Showing posts with label Dharani. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dharani. Show all posts

01 December 2017

Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation.

We're making slow progress on the Aṣṭa, but both enjoying the process and nutting out some tricky passages. I want to highlight another passage from early on in chapter one. This part of the introduction seems to serve several functions. One of the main functions is that it addresses the perennial Buddhist anxieties over legitimacy and authenticity. The aim of the text here is to establish the principle that what the disciples of the tathāgata say is authentic because it ultimately derives from him. But it also does something more interesting.
1.4.1. atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir buddhānubhāvena āyuṣmataḥ śāriputrasya imam eva rūpaṃ cetasaiva cetaḥ-parivitarkam ājñāya āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – yat kiṃcid āyuṣman śāriputra bhagavataḥ śrāvakā bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti, sa sarvas tathāgatasya puruṣakāro veditavyaḥ | 
Then Elder Subhūti, with the authority of the Buddha, having known the form of the thoughts of Śāriputra with his own mind, said this to Śāriputra: “Elder Śāriputra, whatever the disciples of the Bhagavan say, instruct, teach, draw out, reveal, and illuminate, it is all to be understood as the work of the Tathāgata. 
1.4.2. tatkasya hetoḥ? 
What is the reason? 
1.4.3. yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ, tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti, tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkṛtya dhārayitvā yad yad eva bhāṣante, yad yad eva deśayanti, yad yad eva upadiśanti, yad yad evodīrayanti, yad yad eva [3] prakāśayanti, yad yad eva saṃprakāśayanti, sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham | 
Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata. Training in that instruction of Dharma,  they realise the nature of experience and carry [the realisation] along. Having realised that nature, whatever they speak, whatever they instruct, whatever they teach, whatever they draw out, whatever [3] they reveal, and whatever they illuminate, is all consistent with the nature of experience. 
What I want to focus on here is the sentence 1.4.3 (Chapter 1, Para 4, sentence 3). In this passage there is a series or succession of related phrases using different grammatical forms. 

yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ

"Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata." The tense is past, and the mode is passive as so often occurs with Sanskrit (deśita is a passive past participle). In the traditional guru/chela relationship it is the teacher who is active at this point, and the student is a passive recipient of the teaching. Or more literally the "pointing out", since √diś means "point". Not like modern ideas of education. Guru, as we know, means "heavy", while cela means "cloth or clothes" (though it can also mean the "mere outward appearance", or "slave"). It's not clear how this word came to be used in the sense of "disciple".

Here dharmaḥ appears to mean the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, they adopt a lifestyle and are taught to interact with other people; they are taught meditation techniques, and how to interpret their experiences of meditation in a particular theoretical framework, according to the ancient doctrines of Buddhism.

Note that the Dharma was taught by the tathāgata, the "one in-that-state". This is the basis of the claim to legitimacy of these ideas. Everything that enlightened Buddhists say or do is ultimately traced back to the the ultimate authority in Buddhism, the original tathāgata (though note that what Buddhists mean by this shifts over time).

tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās

[Edit. Dhīvan has reminded me that here tatra, is a logical connector - it means "with respect to this". A literal translation would be pretty clunky, even for me, so while I think some more about it, I'm going to leave it as is. Also note that the phrase before tatra is singular and after is plural.]

"Training in that teaching of the Dharma." Here the tense has become present and the mode active (via the present active participle). Both the pronoun and the noun are in the locative case. The cognitive metaphor that comes to mind for an English speaker is that the teaching is a container; one trains in it. Almost as though one enters a special room which is set up for the purpose of practice. A virtual environment. Or even an abstract "sacred space". 

Śikṣā can mean learning, study, or training (i.e., both the more cognitive and the more practical elements of learning). The verb √śikṣ is from the desiderative mood of the verb √śāk, "to be able, capable" (whence śākya). So śikṣā reflects a "desire to be capable". So we begin with learning as a passive activity and then proceed with the student or pupil as an active participant, trying to fulfil their desire for competence or capacity.

Incidentally, in early Buddhist texts these two phases have two different outcomes with respect to confidence. The outcome of  the passive phase of learning is faith (saddhā), usually faith in the tathāgata; while the outcome of  active training is perfect clarity (aveccapasāda). So, despite what mainstream Buddhists say, saddhā or śraddhā is precisely the passive faith of the newly converted. It carries us through into training, but is eventually replaced by one's own understanding. Faith is very much the right word for this initial phase of confidence in the teacher. It is blind in the sense that it has not been tested, but not blind in the sense that it cannot be tested.

te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. One gains personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and one carries it one (dhārayanti). It is not explained here what is meant by dharmatā. But we get this dichotomy that one is taught the Dharma and one realises dharmatā. The - suffix makes an abstract noun. These refer to ideas, qualities, and states that cannot be experienced with the five sense. So in a sense this is saying that by practising the Dharma one has a personal insight into the idea of the Dharma. 

The word I'm translating as "personal insight" is sākṣātkurvanti, a verbal compound sa-ākṣāt + √kṛ. The first part sa-ākṣa means "having eyes"; and is only used in the ablative of cause "from having eyes"; which is taken figuratively to mean "before one's eyes, evidently, in person, etc". And it is combined with a form of the verb √kṛ "do, make". A single word translation might be "realise", but it maintains the connotation of a personal insight. Something that has been seen with one's own eyes, as it were. As we know, seeing is a metaphor for knowing in both English and Sanskrit. "I see" means "I understand" in both languages. 

Of course, with an abstract noun the word must be metaphorical, since abstractions cannot literally be seen. So the student "sees" the nature (dharmatā). A lot of my recent published scholarship has involved infiltrating Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience into interpreting the Prajñāpāramitā literature as also being concerned with experience rather than metaphysics. Hence, I prefer to think of dharmatā referring to the nature of experience. This is exegesis rather than translation, but without the proper interpretative framework (or hermeneutic) a text like the Aṣṭa rapidly becomes incomprehensible. 

However, realisation itself is an experience and thus only fleeting. A true insight will change the "seer", or at least change their perceptions of experience. They may no longer feel any sense of experience being owned, for example - there is a flow of experience for them, but they do not feel it is "my experience" (though it continues to be their experience and no one else's). The verb √dhṛ means "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e., memorising)" or "maintenance". 

My reading is that the ongoing effects of the realisation are what is meant here, rather than any reference to remembering. One has an experience of (what we Buddhists call) "insight" and is left with an ongoing change in one's perceptions. What Jeffery Martin calls "on-going non-symbolic experience". 

One of the things that interests me here is that a century or two later, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra introduces the idea of the dhāraṇī as something to be attained, alongside samādhi. In other words, the bodhisatva, by practising, accumulates a range of samādhi and dhāraṇī. And this use of dhāraṇī has puzzled scholars, because it does not clearly relate to the other uses. I think that this early (and somewhat confusing) use of dhāraṇī might relate to the ongoing nature of the changes wrought by meditation on one's perceptions of experience. Other uses of the word dhāraṇī were tacked onto this basic idea; first as the mnemonic practice in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā—which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet as a reminder of a sequence of words, which in turn form the basis for a series of reflections on śūnyatā); and subsequently as the magic spells chanted for protection. 

I've already noted how the opening sentence of Aṣṭa has some dhāraṇī-like qualities. We see this again here in the sequence: bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti. Again if we made these nouns, with the -e ending, and added svāhā at the end, it would be indistinguishable from the type of dhāraṇī than began to appear in Mahāyāna texts a few centuries later. And there is evidence from the Chinese texts that the original phrase had just one verb, bhāṣante, and that the synonyms were added later. Another way of looking at these lists over synonyms is that they are a form of auto-commentary. The earliest version simply had bhāṣante "they speak" and then someone elaborated, by adding five synonyms, just in case we didn't get it. On the other hand √bhāṣ "to speak" is one of the most common verbs in Sanskrit, so it hardly needs explanation.

yad yad eva bhāṣante.... sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham

Finally, the text concludes that whatever is said—by someone who has been instructed in Dharma, practised it, and realised the idea behind the Dharma (dharmatā) and experienced ongoing shifts in their interpretation of their experience—is consistent with the nature of experience. The text goes on to say a little more about this and justify it, but we have the gist.

