Showing posts with label Heart Sutra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Heart Sutra. Show all posts

17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

In Part I and Part II of this essay, I laid out a lot of evidence drawn from Chinese sources from the 4th to the 8th century. Most of the evidence is complicated in that it can be interpreted different ways. The received tradition has relied on presenting a partial picture and a single monolithic reading that sustains the status quo of the Buddhist establishment.

Having an esoteric text that can only be understood by masters is a way to engage in what has recently been called "charismatic signalling". Masters display their mastery by commenting on the ineffable as embodied by the Heart Sutra. "Effing the ineffable" as David Chapman has memorably phrased it. The master signals that they have a shaman-like ability to cross the boundaries into the other world and bring back knowledge.

The status quo was disrupted in 1992 by Jan Nattier when she proved that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese and the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya was a translation from the Chinese. Nattier has made an inestimable contribution to Buddhism Studies. However, her discovery has been met with ambivalence and rather late, grudging acknowledgement from Western academics and open hostility from some Japanese (who are typically also clergymen).

Given the evidence of the bibliographers and early commentators, there are at least three different narratives that we must now consider: 1) the already discredited received tradition of the Heart Sutra in which Xuanzang translates a text he is given in Sichuan; 2) a version of events in which the Xīnjīng is identified with the shénzhòu texts and is an anonymous digest text; and 3) a version in which the Xīnjīng is a standalone digest text.

The question of the Sanskrit text is secondary to this, since it is a translation of the Xīnjīng. My paper putting this beyond all doubt has been accepted by the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and will appear in November 2018. When we think about what was happening in China at the time and how Buddhist texts were being used, it becomes apparent that the Sanskrit text had a particular role in the history of the Heart Sutra and I will spell this out.

We begin by reviewing the received tradition.

The Received Tradition

The received tradition is that the Heart Sutra was composed in the 3rd or 4th Century, in Sanskrit, in India, and transmitted via the usual routes to China. It may have been in China by 374 CE, but was definitely translated by Kumārajīva (Damingzhoujing; T250) in the early 5th Century and then by Xuanzang (Xīnjīng; T251) in 649 CE. This is complicated by the story of Xuanzang receiving the text in Sichuan from a sick man before travelling to India in 629. Was that text in Chinese or Sanskrit? Each option is problematic.

But the problems go very deep with this narrative. Jan Nattier (1992) has already shown, on the basis of internal evidence, that the Sanskrit text is a translation of the Chinese rather than vice versa. Publications by Matthew Orsborn (writing as Huifeng 2014) and myself (2017, 2018 forthcoming) have confirmed this by showing that the translator at times misread the Chinese text and chose the wrong Sanskrit words and phrases, and that the Sanskrit text contains a number of Chinese idioms that cannot have come from an Indian, Sanskrit-using milieu.

Furthermore, in this three part essay, I have now shown that the Chinese bibliographies do not support this version of events either. Rather, they consistently see the text as having no translator and class it with other digest texts. The Heart Sutra perfectly fits the description of a digest text in that it cites a passage from Chapter 3 of the Dajing (T223) but also uses shorter pericopes from Chapters 19 and 33. 

The received tradition is also historically problematic in the way it portrays Xuanzang in relation to Taizong, Gaozong, and Wu Zetian. The historical evidence frequently contradicts the received tradition and makes it seem highly implausible.

Clearly, this version of the history of the Heart Sutra does not stand even superficial scrutiny. It is surprising how little scrutiny it has received from scholars of Buddhism and how long it has survived as the official story. Many facts, such as the translation date, are cited uncritically even by scholars who should know better.

The Shénzhòu Identity

In the second scenario, a digest text similar (or identical) to the Damingzhoujing was produced soon after Kumārajīva completed his Dajing translation (T223) in 404 CE, although there is no record of this until the Kaiyuan Catalogue of 730 CE. This text circulated, but was completely eclipsed by Xuanzang's translation when it appeared — the first and only time a translation by Xuanzang displaced one by Kumārajīva in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Though the Damingzhoujing exists, and is regarded as canonical, not a single commentary on it is preserved, nor is it mentioned in any other text until the 20th Century.

This early version of the Heart Sutra went by a different name before the Tang Dynasty, i.e., (摩訶)般若波羅蜜神呪 (Móhē)bōrěbōluómì-shénzhòu. Even so, all the extant bibliographies up to the Tang recognise the text as lacking a translator, and most also class it as a digest text (抄經 chāojīng). As such the text was always recorded apart from authentic sutras.

