者慚愧,乃授法師此《經》,因常誦習。(T 50.224b.8-10)
Once when the master in Sichuan saw a sick man, with foul-smelling body sores, dressed in dirty rags. Feeling benevolent he took that man directly to the temple and give him clothing, food, and drink. The sick man, being ashamed, taught the Master this sutra [i.e., the Wisdom-Heart-Sutra] and for this reason, he often recited and practised it. (T 50.224b.9-10).
Note that the sick man (病人) is described as 身瘡臭穢 literally "body sores stinking foul". This could well be a layperson's description of final-stage leprosy. The disease was well known and described in China at this time, though social attitudes to leprosy were ambivalent (Skinsnes & Chang 1985).

In the preceding paragraph of the Biography, "the text" 《經》 is called 《般若心經》 or Wisdom-Heart-Sutra which, as we have seen, does not come into use in Buddhist catalogues until 664, the year of Xuanzang's death, though his early life and travels occur in the pause between catalogues.

In a later chapter, the biography purports to preserve letters sent by Xuanzang to Emperor Gaozong, in one of which (dated 656) he offers the emperor a gold-lettered Prajñāpāramitā text in one fascicle (which seems to be the Xīnjīng) to congratulate him and the Empress on the birth of a son (Li Xián).

Many scholars uncritically take these references to be solid historical facts, though the biography seems to be unreliable as a historical document. For example, the biography describes Xuanzang crossing vast trackless deserts on his own with just a horse. Horses are not adapted to desert life the way camels are. Between them, a man and a horse travelling in the heat would require well in excess of 100 litres ( = 100 kg) of water per day. It is overwhelmingly likely that both would have died within a day or two of venturing unguided into the Gobi or Taklamakan deserts. The name of the Taklamakan is said to mean "place of no return" or "place of ruin". Stories about divine interventions don't hold water. Neither Xuanzang himself nor the Biography mentions Xuanzang as the translator of a Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra. It is true that texts, especially the Heart Sutra, were occasionally engraved in Sanskrit, but only a handful of people in China could read Sanskrit at any given time. As far as popular Buddhism in China goes, it was all in Chinese translation.

If we think critically about the text we might ask, if the Heart Sutra is magic and can save Xuanzang from certain death, why was the leper not cured by magic as well? One answer is that helping a sick man is "virtue signalling"; i.e., a pious, but personally costly, display of virtue to help other Buddhists recognise Xuanzang as one of them (Bulbulia & Schjoedt 2010: 35-6). And by "costly" here we mean not just the financial cost of the clothing and food, but the discomfort of spending time with someone who has stinking, suppurating, sores and the risk of being infected. Xuanzang needs to establish his saintly credentials, not in the relative safety of Sichuan, but now, in the desert where his life is in danger, where he could only have succeeded by a miracle.

The broadly uncritical approach taken by readers of Xuanzang's biography suggests that this may also involve what Bulbulia & Schjoedt call "charismatic signalling". In effect, it is our shared awe of Xuanzang that brings Buddhists together on a large scale. Displays of costly virtue (such as being a celibate monk) may not be enough when large-scale anonymous cooperation is required; therefore, religious groups direct attention to charismatic (i.e., highly persuasive) individuals, the purpose of historical saints to create a sense of continuity with the present charismatic individuals, often with saints being seen as conduits of the divine. Tang Dynasty Buddhists could not know, when they promoted him as a saint, that Xuanzang would chiefly be remembered as a caricature in a tawdry Ming Dynasty fantasy novel.

A hagiography may well contain stories that are valued by religieux for their inspirational qualities. But when we are looking at them as historians, we have to be a lot more sceptical. Taking a hagiography on its own terms is very poor method. And yet many historians do take this information as historically accurate.

Kuījī and Woncheuk

Two other men important in Xuanzang's story have already been mentioned; i.e., Kuījī 窺基 (632–682), his Chinese student and his successor in the 唯識宗 or Mind-Only [Idealist] School of Yogācāra; and Woncheuk 圓測 (613-696) a Korean editor and translator who was assigned by Gaozong to assist Xuanzang. Both men could read Sanskrit, at least to some degree (there are debates on who knew how much, but this is another topic).

Woncheuk is very important to this story because, as Dan Lusthaus (2003) points out, Woncheuk seems to refer to "a Sanskrit text" when composing his commentary on the Xīnjīng (T1711).
或有本曰 「照見五蘊等皆空」 雖有兩本。後本為正。撿勘梵本有等言故後所說等準此應知。[punctuation added for clarity]
There is another version of the text [或有本] which says "illuminatingly, he saw the five skandhas, and so on [等], are all empty." Although there are two versions of the text [有兩本], the latter text [後本] is correct. An examination of the Sanskrit text [梵本] shows that it has the word "and so on" [等]. Hence the "and so on" stated by the latter (text) should be understood to be the standard." (Adapted from Lusthaus 2003:83)
Lusthaus takes this putative Sanskrit text or Sanskrit version (梵本) to be the “original” but this assumes facts not-in-evidence and is contradicted by evidence from the catalogues. The trouble is that we know that the Sanskrit is a translation and source was Chinese. So even if Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text, we know it to be a translation from the Chinese. That Woncheuk appears not to know this is significant because it means he almost certainly wasn't the translator.

A problem that Lusthaus does not discuss is that we know that there a number of divergences between extant Sanskrit and Chinese texts, and yet Woncheuk’s commentary only references this one minor difference (等, presumably Skt. ādi) and none of the major differences, such as the different number of verbs in the first sentence (see Attwood 2015). Furthermore, this minor difference is not found in any extant Heart Sutra text, but the line with 等 is found in both commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk; it is cited by another Tang Dynasty monk, Zhìzhōu 智周 (668-723) in his 《大乘入道次第》 Introduction to the Mahāyāna Path (T 45.459b.4); and it occurs in an otherwise unknown text found at Dunhuang (T2746). All we know from Woncheuk's commentary is that the Sanskrit text had some equivalent of the Chinese character 等 "etc" and that was the only difference Woncheuk deemed worthy of comment. This would be counted very peculiar, indeed, were the text really a Sanskrit "original".

On the other hand, we have already noted in Part I that Woncheuk saw the text as 簡 "selected, gleaned" from 諸般若 "various Prajñā(pāramitā sūtras)" (T 33.543.b.18). However, even this is less straightforward than it seems because Woncheuk gives the initial title of the sutra as 《佛說般若波羅蜜多心經》, with two additional characters—佛說—that mean "The Buddha Expounded". This title is not found elsewhere and on its own we would take to suggest that Woncheuk understands the text to be an authentic sutra. Since he appears to know that the text is a digest, we would seem to have to take this to mean that he understood the text to be quoting ideas expounded by the Buddha. In other words, that he saw Mahāyāna texts as Buddhavācana, which is not problematic, in the sense that it was a common view amongst Mahāyāna Buddhists.

It's possible that by Sanskrit version (梵本) Woncheuk was not referring to a Heart Sutra, but to the Dajing from which it quotes. There is nothing in the commentary that excludes this possibility and it fits with the knowledge that he is commenting on a digest text. Woncheuk would probably not have had access to the manuscript used by Kumārajīva, but he certainly would have had access to the manuscripts used by Xuanzang.