Here then is the justification for going beyond the ancient stories and legends of the Buddha. It is because the experience of a personal insight into the nature of experience is common between the Buddha (presuming he existed) and the contemporary teachers who bring new perspectives on the experience and new ways of explaining it. Having had a realisation, it is carried on and informs the teaching of the next generation. 

Of course, not everyone accepted such arguments, but over about five centuries Mahāyāna gradually became the mainstream in Buddhist India and it was Mahāyāna that spread to most of Asia. Even the Theravādins in Sri Lanka flirted with Mahāyāna briefly before purging it and taking a conservative stand on their own stories and commentaries.

This is a text that requires and benefits from a considerable amount of unpacking. And this requires an interpretive framework. It is better to consciously choose a framework, rather than relying on intuition, and it is better to choose one that is fruitful in terms of practical and actionable insights. I think the hermeneutic of experience is the best interpretative framework available to us. I didn't invent it by any means, but as I have applied it over some years now, I find it resolves paradoxes, creates sense from nonsense, and recasts the mystic in pragmatic terms. One of the main things we look for in our literature is suggestions for practice. Metaphysical or mystic interpretations don't give us that. Even if this is not what the authors intended (though I believe it is), it is still the best way to approach any Buddhist text, because it informs approaches to practice that have long been confirmed by experience. 

My final comment is that Conze seems to get almost every sentence wrong in his translation. He obscures more than he reveals. The need for a new, accurate, and reframed translation is urgent. I cannot understand why this text has not been retranslated in the way that, for example, the Pāḷi texts have been retranslated. Of course, nowadays we have a partial Gāndhārī text (dated to ca. 70 CE) and we give a lot more weight to the seven Chinese translations (though not all equally). So, any study of the Pala Dynasty Sanskrit manuscripts would need to be accompanied by parallels from the Gāndhārī and Chinese versions where they shed light. It would be a major undertaking (and is beyond the scope of what I could achieve). 


18 October 2013

Why is there a Dhāraṇī in the Heart Sūtra?

"[The Dhāraṇī Chapter is] another later addition probably when Dhāraṇī was extensively taken into the body of Buddhist literature just before its disappearance from the land of its birth. Dhāraṇī is a study by itself. In India where all kinds of what may be termed abnormalities in religious symbology are profusely thriving, Dhāraṇī has also attained a high degree of development..." - D T Suzuki. The lankavatara Sutra. p.223, n.1.
D. T. Suzuki
D T Suzuki is a key figure in the translation of Buddhism to the West. He is cited by David McMahan as representative of the Romantic influence in Modernist Buddhism. However, this quotation and those below show that he was also under the influence of Scientific Rationalism -- though perhaps his response to dhāraṇī as an "abnormality in religious symbology" is rather more emotional than rational.

Suzuki is not alone in struggling to find a place for dhāraṇī in Buddhism. In his History of Buddhist Thought, E. J. Thomas suggests that dhāraṇī has "infected popular Buddhism" and "spells form an important part of popular Buddhism, but they have nothing in themselves peculiarly characteristic of Buddhism. They are a form of sympathetic magic” (186. Emphasis added). So far from the Western conception of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the dhāraṇī that it gets no mention in Paul Williams' oft cited textbook, Mahāyāna Buddhism, despite being a central element in Mahāyana Buddhism as it is practiced around the world.

Suzuki is equally vehement when it comes to the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra which he refers to as "apparently a degradation or a degeneration" (228). [1]
“A Mantram or Dhāraṇī is generally supposed, when uttered to effect wonders… Can we say, then, that the end of the Buddhist disciplines can be attained by means of a mere mystic phrase?” (Suzuki Essays. 229)
"Another thing which makes this presence of a Mantram in the Hṛidaya more mystifying is that the concluding Mantram is always recited untranslated as if the very sound of the Sanskrit-Chinese were a miracle working agency."
His polemic against the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī is quite lengthy and concludes:
"taken in itself has no meaning, and its vital relation to the Prajñāpāramitā is unintelligible”. (Suzuki Essays. 236)
The conceit that if I cannot understand a subject then it is "unintelligible" is common in scholars of Suzuki's generation and before. However, contemporary scholar, Donald Lopez, is likewise puzzled, and, so he tells us, are the Indian commentators whose works are preserved in Tibetan. He says:
"The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sūtra, because the sūtra provides no such explanation and the sādhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra". (Lopez. The Heart Sutra Explained. p.120)
The question about the role of the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra raises a deeper question. We know that from the second century CE a large number of dhāraṇī sūtras were composed and that they were clearly very important to Buddhists of the time and some of them continue to be important in Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism (A Zen practising friend recently sent me a dhāraṇī for removing obstacles to help me find a new place to live!). The collection of Nepalese manuscripts at Hamburg University lists hundreds of dhāraṇī sūtras! We know that from around that time or a little later, dhāraṇīs began to be added to Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Laṅkāvatāra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka and the Suvarṇaprabhāsottama. Given the apparent prominence of dhāraṇī in Mahāyāna Buddhism from relatively early in the development of it, why are modern commentators on Mahāyāna surprised to find a magical chant in a Buddhist sūtra? Let's try to deal with this question first, and then look at the specifics of the Heart Sutra.

Buddhism is inseparable from magic. Many of the most interesting stories in the life of the Buddha involve magic and miracles. The story of the conversion of the Kassapas at Gaya involves a whole series of magical feats, for example. The very awakening experience is often retold in terms of the development of specific super-normal powers such as knowledge of past-lives or clairvoyance (and plenty of living Buddhists claim to have experienced these magical powers). As time goes on, more and more miracles and magic are added to the stories, but there is no point at which magic and the supernatural is not evident. There is no absolutely no reason to assume that 'original' Buddhism was a purely rational affair. This is a Western conceit that has distorted Buddhism from at least the 19th century onwards. The idea of "rational Buddhism" is ironic, because the initial European view of Buddhism was that it was a form of irrational, idolatrous, superstitious, heathen religion (this is brought out in Philip C. Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism).

As Westerners we have developed an ambivalent attitude to magic since the European Enlightenment. There seems to be a spectrum of belief from entirely credulous to entirely sceptical but, on the whole, we consider magic to be a form of entertainment, not to be taken too seriously. Or we treat it as a vulgar relative of the religious miracle.

Be that as it may, there is no getting away from the facts: Buddhist texts are full of magic. And, in particular, they are filled with that magic which involves spoken sounds. I've recently made reference to the paritta and to the sacca-kiriya or 'truth act', both of which are encountered in early Buddhism. I'll be saying more about the sacca-kiriya in a couple of weeks.

The most obvious answer to the question of why anyone would be surprised to find a magic spell in a Buddhist text is that they are fooling themselves. Magic and superstition is exactly what we ought to expect. But, more specifically, the presence of a dhāraṇī in a late Mahāyāna text is exactly what we expect to find. Mahāyāna texts are full of dhāraṇī

From as early as the second century, sūtras were being composed specifically as a vehicles for dhāraṇī. By the fourth century those texts which did not have one, had them added (which is what Suzuki is referring to in the first quote). A number of dhāraṇī continue to be popular in China and Japan today: e.g., the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī or the the Karaṇḍamudrā dhāraṇī. Several times a year people write to me to ask if I have the Uṣṇīṣavijaya Dhāraṇī in Siddhaṃ script (I don't). If you look around there are dozens of YouTube videos with the dhāraṇī being chanted in Chinese transliteration.

The presence of dhāraṇī in Buddhist texts is used by some to argue that Tantric Buddhism dates from as early as the second century, but it really doesn't. Tantra is a synthesis of a huge variety of religious ideas and forms which happened in India in the 6th-7th centuries CE. Ronald M. Davidson plausibly argues that the synthesis was given impetus by the breakdown of socio-political structures across India with the fall of the Gupta Empire and the resulting chaos. This places the Tantric synthesis in the late 5th century at the earliest, but the 6th century is more likely. The first  fully developed Tantric text, Mahāvairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra, dates to the mid 7th century (probably the 640's) according to Stephen Hodge. The cult of dhāraṇī predates Tantra by several centuries.

