Showing posts with label History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History. Show all posts

28 September 2018

Edward Conze: A Study in Contradiction

I wrote this introduction to Edward Conze for my book on the Heart Sutra

No introduction to the Prajñāpāramitā would be complete without some reference to the eccentric German scholar, Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979), aka Dr Edward Conze. I think this is particularly important because his reputation is rather inflated. There is no doubt that he was a gifted linguist and a pioneer of studying the Prajñāpāramitā texts, but he was also a snob, a racist, and a misogynist. People who are in no position to judge still rave about what a great scholar he was, but much of his scholarship is tainted by poor attention to detail and infected his peculiar personal religion. Since I am in the business of revising the history of the Heart Sutra, I may as well put Dr Conze into some perspective as well.

The key historical source for Conze’s life is his own Memoires of a Modern Gnostic (1979 I & II), written at the behest of Jan Willem de Jong (see Wiles 2018). The Memoires were published in two parts, the first being more biographic, the second his impressions of politics, people, and places. Conze wrote a third part, in which he gave frank opinions of certain people and included comments from parts I and II considered libellous by his lawyer. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, as far as I can tell Muriel Conze destroyed part III and no copies remain. Which is probably just as well judging by parts I and II. Some years ago I asked Sangharakshita about the rumour that he had a copy and he definitely does not.

Jan Nattier (2003) noted several principles for extracting historical information from normative texts such as Buddhist sutras, one of which was the principle of embarrassment. This states that if something is included in a text which reflects poorly on the author, then it is likely to be true, for few authors set out to darken their own reputations. A great deal of what Conze says of himself reflects poorly on him and social changes in the last 10-15 years have not improved the outlook. Indeed some admissions approved by his lawyer in 1979, would very likely see him arrested in 2018.

Conze is a difficult figure to pin down. His own mother apparently said of him, “He himself is nothing at all, just a bundle of contradictions” (Conze 1979: I 29), though elsewhere it is apparent that their relationship was difficult. Reading the Memoires we meet a man who has many of the prejudices we might expect of someone with his privileged background, but who is nevertheless an avowed Communist and denounces his own class. He hates warmongering but is constantly engaged in personal conflicts, and harbours animosities based on perceived weaknesses and faults in others. He declares his own genius, but is, for all that, a rather sloppy editor and translator (something he admits); he is an industrious worker, but a rather lazy intellectual. He can say things like “Ever since the radio was introduced in the early twenties, I have hated it with all my heart and all my soul” (I 103), then a few pages later casually mention something of importance that he heard on the radio (I 113).

Conze was an intellectual who rejected science as a “bag of tricks” and instead embraced the anti-intellectual pursuits of astrology and mysticism. His “life-long acceptance of magic... has not been so much due to theoretical considerations as to the early acquired intuitive certainty that beyond, or behind, the veil of the deceptive sensory appearances, there lies a reality of magical, or occult, forces” (I 32).  This classic matter-spirit dualism, to go with his elitist, social dualism, is key to understanding his exegesis of the Heart Sutra. Even though he appears to adopt a language of non-dualism: his realm of non-dualism lies beyond this one. His is very much a dualistic non-dualism, with a Platonic/Romantic distrust of his senses.

Above all, in writing this, I want to correct the bias with which Conze is presented to the public. The picture of the mega-star scholar toiling selflessly to bring the Dharma to the people is contradicted by his own account of himself. For one thing, he made it clear that he despised the common people. “Speaking of ‘hoi polloi’, it has always been a cornerstone of my beliefs that there are two qualitatively distinct kinds of people... ‘the Noble ones’ and ‘the foolish common people’... the elite and the canaille” (I 52). The word canaille literally means “a pack of dogs”. Of course, this kind of bigotry, along with overt racism, was instilled into people of his social background from an early age and it would have been remarkable if he had risen above it; though this does not excuse it or make it any more palatable.

At times Conze seems to have something of a Messiah complex. For example, when he says, “From early times onwards it has been my conviction that I have come from a higher realm... and that I was sent to the Western barbarians so as to soften their hearts by teaching them the Holy Prajñāpāramitā" (I 55). And yet he had no tolerance at all for people he considered his social inferiors, let alone for "barbarians". A messiah who hated the people he had been sent to save.

Early Life

Adelle Köttgen & Ernst Conze
Date unknown. Family photo from Ebay

Edward Conze was, as he admits, a man of his class and age (1979 I iv). In other words, he was an early 20th Century, German bourgeoisie. The Conze family owned textile manufacturing plants in the small, but wealthy town of Langenberg, in Northern Germany near the Ruhr Valley (2016: xvii).  His mother's family,  the  Köttgen's were also "textile barons" (Heine 2016: xvii). Conze describes the 1903 marriage of his parents, Dr Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962) as, "a marriage between two factories" (I 1). 