Woncheuk uses the phrase "Sanskrit word" (梵音) 8 times, explaining the meaning of 佛 (buddha), 般若 (prajñā), 奢利富 (Śāriputra), 涅槃 (nirvāṇa), 佛 again, in reference to transliterated anuttarā-samyak-sambodhi, 菩提 (bodhi), and with reference to the dhāraṇī being in Sanskrit. Woncheuk refers to Xuanzang as 大唐三藏 Great Tang Traipiṭaka or simply 三藏 Traipiṭaka. On four occasions he refers to Xuanzang's understanding of technical terms, but not in ways that suggest that Xuanzang was commenting on the Heart Sutra, per se. Note that Woncheuk's commentary has since been independently translated into English (Hyun Choo 2006).

It is not that Woncheuk was afraid to disagree with Xuánzàng. As John Jorgensen (2002: 74-5) has shown, the two fell out over the interpretation of Dharmapāla’s interpretation of Yogācāra. Xuánzàng endorsed Dharmapāla but Woncheuk, with his greater knowledge of the history of Yogācāra, argued that Dharmapāla was in error. Later Chinese biographies looked down on Woncheuk as a result (and because he was foreign).

Kuījī's commentary (T1710) must have been composed after late 663. This is because when it refers to the Dàjīng (大經) it uses a phrase "菩薩摩訶薩行般若波羅蜜多時" that can only have come from the compendium of Prajñāpāramitā translations by Xuanzang (T220), completed toward the end of 663. He makes a number of references to the Dàjīng. However, he does not mention the character 譯 "translated", or the name 玄奘 Xuanzang, or the title 三藏法師. Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text.

Keeping in mind that Kuījī and Woncheuk lived in the same milieu, it seems very unlikely that if a Sanskrit Heart Sutra existed when he was writing, Kuījī would not have known about it and had access to it. As Xuanzang's most talented and student, he was in the limelight, especially after Xuanzang died in early 664. The absence of evidence is not usually evidence of absence, but Kuījī's not mentioning a Sanskrit text suggests that it did not exist at that point.

We can provisionally conclude that when Kuījī composed his commentary, between 664 and 683, no Sanskrit text was available to him. However, the text was already attributed to Xuanzang in 661 on the Fangshan stele, which is difficult to reconcile with the other facts. Then, when Woncheuk composed his commentary before 696, there was a Sanskrit text, but he seems to have been ambivalent about it. His commentary is very much on the Chinese text.

The Heart Sutra in Later Chinese Bibliographies

The myth-making surrounding the Heart Sutra did not end with the Nèidiǎn Catalogue or the Biography. Many sources uncritically cite the year 649 CE as the date that Xuanzang translated the Xīnjīng, even though we know that it was a digest text and even though we know that the Sanskrit text is actually a translation from Chinese.

The first mention of the 649 Date is in the 《大唐開元釋教錄》 (T2154) Catalogue of Śākyamuṇi’s Teachings of the Kaiyuan Era of the Great Tang Era or simply the Kāiyuán Catalogue; compiled Zhìshēng in the year 730 (Nattier 1992: 174).
般若波羅蜜多心經一卷(見內典錄第二出與摩訶般若大明呪經等同本貞觀二十三年五月二十四日於終南山翠微宮譯沙門知仁筆受 (T55.555.c.3-4)
The Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra in one fascicle (See: the Nèidiǎn Catalogue, scroll 2 and the Mahāprajñā(pāramitā)-mahāvidyā-sūtra, etc. from the same source; Zhēnguàn Era 23, 5th Month, 24th Day [8 July 649]; translated at Cuìwēi Gōng, on Mount Zhōngnán, with monk Zhīrén as scribe). (Thanks to Jeffrey Kotyk for help with elements of this translation).
Note that Taizong was gravely ill in 649 and his deathbed was at his summer residence, Cuìwēi Palace (翠微宮). He died on 10 July 649; the news was delayed by a few days and Gaozong took the throne on 15 Jul 649. Taizong was notoriously rational and contemptuous of superstition and unlikely to have been interested in the Heart Sutra. The Biography portrays him as undergoing a deathbed conversion to Buddhism, but this seems highly unlikely. The Biography makes no mention of the "translation" of the Heart Sutra. It does, however, suggest that the Beilin Stele (erected 672 CE) was made around this time, so it is clearly mixing up the dates.

Even though the Kāiyuán Catalogue refers to the Damingzhoujing as being in the Nèidiǎn Catalogue we don't find it there. This is the first mention of the title, in full, the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》 or the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidyā-sūtra (T250). In the Damingzhoujing there are no Xuanzang-isms; the main excerpt has some missing lines restored, and it is attributed to Kumārajīva. This has been taken by many (including me) to mean that the Damingzhoujung predates the Xīnjing. It is certainly closer to the Dajing in some respects. However, in the light of previous catalogues, we have to wonder whether the Damingzhoujing was deliberately created after the fact in order to fill out the backstory of the Xīnjīng. It is extremely unlikely that such a text would exist but evade every single bibliographer over two centuries. Of course, 神呪 shénzhòu and 明呪 míngzhòu can both represent Sanskrit vidyā, so it is possible that the Damingzhoujing has some relation with the 《摩訶般若波羅蜜神呪》 Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu of Sēngyòu's catalogue in 515. But without knowing the content of the texts we can only speculate.

We must also note that Zhìshēng is generally quite dismissive of digest sutras (抄經). Of the hundreds that were noted in previous catalogues, he only lists 54. And they are lumped together with the fake sutras (偽經) (Tokuno 1990: 58). He is also critical of texts falsely attributed to famous translators, and Kyoko Tokuno particularly draws attention to his criticism of the 《要行捨身經》 "Book of the Essential Practice of Self-Mortification", which he thinks is wrongly attributed to Xuanzang (1990: 56). This text is listed in the Taishō Canon as No. 2895, under the heading Apocrypha found at Dunhuang.

Summary So far

In Parts I & II of this essay I have laid out an array of information, much of which, at more than a millennium removed, must be treated with some caution. We have seen that the Chinese bibliographers and their catalogues of Buddhist texts are pivotal in the construction of the history of the Heart Sutra. In particular, I have, for the first time, noted the prescriptive and proscriptive nature of the catalogues and tried to determine how the Heart Sutra fit into the schemes that the bibliographers worked out. The Heart Sutra turns out to be one of hundreds of digest texts (抄經 Chāojīng).

We've seen that the politics of the day was far more complex than is typically represented in Buddhist texts. Xuanzang's close relationships with male emperors is exaggerated and his relationship with Wu Zetian is effaced. The Biography is an unreliable source that is all too often treated as reliable.

A great deal rests on the identification of the Heart Sutra with the shénzhòu (神呪) texts found in the pre-Tang catalogues. Having looked at this issue I find the identification doubtful at best, precisely because the shénzhòu texts predate the Dàjīng text that the Xīnjīng quotes. As far as I can tell we have no information about the content of the shénzhòu texts other than their title and classification in a number of catalogues as being digests without a translator. We've also seen that the commentaries by Kuījī and Woncheuk add a whole layer of complexity to the story.