The problem with this scenario is that the shénzhòu texts appear in bibliographies stretching back to Dàoān's catalogue dated 374 CE, as recorded by Sēngyòu in 515 CE. The texts that we take to be the Heart Sutra date from before Kumārajīva's Dajing (T223); however, all the extant Heart Sutra texts cite it.

If the Xīnjīng is, in fact, a continuation of the shénzhòu texts, then we have a fundamental contradiction and the scenario falls apart. If the Xīnjīng is not related to the shénzhòu texts then the shénzhò texts are irrelevant to the history of the Heart Sutra. Either way, this scenario is not viable.

Xīnjīng Standalone

The final scenario is that the shénzhòu texts referred to in pre-Tang catalogues are not the Heart Sutra. The shénzhòu texts do, indeed, predate Kumārajīva's Dajing, but this is not problematic because they are not the Heart Sutra. Hundreds of digest texts (抄經) were produced in early medieval China. It would be more surprising if there were not more than one digest based on Prajñāpāramitā texts which were first translated in China in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries.

In this scenario, the Xīnjīng is a completely new digest of Kumārajīva's Dajing, including a smattering of terms introduced by Xuanzang. As these terms were introduced by Xuanzang after his return from India, the Xīnjīng must have been created after 645 CE. Since the text is carved in stone in 661 CE, we have a maximum window of just 16 years in which it could have been redacted from Kumārajīva's Dajing. Given that it must have taken some time for the popularisation of these new translations, the window narrows towards the later date.

The fly in the ointment is the Damingzhoujing which, by consensus, represents an earlier version by virtue of being closer to the original. However, it was clearly not redacted by Kumārajīva for the many reasons spelled out by Nattier (1992: 184-189). We can add that Kumārajīva was a foreigner and the elegance of his translations is almost entirely due to his working with talented Chinese assistants. The fact is that Kumārajīva is unlikely to have had sufficient command of written Chinese to make a digest sutra in that language, though some of his assistants may have. By the 7th Century, the manuscripts of the Large Sutra and commentary that Kumārajīva's translation group worked from in the 5th Century were unlikely to be extant. Hence the need to travel to India to get more manuscripts. As such, the date of the Damingzhoujing is in doubt. I will advance a new theory about this text below.

Of these three narratives there is only one which is not immediately ruled out by the evidence from the bibliographies. In this view, the Xīnjīng is a relatively late, Chinese-language, digest sutra produced between 645 and 661.

The Chinese/Sanskrit Complex

The Xīnjīng is easily recognised as a digest text if one is aware of the category and is scrutinising the text. I've shown how bibliographers from Sengyou (515 CE) onwards established the criteria for judging authenticity and consistently treated digest texts as inauthentic. Chief amongst the authenticity criteria were a connection to India and attribution to a named translator. This set the scene for making the Xīnjīng, a digest text, into a bone fide sutra. The transformation was achieved by attributing the "translation" of the text to the famous pilgrim and translator, Xuanzang. The first time we actually meet the Xīnjīng, in 661 CE, it is presented as a fully fledged sutra translated by him.

Religieux and scholars alike have uncritically accepted the authenticity of the Heart Sutra based primarily on this association with Xuanzang.

The rest of the information establishing the authenticity of the Heart Sutra dribbled out over quite a long period of time, but is also treated as authentic by scholars. After Xuanzang's death (664 CE), the sutra is officially ascribed to him by the bibliographer, Dàoxuān, in his Nèidiǎn Catalogue (664 CE). The story is elaborated twenty years later in the Biography (688 CE). It depicts a much closer bond to Taizong than seems plausible; and introduces important elements of the backstory such as receiving the text from a sick man and presenting Gaozong with a copy in 656 CE. There seems to be no reference to any of this in secular sources. However, note that all of these events take place during the time that Wu Zetian is either de facto or de jure ruler of China.

Then, in 730, the Kāiyuán Catalogue adds the date of the translation. This date was not noted by either of the catalogues produced in 664, even though one of them was compiled specifically to include translations by Xuanzang. The Kāiyuán Catalogue also introduces us to the Damingzhoujing for the first time.

The problem with relying on Xuanzang to legitimise the text is that his work is very well known. The fact that he does not mention the Heart Sutra or include it in with his Prajñāpāramitā translations is more significant than has been credited. To be credible, the attribution would require some sort of recognition from Xuanzang himself. Instead, he seems to be unaware of the text. The same goes for Kumārajīva and the Damingzhoujing. There are many reasons to be doubtful about these attributions, but the fact that two prolific authors themselves never mention a text they are supposed to have translated should ring alarm bells. Not including the Heart Sutra translation in T220 is effectively a denial by Xuanzang that he did translate it.

