Showing posts with label Historiography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Historiography. Show all posts

17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

Kuījī
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.


~~oOo~~

  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

Bibliography

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

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. http://www.acmuller.net/download/LaiWhalen_Awakening-of-Faith.pdf

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. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/satyadhana-formless_spheres.pdf

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

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.

~~oOo~~

  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

Bibliography

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. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/satyadhana-formless_spheres.pdf

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

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. 

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

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.

08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.


Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.


Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.


A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.

~~oOo~~

Sources Cited


Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

Attwood, J. (2013) Siddhārtha Gautama: What‘s in a Name?. Unpublished. https://www.academia.edu/4866512/Siddhārtha_Gautama_Whats_in_a_Name

Cribb, J. (2017). 'The Greek Contacts of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka and their Relevance to Mauryan and Buddhist Chronology' in Kamal Sheel, Charles Willemen and Kenneth Zysk (eds.) From Local to Global, Prof. A.K. Narain Commemoration Volume, Papers in Asian History and Culture (3 vol.). Delhi: Buddhist World Press. Vol. I: 3–27. Online.

Drewes, D. (2017). The Idea of the Historical Buddha. JIABS. 40: 1–25. Online.

Gombrich, R. (1992). 'Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed' in Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, Part 2 (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 2). Göttigen: venderhoeck & Ruprect, pp.237-59. Online.

Witzel, E. J. M. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.