The next step is to try to tie it all together, to try to see if I can make sense of it all. I think I can make sense of it, but traditionalists are not going to like how I do this. We may say that the Xīnjīng is an understandably pious effort to epitomise the Prajñāpāramitā tradition and perhaps to leverage this tradition in the form of a magic spell. I've previously commented on truth magic in relation to the Prajñāpāramitā tradition, where I tied them to Ariel Glucklich's account of magic as concerned with the sense of interconnection. As I said:
The [Truth Act] saccakiriyā allows one individual who is samyañc (in tune) with respect to the nature of experience, to restore samyañc for another who is mithyā (at odds) with respect to the nature of experience.
The Xīnjīng is understandable in Buddhist terms but the Sanskrit text is something else. In the context of early medieval China, it had to have been created to deceive people about the true history of the Heart Sutra; i.e., to hide when and where it was produced, as well as by whom, and for what reason it was produced. So part of the task in Part III is to see how much of the true history can be recovered.


  1. Part I (03 August 2018). Bibliographies up to the Tang and early commentaries.
  2. Part III (17 August 2018). Assessing the evidence, and outlining the true history of the Heart Sutra


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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.

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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.

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

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

Skinsnes, O.K. and Chang, P.H. (1985) Understanding of leprosy in ancient China. International journal of leprosy and other mycobacterial diseases. 53(2), 289-307.

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

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.

06 July 2018

Sutras in Stone for the End of the Dharma

Jìngwǎn (靜琬) was a devout monk who flourished in the early 7th Century and died in 639 CE. He was abbot at the Temple that Dwells in the Clouds (雲居寺) or Yúnjū Temple, on a low peak called Fángshān (房山) or Repository Mountain (In Middle Chinese 居 means a room or alcove, or any space where something is housed). Fángshān is about 65 km south-west of central Beijing.

Although his origins are obscure, we remember Jìngwǎn because he undertook a project to carve Buddhist sutras in stone to preserve them against what he saw as the imminent end of Buddhism. Jìngwǎn and his many followers over centuries created a huge repository of Buddhist texts on around 15,000 stone tablets stored in caves in the nearby ridge, originally called Mount White Stripe (白带山) because of a stratum of white chalk that can be seen in the cliff faces. It is now called Stone Sutra Mountain (石經山) for obvious reasons. The tablets provide important insights into Buddhist texts of the period (several periods in fact) and are part of a bigger story about Buddhist practices in medieval China.

Jìngwǎn and his Time

Most of the biographical information about Jìngwǎn seems to come from a single source, published in 653 CE:
"The oldest account of the caves is found in the Míng bào jì (冥報記), a collection of tales dealing with the miracles associated with Buddhism. The compiler of the Míng bào jì was a government official, Táng lín (唐臨)." (Lancaster 1989; Wade-Giles amended to Pinyin and characters supplied)
At that time, Táng lín was one of two Vice Presidents of the Censorate (御史臺), the branch of the imperial government charged with monitoring and tackling official corruption. They reported directly to the Emperor and were thus very powerful. His collection of stories, the Míng bào jì, was published in English translation by Donald Gjertson (1989). Táng lín records that he visited the region of Yōu zhōu (幽州) in 645 CE and spoke to locals who told him about Jìngwǎn, but that he didn't see the Temple itself "because of the military situation [軍事]" (Gjertson 1989: 166). Táng lín actually refers to "the monk Zhìyuàn (沙门智苑) of Zhìquán Temple (智泉寺) in Yōu Zhōu (幽州)" (c.f. Wikisource), but it is widely agreed that this story must relate to Jìngwǎn (靜琬) at Yúnjū sì (雲居寺). As far as I can tell, there is no Zhìquán Temple and never was (though funnily there is a modern temple in Japan, which uses the same Kanji but pronounced Chisenji).

Jìngwǎn is sometimes linked to another millennialist monk, Huìsī (慧思), the third patriarch of Tiantai Buddhism. For example, Li Jung-hsi (1979), Lewis Lancaster (1989), and Yong You (2010) all state without qualification that Jìngwǎn was a disciple of Huìsī and had lived at Zhiquan Temple. However, the first mention of such a link comes from the Ming Dynasty, in Liu Tong's guide to the Capital, 帝京景物略 (Dìjīng jǐngwù è) or A Summary of Things to Admire in the Imperial Capital, published in 1635. Huìsī died in 577 and it's not known when Jìngwǎn was born. It's not impossible that they met, but Jìngwǎn died 62 years after Huìsī. Had Jìngwǎn been a student of Huìsī, he'd have to have been a monk already and thus probably in his teens by then.

We are not sure where he lived prior to his appearance at Yúnjū sì, but the temple itself is in the region that was controlled from 550 to 577 by the Northern Qi (北齊) during a time when China was divided into a number of states. In 574 Emperor Wu (武帝 543–578) of the neighbouring Northern Zhou held a debate between Confucianists, Daoists, and Buddhist and decided that the Confucianists had won. As a result, he banned both Daoism and Buddhism, appropriated the considerable wealth and property of Buddhist temples and returned monks to lay life.

In 577, Wu of Zhou made an alliance with the Göktürks (Blue or Celestial Türks) and conquered Qi, reuniting the north into a single state. The records of the Northern Zhou are the first to refer to the nomads living on the steppes to the north of China as Türks, although nomads had lived there for centuries. The word they use to represent Türk is 突厥, probably pronounced in Middle Chinese like duot-gwut (IPA duət̚-kʉɐt̚). The Türks would continue to play a decisive role in Chinese and Central Asian geopolitics for the next few centuries, while their cousins from Central Asia would go on to take the modern territory of Turkey from the Byzantine Empire and call it their own.

Wu died suddenly in the summer of 578. The shrewd political operator Yáng Jiān (楊堅) became, first regent, and then, in 581, Emperor of a new Dynasty, styling himself Emperor Wen of Sui (隋文帝). Wen still faced an ongoing series of rebellions from within and threats from the increasingly organised and aggressive Türks in the North. Despite this, he impressed people as a hard-working administrator. He reorganised the state, standardised coinage, and began a series of infrastructure projects such as canals connecting major rivers to facilitate trade. Notably, Wen was born in a Buddhist temple and raised in his early years by a Buddhist nun. As Emperor, he promoted Buddhism as the state religion, thus undoing some of the damage caused by Wu. He reigned until 604.

The second Sui Emperor, Yáng (隋煬帝), embarked on a series of disastrous military campaigns against the Kingdom of Goguryeo (or Koguryǒ) which had been encroaching on Chinese territory. Goguryeo was in what is now North Korea and also had its capital in Pyongyang. Yáng also faced major incursions of Türks from the north, as they also found political unity in their identity as the Göktürk Khaganate. Yáng drafted men for his armies and this led to a shortage of labour for farms and drops in agricultural production. Worse, Yang was a hedonist who squandered wealth on luxuries. Rumour was that he had murdered his father to get to the throne.

In 617 the aristocratic Lǐ (李) family from what is now Shanxi province were deeply unhappy with the situation. Turks and Koreans were increasingly a problem in the north and rebellion amongst the people looked increasingly likely. Lǐ Yuān 李淵 and his two children led an insurgency that soon captured the capital. They forced Yáng to retire and installed the thirteen year old Yáng Yòu (楊侑) as Emperor Gong of Sui (隋恭帝). However, in 618, after just six months, Yáng's own minsters strangled him, at which point Lǐ Yuān forced Emperor Gong to step down and install him as the Emperor of a new Dynasty.