We have also seen how the commentaries of Kuījī (ca 664-683) and Woncheuk (ca 664-696) played a role in legitimising the text by taking on its own terms. Kuījī appears to be writing sometime after the death of Xuanzang, since he quotes from T220, but makes no reference to a Sanskrit text. Woncheuk, writing at an unspecified period but possibly after Kuījī, does appear to have a Sanskrit text but does not translate it and does not treat it as wholly authoritative. Both men seem to be aware that they are commenting on a digest text extracted from the Dajing, though there remains some ambiguity to this. Since Kuījī was Xuanzang's successor, he would have had access to a Sanskrit text if one was available, hence it was probably produced after his commentary.

When looking at the history of Buddhism we are frequently asked to believe that the assigning of an author or translator could be an act of humility or homage on the part of the true author. Ancient writers, we are told, credited their teacher, for example, or some other worthy person rather than take credit themselves. It was all quite innocent and "in that culture" they were not bothered by questions of authorship or copyright.

The Chinese bibliographers show that at least some Chinese Buddhist monks did not think this way at all. They were very much concerned with authorship, authenticity and the accurate attribution of texts to authors and translators. They went to a lot of trouble to distinguish authentic translations from inauthentic, and codified different levels of authenticity. It was often the bibliographers who added attributions to anonymous texts based on their research. On the other hand, Robert Buswell has argued that, in the wider Chinese culture of the time, the concerns of the bibliographers were not always shared by other Buddhists. Texts identified by Bibliographers as fake, such as The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna and the Pseudo-Śūraṃgama Sūtra remained in popular use (on the former see Lai 1975 and the latter see Benn 2009).

Creating a Chinese language digest text for a Chinese audience would not have raised any eyebrows. It was a common practice, though going out of fashion by the beginning of the Tang (in 618) as genuine Buddhist texts began to flood into China. It is a stretch to accept the attempt to pass off a digest as an authentic sutra as quite so innocent. Some digest texts and outright fakes were passed off and were only identified much later, often after modern methods of scholarship emerged. I can find no other case where a Sanskrit text was produced for the purposes of legitimising a Chinese apocryphon.

The Chinese Xīnjīng was already in a rather grey area when, late in the 7th Century, someone produced a Sanskrit translation of it and managed to convince the experts that it was an Indian "original" of which the Xīnjīng is a translation by Xuanzang. And this before Xuanzang was even dead. In an environment in which Buddhism was taught and practiced through the medium of Chinese (hence the importance of translations), and only a handful of people could read Sanskrit, the Sanskrit text served only one purpose; i.e., to make a text of doubtful authenticity seem completely authentic. This seems to go beyond what might be put down as humility or piety by the author. Someone set out to deceive us as to the origins of this text.

Far from being an Indian original, the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya is a deliberate and knowing forgery. The forgery succeeded spectacularly, producing what must be one of the longest running hoaxes in history. By the end of the 7th century the Xīnjīng was incorporated into the Chinese Canon as a translation of an authentic Sanskrit sūtra produced in India. By the eighth century it was joined by the Damingzhoujing, the Amoghavajra transliteration of the Sanskrit text (T256), and two more translations that were from the Sanskrit (T252, T253). More would follow along with the longer version of the text, which possibly was produced in India. The existence of the Sanskrit text blinded everyone to the true history of the Heart Sutra, including the Indian commentators.

Not only is the true history of the Heart Sutra emerging for the first time, but some hard truths about the transmission of Buddhism are coming out also. The romantic ideal of disciples writing down the wise words of the master and transmitting high-fidelity copies of these to far off places is clearly bunk. When cultures assimilate Buddhism, they are not passive. They actively shape the form that Buddhism takes in their society. Buddhism is literally whatever Buddhists say it is.

Who Forged the Hṛdaya?

The Fengshan Stele, dated 661 CE, already attributes the "translation" of the Xīnjīng to Xuanzang. Thus we know that the plot was hatched during Xuanzang's lifetime, but it is very difficult to know what involvement he might have had. Certainly, had he been the translator (of the Sanskrit) we'd have expected him to do a better job of it and to own it. By 660 he was in failing health and he spent the last three years of his life in seclusion with a team translating the Prajñāpāramitā texts that he'd brought from India. Scholars will often reference Xuanzang's strong connection with Prajñāpāramitā, but, in fact, they were the last texts that he translated. His main concern was with texts directly related to Yogācāra.