Ernst Conze studied law at Bonn University (gaining a doctorate) then joined the Auswärtigen Amt (Foreign Office), where he served in Berlin and Antwerp, before being posted to Britain as a Vice Consul. Eberhart was born in London, in 1904. However, the family soon returned to Langenberg where Ernst became a magistrate in Wipperfürth and Cologne. He became District Court Director in Düsseldorf, and from 1924 to 1934, he held the office of President of the Reich Disciplinary Chamber (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 262). Adele was a painter of some talent, even exhibiting her work in 1930 (Langenberger Kulturlexikon 2009: 875). In old age, Adele converted to Catholicism and moved to a monastery near Heidelberg.  

Eberhart's paternal grandfather, Gottfried Conze, was deeply involved in the monarchist politics of the German Empire under Wilhelm II and in "the Protestant Church" (Lutheran?). One of his great-grandfathers, Gustav Köttgen, was part of the nascent Communist movement in the mid-1800s. Frederick Engels came from the same region and a similar background and Conze claimed some familial relation to him (though it is not clear how they were related).

His parent’s marriage was unhappy and he did not have a good relationship with his mother (I 4). He notes that she had great potential but was forced into the life of a small-town hausfrau with no prospect of escape. She was bored and bitter and since young Eberhart leaned towards his father, she included him in the enmity she felt for Ernst Conze. His younger brother, Wolf (b. 1906), however, was the object of her affections. This seems to have affected Conze's relations with women generally. Accused of grooming a young woman in one of his classes he complains that it is ridiculous because she is blond and he does not even like blonds but prefers women who look like his mother.

Despite the nationality of his parents, being born in London entitled Conze to British Citizenship. Both his parents were Anglophiles as well as Anglophones. When he visited England in 1924 he renewed his citizenship and thus, when he fell afoul of the Nazis, he was able to escape to Britain.

Conze's attitude toward the National Socialist Workers Party or "the Nazis" is instructive. Fundamentally, Conze resented authority, but more so when he perceived power to be wielded by people he considered socially or intellectually inferior to himself.  He described Hitler as someone literally possessed by demonic forces but he also says that Hitler "illustrates the danger of allowing the lower middle classes to exercise power" (I 9). Hitler was not one of the social elite and thus lacked the upbringing and education to fit him for leadership (I 11). Indeed, it is likely that the mocking epithet "Nazi" reflects the same social prejudice, since it was a German shortening of Ignatius. The German bourgeoisie of that time would often tell jokes in which the butt was a Bavarian peasant named Nazi (Forsyth 112-3). 

Conze claims to have hated the Nazis, though he shared some of their views on race and democracy. He was deeply prejudiced against Africans and people of Africa heritage; e.g., “In due course [Notting Hill Gate] was finished off by the blacks, who slowly moved down from Paddington Station” (I 64). He writes about being "driven out of Notting Hill by the blacks” (I 102), but also notes, “My further comments on the negrification [sic] of Notting Hill Gate manifestly contravene the Race Relations Act of June 1977. They are therefore removed to Part III” (I 65). Dr Conze's bowdlerised remarks passed in 1979 but would be considered hate speech now. Even when he writes positively of Jewish people, he cannot help but use racial labels in essentialist ways. That someone is "a Jew" or "Jewess", for example, is always made clear, whereas he does not insist on referring to, say, Tucci, as "Italian" or de Jong as "Dutch". It is a curious fact that the mainstream were at the time, and are now, all too willing to overlook Conze’s overt racism. 

Conze recounts that his first contact with Buddhism was aged thirteen when he read an account of Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn (I 6). His interest in Buddhism continued through his university days. Shortly after gaining his PhD, he was introduced to Theosophy and astrology by Prof. Verweyen (I 9). Later on, he says that “the Conze family had always harboured a number of Theosophists though they were usually of the Rudolf Steiner persuasion.” (I 31) As a child, an aunt gave him a copy of Annie Besant’s translation and explanation of the Bhagavadgītā: “I was terribly excited by it” (I 31). In 1939 he also became a convert to astrology. He writes:
“Astrology has set me inwardly free from the claims a technological society can make on my allegiance. It has convinced me that Science, its basic, ingredient, has little cognitive value, but is rather a bag of tricks invented by God-defying people to make life increasingly unbearable on Earth and finally to destroy it” (I 32).
We should keep in mind that Conze was 10 when World War I broke out and 14 when it ended, through his teens and early 20s he must have been acutely aware of the impact of the war and the crushing burden of reparations. He lived through, though does not mention, Germany's brief period of hyperinflation. Combined with his background and what we know about his parents, we can imagine why Eberhart saw the world in apocalyptic terms. Another sign of the contradictions at work in Conze is that just four pages later in his Memoires he writes that:
“In the [1935 book] ‘Scientific Method of Thinking’ I spelled this out for practical Englishmen by saying that mankind was doomed unless [it] could apply to the ordering of Society the same kind of Scientific Methods which had led to all these discoveries in the Natural Sciences and that dialectical materialism provided that method” (I 36).
The idea that dialectical materialism might be in any way related to the scientific method demonstrates that, like many anti-intellectuals, Conze is almost entirely innocent of any knowledge of the subject that he hated. In any case, astrology and Theosophy were to influence his views far more than science throughout his life and were only reinforced by his contact with the well-known Japanese Theosophist, D. T. Suzuki.