The fact is that our information about Buddhism is curtailed (to be generous, or censored to be cynical). Thus, dhāraṇī centred Buddhism does not feature much in Western narratives because it not only does not put aside superstition, but places magic at centre stage. I've argued at some length that most Buddhism is sharply dualistic, with belief in a distinction between matter and spirit, and a profound bias for spirit. Magic is largely, though not completely, excised from modernist Buddhism. It is particularly rigorously rooted out when it has any connection to the mundane or physical world - spirit magic is more acceptable. Using Buddhist (magical) techniques for mundane purposes is frowned on, even though this has been the norm for millennia. Many Western Buddhists are dismissive of Soka Gakkai for precisely this reason. Mindfulness therapies are also attacked for commodifying the Dharma and because their goals are oriented towards material well-being rather than transcendence of suffering (though some practitioners, with varying degrees of plausibility, deny these charges).

Something to keep in mind is that mature Mahāyāna held that awakening required three incalculable aeons to accomplish. There were times and places where this made awakening seem impossibly far off. When awakening is absolutely transcendental, and thus of infinite value, it is also beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Under these conditions intellectualism and scholasticism seems to flourish. Buddhism becomes a rather academic exercise for monks, and a way to ward off evil for lay people; and, after all, lay people are not expected to be actively pursuing awakening in most Buddhist societies, anyway. This was certainly true of, for example, the Mahāyāna Buddhism in late 8th century Japan. It stands out because it was against this backdrop of impossibly far off awakening, and absolutely separate Dharmakāya, that Kūkai and Saichō introduced Tantra to Japan. Kūkai's claim that tantra was a communication directly from the Dharmakāya and his maxim 'awakening in this very life' at first caused confusion and resistance in the Japanese Buddhist establishment, before setting off a religious revival that continues to inform Buddhism in that country.

Our pre-scientific forbears lived in dangerous world at the mercy of disease and elements. They knew, as we know, if we are honest, that we are not in control. We don't even control our own bodies, which age and get sick against our will. The attraction of any technique which claimed to exert control over nature and the cosmos, which held chaos and danger at bay, ought to be obvious. In our own time a man was recently jailed because he sold a device consisting of an aerial connected to a plastic handle to the Iraqi military as a bomb detector. The units sold for more than US$30,000 each, and the Iraqis are said to have bought about 6000 of them. Faced with uncontrollable forces we are desperate for some protection.

When my appendix grumbled and caused me intense pain, I did not resort to chanting the Heart Sutra, I high-tailed it to a hospital and had them remove the offending organ under a general anaesthetic before it killed me. But in the ancient world the Heart Sutra might have been all that I had. It would not have saved me, but it might have made me feel better for the short time before I died of septicaemia. It might have soothed my relatives as they watched me die in agony. I know that many moderns argue for the efficacy of ancient medicine. It's true that chewing willow bark would ease pain because it contains salicylic acid. But without any knowledge of the mechanisms of the body or of the chemistry of such remedies there was no way to be truly systematic about it. We see this in the medieval medical approaches such as humours, acupuncture, and āyurveda. All of these approaches to wellbeing are unrelated to the way the body actually works and rely on magical explanations to explain their efficacy. There is an irreducible element of magic because when they were invented magic was the most potent counteractive to the uncontrollable forces in those peoples' lives. At least they believed it was. And in the face of violent or painful death who can blame them? It's harder to explain their persistence or the emergence of a non-system like homeopathy. 

How Should We Understand Magic?

What is magic? By which I mean what is it really? I don't take magic on its own terms. Indeed, I don't think we should take any form of tradition on its own terms. However, understanding the persistence of magic requires careful consideration. On the face of it, magic simply does not do what it says. Hence, its value almost certainly lies elsewhere. Over the years a number of Western attempts to understand magic have suggested that believers were simply childish, idiots, delusional, or wishful thinkers; or that magic was meaningless symbolic action. But none of these theories are enough to explain the persistence of magic, particularly in the realm of healing. Most of them reflect Western intellectual laziness more than informed comment. My own preference is for the work of Ariel Glucklich. His in-aptly named book The End of Magic, offers a critique of Western attempts to explain magic and, on the basis observation of modern Tantric healers in India, tries to do better. I touched on this back in 2008 in an essay called Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness. Glucklich summarises:
"Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events." (12)
The theme of interrelatedness is one that is deeply resonant for Buddhists. Even before the direct theme of interconnectedness emerges in Buddhism, we find descriptions of the experience of radiating love, treating all beings as a mother treats her only child, and making no distinctions between self and other, etc. These are redolent of one of the most common of all so-called mystical experiences, oceanic boundary loss, in which one feels at one with everything, completely selfless, and blissful. I think this experience is central to understanding Indian religion and seems to underlie a lot of the religious impulses, certainly in Buddhism. We reify and cheapen the experience with maxims like 'all is one', but the experience of being at one with everything ought not to be dismissed lightly. I suggest that if we are seeking a rational explanation for the purpose and persistence of magic in Buddhism this is where we might usefully start.

Another observation I've made about dhāraṇī is that the early dhāraṇī show every sign of not being in Sanskrit, but of being from a Prakrit (or vernacular) tradition. When we see a dhāraṇī like the one that Suzuki was complaining about in the Laṅkāvatāra...
Tuṭṭe tuṭṭe vuṭṭe vuṭṭe paṭṭe paṭṭe kaṭṭe kaṭṭe amale amale vimale vimale nime nime hime hime vame vame kale kale kale kale aṭṭe maṭṭe vaṭṭe tuṭṭe jñeṭṭe spuṭṭe kaṭṭe kaṭṭe laṭṭe paṭṭe dime dime cale cale pace pace badhe bandhe añce mañce dutāre dutāre patāre patāre arkke arkke sarkke sarkke cakre cakre dime dime hime hime ṭu ṭu ṭu ṭu ḍu ḍu ḍu ḍu ru ru ru ru phu phu phu phu svāhā.
... our first thought is not Sanskrit literature or any other kind of high culture. The doubled retroflex consonants and -e endings point away from Sanskrit as the language of composition and towards a Prakrit like Māgadhī. This form is all about rhythm, repetition and alliteration, and lacks any formal grammar or semantics. The point of this is not what it means, because this is not language as such. The point is that in chanting it one has an experience that will be partly determined by culture and conditioning and partly by circumstances. This dhāraṇī is meant to be chanted aloud, repeatedly, probably collectively in a ritual context. And the experience of chanting it is the point of chanting it. We have very little information about the way these sounds were understood or used. 

These sounds were probably made to protect the chanter from misfortune, not to gain any rarefied spiritual attainment. This is about survival, about invoking chthonic forces to come to your aid in times of trouble. It is something to chant when feelings of being isolated or alienated from your people, family, or tribe threaten to overwhelm you. And we know from the literature of China that the Heart Sutra itself was used this way. If Glucklich is right, then the chant protects the chanter by (re)establishing their sense of connection to everything.

We don't, or no longer, live in a culture where it makes any sense to approach interrelatedness in quite this way. However, we are not a million miles from it, either. For example, we still sing together and through that experience, especially in large gatherings, can experience the relatedness that music or chanting facilitates. Rhythmic chanting stimulates endorphin production, especially when done in groups, but the effect must have gone beyond a feel good factor. I've done exercises with groups which encourage a careful listening to the sounds of chanting, and stimulated receptivity to those sounds, and achieved a heightened sense of both calm and connectedness. It's possible to use vocal sound in this way because of the way that it affects us. Non-word vocal sounds both evoke and communicate emotions without involving the intellect (Compare the study of conversational grunts). I believe that there are good evolutionary explanations for this, but the experience itself is far more persuasive. It is enough for most people to chant together and experience a sense of connectedness to their fellows.

This experience is overlaid with various ideas in whatever culture it is experienced. Ancient Indians no doubt believed in the magical efficacy of chanting and with the development of Tantra layered meaning onto the spoken or chanted sound. In a reading culture we forget that the Dharma was primarily an aural experience for most of the last 2500 years. To be well versed in the Dhamma was to be a sutavant, 'one who has heard' or a savaka, 'a hearer'. The divine revelations of the Veda were called 'śruti' 'hearing'. One did not read silently in our culture until relatively recently, and even now we hear the words in our heads as we silently read them. We probably all know that a well spoken poem, for example, is a very different aesthetic experience to a silently read one.