There is still a lot more painstaking, detailed, forensic examination of relevant material to be conducted and I can only hope that my amateur efforts will stimulate the professionals to come back and look again at the neglected Heart Sutra. We may never be able to establish who pulled off the initial hoax. At the moment, I think it is likely that the forger worked alone since no word of it ever leaked. They managed to deflect attention away from themselves - no one claims responsibility for "finding" the Sanskrit text, for example. The forger had to be a member of the small circle of Chinese monks educated in Sanskrit, but also someone with the authority to pass off a counterfeit manuscript without causing suspicion. The text had to have been physically forged as well and in such a way as other experts were not suspicious. Very few monks of the day would have dealt directly with Indian manuscripts.

Perhaps 60 monks were part of Xuanzang's inner circle of translators and most of their names are lost. Woncheuk, Huili, and Dàoxuān were around at the time, but they seem to have alibis. One suspect stands out as having the means and the opportunity, i.e., Kuījī, Xuanzang's chief student and successor.

However, it is not at all clear what the forger's motivation might have been. Obviously someone wanted us to believe that the Heart Sutra is authentic, but what is gained by this? What does anyone stand to gain by convincing people that the Heart Sutra was composed in India when there are any number of genuine Indian Buddhist texts available, in multiple translations. Identifying the underlying motive for the forgery will be an important step in the process of identifying the culprit. 

This, then, is the true history of the Heart Sutra, or at least as close to it as I have been able to get. Lest it be seen as a wholesale denunciation of the text I will finish by suggesting some reasons that the Heart Sutra should continue to valued by Buddhists.

The Value of the Heart Sutra

When Jan Nattier suggested, with a good deal more politesse than I would have, that the Heart Sutra was a Chinese apocryphon, it caused a minor stir. A few Japanese scholars got angry and soon produced refutations that bring to mind the hysterical response of historians to Wu Zetian. Western Scholars mostly decided to stay out of it. Both Matthew Orsborn and Dan Lusthaus suggested that there might be minor flaws in Nattier's argument (I disagree, but have also suggested my own very minor corrections). That said, Orsborn, then writing as Huifeng (2014), was the first scholar to publish work which took on Nattier's approach and extended it. And by doing so he transformed our understanding of the text. When I appeared on the scene, in 2015 (having started working on the Heart Sutra in 2012), I began by showing that Edward Conze had made errors in editing, translating, and explaining the text. Over the next few years I also explored the evolution of the Heart Sutra and extended Nattier and Orsborn's work on understanding and translating the Chinese text. I've now written more than 40 essays on aspects of the Heart Sutra, and my 5th peer-reviewed article has just been accepted for publication (No.6 is almost finished, and no. 7 will be a formal write up of these notes). All going to plan, a book will follow. I am as qualified as any person, living or dead, to comment on this text.

We now know that the received tradition of the history of the Heart Sutra is bunk. We also know that the standard mystical approaches to the text, the Theosophy inspired gnosticism, are very wide of the mark. Suzuki and Conze might have understood Zen, but they did not understand the Heart Sutra or the long-dead Prajñāpāramitā tradition.

Where does all this leave the text? When Orsborn showed that aprāptitvād "from a state of nonattainment" was, in fact, a mistranslation of a Chinese phrase and ought to have been anupalambhayogena "through the exercise of nonapprehension", he also noted that his discovery shifted the reading from the usual metaphysics and mysticism towards a more realist epistemology. In fact, his discovery is key to understanding the Heart Sutra as a Prajñāpāramitā text and to understanding the Prajñāpāramitā literature as a whole. I have also argued for such an approach, showing that we can read the Heart Sutra using Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience (2017b). My colleague Satyadhana has highlighted connections with Pāli suttas and meditations in the formless spheres (arūpa-āyatanā). Although I have made small original contributions, my work on the Heart Sutra is largely corrective and synthesises the contributions of Nattier, Osborn, Satyadhana, and Hamilton.

“Mediation is not about having experiences, it is about bringing experience to an end.” 
 ‒ Satyapriya

“The Buddha presents a life extinction program, not a life improvement program” 
In this view the text does have magical elements, but it is primarily a perspective on a kind of Buddhist practice that involves withdrawing attention from sense experiences so that one does not apprehend (upa√labh) them. The practice of nonapprehension (anupalambha-yoga) of dharmas is central to the Prajñāpāramitā. Just such a practice of withdrawing attention from sense experience is outlined in the Majjhima-Nikāya (MN 121) and so this material is relevant for early Buddhism enthusiasts as well.