As a young man, Conze had an intellectual infatuation with Communism. In 1932 he published his magnum opus, The Principle of Contradiction. The book is concerned with the philosophy of dialectical materialism rather than the practical or economic aspects of Marxism. Conze has said of the book, "In fact it contains all my later ideas without exception" (1975: ix). This is a telling statement. Conze already knew what he thought about everything before he approached Buddhist texts more seriously. Subsequently, his method was to look for and find confirmation of his views in those texts. Anyone who adopts this approach is bound to succeed.

His anti-authoritarian attitudes led him to help organise political activities, particularly once the Nazis rose to prominence and then power. Conze' communist affiliations in Germany and Britain later caused his application to work in the USA to be declined. Curiously, for a Communist, Conze appears to have nothing good to say about the working classes. The best we can say is that working class people seem to avoid his direct gaze and disapprobation. Judging by the Memoires, the point of Communism was to bring down the ruling elite, destroy the modern world, and take us back to the pre-industrial society; it was not to hand the means of production to the workers. Speaking of his visit to Spain in 1936 he says "In rural Spain I caught a glimpse of pre-Industrial man and I realized how much we have lost." (I 19).

Despite apparently being a Marxist, Conze appears to have no sympathy for class struggle, let alone class warfare. He was unembarrassed about dividing society into the elite and the dogs, to call himself a member of the elite, and to suppose that the elite ought to be in charge. We can only imagine what Marx would have made of this bourgeois attitude. Conze's was more the intellectual communism of the unhappy rich boy trying to get back at the parents who did not love him, than the practical communism of an oppressed worker seeking a fairer world. But he does not see this. In a classic case of psychological projection, describing English communists, Conze writes: "Most came from Public Schools and harboured obscure resentments about their parents, headmasters and the [Officer Training Corp]." (I 21).

Most relevant to the history of the Heart Sutra, young Eberhart showed early promise as a linguist, claiming that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages (I 4). Heine (2016) suggests that these included German, English, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian, Sanskrit and Pāli. His family's wealth allowed him to pursue a university education in a desultory fashion, moving around half a dozen different universities until he found a teacher to his liking. He describes himself as "rebellious", but I suspect he simply felt superior to his teachers. Being unwilling to put up with anyone he judged inferior and having more or less unlimited funds, he simply moved on. Surprisingly, given his approach, he completed a PhD in philosophy at the University of Cologne in 1928 (aged twenty-four). His post-graduate studies saw him continue the pattern of moving around.

He moved to Britain in 1933, largely to escape the Nazis. His stories about this vary. Early in the Memoires, he says he was warned by Nazis to flee in a rather bland encounter over the flying of a flag from his balcony, but later (I 40, n.1) he recalls being chased by the Gestapo and hiding from them in a mental hospital. There are many times in the Memoires where he seems unsure about whether to be humble or to brag and ends up humblebragging. In his introduction to the recent reprint of Conze's Principle of Contradiction, Holgar Heine (2016) suggests that, in fact, it was the public burning of most of the copies of the first German edition of this book by Nazis soon after it was published that led Conze to leave Germany.

We can only presume that it was around this time that Eberhart became Edward because he does not say. Conze had a variety of jobs during and after the war, supporting himself by teaching evening classes in German, psychology, and philosophy. Later, some bequests made him financially independent. The one permanent academic position he was offered was in the USA and the government there saw him as an undesirable alien because of his past as a Communist and his unwillingness to cooperate with them on exposing other communists. He saw the immigration officials as inferior and thus toyed with them for his own amusement, but it backfired on him. For a time Conze continued to be interested in left-wing politics and he made connections in the British Labour party, particularly with Ellen Wilkinson. Together, the two wrote anti-fascist pamphlets and two short books.

On fleeing Germany, Conze had married his partner, Dorothea Finkelstein, as much as anything to prevent her from being sent back to Germany and certain death because she was Jewish. This marriage of convenience (at least as far as Conze was concerned) did not last long; they separated soon after the war, briefly reconciled, but then Conze embarked on a series of affairs with his students that he took little or no trouble to hide. In the Memoires, he recounts, over several pages in small type, sexually assaulting a female student as though it were an amusing anecdote (II 116-118). On reflection he says:
“I did not want a wife at all, but a servant who would look after me while I was doing my scholarly work. If it had not been for the servant shortage which set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all” (I 31).
Conze and Dorothea were eventually divorced in 1962. Conze had met Muriel Green, who was to become his second wife, some years earlier in 1948. The two lived together as a married couple and Muriel changed her name to Conze by deed poll. However, their marital status occasionally caused problems for him, as it was unusual, even scandalous, at the time. Conze credits Muriel with providing the material stability that enabled him to continue his work. He was apparently incapable of any domestic task. However, before he met Muriel, Conze went through a crisis.