The dhāraṇī cult left behind little or nothing about the mechanics of dhāraṇī - so far as I am aware. While the Arapacana alphabet and the idea of mnemonics are often invoked, they are seldom relevant except in that specific context. Nor is the idea that the dhāraṇī represents a condensation of the text found in actual texts to my knowledge (except perhaps in the later dhāraṇī texts). Neither explanation obviously applies in the case of the Heart Sutra. By the time dhāraṇī start appearing in Buddhist texts it's almost as if their origins are already forgotten. One can see the forgetfulness in the development of the Arapacana as it is expressed in the Sanskrit language - the seeming ignorance that it is the Gāndhārī alphabet is already apparent in the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati. Indeed, it's quite difficult to tell what the word dhāraṇī means from the way it is used in texts. The etymology is clear enough, it's from √dhṛ, 'to bear', and thus cognate with dhara, 'bearer', and dharma, 'foundation'. However, for example, when we try to understand it in context, in a text like the Pañcaviṃśati, the impression we get is quite vague. We only know that it is associated with these strings of syllables, but not how it is associated or why.


To sum up, the Heart Sutra has a dhāraṇī in it because it was de rigueur for a Buddhist text of that era to have one. To have composed a text and not included a dhāraṇī would have been odd by the standards of the time and place. Every Buddhist, particularly in China, would have had a favourite dhāraṇī or two that they chanted for protection and prosperity. Dhāraṇīs were a prominent feature in monastic liturgy.

The early dhāraṇī probably emerged from a Prakrit speaking milieu and to some extent they retained Prakrit features (such as the -e ending) but were gradually Sanskritised as Sanskrit became the standard language for Buddhist texts in India. Dhāraṇīs invoke a kind of magic which we no longer understand - partly because no records were made of how it worked, and partly because it was later overlaid by Tantra. However, Ariel Glucklich's theory of magic gives us a way to understand dhāraṇī chanting with a degree of rationality that does not diminish the experience of the practice.

The Prajñāpāramitā texts the Heart Sutra was made from lack dhāraṇīs (pre-dating the cult by a century or two), so a suitable dhāraṇī was found in other popular texts and adapted for the purpose. Since it had no contenders, it became the de facto Prajñāpāramitā dhāraṇī. The relationship to Prajñāpāramitā does, indeed, seem to be arbitrary, though I suspect the initial choice had meaning for the monk who chose it.


  1. I have tried to show that the so-called mantra in the Heart Sutra is in fact a dhāraṇī, and that the word 'mantra' itself a substitute for 'vidyā' and is used in the text only because of a confusion caused by being translated back and forth between Sanskrit and Chinese at different times.

For more reading on the role of dhāraṇī in Chinese Buddhism I recommend this article which turned up after I finished writing this essay:
Mcbride, Richard D. II (2005) 'Dhāraṇī And Spells In Medieval Sinitic Buddhism.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 28(1): 85-114. Online:
Had I read this earlier I would have incorporated it into the previous essays.

  • Davidson, Ronald M. (2003) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. Columbia University Press.
  • Glucklich, Ariel. (1997) The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press. 
  • Hodge, S. (trans.) (2003) The Mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. London : Routledge Curzon. 
  • Suzuki, D. T. (1971) Essays in Zen Buddhism: third series. Red Wheel/Weiser. [First published 1934]
  • Suzuki, D. T. (1991) The lankavatara Sutra: a Mahayana text. Taipei : SMC Publishing. [First published 1932]

06 September 2013

Heart Sutra Mantra Epithets

The material in this essay has been rewritten, peer-reviewed, and published as
Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Karaṇḍamudrā dhāraṇī
My last essay mined the footnotes of Jan Nattier's excellent article 1992 on the provenance of the Heart Sutra. Her article is a remarkable piece of scholarship and repays close study. The footnotes are no less interesting and in this essay I want to expand on a single long footnote: 54a (211-213). The 'a' is added because this information was included just as the article was going to press and the note, amounting to two full pages, had to be squeezed in, sans any Chinese characters (which in any case were hand written on a separate page at the end of the article).

The subject of this note is the epithets of the mantra. The section we're interested in reads:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ
Therefore, it should be known that the perfection of wisdom is a great mantra, a mantra of great insight, an unexcelled mantra, an unequalled mantra
For Conze these are epithets of the Buddha applied to a mantra as a way of conveying the magical power of the mantra: "The prañāpāramitā... is here envisaged as a spell" (1973: 101-104). The epithets in question are those from the familiar itipi so gathā that Triratna Buddhist Community members will know as the Buddha Vandana. In Pāli:
iti pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācarana sampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti
As we can see by simple comparison Conze is stretching things somewhat with this comparison. Of the Heart Sutra terms only anuttara 'unexcelled' has an actual parallel and it is a rather common superlative applied to any and all Buddhist ideals.

Nattier cites two letters sent to her by Nobuyoshi Yamabe. Yamabe San completed a PhD at Yale in 1999 and is the author of several books on Buddhism. Yamabe identified a number passages in Chinese which closely parallel the Heart Sutra epithets. Nattier adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe. We'll begin with the passage found in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa). This text is the basis for the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañcaviṃśati) and is therefore of some interest. Also the existence of a clear Sanskrit text allows us some insight into another matter.

The Chinese Heart Sutra (T 8.251) reads:
故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, 
Gùzhī bōrěbōluómìduō, shì dàshén zhòu, shì dàmíng zhòu, shì wúshàng zhòu, shì wúděngděng zhòu, 
Therefore know the perfection of wisdom, the great magical mantra, it is the great knowledge mantra, unsurpassed mantra, an unequalled mantra,
般若波羅蜜多 bōrěbōluómìduō is a transliteration of prajñāpāramitā. A short digression here. The Middle Chinese pronunciation of 般若波羅蜜多, reconstructed from rhymes, but lacking information on tones, would have been ban ya ba ra mil da. As we will see shortly the Aṣṭa is written in Classical Sanskrit. However the transliteration banya suggests a spelling more like Pāli paññā than Sanskrit prajñā. Baum and Glass's interim Gāndhārī Dictionary record several spellings of prajñā from the Gāndhārī Dhammapada: praña, prañaï, prañaya. The transliteration of prajñā is quite standard across genres. I can find only one variant: 鉢若 bōruò, Middle Chinese balya. It seems the initial syllable was not heard or seen as a conjunct /pra/ by early Chinese translators even when we can be reasonably sure the text used it.

shén is a term from Daoism that is sometimes used to translate Sanskrit ṛddhi 'supernatural power' or even deva. Generally is means 'supernatural, divine' or 'magical'. It's missing from all of the Sanskrit versions of the text, which opens the possibility that it was added to the Chinese after the Sanskrit text was created.

Yamabe identified a counterpart from the Chinese Aṣṭa, early 5th century CE, translation by Kumārajīva (T 8.227 843b25-27) reads:

Bōrěbōluómì shì dà míngzhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúshàng zhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúděngděng zhòu.

Prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā (明呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unsurpassed vidyā (呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unequalled vidyā (呪).
As in the last essay, one doesn't need to know Chinese to see that these are the identical characters, except that the anomalous 是大神咒 shì dà shén zhòu is absent. If one knows that Chinese languages, like English, are subject-verb-object languages, one can even guess that 是 means 'is'. Also note that in the Aṣṭa the last syllable of prajñāpāramitā is left off, which is typical. The reason for translating 明呪 míngzhòu and 呪 zhòu as vidyā becomes apparent when we look at the Sanskrit text below. Note also the substitution of 呪 zhòu for zhòu, on which I will say more below.