Lǐ Yuān became Emperor Táng Gāozǔ (唐高祖). The new dynasty name, Tang 唐, referred to the Lǐ family's original fiefdom. The first Tang Emperors inherited a unified China, but one still wracked by rebellion and external threats. It took them a few decades to establish peace and prosperity. Even then the Tang era was marked by extraordinary events such as the first and only female Emperor (the Chinese term 帝 is not gendered) and large scale rebellions. During this period Xuanzang travelled to and from India and then Tantric Buddhism arrived with Śubhakarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi. The Tang capital, Changan, was the largest city in the world and, as one end of the Silk Road, was also vastly wealthy (though such wealth was very unevenly distributed). The wealth of Buddhist temples in Tang era Changan was said to be "incalculable" and must have seriously distorted the Tang economy as they paid no tax. The later Tang era also saw renewed persecution of Buddhists and confiscation of their property.

Prophecies of the decline of Buddhism continued to fuel the imagination of Buddhists in East Asia for centuries. And to understand Jìngwǎn we need to understand a little more about these prophecies.

The Three Ages

For Jìngwǎn, who lived in the North of China, less than 100km from the Great Wall, peace and prosperity were likely in short supply for much of his life. In addition to witnessing the rise and fall of the Sui (581-618) he had become interested in the Chinese Buddhist doctrine of the three ages: the age of the true Dharma (正法), the age of the semblance Dharma (像法; when people go through the motions, but do not attain liberation), and the age of the end of the Dharma (末法). The last is pronounced mòfǎ in Mandarin but is perhaps better known in the West by its Japanese rendering mappō. During the last period, the Dharma gradually disappears until nothing is left. It was only at the end of this cycle that the new Buddha, Maitreya, would appear to rediscover the Dharma and begin the cycle anew.

This idea of an age of decline is the subject of the book Once Upon a Future Time (1991) by Jan Nattier, based on her PhD thesis. Nattier notes that there is no Indic term corresponding to 末法 or mappō. Indian Buddhists certainly discussed the Dharma having a strictly limited lifespan, originally 500 years. However, as with other forms of millennialism, when the 500 years were thought to be up, the figure was extended to 1000 years and, when that time approached, to 1500 years, and so on. Despite this notion of a fixed term for the Dharma, Indian texts only mention two periods: the period of the Dharma and the paścimakāla "after time" (which is usually translated as 末世). 末法 is a Chinese coinage with no Indic counterpart. The three ages doctrine is thus distinctively Chinese and only emerged in the 6th Century. The Chinese concept of the decline and end of the Dharma was very influential in medieval East Asia. Those who saw themselves as cut off from liberation through awakening, were very creative in thinking of other ways to be liberated, especially via the Pure Land idea of the intervention by Buddhas from other universes. The doctrine of the three times had a huge influence on the development of the Jōdo Shinshū school founded by Shinran. It also affected Nichiren Buddhism and via that the Soka Gakkai movement. Together these three schools make up a significant proportion of the modern world's Buddhists.

One of the most important sutras for this apocalyptic vision of decline in China was the Mahāsaṃghata Sutra or Mahā (大集經; T 397), also known as the 大方等大集經 [Mahāvaipulya-mahā]saṃnipāta-sūtra (Yong 2010: 130; Nattier 1991: 114). This was translated by Naredrayaśas in 566 CE. Within this collection of sutras we find the 月藏分 Candragarbha-vaipulya-sūtra and within that, a section on the decline and destruction of the Dharma (法滅盡品).

Whatever sources Jìngwǎn was relying on, he calculated that he was living in the last of the three ages, that Awakening was no longer possible and that chaos was only going to increase, the advent of the Tang Dynasty and state Buddhism notwithstanding. Jìngwǎn left a number of progress reports, also carved in stone, as he reached milestones in his project (translated in Ledderose 2010). He clearly states himself to be living in the last age:
"The true Dharma of Śakyamuni Tathāgata and the semblance Dharma have together endured for more than 1,500 years. Now, in the second year of Zhenguan era [628] we have been immersed in the decline of the Dharma for seventy-five years." (Adapted from Ledderose 2010: 393)
It might be hard to imagine taking something like this seriously, but cults with strange beliefs still attract many followers in modern times. The combination of taking the prophecy of decline literally and the geopolitical and social chaos of the Late 6th - early 7th Centuries obviously had a massive impact on Jìngwǎn. From the progress reports we have a glimpse of his motivations:
"The True Dharma and the Semblance Dharma, too, have been lost in the depths, all living beings are heavily stained and faithful hearts are no more... I fear for the day when the scriptures will disintegrate and dissolve, for paper and palm leaves are hard to maintain for a long period of time. Whenever I ponder these matters my tears flow in compassion and sorrow." (Adapted from Ledderose 2010: 392)
For those Buddhists who took the three ages doctrine to heart and concluded that they lived in an age of decline and disappearance, the idea had a profound effect on them. Despite the gloomy tone of his messages to posterity, however, it would be a mistake to characterise Jìngwǎn as pessimistic. To be sure, he understood himself to be living in the age which would see the complete destruction of Buddhism, but his response was in many ways optimistic and heroic. He decided that he would carve important sutras in stone for posterity. Having done this, he conceived of the far grander project of engraving the whole of the Buddhist Canon (as it was in those days) in stone.

The Stone Sutra Project

Goats reading the Diamond Sutra
inscription on Mount Tai, Fall 1995.
Photograph by Ian Boyden
The practice of carving sutras in stone began around 550 CE, with large outdoor carvings like the partial Vajracchedikā Sūtra carved at Mount Tai (泰山) in characters 40–50 cm high. Other collections of stone sutras are found in Shandong and Henan provinces. However, the collection at Fángshān is the most extensive by a wide margin.

Some (later) accounts explain that Jìngwǎn founded Yúnjū Temple, possibly for the express purpose of continuing the stone sutra project. However, since temple construction was controlled by the government, this seems unlikely. Other accounts suggest that the Temple was founded somewhat earlier, in the 550s.

We don't know the exact year Jìngwǎn began his project, but Táng lín says that it was in the Daye (大業) period, i.e., 605-616 CE (Gjertson 1989: 165). One of his first tasks would have been extending a natural cave in the nearby ridge now called Stone Sutra Mountain. This became the eventual repository for the first batch of sutras. Depending on how much help he had, we can envisage the sutra engravings might have begun at the same time.

The stone for the tablets came from a quarry to the south, near the modern-day town of Gaozhuangcun (高庄村), which until recently was still producing fine marble. Industrial approaches to quarrying caused pollution, however, and the quarry has been shut down and there are plans to make it into a tourist attraction. The preparation of the stone slabs for engraving was carried out at another nearby monastery (no longer extant and not named in sources). Next, an expert calligrapher would brush the text onto the surface of the stone. Then, an engraver would have carved the characters. Often the "calligraphy" of Chinese inscriptions is of considerable interest to experts and aficionados (this is very much the case at Mount Tai). All of the actual work was carried out by lay craftsmen, under the supervision of monks. And note that even a small stone tablet like the Heart Sutra commissioned by Yáng Shèshēng (楊社生 ) would have cost a lot more than any of them earned in a year for making stone tablets.