A visit to Spain in 1936 left him feeling disillusioned
"From the very start I saw clearly that a huge senseless tragedy was shaping itself, that many people (two million by the end) would be killed for nothing whatever and that few would gain anything from all this turmoil."
His comments on the situation in Spain led to a series of vituperous clashes with members of the British Labour Party, who were, to be fair, at that time under the influence of the Soviet Union. Conze says that he abandoned leftist politics at this point, but one imagines that he jumped before he was pushed. Already averse to many aspects of industrialised, "urban civilisation", Conze was now thoroughly disillusioned with the left, with modern democracy and secularism (I 26-7). Aged 35, he found that he was at an impasse. In short, he had a mid-life crisis. In his memoriam for Suzuki, he says:
“My political faith had collapsed under the impact of Stalinism and of what I had observed in Spain, my marriage had failed, my job seemed distinctly bleak, I had even started to consult psychoanalysts, and there seemed nothing left that I could live for.” (Conze 1967)

Midlife Crisis

Conze & Suzuki
It was at this point that Conze turned to religion, specifically to Buddhism. He credits this to his acquaintance with three men: D. T. Suzuki, Har Dayal, and Graham Howe. Of these three, Suzuki seems to have been the strongest influence. Zsebenyi (2004) suggests that it was reading Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism that helped Conze to see a way forward. 

Suzuki’s wife, Beatrice Lane, was a major figure in the Theosophical world. While he retained his ties with Zen Buddhism, Suzuki frequently presents Zen in metaphysical terms borrowed from Theosophy. It seems to have been Suzuki who introduced the vocabulary of “the Absolute” and “the Transcendental” into Buddhism. Given Conze's existing preconceptions about the world, we can imagine how this mystical absolutism might have appealed to him. Indeed, it led to a radical change in lifestyle for a period.
Under the impulse of D. T. Suzuki’s message I then withdrew into a private wood belonging to a Quaker friend of mine in the New Forest, and practised as much meditation as can be practised in this evil age. (1967)
This was the wood called Sandy Balls, located near Godshill Village, in the New Forest, Hampshire. The owner, Aubrey Westlake, warned him that the hut was unheated and none had dared to over-winter there, but Conze, determined to live an ascetic life, did so. He joined an irregular community of Tolstoyan Christian Communists, eccentrics, and gypsies. The local villagers apparently decided that Conze was a spy and reported him to the police. When this failed to produce the desired result, they tried to set fire to the wood. This was during WWII which Conze avoided serving in on medical grounds but also as a Buddhist conscientious objector.

Conze applied himself to meditation, probably using Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga as a guide. As a result, he says, that he “experienced a great elation of spirit” (I 45). Living an ascetic life left Conze with the symptoms of malnutrition, such as chronic diarrhoea and degeneration of the gums leading to the loss of all his teeth (I 47). His description suggests that he had scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency common amongst sailors before 1747 when James Lind described the efficacy of citrus fruit in preventing the disease. The combination of malnutrition, cold (“very cold indeed” I 46), sleep deprivation, and long periods of meditation probably contributed to the delusions he apparently experienced: “Unbidden, several psychic faculties came my way” (I 46). A great deal has been written about the effects this kind of punitive ascetic lifestyle can have on religious experiences. On top of this, Conze was already firmly convinced of a matter-spirit dualism that would have dominated how he interpreted any interesting experiences that he might have had. Such strong convictions can only be confirmed in the mind of the believer.

Conze does not say how long this period was, though it only takes about four weeks for the first symptoms of scurvy to appear. After an unspecified time, he was inclined to stop: “I also felt that I had gained as much insight as I could bear in my present body or realise in our present social circumstances” (I 47). No doubt the physical suffering caused by this lifestyle would have been difficult to bear; malnutrition causes extremely unpleasant symptoms. In the introduction to Further Buddhist Studies, he relates,
"Thereafter I decided to adopt an indirect approach and thus between 1946 and 1968 remained content to edit and expound the ancient Sanskrit texts of the philosophia perennis."
Note here the reference (in Latin) to the idea of the Perennial Philosophy. This is the idea that all the worlds religions share a single metaphysical truth and all traditions aim to realise that truth. This view was popularised in Britain by Aldous Huxley and the Theosophists. Conze seems to have been a fervent believer in this view.

At about the same time as the deterioration of his health due to malnutrition was making his retreat untenable, his first wife, Dorothea, asked him to move back in with her for the sake of their daughter. So he moved to Oxford and was assigned a job in the Ministry of Agriculture. This led him back into the world of academia.


Living in Oxford, with an undemanding job, gave Conze time to study and access to research materials in the Bodleian Library and the India Institute. He took Sanskrit lessons from Prof Burrow and met F. W. Thomas, with whom he collaborated on a translation of a Sanskrit Jain text. Academic connections led to further literary ventures and, after 1945, to invitations to teach abroad, including in Germany. Summing up the factors that enabled him to become a Buddhist scholar he cites:
“…unusual innate intellectual ability is only part of the story. I have also had the good fortune to be able to devote my entire life to continuous and almost unbroken studying and have kept up my one-man monastery through thick and thin” (I 51).
In fact, Conze lived with his wife, who he apparently saw as his servant, and this is hardly a "one-man monastery". He has already admitted that he eschewed meditation after the disaster of his retreat in the New Forest. Conze was no monk.