The Sanskrit version of this text has been edited by Vaidya (p.36, line 30-p.37 line 7 = Conze 's translation p.108-109). This is one of the best attested texts of Buddhist Sanskrit literature. I have seen and handled the beautiful Cambridge manuscript (Add 1643) dated to 1015 CE, which forms the basis of the critical edition. It's written in Classical Sanskrit with just a few Prakritisms. The edition by Vaidya has been digitised, from which I take the following (placing each sentence on a new line to facilitate reading):
mahāvidyeyaṁ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
apramāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
aparimāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
anuttareyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asameyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asamasameyaṁ kauśika [vidyā] yad uta prajñāpāramitā|

O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a great spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an immeasurable spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a measureless spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unsurpassed spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unequalled spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a peerless spell.
Kauśika is one of the epithets of the Vedic God Indra, usually called Śakra (Pāli Sakka) in Buddhist texts, who plays an important role in early Buddhism and is one of the main interlocutors of the Aṣṭa. The context here is the Perfection of Wisdom per se. Both apramāṇa and aparimāṇa mean 'not-measured or measureless'. Similarly both asama and asamasama mean 'without equal'. I translate vidyā here as 'spell', as the context shows that the idea is something to be spoken or chanted that has magical powers. There is an irreducible element of magical thinking in these texts that is inherent in their pre-scientific world view. It's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Note that the word in Sanskrit is vidyā throughout, and not mantra or dhāraṇī. Here we see 明呪 míngzhòu translating vidyā. Note that in the Heart Sutra epithets we get the sequence 大明咒,無上咒,無等等咒. In the context of the Heart Sutra the tendency is to see 明 as an extra character: the great  knowledge  mantra 咒. We know from the Aṣṭa passages that 明呪 means vidyā, so we ought to read 大明咒 as 'great vidyā'. And this means that  is a shorthand reference to vidyā. The character 明 is being dropped from the other epithets, not added to only one of them. 

This passage from the Aṣṭa is a slightly more elaborate version of what we find in the Heart Sutra. Now compare the parallel passage in Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T 8.223).
Shì bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, shì wúshàng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā.
Though Nattier notes that the relevant chapter is missing from earlier editions of the Sanskrit, it is found twice in the more recent Sanskrit edition produced by Takayasu Kimura (vols 2&3). Kimura has edited the earlier Sanskrit text of Dutt and referenced both the Chinese and Tibetan translations to produce a new Sanskrit edition based on the same late Sanskrit manuscripts used by Dutt. So we cannot be entirely sure that Kimura has not, once again, back translated an existing Chinese passage into Sanskrit to fill a perceived void. In any case the two passages are:
mahāvidyaiṣā kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttaraiṣā kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā. (Vol. 2-3:55)
evam ukte bhagavān śakraṃ devānām indram etad avocat: evam etat kauśikaivam etat, mahāvidyeyaṃ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttareyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā, asamasameyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā.
(Vol. 2-3:70)
The second of these more closely matches what we find in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra with three epithets: mahāvidyā, anuttara vidyā, and asamasama vidyā. It also alerts us to a further occurrence in Kumārajīva's Pañcaviṃśati (T. 223) at p. 286b28 (unnoticed by Yamabe or Nattier)
Bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, wúshàng míngzhòu, wúděngděng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā, an unequalled vidyā.
Again we see from comparing Chinese with Sanskrit, that 明呪 translates vidyā and here it is not abbreviated to 呪 but spelt out each time. If the core part of the Heart Sutra comes from the earlier passage of the Pañcaviṃśati then this passage suggests that the epithets were also borrowed, probably from this passage. Except that it is clear from the context that these epithets are not describing the mantra, but the perfection of wisdom itself. We associate the epithets with the mantra because the word mantra appears in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. The word is used just twice in the Aṣṭa and not at all in the Pañcaviṃśati (suggesting perhaps that the Aṣṭa occurrences are interpolations).

Vidyā has a number of connotations. Clearly both Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśati are applying the word to the prajñāpāramitā per se, not to the mantra (as we typically read the Heart Sutra). Vidyā derives from the verbal root √vid 'to know, to discover' (cognate with 'wise, wisdom' etc). Sometimes you'll see vidyā translated as 'science' but the whole context is pre-scientific so this is anachronistic. No body of knowledge before ca. 1700 fits today's definition of science, which is not to say that there was no valid knowledge, only that it could not be considered scientific until the scientific method ha been invented during the European Enlightenment. Vidyā means knowledge in a particular field: knowledge of the Vedas, knowledge of political governance etc. Knowledge cultivated through learning and experience, rather than divinely inspired knowledge or insight. It also have a magical connotation. Knowledge in the sense of vidyā bestows control over the subject studied, when one thoroughly knows a subject one is said to have "mastered" it. Ironically we are stuck using 'wisdom' for prajñā, which means (and is cognate with) knowledge; and 'knowledge' for vidyā, which is cognate with wisdom.

Although vidyā later becomes, at times, almost synonymous with mantra, at the time the Aṣṭa was composed, and probably even the Pañcaviṃśati, Indian Buddhists still probably thought of mantras as the spells mumbled by Brahmins (for money) at ceremonies. The Pāli texts contain a few passages making it clear that the chanting of mantras is un-Buddhist (DN 1 [i.9]; SN 7.8, SN 28.10, Sn 480). By contrast the chanting of parittās, or protective texts, was already established as a popular Buddhist practice in the Milindapañha, which predates the Aṣṭa.

The parittā practice may well be connected to the idea of the saccakiriyā (Skt satyakriyā) or 'truth act'. This practice, attested in for example the Pāli Aṅgulimālā Sutta, insists that plainly and clearly stating a truth can alter reality. Aṅgulimālā, for example, uses a saccakiriya to ease the pain of a women and baby experiencing a difficult childbirth. Many other examples are found in Pāli. Some scholars have attempted to link the practice to similar ideas in Vedic culture. There is even a suggestion that some aspects of the power of truth are Indo-European. Holding a red-hot axe-head is a test of truth in both Vedic and Celtic literature for example. It may be that by chanting a sacred text aloud, sacred texts being true by definition, that one might avoid calamity or avert disaster. As mentioned last week, this was how Xuánzàng used the Heart Sutra.

Nattier cites the example of the word for mantra as an example of a back translation. Her thesis is that the order of textual production was like this:
  1. Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati
  2. Chinese translation Pañcaviṃśati
  3. Chinese Heart Sutra - short text
  4. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - short text
  5. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - long text
  6. Chinese Heart Sutra - long text
We can see that Nattier's theory explains the changes that occur in the word vidyā. In this case the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati (itself based on Aṣṭa) uses the word vidyā. Kumārajīva translated this as 明呪 míngzhòu, the usual translation of vidyā. The Heart Sutra first uses 明咒 míngzhòu then abbreviates to zhòu; where zhòu is a homonym for zhòu meaning dhāraṇī (or mantra). This is then back translated as Sanskrit mantra. The change from 呪 zhòu to 咒 zhòu might have occurred for any number of reasons, not excluding simple error based on similarities of sound and graphic form.

It is interesting to note here that T 250 (attributed to Kumārajīva) has 明呪 míngzhòu in each of the epithets, which conforms to the general pattern of Kumārajīva's translations noted above. Nattier's conclusion regarding T 250 is "[it] was based not directly on his version of the Large Sūtra, but on citations from the sūtra contained in the Ta chih-tu lun*" (187).
* i.e. T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra) Attributed to Nāgārjuna and translated by Kumārajīva.
Dàzhìdù lùn itself shows signs of partly Chinese authorship: "Some of the most notable evidence provided by Chou is that the Dazhidu lun’s commentary on the Mahaprajñaparamita Sutra follows Chinese word order rather than Indian..." (McBride 332-333)

At the time the Heart was composed in China we might expect the key term to be dhāraṇī, since the mid seventh century date proposed by Nattier slightly predates the arrival of Tantra in China, while dhāraṇī texts, such as the Karaṇḍamudra Dhāraṇī depicted above, were and to some extent still are, a central aspect of Chinese Buddhism. The first Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra was produced in India, probably in the late seventh or early eighth century at a time when Tantra was in full swing. These dates coincide for example with Stephen Hodges' proposed dates for the composition of the Sarvatathagata-tattvasaṃgraha. In such an environment mantra might have be the natural translation of 咒. Hence find a mantra where we expect not to and, according to my own definitions, where we might expect to find a dhāraṇī.