Li explains that carving took place at Yúnjū Temple; then, once a year on the Buddha's birthday (8th day of the fourth month), locals would flock to the temple for a festive ritual as the tablets were carried by devotees to Stone Sutra Mountain for storage (1979: 108)

According to Táng lín, in 611, the Emperor Yáng and his retinue were on tour in nearby Zhuō county (涿郡). Yáng was probably planning ahead for his invasion of the Kingdom of Goguryeo, which occurred in 612. Xiāo Yǔ (蕭瑀), a high ranking official and younger brother of the Empress Lady Xiāo (蕭氏) heard about Jìngwǎn's project. A devout Buddhist, Xiāo used his influence with his sister to arrange for a large donation to the project (as now, funding for projects was crucial). Li Jung-Hsi describes the donation as "1000 rolls of silk and other valuable goods" (1979: 106). The Xiāo's were descendants of the (Southern) Liang Dynasty Imperial family (502–557) which was still both rich and powerful (as indicated by Lady Xiāo's becoming Empress). Bolts of silk often functioned as currency for high-value transactions. A bolt of silk was worth about 1000 standard copper coins.

The brother and sister also inspired many of their peers to make donations. Overnight Jìngwǎn became extremely wealthy and just five years later, in 616, the initial phase of Jìngwǎn's vision was complete.

Léiyīn Dòng 雷音洞 or Thunder Sound Cave is a minor marvel. The ceiling is about 2.5 metres high, and the walls are all different lengths (10.07 x 7.66 x 11.82 x 8.3 metres). The frontage is actually a constructed stone wall. Four pillars support the roof and are decorated with images of Buddhas accompanied by their names (from a sutra listing the names of 1000 Buddhas). Lining the walls in two or three registers, are 147 stone slabs with 19 texts, many of them extracts. Complete copies of the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā-sūtra (T 262) and the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (T 475), both in Kumārajīva's translation, are prominent and together these two take up half the wall space in the cave. Lee notes that the Xiāo family were famously devoted to the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā-sūtra and speculates that they may have had some influence over the choice to complete it first and to give it the most prominent place in the cave (2010: 56).

Amongst the other complete texts found in the Thunder Sound Cave are the Prajñāpāramitā-vajracchedikā (T 236; tr. Bodhiruci) and the Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda-sūtra (T 353; tr. Gunabhadra). Gjertson notes that Xiāo Yǔ was also especially devoted to the Prajñāpāramitā-vajracchedikā (1989: 183). Most of the other texts are very short and include sutra extracts mostly focussed on practical matters such as ethics and monastic etiquette. Thus the cave represents a kind of samuccaya or anthology of Buddhist texts important to a Chinese monk living in the early 6th Century, albeit with some possible influence from his sponsors. It is a valuable snapshot of Buddhism in that time and place.

Lee suggests that Jìngwǎn had "brought together for the first time two strands of Indian Buddhist thought that had been introduced to China in previous generations", i.e., Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. I'm doubtful about this. Both of these post-Abhidharma schools of thought were primarily śāstric rather than sūtric, i.e., based on commentarial literature by Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu, respectively. The distinctions between the schools are not based on different sutras, but in different hermeneutics and exegetical strategies for reading the same sūtras. Moreover, these Indian categories were not so influential in China, which inherited a range of texts from the outset. Distinctions between schools were only nominal in China.

Lee also suggests that the 判教 Pànjiào or doctrinal classification systems, a number of which predate Jìngwǎn by centuries, might have formed part of the context. Again, I'm not sure that this is doing anything more than stating the obvious: i.e., that the Chinese were struggling to make sense of the bewildering variety of texts emerging from India (and also from China!) which often appeared to contradict each other. That said, Jìngwǎn's choices for the Leiyin Cave were idiosyncratic, as is demonstrated by the different choices made in other stone sutra collections at Xiǎngtángshān (響堂山) and Dàzú Shíkè (大足石刻) (Lee 2010: 59 ff.). The latter is focused, for example, on the theme of the end of the Dharma.

Phase two of the stone sutras project is marked by expansion, in many senses. Táng lín mentioned seven caves or "rooms" filled with sutras, though now there are nine in total. The scope of the project became to engrave the entire Buddhist Canon as it occurred at the time. This phase extended long after Jìngwǎn's death.

Award winning Professor of Art History, Lothar Ledderose, characterises the new phase as "changing the audience". The first phase seems to have been aimed at living people. Leiyin cave was not sealed and was arranged as a kind of shrine so that people could come in and read the texts arrayed around the walls. The new caves were simply storage and not easily accessible. In the newer caves, the stone slabs were densely stacked together and Jìngwǎn left instructions not to disturb them unnecessarily. These make up about 5,000 of the almost 15,000 stone tablets associated with Yúnjū Temple (10,000 more were found buried in the Temple grounds). Once they were filled, each of the caves was sealed with a large stone door. However, it is clear that people, particularly Emperors, could not resist peaking from time to time (Li 109).

Xuándǎo (玄導) became abbot and leader of the stone sutra project after Jìngwǎn's death, until his own death in 672. During his leadership, funds apparently ran low and Yúnjū Temple began accepting donations in return for engraving specific sutras. The earliest example of this happens also to be the earliest dated Heart Sutra, from 661. This program is similar in some ways to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Lay people thought that by doing these pious acts they would secure a better rebirth or even liberation for themselves and their families. This led to many copies of the same sutras being created, though, presumably, the funds generated by selling indulgences went back into the main project.

During the life of the stone sutra project, more than one hundred different sutras were engraved, including very long texts such as the Mahāprajñāpāramita-sūtra, the Mahāsaṃghata-sūtra, and the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra. The latter covered 120 tablets on its own and was stored in its own cave, while the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra covered 1,500 tablets (Li 1979). However, multiple copies of some sutra texts make up many of the tablets (Yong 2010).

Buddhists would once again undergo persecution in the late Tang, and a disruptive civil war in the Five Dynasties Era (907-960), but work on the stone sūtras did not completely halt until 1691. Of the 15,000 tablets, as many as 10,000 date from the Liao and Jin Periods and were buried in a pit in the monastery between 1117 and 1200 CE.

During the excavations in the 1950s, rubbings were made of the tablets, including the Xīnjīng tablet that is the earliest dated Heart Sutra. Slabs were engraved on both sides so that a total of 30,000 rubbings were made at the time. Rubbings of such tablets are made by spreading ink directly onto the stone and then pressing (rubbing) paper onto it, in a manner resembling lithographic printing. This, of course, produces a horizontally inverted negative image. A few facsimile images of these rubbings, printed reversed so that they could be read (including the Heart Sutra of interest), were printed in Zhōngguó... (1978) and the entire collection from Fángshān were published (in 30 volumes) by Zhōngguó... (2000). These publications are the main way that scholars can get access to the collection now (though there are no copies of the complete set in the United Kingdom, unfortunately).


I thought it worth telling the story of Jìngwǎn and his stone sutra project in some detail, including as many names and dates as possible, because it is not well known in the West. This essay brings together facts that are scattered amongst many different publications that remain inaccessible to most people. This is despite the story being common knowledge amongst some Western archaeologists and art historians (since at least the 1970s), and amongst Chinese and Japanese Buddhism Studies scholars (since the 1930s), though modern studies of the collection begin 1914. Jìngwǎn's collection includes the earliest dated copy of the Heart Sutra and thus deserves a chapter in the history of the text. It also gives us a stronger sense of how the Heart Sutra was conceived of and used in its original context.