Lacking a permanent academic post, he made his living teaching evening classes in psychology and philosophy. He might have had a position in the USA, but his past as a Communist prevented him from ever being more than a temporary visitor in that country. And even then immigration officials and his attitude towards them made travel there difficult for him.

Conze produced some general books on Buddhism as well as editing and contributing to an anthology of Buddhist texts. This was at a time when books about Buddhism in English were still uncommon, and most of the books that did exist betrayed the misconceptions of the early European scholars. As such the books were well received and two, Buddhist Scriptures and are Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, are still in print (if only in cheap Indian editions). While Conze's work was an advance on what came before, his idiosyncratic take on Buddhism meant that he often simply substituted one set of misconceptions for another. This was partially corrected by the appearance of more genuine books about Buddhism, but Conze was so influential that his views altered the narratives of Buddhism in the West. 

Despite his personal animus towards so many people - his wife referred to him as "the old man who hated everyone" - Conze had a number of productive collaborations, for example, with Jan de Jong, Giuseppe Tucci, I. B. Horner, and Lew Lancaster. For D. T. Suzuki he expressed “unlimited admiration, little short of idolatry” (I 78). However, D. T. Suzuki is also a problematic figure. McMahan singles Suzuki out as a Romantic Modernist:
"In his discussion of humanity and nature, Suzuki takes Zen literature out of its social, ritual, and ethical contexts and reframes it in terms of a language of metaphysics derived from German Romantic idealism, English Romanticism, and American Transcendentalism" (McMahan 2008: 125).
John McRae has pointed out that Suzuki's approach is frequently incomprehensible. "[His] most cherished methodology seems to have been to describe some aspect of Zen as beyond ordinary explanation, then offer a suitably incomprehensible story or two by way of illustration" (McRae 2003: 74). Conze adopted a similar strategy in his exegesis of Prajñāpāramitā. As far as Conze was concerned, the literature pointed to a perennial Truth beyond the comprehension of most people. It is the scripture of a spiritual elite of which, again, he believes himself to be a member.

Given his other comments, we can presume that Conze saw a confirmation of his own views in Suzuki's ravings about Prajñāpāramitā, especially in Suzuki's rejection of logic. I also think Conze realised that this was a field in which he would never be inferior to anyone because there was no competition at the time. With his typical German energy and industry, he could easily and quickly dominate the empty field of Prajñāpāramitā Studies and never have to answer to an inferior mind again. His obscurantist approach allowed him to exclude would-be critics simply by affirming contradictions like "A = Not A". How does one argue with a man who insists that logic and rationality play no part in the Truth? What's more, he could assert that as a meditator, he had special knowledge (I think few people realised the brief extent of his experiment with meditation or that the principal outcome was not insight, but scurvy and derangement). Conze was the tailor who made the Emperor's new clothes, according to a design by Suzuki. The crowds of scholars and Buddhists who knew no better simply went along with it (and largely still do). 

Conze set himself the task of translating all of the Prajñāpāramitā texts into English. In a number of cases, as with the Heart Sutra, this also involved editing the Sanskrit texts. Conze wrote a long essay outlining the extent and history of the Prajñāpāramitā literature (1960) and published a lexicon which was intended to be expanded into a dictionary of Prajñāpāramitā (1967b). These now circulate as pdf files and despite their many flaws have not yet been superseded.

Surprisingly little subsequent work has been done in this field since Conze. At least some of this reluctance must be because Conze made the subject seem unattractive to rationally minded students of Buddhism. The very qualities that made him the king of Prajñāpāramitā may well have ensured that there was little interest in following his example.

I will make some specific comments on his approach to the Heart Sutra below, but can here cite comments by Harrison & Watanabe about Conze's work on the Vajracchedikā. Rather than creating a critical edition, Conze takes an unsystematically eclectic approach to the text.  It is based mainly on Müller's edition but occasionally he changed the wording, conflating the various manuscript sources arbitrarily. He does not list the differences between his witnesses exhaustively (2006).
"Nevertheless, most subsequent translations and studies have relied on Conze's edition, and philosophical questions have also been addressed on the less than solid foundation it provides. Here lies a major problem" (Harrison & Watanabe 2006: 92; My emphasis).
In the notes on his translation of the Gilgit and Afghan manuscripts of Vajracchedikā, Harrison (2006) shows that the major problem involves the negations. Conze takes a metaphysical approach to these, whereas Harrison shows that they were probably intended as an epistemic observation: see my essay The Use of Negation in Vajracchedikā. Similar problems attend Conze's other translations. His work is unsystematic and directed toward confirming his idiosyncratic, Theosophy-inspired, anti-intellectual personal religion. As he admits:
“I am constitutionally incapable of registering meaningless details correctly (that is the price of being an intuition type). Even when reading proofs I miss most of the misprints, because I automatically read, not what is there, but what ought to be there. In addition, both my interest and my training in grammar leave much to be desired…” (I 92)
Unfortunately, the details that Conze misses are not “meaningless” but have quite major implications for how we understand the text. In the case of the Heart Sutra, his mistakes garbled two passages. Curiously enough, so little scrutiny did his work receive that these mistakes went unnoticed for almost seventy years. Such was his mystique and the expectation of nonsense that he created. Note that reading what ought to be there is exactly the method that I ascribed to Conze above. I believe this unconscious bias operated on many levels. Conze pursued confirmation of his beliefs and found it. 