This is further evidence that the Heart Sutra is synthetic, which is to say it was constructed in China from a variety of sources, probably by a devotee of Avalokiteśvara in the 7th century. Now on the basis of a comparison with the Sanskrit sources, there is an argument for revising this portion of the Sanskrit text:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ,
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā asamasamavidyā.
It should be understood that the perfection of wisdom is great knowledge, supreme knowledge, peerless knowledge.



  • Conze, Edward (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
  • McBride, Richard D, II. (2004) 'Is there really "Esoteric" Buddhism?'  Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 27(2): 329-356.
    • Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. Online:

    30 August 2013

    Heart Sutra Mantra

    My calligraphy of Heart Sutra
    Siddhaṃ script
    The Heart Sutra is a synthetic text composed in China from three main elements:
    1. Extracts from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T 8.223; ca. 5th century).
    2. Elements drawn from the devotional cult of Avalokiteśvara (觀自在 Guānzìzài). 
    3. The cult of dhāraṇī chanting, and a mantra probably drawn from existing Chinese texts. 
    The first element is quite well covered in the literature, especially as Jan Nattier (1992) focusses on this part of the text in her reconstruction of its provenance. My next essay will address a lesser known aspect of this issue which is buried in Nattier's footnotes. The second element deserves a little more attention, but is covered briefly in Nattier (174-5). This essay will largely focus on the third element. 
      In her long essay on the origins of the Heart Sutra, Jan Nattier notes (footnote 52 & 53) that two other scholars have found mantras similar to the Heart Sutra mantra in other places in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. One of these references is particularly significant as it seems to pre-date the composition of the Heart Sutra itself. This essay will present the Chinese source texts for these mantras. Before dealing with these mantras, we need to pay some attention to the dhāraṇī cult itself, and try to establish some terminological boundaries. 

      The cult of dhāraṇī chanting is sometimes placed in the context of Tantric Buddhism, but I think this is a mistake. It is true that mantras are a feature of Tantric Buddhism. However, as Ryūichi Abé. has shown, Tantric Buddhism requires certain elements to be present in order to be Tantric. In The Weaving of Mantra he emphasises the abhiṣeka or initiation in particular because the abhiṣeka is the ür-ritual which underpins all of Tantric Buddhist practice. In Japan, prior to the arrival of Kūkai and Saichō with genuine Tantric Buddhism, some Tantric elements were present: images, dhāraṇī and mantra, and even texts such as the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. However, in the absence of the Tantric paradigm and organising principles, these elements did not add up to Tantric Buddhism.

      Abé is trying to revise the history of Japanese Buddhism, but he has enunciated an important hermeneutic for discussing the presence or absence of a mode of Buddhist thought. For example: if a person bows before a Buddha statue, burns incense, and chants oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, but has no knowledge of why Buddhists do such things, does this make them a Buddhist? These are simply decontextualised actions with no intentional underpinning. They are Buddhist in externals only. A similar argument is simmering away with respect to the Jon Kabat Zinn inspired mindfulness treatments. Does the teaching of mindfulness amount to teaching Buddhism, or does it lack key elements, such as "going for refuge", that render the teaching non-Buddhist? Some Buddhists who teach mindfulness argue that they are teaching Buddhism when they teaching mindfulness. Others argue that the lack of context for the practice, particularly the absence of Buddhist metaphysics, means this is a beneficial secular practice that does not conduce to liberation.

      In any case, the point is that although dhāraṇīs were incorporated into Tantric Buddhism, there is nothing in the dhāraṇī sūtras or the chapters inserted into larger texts such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka or Survabhāṣotama, to indicate a Tantric context. The first hints of Tantra associated with a mantra seem to be found in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra according to Alexander Studholm's study of that text, which includes an account of something like an initiation, though it still lacks the central features of the abhiṣeka ritual. The point of chanting dhāraṇīs seems largely to have been protection from malign forces or entities. And thus they have much more in common with the Theravāda practice of parittā chanting than with Tantric practice (at least with respect to the Tantric Buddhism practised by Kūkai). It's not until they are incorporated into rituals centred on the abhiṣeka, that they become Tantric. This criteria is common to other elements that were incorporated, not least the elements from Vedic ritual. No one, to my knowledge, argues that Vedic fire rituals were "proto-Tantric". 

      Nattier points to the opinion of Fukui Fumimasa (1981. Source text is in Japanese) that the name of the Heart Sutra in Chinese is 心經 Xīnjīng, literally "heart sūtra", but that 心 xīn (heart) here connotes dhāraṇī rather than 'pith' and that the text might well be a chanting text, i.e. a dhāraṇī text. We know from Xuánzàng's record of his journey to India that he used the text as a protective measure against unseen malevolent spirits. The title of the short text in Sanskrit, Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, does not include the word sūtra, and it seems likely that the original, short text was not considered as a sūtra. That transition probably happened in India when the traditional elements of a sūtra, such as the beginning evaṃ maya śrutaṃ... and the appreciation at the end were added. Another reading of 心 is "gist" with the idea that rather than Heart Sutra, the meaning is Gist Text, with the text representing the gist of Prajñāpāramitā.

      The dhāraṇīs of the pre-tantric Mahāyāna texts are often radically different in form from the mantras of later Tantric Buddhism. Of course there is a huge amount of variation and cast-iron definitions are difficult to construct.

      Defining Mantra and Dhāraṇī

      Tantric mantras have a number of structural features in common: a beginning (usually oṃ); a name or function; and a final seed-syllable. 

      Typically Tantric mantras begin with oṃ (not auṃ) which served to mark what follows as a mantra. However in the earliest fully-fledged Tantra, the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, the mantras all begin namas samanta-buddhānāṃ or namas samanta-vajrānāṃ. The ending -ānām indicated the genitive plural case (of the Buddhas). However, in Prakrits (including Pāli) the dative case (to or for the Buddhas) endings began to be replaced by the genitive case endings. Here ending is the usual genitive, but the sense is dative and the words mean "homage to all Buddhas/vajras".

      What follows oṃ can be the name of a deity (oṃ amideva hrīḥ, oṃ vajrapāṇi hūṃ, oṃ vagiśvara muṃ) or relate to a function in the ritual, especially purification with the śūnyatā mantra or the Vajrasattva mantra. Names of deities are sometimes in the dative case, or in a kind of faux dative created by the addition of -ye to the end of the word: oṃ muni muni mahāmuni śākyamuniye svāhā. The correct dative of śākyamuni is śākyamunaye (final i is replaced by aye)

      Tantric mantras typically end with a seed-syllable (bījākṣara) related to the deity or with svāhā. Sometimes the seed-syllable is specific to the deity, or to the "family" they belong to. Mantras of the vajra family typically end in hūṃ, while the padma family often end in hrīḥ. At other times it seems unconnected to other considerations. For example  oṃ maṇīpadme hūṃ is a padma family mantra. Some mantras incorporate dhāraṇī style features into them which would include the Heart Sūtra mantra and the Tārā mantra (oṃ tāre tuttāre ture svāhā). The variety of mantras is partly due to their being a number of systems existing in parallel. 

      Dhāraṇī by contrast seldom begin with oṃ and almost never end in a seed-syllable. They almost always end with svāhā. The word svāhā is the Vedic equivalent to the Hebrew amen. It is used in the Yajurveda to solemnise offerings: one makes an offering of rice mixed with ghee to the fire while chanting, for example "agnaye svāhā" or 'For Agni, amen' (Taittirīra Saṃhitā The content of the dhāraṇī is a string of words or sounds which seldom reference names of deities, and frequently include nonsense words such as hilli, huru often with repetition and ringing the changes of the first syllable: hilli hilli milli milli. There is a tendency to use words ending in -e. Various theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but my opinion is that the -e ending is a Prakrit masculine nominative singular. This probably also applies to the well known oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra. A feature of dhāraṇī, then, is the use of Prakrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. 

      Typical dhāraṇīs from the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra:
      anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samitā viśānte mukte muktatame same aviṣame samasame jaye kṣaye akṣaye akṣiṇe śānte samite dhāraṇi ālokabhāṣe pratyavekṣaṇi nidhiru abhyantaraniviṣṭe abhyantarapāriśuddhimutkule araḍe paraḍe sukāṅkṣi asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣite saṁghanirghoṣaṇi nirghoṇi bhayābhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣayate rute rutakauśalye akṣaye akṣayavanatāye vakkule valoḍra amanyanatāye svāhā.
      iti me iti me iti me iti me iti me; nime nime nime nime nime; ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe| stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe svāhā.
      There is a world of difference between these two dhāraṇī and most Tantric mantras.