That tiny minority of intellectuals who commented on the Heart Sutra as a text certainly did not see it as ineffable, while the vast majority (including the majority of Buddhist monks) saw it as having magical properties that did not depend on understanding. These properties could be activated, following the advice of other Mahāyāna Buddhist texts, merely by speaking it aloud or by writing it. Writing it in stone was seen as especially efficacious in China, perhaps because of the model of Emperor Asoka and his edicts.



Gjertson, Donald E. (1989) Miraculous Retribution: A Study and Translation of T'ang Lin's Ming-pao chi. Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series; Centers for South and Southeast Asia Studies; University of California at Berkeley.

Lancaster, Lewis R. (1989). 'The Rock Cut Canon in China: Findings at Fang-shan,' in The Buddhist Heritage, edited by Tadeusz Skorupski [Buddhica Britannica 1]. 143-156. Tring: The Institute for Buddhist Studies.

Ledderose, Lothar (2004). 'Changing the Audience' in Religion and Chinese Society (Vol. 1). A Centennial Conference of the École franşaise d'Extrême-Orient. John Lagerwey Ed., p385-409. [This publication includes a review of studies conducted at Fángshān, mostly published in Japanese and Chinese]

Lee, Sonya S. (2010) 'Transmitting Buddhism to a Future Age: The Leiyin Cave at Fangshan and Cave-Temples with Stone Scriptures in Sixth-Century China.' Archives of Asian Art. Vol. 60 (2010), pp. 43-78.

Li Jung-hsi (1979). 'The Stone Scriptures of Fang-shan.' The Eastern Buddhist. Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 104-113

Nattier, Jan (1991). Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Asian Humanities Press.

Yong You. (2010) The Diamond Sutra in Chinese Culture. Buddha's Light Publishing.

中国佛教协会 (1978) ​「房山云居寺石经」. 北京 : 文物出版社. = Chinese Buddhist Association. (1978) Mount Fang, Yunju Temple, Stone Sutras. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House.

中国佛教协会 and 中国佛教图书文 (eds) (2000) 「房山石经」(全30册)华夏出版社. = Chinese Buddhist Association and Chinese Buddhist Literature Museum (eds) (2000) Mount Fang Stone Sutras. Huaxia Publishing House.

22 June 2018

The Earliest Dated Heart Sutra Revisited

Fángshān Stele, rubbing.
He and Xu (2017)
In 2016, a story made its way around the Chinese media (e.g., the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage) that a new discovery had been made of the earliest dated Heart Sutra. A stone stele, inscribed with the Heart Sutra and carrying the date of 661 CE, had been found at Fángshān near Beijing. The story was not picked up in the West. During correspondance with Ji Yun about my review of his article on the Heart Sutra he generously informed me about this inscription and kindly supplied me with a copy of a recent journal article outlining the find (He & Xu 2017) and a book with another transcription (Beijing Library... 1987).

I uncovered some older sources which mention the Fángshān Stele. Firstly, I found that the colophon (containing the date) was transcribed and published in Dàoān and Zhāng (1977). Unfortunately, I cannot get access to this book, except through "snippets" on Google Books. However, I also discovered the text of a pamphlet on Fángshān, which also transcribes the colophon (Lin 1958). And note that Lin 1958 was published in Taipei, Taiwan, not in Communist China and was thus always available to scholars outside the region. The text of Lin (1958) was also used in a pamphlet about the temple on Fángshān, i.e., Yang (2003). Different transcriptions of the colophon disagree on some details. I'm grateful to members of the Omniglot Facebook group and the Chinese Language Stack-exchange for help with deciphering the colophon (though of course any remaining mistakes or infelicities are down to me).

The Fángshān Xīnjīng Stele is of considerable interest because it purports to be carved in 661 CE, three years before the death of Xuánzàng in 664 CE and yet it attributes the translation of the Heart Sutra to him, which as we know is problematic. I have done my best to assemble and evaluate the evidence below.

The text is inscribed on a stone tablet or stele. It's dimensions are unclear, but the ratio of its sides is approximately 2:3 and I would guess at dimensions in the realm of 60 x 90 cm (allowing ca. 3 x 3 cm for each character and some leeway). The surface of the stele seems to be badly damaged so that many characters are obscured. It was broken in half at some point and appears to have been repaired. The lower left corner is missing, obscuring up to nine characters.

The stone tablet now resides at 雲居寺 Yúnjū sì which translates something like Temple Dwelling in the Clouds. The temple is on 房山 Fángshān, which means something like Repository Mountain. Nearby is 石經山 or Stone Sutra Mountain where Buddhist sutras were carved on thousands of stone slabs in an attempt to preserve the entire Buddhist Canon (as described in the 8th Century). Fángshān is about 65km south-west of Beijing.


The title displayed on the stele comes at the end of the text, which is usual for Indic Buddhist texts. The full title of the text is:
The Middle Chinese pronunciation of this can be reconstructed as Banya-baramida-sim-keng. This translates into Sanskrit as Prajñā-pāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra. We can see that the first part—般若波羅蜜多— is an attempt to represent the sounds of the Sanskrit word using Chinese characters, while the last two characters represent whole words.

This transliteration was used by Mokṣala in his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra dated 291 CE and was also used by Kumārajīva in his translation of the text in 404 CE.

Note that the character 經 is a variant.


The stele attributes the text to Xuánzàng (see detail, right):
三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯
三藏 Tripiṭaka
法師 Dharma master (Skt dharma-bhāṇaka)
玄奘 Xuánzàng
奉 詔譯 translated with imperial authorisation
Note that there is a full character space between 奉 and 詔. We see the same space in the Beilin Stele. This is added as a mark of respect to the Emperor. The character means:
"An imperial edict. To decree. Appearing in the colophons of translated scriptures, it indicates official authorization at the highest level, indicating the high level of the translatorʼs reputation." (DDB)
Note that this attribution occurs at the beginning of all of Xuánzàng's translations in the Taishō Tripiṭaka. However, it also occurs in his travelogue 大唐西域 (T2087) which was not translated but composed by him. Note also that there are minor variations in some earlier editions suggesting that the wording was not fixed.


The date of 661 CE comes from the phrase 顯慶六年二月日造, which occurs at the bottom of the leftmost column on the stele.This is considerably less clear than the attribution.

顯慶 Xiǎnqìng refers to a period of the rule of Emperor 唐高宗 Táng Gāozōng, roughly coinciding with the years 656-661. 唐 was the name of the dynastic lineage, hence Táng Dynasty. Chinese emperors would take special "reign names" (年號) at significant points in their reign. Gāozōng used 14 different names during his time as Emperor (649-683).

The Chinese new year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in mid January to mid February. The length of months varied, but generally they were defined from new moon to new moon which was on average 29 ​3260 days long. Thus a typical month might be 29 or 30 days, and this would always leave a few days at the end (12 x 30 = 360 and a year is 365.25 days). [I'm told that this is an over simplification]

However, reign periods did not always change at new year. The Xiǎnqìng period began on 7 February 656 and ended on 4 April 661, to be followed by the 龍朔 Lóngshuò period. Lóngshuò began on the 30th day of the second month (= 5 April), so this stele was made towards the end of Xiǎnqìng, on 13 March, 661.
顯慶 Xiǎnqìng era
六年 6th Year
二月 2nd month = March
八日 8th day = 13
造 made, constructed.
Not all the elements of the first character 顯 are clear, but the second 慶 is clear and there seems little doubt that this is the correct interpretation. This is partly because 慶 is not used in many other names of any other regnal periods and is thus a useful identifier. There is no obvious reign period for which this could be mistaken.