By withdrawing attention from sense experience, using meditative techniques, we can bring sense experience to a halt without losing consciousness. In the ensuing state, the processes which give rise to experience (i.e., the skandhas) are not apprehended. Nor are the objects of the senses. This state feels like being in infinite space. If we also withdraw attention from cognitive experience, then we cease to apprehend thoughts and it feels like infinite consciousness. Through several more refinements that are more difficult to explain, one ends up in the state of emptiness in which there is only a kind of base awareness; one is conscious, but not of anything. Subject and object do not arise. Self does not arise. No dharmas arise in this state. And this is what the Heart Sutra is describing.

That is to say, the Heart Sutra does not deny the existence of dharmas, but notes that in emptiness (śūnyatāyām) no dharmas register in the awareness of the practitioner. And we can say that having been in that state (tathā-gata) one's whole world is changed. The idea that the Heart Sutra is about negation or  non-existence is simply wrong. Despite the fact that negation is at the heart of a lot of Mahāyāna rhetoric, it has nothing to do with the anupalambha-yoga. Far from being profound, the ontological reading of the Heart Sutra is facile. It ends in paradox, and no, that is not a good thing. Paradox in this case represents a level of unhelpful confusion that pervades Buddhist ideology. We have to set aside Nāgārajuna if we ever hope to understand Prajñāpāramitā, because he has disappeared down a metaphysical cul de sac.

The Heart Sutra epitomises the Buddhist project to extinguish sense experience and cognition, but it also reminds us of the credulity of religious Buddhists and the superficiality of most Buddhist philosophy. And this strongly suggests that what Buddhists believe is nowhere near as relevant to success with Buddhist practices as Buddhists say it is. Right-view is something that emerges from  the experience of emptiness, it seems to make no contribution to having the experience. And in this sense, meditation is an equal opportunity practice: it requires no intellectual skill, no philosophy, no education, and no ability to think clearly. It only requires an ability to first direct attention and then withdraw attention.

Fundamentally, Buddhism asks us to orient ourselves away from the kamaloka, to turn away from sense experience as a means to life satisfaction. The Heart Sutra draws mainly on a tradition of attempts to communicate from the ārupaloka. This is not some metaphysical absolute. It is not a paramārtha-satya or ultimate truth. Emptiness is not some alternative reality. It is experiential, though perhaps not in any way that someone intoxicated with sense experience can appreciate.

In conclusion, then, the Heart Sutra is not what we were told it is, but it is exactly what we wish it to be. It is not an Indian, Sanskrit text. It is not a genuine sutra. It is a patchwork of pericopes, stitched together by a 7th Century Chinese monk. However, it does contain an accurate depiction of what we often call the farther shore, the cessation of sensory experience and cognitive experience that results in the radical reorganisation of our psyche away from self-centredness.


  1. Part I (03 August 2018). Bibliographies up to the Tang and early commentaries.
  2. Part II (10 August 2018). The historical background, Xuanzang, and the emergence 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.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2018 forthcoming). ‘The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 15. [to be published Nov 2018]

Benn, James A. (2008). 'Another Look at the Pseudo-Śūraṃgama sūtra'. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 68(1), 57-89.

Buswell, Robert E. (1990). 'Introduction: Prolegomenon to the Study of Buddhist Apocryphal Scriptures.' in Robert E. Buswell (ed). Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. University of Hawai'i Press, p. 1-30.

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.

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

Lai, Whalen Wai-lun (1975). The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun): A study of the unfolding of the Sinitic Mahayana Motifs. PhD Thesis, Harvard University.

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.

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

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


Attwood, Jayarava. (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 8, 28-48.

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.

Bulbulia, Joseph and Schjoedt, Uffe. (2010). 'Religious Culture and Cooperative Prediction under Risk: Perspectives from Social Neuroscience' in Religion, Economy, and Cooperation, edited by I. Pyysiäinen. (Religion and Reason. 49). De Gruyter.

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.

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.

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.

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.

29 June 2018

Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

譯 = Translator?

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

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

Critical Thinking and Historiography

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching the subject

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

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

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

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

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

Precision vs Accuracy

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

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

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

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

Doing Historiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions, questions

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

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



Chinese texts from the Online CBETA Reader.

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

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