      The Heart Sutra Mantra

      The Heart Sutra mantra is clearly referred to as a mantra by the text. But it has more features in common with dhāraṇī in form and content. It's lacks the opening oṃ for example, though some traditions have simply added one. The repetition and play of sounds in gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate is typical of dhāraṇī. Why then does the text refer to this as a mantra? I will look more closely at this issue in the next essay.

      Meanwhile let us compare the Heart Sutra mantra with the three mantra/dhāraṇī listed in Nattier's footnotes as being similar. Of these T 12.387  大方等無想經  Dàfāngděng wúxiǎng jīng (Mahāmegha Sūtra), identified by Fukui (1981), is important because it was translated in the early fifth century, two centuries before the proposed date for the composition of the Heart Sutra.

      Mantras and dhāraṇīs are typically not translated by the Chinese, but the sounds are represented using characters for their pronunciation.  Unfortunately it can be very difficult to reconstruct the Sanskrit from a Chinese transliteration. For example the character 卑 bēi has been used to transliterate the Sanskrit syllables pra, pre, pe, pi, vi, and vai. Note that I'm using Pinyin Romanisation in these posts, which often does not reflect pronunciation at the time the texts were composed. The language of the day is referred to as Middle-Chinese (MC). Where relevant and possible I will indicate the MC pronunciation 

      The dhāraṇī in question is:
      竭帝 波利竭帝 僧竭帝 波羅僧竭帝波羅卑羅延坻 
      三波羅卑羅延坻 婆羅 婆羅 波沙羅 波娑羅 摩文闍 摩文闍 
      遮羅帝 遮羅坻 波遮羅坻 波遮羅坻 三波羅遮羅坻
      比提 嘻利 嘻梨 薩隷醯 薩隷醯 富嚧 富嚧 莎呵
      jiédì bōlìjiédì sēngjiédì bōluósēngjiédì bōluóbēiluóyánchí
      sānbōluóbēiluóyánchí póluó póluó bōshāluó bōsuōluó mówéndū mówéndū
      zhēluódì zhēluóchí bōzhēluóchí bōzhēluóchí sānbōluózhēluóchí
      bǐtí xīlì xīlí sàlìxī sàlìxī fùlú fùlú shā hē
      Fortunately for us some markers are clear at the beginning.  The Mantra in the Heart Sutra in Chinese is:
      揭帝 揭帝 般羅揭帝 般羅僧揭帝 菩提 僧 莎訶
      jiēdì jiēdì bānluójiēdì bānluósēngjiēdì pútí sēng shāhē
      One does not need to understand the characters to see that many of them graphically match up between the two mantras above, especially at the beginning. The opening characters of both are very similar. Both 竭帝 jiédì and  帝  jiēdì are transliterations of Sanskrit gate (the difference in pronunciation is a matter of tone). MC pronunciation in both cases was gal (with a hard g sound).

      The first words in the Mahāmegha Sutra mantra are: jiédì bōlìjiédì sēngjiédì bōluósēngjiédì which most likely represent Sanskrit: gate parigate saṃgate paragate. The Mahāmegha mantra ends 莎呵 shāhē; the Heart Sutra has 莎訶 shāhē; both represent svāhā. Note the graphic similarity of 呵 and 訶 which have the same pronunciation, he, in MC.

      A little note here that the mantra in Xuánzàng's version of the Heart Sutra (T 8.251) has an extra out-of-place character, 僧 sēng, between bodhi (菩提 pútíand svāhā (莎訶 shāhē). Even though this is probably the oldest version of the text, it is not without problems! 

      A similar dhāraṇi is also found in T. 21.1353 東方最勝燈王陀羅尼經 Dōngfāng zuìshèng dēngwáng tuóluóní jīng (First-radiance Knowledge King Sūtra = Sanskrit Agrapradīpadhārāṇīvidyarāja-sūtra). As in T 12.387 the dhāraṇī shares opening elements with the Heart Sutra mantra using the same transliterating characters.
      阿  竭帝 波羅竭帝 波羅僧竭帝     
      a    jiédì    bōluójiédì  bōluósēngjiédì   
      a gate paragate parasaṃgate
      Here the character 阿 is often used for the Sanskrit short 'a' vowel and thus may reference the idea of the perfection of wisdom  in one letter, or more precisely the fact that all dharmas are empty of self existence (sarvadharmāḥ svabhāvaśūnyatāḥ) because they are unarisen (anutpanna). See also The Essence of All Mantras; and Sound, Word, Reality.

      The gate gate mantra itself, with the same transliteration, is found in T 18.901 陀羅尼集經 Tuóluóní jí jīng (Dhāraṇī Collection Sūtra). This was translated ca. 653 CE which is around the same time that Nattier proposes for the composition of the Heart Sutra. Note also that it is a collection of dhāraṇī (陀羅尼 Tuóluóní) rather than mantra. The presence of a dhāraṇī in a collection is not conclusive evidence that it existed detached from the Heart Sutra before its composition, but it at least shows that dhāraṇīs can be detachable. It's quite possible that similar examples may turn up with further examination. 

      It seems that, not only is the core of the Heart Sutra an extract, but the "mantra" might also be an extract from a dhāraṇī. It might be thought that the fact that the Heart Sutra is a mash-up of bits from other texts invalidates the text. However the composition method closely resembles many Pāli texts which are clearly constructed from pre-existing elements that can be found scattered around the Canon. Far from being unusual, the Heart Sutra is following standard Buddhist procedure. Even the subsequent addition of a proper sūtra introduction is in keeping with general Buddhist practice. 

      In my discussion of cladistic methods applied to studying manuscripts, I argued that it would help to iron out biases. Another bias that Buddhist Studies faces is the prejudice in favour of texts with Indian "originals". In my essay Which Mahāyāna Texts? I outlined an observation made in another publication by Jan Nattier about which Mahāyāna texts are prominent in the West. The existence of a Sanskrit manuscript is one of the influential factors likely to bring a Mahāyāna text to prominence. The fact is that the Heart Sutra is broadly accepted as a genuine masterpiece of Buddhist thought. Commentaries from across the spectrum of Buddhist schools adopt the Heart Sutra as an epitome of their thought. Is a text any less authentic because it was not composed in India? It is true that Buddhists believed that the text was of Indian origin and that was an element in popularising it. Now that we know differently will Buddhists have to abandon this text? I think there is no question of abandoning the text, but the necessary adjustments might be quite difficult. One sign of this is the rejection of the Chinese origin thesis by Red Pine in the introduction to his translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra. Though his reasoning is spurious, it is none-the-less interesting to see how difficult Buddhists find it to absorb information like this.

      One of the reasons for writing about Nattier's work is that it has yet to penetrate to the heart of popular imagination and the discussion about textual origins is in its infancy. Such writing raises questions for Buddhists. If we take scholarship seriously, then we are forced to examine our own beliefs and sometimes to admit that our beliefs are based on false assumptions such as authenticity being related to India. 


      A further note 26 sept 2013.
      The Tibetan canonical versions of the Heart Sutra both include tadyathā in the mantra itself. I've looked at this generally in Tadyathā in the Heart Sūtra - the inclusion of tadyathā 'like this' in the mantra is like actors speaking stage directions out loud. One of the versions also interpolates oṃ into the mantra as do some of the Nepalese manuscripts. 


      I've already written about the mantra of this text a couple of times:

      All Chinese texts from CBETA.

      • Abé, Ryūichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.
      • Fukui Fumimasa (1981) Hannya shingyô no rekishiteki kenkyû. [= Historical studies of the Buddhist scripture Prajñaparamita-hrdaya or Heart Sutra.] Tōkyō: Shunjūsha. 
      • Studholme, Alexander (2002). The origins of oṃ manipadme hūṃ : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany: State university of New York Press.