The Text

The rest of the text is presented in 11 columns of 26 characters (or less), most of which are clearly visible and match the text of T251. There are some minor differences, however.

One feature of the text is the substitution of the simplified character 无 for 無 throughout. At first this struck me as odd, but asking around I found that it was actually common, especially in inscriptions where the justification was that it was easier to inscribe. The Wiktionary entry says "First attested in the Warring States period; used interchangeably with 無 until the Tang dynasty." Some of the simplified characters introduced by the PRC government actually have long histories. 

In the dhāraṇī, 帝 is written as 諦 "examine", with the same pronunciation /tei/. This composite character has 言 "speech" as a (vaguely) semantic element and 帝 as a phonetic element. We also saw this substitution in the Beilin Stele. If we explain 无 for 無 as a simplification, then 諦 for 帝 is the opposite, since 諦 is considerably more complex and therefore difficult to carve. However, the so-called two truths are often transliterated as 二諦 and it may that the calligrapher thought this connection too good to pass up. 

The text appears to be signed at the end of the sutra, but I cannot make out the character and none of my sources mentions it. 


The colophon is important because it not only gives us the date of the work, but some details about the donor who paid for the stele to be made. Such items were a fund-raiser for the monastery to help pay for their main project of carving the entire Tripiṭaka into stone (which remained incomplete, but covered thousands of tablets). Indeed, our text is not only the oldest dated Heart Sutra,  it is the oldest dated colophon at Fangshan and thus marks the beginning of a new phase of the project.

By comparing the image of the rubbing from He and Xu (2017) and published transcriptions (which  disagree, are partial, and/or contain errors), I have created a kind of critical edition. The colophon must have had more characters where the corner is broken off (indicated in light grey beow). 
□ = a full character-sized space in the inscription.
What can we find in this? Firstly the inscription was commissioned by 楊社生 Yáng Shèshēng. Unfortunately, he seems not to have made any other mark on history. However, 楊 is a very significant name in Chinese history because the Emperors of Sui were from the 楊 clan; although it is not clear if Yáng Shèshēng was closely related to them, because of his name and rank we can say that he is a member of the aristocracy.

Line 1. 雍州櫟陽縣遊騎將軍守左衛淥城府左果毅都尉楊社生

Yáng was from 雍州 Yōng Zhōu or Yong Province in which the Tang capital, Chang'an (長安) was located (modern day Xian). More specifically, he was from 櫟陽縣 Yueyang county.* Yueyang was a temporary capital of the Han (200-205 BCE). It is now in the Yanliang District (阎良区) about 50 km from Xian.
* note that the usual Mandarin pronunciation of 櫟 is lì, but the name of the County is definitely Yue, probably based on the pronunciation of 樂 yuè.
Yang was a military officer. With help from Charles Hucker's (1985) Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China we can determined that he held () the prestige title of General of Mobile Cavalry (游騎將軍), but served as Courageous Commander" (果毅都尉) of the left () in the guard of the left (左衛) in the garrison of 淥城 Lùchéng. The early Tang military was divided into 12 armies, each comprised of a number of garrisons (~ 650 in total). Each garrison had an overall commander and two "courageous commanders" (果毅都尉), left and right. The "courageous" part related to the way of referring to different garrisons.

The place name 淥城府 or Lùchéng Garrison seems to correspond to modern day 涿州为 [涿州為] or Zhuōzhōu Province which is about 30km south-east of Fángshān. This explains why the stele was found in Yúnjū Temple rather than somewhere closer to Chang'an.

Line 2: 父楊 母段息懷慶玄嗣玄器玄貞女大娘二娘隸利巫山

Line two is all summed by Yang (2003) as 其全家 "his family". It begins with his Mother 母 Duan段. Duan would be her family name. Next is his wife 妻 Hu 扈; his sons (息): 懷慶, 玄嗣, 玄黎*, and 玄貞; his daughters (女) 大娘 and 二娘 (i.e., first daughter, second daughter); and finally someone named 利巫山 who is a servant or dependent (隸). Perhaps a "ward" given that he is included with the family. The person missing from all this is his father. Since the tablet has columns of 26 characters, there are potentially three characters missing from the end of each colophon column. We can conjecture that the end of line one included the word father (父) and his name, which was presumably also 楊.
* 玄器 is an alternative reading of 玄黎.
† in this context we might expect 太 rather than 大.
The traditional Chinese system of names is relatively complex. They have a family (originally a clan) name, in this case 楊. Then they have a given name (名) which may be given by the head of the family rather than the parents and only used in the family. Women only used their family and given names. Boys might have an infant name (乳名) used up to adulthood. At adulthood men get a 字 or "courtesy name" which is the name they use in everyday life, though intimates may also call them by a nickname (號). At ordination monks take a Dharma name (法號). It's possible that the younger sons became monks and that their names with the common element 玄 (which they share with Xuanzang) reflect this. Other names, such as a nom de plume, or posthumous names were also common. Emperors often took a new name when they took the throne.

Three characters are missing at the end of this line.

Line 3: 家眷屬緣此功德齊成正覺顯慶六年二月八日造經

The third line asks that family (家) members (眷屬) be caused (緣) by this merit (此功德) to attain awakening (成正覺) together (齊).

The date 顯慶六年二月日 the sutra was made 造經 we have already discussed.


For the first time we have physical evidence linking the Heart Sutra to Xuánzàng during his lifetime and naming him as translator (譯). However, we need to be cautious. What this tells us is precisely that those involved in the production of the inscription believed that Xuánzàng had translated the sutra. Xuánzàng is mentioned in this inscription, but he wasn't involved in it.

I asked Dr Jeffrey Kotyk if he could shed any light on the chronology from the traditional histories. In the 《釋氏通鑑》, a Buddhist history of China up to ca 960 CE, we find a single mention of Xuánzàng for year 5 of Xianqing 顯慶 (kindly translated for me by JK, but with some slight modifications of my own):
「三月。西明寺靜之禪師遷逝。甞鼻患肉塞。百方無驗。有僧令誦般若心經萬遍。恰至五千。肉鈴便落(本傳)○奘法師。於玉華譯般(若經)○」(CBETA, X76, no. 1516, p. 88b2-4)
"3rd lunar month. Chanshi Jingzhi of Ximing-si passed away. He once suffered from blocked nasal passages. Hundreds of remedies were ineffective. There was a monk who had him recite the Prajñā-Heart Sutra ten-thousand times. At exactly five-thousand [recitations], his [nasal] flesh tinkled [like a bell]. (original biography). Master Xuánzàng at Yuhua translated the Pra(jñā Sūtra)."
Words in square brackets are added to help make sense of the translation. The words in parentheses are notes from the CBETA edition.
From the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a biography of Xuánzàng composed by慧立 Huìlì, edited and published by 彥悰 Yàncóng in about 688 CE (T 2053), we know that Xuánzàng moved to Yuhua late in the 4th year of Xianqing (659), and started translating the Mahāprajñāpāramitā (i.e., T220) at the beginning of the 5th year (660). See below for more on dates. What this passage suggests is that the Heart Sutra predates the translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā.