Similarly, Conze’s translation of the Large Sutra is randomly eclectic. He does not rely on a single edition, but chops and changes, drawing first from this and then that source without any clear boundaries. He acknowledges that some will find this method “questionable” (1975: x) which is an understatement. On the other hand, almost none of the research agenda he sets out in his introduction has been followed up. Again, he did a lot of work himself, but only a handful of scholars continue his work. As he says, the translation [of the Large Sutra] is a continuation of his work on the Abhisamayālaṅkāra; a text “so elliptic and cryptic that a translation was considered impossible” (I 68-9). Now that we have a good edition (Kimura 2010) of the Nepalese manuscripts that he describes as “often unbelievably careless and corrupt” and a good facsimile edition of the Gilgit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (Karashima et al 2016), we can judge Conze’s methods quite accurately. It is often difficult to match his text to the available Sanskrit texts because his primary orientation was to the Abhisamayālaṅkāra rather than the text itself. As we will see this results in a whole other layer of confusion as regards the Heart Sutra.

Such issues will seldom surface for the average reader since they mainly read translations by popular religious figures. These people often don't bother to learn Sanskrit but simply paraphrase Conze and offer a few etymologies of varying accuracy. On the whole, religious translators have been oblivious to problems in source texts and simply gloss over any difficult passages as though they make sense. However, if there are problems with the source text, the translation is unlikely to be better. Dealing with Conze’s translations reveals him to be one of the most quixotic and idiosyncratic of Buddhist translators. Indeed, Paul Griffiths (1981) singles Conze out as the foremost practitioner of “Buddhist Hybrid English”, in which a translation uses mainly English vocabulary but is presented with Sanskrit syntax. In Conze's case, the choice of vocabulary often boggles the mind as well. Harrison brings this out in the introduction to his translation of Vajracchedikā.
"I has been a long cherished ambition of mine to make a translation of a Mahāyāna sūtra in which nobody courses in anything, speaks thus, or produces a single thought... although we have thoughts, think them, entertain them, although thoughts arise and occur to us, we never 'produce' them. Linguistic oddities such as this are best avoided" (Harrison 2006: 136).
Although Harrison does not say so, all of these examples of linguistic oddities are drawn from Conze's oeuvre. Conze was a great mangler of the English language. With Conze, we must constantly be on the alert not just for awkward translations but also for erroneous translations. Conze frequently allows his metaphysical imagination to inform his translations – very many verbs seem to mean “exist” in his vocabulary when very few of them mean that in Sanskrit. Being concerned, as he is, most of the time, with absolute being, he tends to torture his translations so that they appear to share his obsession. It took me many years to realise that Conze had fundamentally misunderstood the Prajñāpāramitā.

In his chronology of Prajñāpāramitā, Conze lumped the Vajracchedikā and Heart Sutra together as a period of contraction in Prajñāpāramitā texts ca 400 CE. This idea cuts across the trend of all Mahāyāna texts to expand over time. We now know that the Vajracchedikā is likely very much earlier and in fact follows the usual trend of expanding as it goes. The Heart Sutra, by contrast, was composed in China as a 抄經 chāo jīng or digest text, ca. 645-661 CE.  The earliest Prajñāpāramitā text was probably the one that evolved into the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, although the Vajracchedikā is likely to have been another Prakrit text of a similar vintage from a different area (one with less easy access to the Silk Road). Unfortunately, Conze's chronology of Prajñāpāramitā is still in use.

No scholar has since approached Mahāyāna Buddhism with quite the enthusiasm and industry of Conze. However, industry and enthusiasm in the absence of proper discipline or guiding principles simply run amok. The great shame is that so much of what he did needs to be done over but, at the same time, there seems to be little interest in Prajñāpāramitā in academia. Mysticism is not as sexy as it once was and the mainstream is focussed on the more rational aspects of Buddhism. A handful of scholars struggle away, year after year, to bring Prajñāpāramitā into the light, but the heavy burden of Conze makes that difficult. 

Heart Sutra

Conze first published a translation of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra in the journal of the Buddhist Society, The Middle Way in 1946 (see 1948: 51). His Sanskrit edition appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1948. This was subsequently revised in 1967. The edition makes reference to Chinese texts and includes some quoted Chinese characters. Since Conze makes it clear in the Memoires that he did not speak or read Chinese, he ought to have credited the person who helped him with the Chinese. Between 1955 and 1957 Conze published a series of articles in The Middle Way. These were collated and published as Buddhist Wisdom Books (1958), which contained a translation of and commentary on the Vajracchedikā and a version of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra along with a translation and commentary. A second edition appeared in 1975.

The Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra that Conze published contained a number of simple grammatical errors (Attwood 2015, 2018b). I'm sympathetic to Conze's inability to proofread as I suffer a similar affliction. However, I find readers will often pick up on mistakes I miss, and editors are usually very sharp-eyed when it comes to mistakes of mine (I'm very grateful to them for it). Where were Conze's readers and editors? And where were his critics for 70 years? Many scholars, some of the best in our field, looked at Conze's edition of the Heart Sutra and did not notice the obvious mistakes. I feel obliged to ask why not, but hesitant to supply answers because I fear there is no excuse. 

Conze presented the Heart Sutra as a Mahāyāna version of the four noble truths (or “holy Truths” as he calls them), going to elaborate lengths to try to make make the case for this (1958: 90, 100-1). The idea is based on the commentary in the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Apart from the fact that Conze’s arguments are not convincing, when we look at his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā organised with subject headings taken from the Abhisamayālaṅkāra (Conze 1975), it shows that the Heart Sutra does quote from the section labelled as expounding the noble truths (āryasatyāṃ). However, the passage begins with the last few lines of the paragraph that supposedly outlines the second truth (samudaya) and ends halfway through the section on the third truth (nirodha). The Heart Sutra includes nothing from the paragraphs on the first (duḥkha) or fourth (marga) truths. So, at best, the reference is partial. In reality, the author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra strains our credulity, because even reading the full passage the connection with the noble truths is not apparent. 

The text is shoehorned into the traditional categories, obscuring what it is actually talking about. Which tells us that that author of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra was not that interested in the text, but had their own agenda that the text was made to serve. And Conze does much the same thing. Interestingly, this is the most prominent feature of all the commentaries on the Heart Sutra since they first were recorded in the late 7th Century. Take this observation with the one about the unnoticed errors ,and we find a systematic picture of commentators telling us what the text means with almost no reference whatever to the text. 

To top it all, the Heart Sutra also appears to say that there are no four noble truths. Conze gets around the apparent contradiction by denying that "no" means "no". It cannot be an "ordinary negation", he says, “because it is used in a proposition of which one term, i.e., ‘emptiness’, is itself a self-contradictory unity of Yes and No.” (1958: 90) Unsurprisingly, Conze goes on to admit that this kind of rhetoric confused everyone who he had read his book before publication. Without any trace of irony, he refers to the effects of his self-contradictions as leaving his readers “dazed by so much splendour” (1958: 90). This might be an attempt at humour or it might be Conze's delusions, it's hard to tell at this remove. 

Another curious feature of Conze's commentary is the elaborate attempt to relate the wording to Abhidharma texts. The Prajñāpāramitā texts are, if anything, resistant to Abhidharma ideas, for example, retaining the simpler early Buddhist schema of five skandhas, rather than indulging in the proliferations that accompanied the development of dharma theory. In fact, there is no reference in the Heart Sutra to words that positively connote the Abhidharma. It is simply a coincidence that they both employ common categories that predate the Abhidharma. There is good reason to think that the Prajñāpāramitā movement was quite conservative and preserving meditative and doctrinal traditions that were old by that time.

Conze’s contempt for ordinary people is evident throughout his commentary on the Heart Sutra. He says, for example, that:
“This Sutra is not meant for the stupid, the emotional, or the uninformed. Other means will assure their salvation. Everything that is at all worth knowing is contained in the [Heart Sutra]. But it can be found there only if spiritual insight is married to intellectual ability, and coupled with a delighting in the use of the intellect.” (1958: 99).
We already know that Conze sees himself as amongst the elect and has a touch of messianic delusion. The influence of Theosophy can be seen in many statements such as 
“‘Emptiness’ is our word for the beyond, for transcendental reality… this is the mystical identity of opposites” (1958: 83). “[The bodhisatva] is able to bear the absolute aloneness of his solitary Spirit” (1958: 94)
“The series of negations… does not add up to nothingness, but points the way to a unique ultimate reality” (1958: 95)
“When viewed from the subject-side, the transcendental reality is known as ‘thought only’, because, one and simple, free from duality and multiplicity, it is without a separate object. This Thought, or Spirit, forms the very centre of our being” (1958: 96)
None of this has anything to do with Buddhism or Prajñāpāramitā, and most of these terms do not even have Sanskrit equivalents. When we read the Prajñāpāramitā sutras in Sanskrit or Chinese we find there are no spirits, no absolute being, no mystical identity, and no ultimate reality. Instead, we find a narrative based on the experience of cessation and the epistemological and/or soteriological consequences of the fact that experience may stop in meditation without the loss of consciousness. Conze looked for his perennial philosophy in Prajñāpāramitā and because he “read what ought to be there” he found it, even though it was not there.

This is not the work of a great scholar. He was certainly a busy scholar and worked in a field largely neglected by others, but Conze has thoroughly misunderstood the Heart Sutra in particular and the Prajñāpāramitā in general. 