      27 November 2009

      New Articles on Dhāraṇī

      Kharoṣṭhi Alpabet

      Gāndhārī Alphabet in
      the Kharoṣṭhī script
      It was with some anticipation that I began to read Ronald Davidson's new review article in the Journal of Indian Philosophy on the meaning of dhāraṇī in Mahāyāna Buddhism - a subject in desperate need of an overhaul. However Davidson seems to have misunderstood crucial aspects of the system of practice in which early dhāraṇī was located. My comments will mainly concern his understanding of the Arapacana alphabet, especially as it occurs in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, [1] however I flag up wider concerns as well.

      Davidson proposes the idea that the main point of the words associated with the Arapacana is to draw attention to how the letters can support (carry √dhṛ) meaning - thus linking dhāraṇī with the type of esoteric speculation in the early Upaniṣads and Tantric Buddhism. He explicitly denies the other and more natural possibility that the letters are mnemonics for words and concepts. His contention seems to be that the relationship must be this way around because in some texts different words are associated with the letters. The existence of variations on the theme in different texts surely suggests a technique widely used in different contexts, rather than incoherence or simple polysemy.

      There are two main objections to Davidson's thesis. He argues that the words indicated by the syllables are intended to help the student remember the alphabet. Even if we put aside the fact that the Gāndhārī alphabet continues to be used even when the rest of the work is composed in Sanskrit, and can therefore be of little practical use for learning there are deeper problems with the idea that the Arapacana developed in this way. Davidson uses same example already put forward by B.N. Mukherjee, though he seems unaware of this: a is for apple, b is for bear etc. But stop and think about this. A in the Arapacana, even in the very early versions, is for anutpannatva. This is an abstract noun from anutpanna (not-arising) meaning 'not-arising-ness'. In fact this is one of the most complex abstract ideas of Indian philosophy which cannot be easily understood outside the context of many years of instruction in Buddhist thinking. The other 4o odd letters stand for equally complex abstract concepts. Can Davidson really believe that such an abstruse abstract notion would be of use to a learner trying to memorise the alphabet? Surely this would be an impediment rather than a helpful mnemonic device! When we teach the alphabet we use concrete examples. I note that the children's Devanāgarī chart I picked up last time I was in India uses concrete examples as well: e.g. a is for anāra (pomegranate) and bha is for bhālū (bear).

      It makes much more sense to think of the letters as a mnemonic for the concepts, not the other way around. Davidson suggests that literacy in the India world at this time was low, but even if literacy was low in the rest of the world generally, Buddhist monks in Gandhāra probably all learned basic reading and writing, since the reading of texts had by then become a fundamental monastic skill. Indeed Buddhist monks were the primary vector for literacy in most of Central, Southern and South-East Asia as the persistence of Brahmī derived scripts testifies!

      More broadly the very presence of such lists and this level of abstraction speak of a written rather than oral culture. I've written about the probable Persian influence the alphabetical list, and that was a literate culture without any doubt, and their writing formed a model for the Kharoṣṭhī script [see: Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism]. However here I'm particularly thinking of the characteristics of oral cultures enumerated by Walter Ong - "an oral culture has no vehicle so neutral as a list... [oral cultures are] situational rather than abstract, unavoidably using concepts but again within situational frames of reference that are 'minimally abstract'." [2]

      The other objection is broader. If we look at the words indicated by the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and most other versions of the Arapacana [3] then we see that they are all related to śūnyatā - the notion that experiences are neither existent nor non-existent, that they have no independent existence (svabhāva). This is the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom approach to practice. Indeed taking the Arapacana in context with other statements in the sūtra [4] we can see that they form the basis of a insight meditation practice - by reflecting on various aspects of śūnyatā one comes to see the true nature of experience, and is liberated. The texts emphasise the sameness (samatā) of each of the syllables, not because of the inherent polysemy of letters making them interchangeable which they plainly are not, but because the concepts which they stand for show the practitioner the truth about experience being śūnyatā - śūnyatā is the common characteristic (i.e. the basis for the sameness) of all experience. Davidson seems to have lost sight of Nāgārjuna's polemics against ontology, not to mention the Buddha's.

      What I think Davidson is doing is reading the texts with a particular result in mind, specifically that the word dhāraṇī can best be understood as meaning code/coding. I wholeheartedly agree that other contemporary writers have erred in emphasising the mnemonic function of dhāraṇī generally or in maintaining the fiction that dhāraṇī are somehow 'summaries' of the text they appear in. The mnemonic function is restricted solely to the Arapacana context, though it clearly is a mnemonic in this context contra what Davidson says. I do not believe that I have seen any dhāraṇī that comprehensibly summarises a text - though of course this has not stopped people producing ad hoc/post hoc exegesis on the basis that dhāraṇī are somehow summaries. Witness the many and varied readings of the Heart Sūtra mantra for instance - most of which are mutually contradictory!

      A far better attempt, though more limited in scope, was published by Paul Copp in 2008. [5] Copp explores the way the word is used in Chinese translations of the Bodhisattvabhūmi and the Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Dazhidu Lun (大智度論). Copp shows that the basic meaning of the word dhāraṇī in these contexts can best be understood as 'grasp' - used in the sense of grasping the meaning, holding in memory, keeping in mind, etc. I concur. Just as the various meanings dharma (which I explored in Dharma - Buddhist Terminology) can be understood in terms of 'foundation' used literally, abstractly and metaphorically. It remains for Copp to show how his ideas fit into a much broader context, but his views seem more promising. I certainly prefer Copp's method of working from the texts to see what the word must mean in context, than Davidson's reading the meaning into the text.

      From the point of view of a practitioner Davidson's error is perhaps an understandable one. For him the ideas do not seem to be tied into the practical use that is made of them: Buddhism is an intellectual system to be studied and understood in contemporary Western terms. No doubt he understands that Buddhists practice Buddhism, but the deeper implications of this pragmatism are not apparent. The impracticability of teaching an alphabet with recondite abstractions is only the most obvious sign of this.

      One useful thing in Davidson's article is his survey of the history of the Western commentary on dhāraṇī - this threw up a few references I had not come across before. But that history is a bit depressing - it is a history of misunderstandings and the clash of Western preconceptions with Buddhist preoccupations. We're still trying to disentangle ourselves from that train wreck and in my opinion Davidson is pulling in the wrong direction.

      1. The Large PoW Sutra was translated by Conze but for variety of reasons the translation is less than satisfactory: for instance Conze was not working from an edited text and freely used passages from other versions in 18,000 and 100,000 lines where his manuscript (which itself has many faults) let him down. He also rearranged the text to suit subject headings from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Dutt's edition of the Sanskrit is flawed in the Arapacana sections with some doubling of syllables (which may be why Conze did not use it). Dutt was editing the text in the years before Salomon demonstrated that it was a real Alphabet. KIMURA is bringing out an edited Sanskrit text (see below) but the crucial part with the Arapacana is in the volume which has not yet been published. However some other related passages are available and I am working on translated them with my rather haphazard Sanskrit. - return to article
      2. [my italics] Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy, cited in Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness, p.33. - return to article
      3. The Arapacana in the Gandhavyūha Sūtra is the major exception. In this version the keywords do not relate to the alphabet at all indicating that the point of the exercise has been missed in this case. In this case the exception proves the rule. - return to article
      4. See for instance passages at p.162, 488-9, and especially p.587 in Conze's translation. I wonder if these scatter references were once more closely associated? - return to article
      5. Davidson may have been writing before Copp published, but does not seem to be aware of the article. - return to article

      • Conze, Edward (trans.) The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press, 1975.
      • Copp, Paul. Notes on the term Dhāraṇī in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Thought. Bulletin of SOAS. 71 (3) 2008: 493-508.
      • Davidson, Ronald. 'Studies in Dhāraṇī Literature I: Revisiting the Meaning of the Term Dhāraṇī'. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 37 (2) April 2009: 97-147.
      • Dutt, N. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra: edited with critical notes and introduction. London, Luzac & Co, 1934.
      • KIMURA Takayasu : Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 1986. Vols II-V (vol I forthcoming) Online:
      • Lopez, Donald J. 1996. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton University Press.
      • Mukherjee, B. N. 1999. Arapacana: a mystic Buddhist script in Bhattacharya, N. N. (ed) Tantric Buddhism. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p.303-317.
      See also my Arapacana bibliography.