The phrase 三藏法師玄奘奉 詔譯 appears at the beginning of T220, Xuánzàng's translation of the collected Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. By contrast, Huìlì and Yàncóng state that the work was translated due to a request from the "people"
東國重於《般若》,前代雖翻,不能周備,眾人更請委翻 (T 2053.275c.17-19)
In the Eastern Country the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra was highly esteemed. Although it had been translated into Chinese during a previous dynasty, the translation was incomplete, so the people [眾人] requested that the Master kindly translate it anew. (Li 1995: 327)
From what I can make out, such translations were presented to the Emperor after completion and then received the imperial seal of approval.

The 玉華宮 Yuhua Gong, or Palace of Jade Flowers, is the place where Xuánzàng's translation team worked on T220. It is about 100 km north of Changan, well away from the distractions of life in the capital (and quite far from where Yang lived, also). According to Huìlì and Yàncóng, Xuánzàng moved out to Yuhua in 顯慶四年十月 or November 659 (T2053.275c). Yaowang Mountain, about halfway between Chang'an and Yuhua also has a collection of stone sutras.

The date of 顯慶六年二月日 for the Fángshān stele is interesting because it's in the middle of the period during which Xuánzàng and his team of translators were translating the collection of sixteen Prajñāpāramitā sūtras known as the 大般若波羅蜜多經 or Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T220). This took about four years and occurred between: 顯慶五年正月一日 and 龍朔三年十月二十日. The table below shows the key events and the dates in the traditional Chinese and Gregorian calendars.

EventChinese dateGregorian
顯慶 begins (i.7)656 Feb 7
Move to Yuhua顯慶四年十月 659 Nov
T220 Trans begins顯慶五年正月一日660 Feb 16
Fángshān stele顯慶六年二月八日661 March 13

龍朔 begins (ii.30)661 Apr 4
T220 Trans ends 龍朔三年十月二十日663 Nov 15

麟德 begins (i.1)664 Feb 2
Xuánzàng dies麟德一年二月五日664 March 7

As we can see, the stele purports to be from a time a little over a year into the translation of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra collection. And at a time when Xuánzàng had retreated from public life in the capital to a mountain retreat 100 km away. If we take this at face value, then Xuánzàng must have "translated" the Heart Sutra attributed to him (T251) before he started this magnum opus. I use scare quotes on "translated" because it is clear from other evidence that he did not translate it. Note that Xuánzàng died within a few months of completing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra translation.

All of the circumstantial evidence points away from Xuánzàng's being involved in translating it (see Nattier 1992: 189ff for a survey of the evidence).
  1. The Heart Sutra is a 抄經 (chāo jīng) or "sutra extract" rather than a translation.
  2. The extraction was from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Sutra (T223), with other parts inspired by the same text, and a dhāraṇī from elsewhere. It now clearly predates the completion of T220.
  3. Like a lot of English (so-called) "translations" the text attributed to Xuánzàng (T251) is an edited version of an existing text (T250). Two lines were removed and the characters for two names and one technical term (skandha) were changed.
  4. All the terms changed were introduced by Xuánzàng, but were seldom taken up by later translators.
  5. No text translated by Xuánzàng ever replaced one translated by Kumārajīva in popular Chinese Buddhism - Kumārajīva's texts are still in use today.
  6. Xuánzàng's biography mentions him being given the text, not translating it.
  7. Xuánzàng's own travelogue doesn't mention the Heart Sutra at all.
  8. The Heart Sutra does not appear in T220, Xuánzàng's collection of Prajñāpāramitā sutras translated from Sanskrit (though we have reason to believe he already possessed a version). No other Prajñāpāramitā text translated by Xuánzàng occurs outside of T220.
So, Xuánzàng was, at best, an editor of the text. And such edits as occurred were relatively minor. In a forthcoming essay I will show that the character 譯 does not always mean "translate" but can mean precisely "edit". In any case, the resulting text, or one very like it, was attributed to Xuánzàng three years before he died (early in 664 CE) by someone who lived several hundred kilometers away.

Even if the story about the blocked nasal passages is not exactly historically accurate, it probably does reflect the use to which the Heart Sutra was put in the 10th Century, when the commentary was composed. And this is confirmed by other sources. While a handful of scholars studied and interpreted the text as a document of Buddhist ideas, the majority of Buddhists, then and now, see it in magical terms, in which understanding the text is secondary, if it has any importance at all.

The Fángshān Stele can now claim to be the oldest dated Heart Sutra. It forces us to review the relationship between Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra, though I do not think that we can take the attribution to him at face value. Since the Heart Sutra Xuánzàng had was almost certainly already in Chinese, we cannot say that he translated it. It is possible, even likely, that he edited it for publication. If he did so, it was most likely before he embarked upon his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. And he probably did not include the Heart Sutra in this collection, because it was already in Chinese. If the biography of Huìlì and Yàncóng can be believed, then Xuánzàng treated the text as a locally produced (magically efficacious) dhāraṇī, not as an authentic Indian sutra. However, the commentaries of Kuījī and Woncheuk (which I have written about before) clearly do treat the text as having an Indian origin and as being a text about ideas rather than simply apophatic magic.


Chinese Canonical texts from the CBETA Reader, except where stated.

北京圖書館金石組, 中國佛教圖書文物館石經組編 (1987) ‘房山石經題記匯編’. 书目文献出版社 : 新華書店北京發行所發行, 1987. = The Beijing Library Metal and Stone Group and The Chinese Buddhist books and Cultural Relics Museum Stone Sutra Group. (1987). Classified Compilation of Headings and Records of the Stone Scriptures on Mt. Fang, Beijing: Bibliographic Literature Publishing House and Xinhua Bookstore.

道安 and 張曼濤. (1977)「大藏經硏究彙編」(2 Vols.) 台北: 大乘文化出版社. = Dàoān and Zhāng Màntāo. (1977) Collection of Tripiṭaka Research. (2 Vols.). Taipei: Mahāyana Culture Press.

賀銘, 續小玉, “早期《心經》的版本”,房山石經博物館/房山石經與雲居寺文化研究中心,編輯,《石經研究》,第一輯,頁12-28. 北京:北京燕山出版社,2017年。= He Ming, Xu Xiaoyu. (2017) “the Early recessions of Heart Sutra”, in Fángshān Stone Sutras Museum & Research Center of Fángshān Stone Sutras and Yunju Temple, ed., Stone Sutras Studies, Vol,1, pp.12-28. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe.

Hucker, Charles O. (1985). Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. Stanford University Press.

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

林元白。(1958)「唐代房山石经刻造概况」現代佛學 , 3。 一九五八年。= Lin Yuanbai. 'A General Survey of Fángshān Stone Sutras from the Tang Dynasty. Modern Buddhist Studies, 3, 1958. Cached copy.

杨亦武. (2003) 云居寺. 华文出版社. = Yáng Yìwǔ (2003). Yún jū Temple. Huawen Publishing House.

Additional Links

Chinese news story:

Video on Fángshān showing caves and stone steles with carved sutras.ángshān.shtml