That Conze deserves a place in the history of the Heart Sutra is undisputed. However, he has been dead long enough that we can see his life and his contributions in perspective. Summing up his contribution, Eric Zsebenyi (2004) says, “Conze’s pioneering accomplishment is still hailed as a model of meticulous scholarship, and he ranks among the greatest and most prolific modern translators of the Buddhist tradition.”  This may have been true at the time Conze died, but by the time I started regularly interacting with academics, it was not. No one I met while studying Sanskrit and attending conferences spoke highly of him as a translator or editor, though some do still acknowledge him as a “pioneer”. He was certainly prolific, but his work, like the man himself, was deeply flawed and full of contradictions. No one looks to him as a model scholar any longer. For myself, I have certainly had to spend a good deal of time and effort to understand and correct Conze’s many errors of translation and interpretation.

In perspective, Conze cuts a lonely figure. He believed himself to have been sent to soften the Hearts of barbarians, but this messiah could not love the people he was ostensibly sent to save. He characterises, Avalokiteśvara as "the Lord who looks down" (mistranslating the verb ava√lok) but, in fact, it is he who looks down on the world. And with disgust rather than compassion. Indeed, he could never wholly get along with another person. As he says, “Throughout my life I have been a stranger on this earth and never felt at home anywhere. Nor have I ever found anyone who was completely congenial or whom I could trust altogether” (54).

A more tragic epitaph for a Buddhist Messiah can hardly be imagined. Conze was a classic outsider as described by Colin Wilson, his former neighbour in Notting Hill Gate, in his book, The Outsider. The man that supposedly sees the world too clearly and cannot make their peace with what they see. On the other hand, Conze also seems to have worked well with certain colleagues who shared his privileged social background. He adored Suzuki and names many other men his friends. The fact is that the Memoires is addressed directly to Jan de Jong.

Above all, Edward Conze was a bourgeois Romantic. He had the bourgeois sense of heroic and even messianic destiny and entitlement (which, in fact, he shared with the Nazis). He hated modernity and fantasised about an idealised pre-industrial past when the elite were truly elite and the peasants were illiterate and happy. He had the Romantic distrust of his senses and of intellect, logic, and rationality; preferring intuition, astrology, and mysticism. He was obsessed with perfection and transcendence and, at the same time, loudly contemptuous of imperfection and inferiority. And he saw “blacks” as inherently inferior (another attitude he shared with the Nazis). Put another way, while preaching non-duality, Conze had all the characteristic prejudices of someone who accepts a profound matter-spirit duality as described in my essay  Metaphors and Materialism).

Whether Conze was contrary by nature or became that way through upbringing is a matter for speculation. We can imagine what changes his circumstances in life might have wrought on him, but we don't know and we mostly only have his word for it. The fact is, that he was a man marked by contradictions, in every aspect of his life. And yet, his reputation for greatness persists in Buddhist circles. Just as no one ever seems to really read the Heart Sutra, no one ever seems to really read what Conze wrote about himself. We might want to think about why the establishment have been so willing to overlook his faults, both confessed and apparent. Having read his Memoires in detail again, and having cleaned up the mess he made of the Heart Sutra, I find myself unwilling to participate in the beatification of Edward Conze. 



Conze, Edward.
—— 1946. ‘The Heart Sutra.’ The Middle Way, xx. 5, 105.
—— 1958. Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. Second edition 1976.
—— 1967. 'In Memoriam Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki 1870-1966.' The Eastern Buddhist. II/1.
—— 1975. Further Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Oxford, Bruno Cassirer
—— 1979. Memoires of a Modern Gnostic. Parts I and II. Privately Published.

Forsyth, Mark. 2011. The Etymologicon. Icon Books.

Harrison, Paul. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra', in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.

Harrison, P. & Watanabe, S. (2006) 'Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā.' in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p. 89-132.

Heine, Holgar. 2016. 'Introduction' in The Principle of Contradiction. Lexington Books. First published in German as Der Satz vom Widerspruch. Hamburg, 1932. Langenberger Kulturlexikon: Immaterielles Kulturerbe der UNESCO.

McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, The University Press Group.

McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wiles, Royce. 2018. Correspondence Between JW de Jong and Edward Conze Concerning “Memoirs Of A Modern Gnostic” (1979). Discovering de Jong.

Zsebenyi, Eric. 2004. ‘The Perfection of Wisdom: Iconoclast, astrologist, communist sympathizer, and devoted practitioner, Edward Conze translated Buddhism for the West.’ Tricycle Magazine, Fall. 2004.

17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

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

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

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

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

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

We begin by reviewing the received tradition.

The Received Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

The Shénzhòu Identity

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

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

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

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

Xīnjīng Standalone

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

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

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

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

The Chinese/Sanskrit Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Forged the Hṛdaya?

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of the Heart Sutra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. II

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

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

Some Notes on Tang History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuījī and Woncheuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Sutra in Later Chinese Bibliographies

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

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

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

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

Summary So far

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

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

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

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


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


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