Showing posts with label Prajñāpāramitā. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prajñāpāramitā. Show all posts

17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

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

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

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

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

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

We begin by reviewing the received tradition.

The Received Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

The Shénzhòu Identity

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

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

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

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

Xīnjīng Standalone

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

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

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

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

The Chinese/Sanskrit Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Forged the Hṛdaya?

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of the Heart Sutra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 January 2018

The Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra Revisited

In 1992, Jan Nattier published the watershed article in which she made a very strong argument that the Heart Sutra was compiled/composed in China. As I have discussed, the reaction in Japan was one of horror, denial, and rejection. Not much of this has filtered through to the English-speaking world, except through the Zen-based commentaries of Red Pine and Kazuaki Tanahashi. I'm working on quantifying the proportions, but most English-speaking scholars accept or at least do not reject the thesis, while some remain sceptical and on the fence (largely because there has been little follow up).

This essay will outline the case as it stands now; i.e., as stated by Jan Nattier in 1992 and extended by Huifeng in 2014, and by me in 2015 and 2017 (though I will also draw on an article that is out for peer review and two more that I'm working on that I hope to submit in 2018). There are two main areas of interest: 1. where the Heart Sutra is a quotation from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Pañc) or "Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines" and 2. where it is an original composition. Nattier compared the words and sentence structure mainly from the former, but Huifeng and I have each extended this analysis into the conclusion.

Nattier compared four texts and showed that the most plausible way understanding their history was like this

Pañc (Sanskrit)
Pañc (Chinese)
Heart Sutra (Chinese)
Heart Sutra (Sanskrit)

The result is that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra often paraphrases Pañc. You can get a sense of what this process is like by getting Google translator to translate "form is not different from emptiness" into Mandarin, and then have Bing translator translate it back into English (note Babelfish does much less well).

There are some complications such as the potential confusion between Pañc as it appears in the Sūtra translation (T223) and as it appears embedded in the Upadeśa or commentary (T1509). But these are minor and do not affect the accuracy of the thesis.

Below are ten clues to the Chinese origins of the Heart Sutra. Since the text itself is only about 250 words, this is a very dense cluster of evidence. No.8

Core Section

In this section I will show the text as it appears in the Gilgit manuscript of Pañc, followed by Kumārajīva's translation of a similar Pañc text, followed by the parallel passage in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. And then summarise how this contributes to the Chinese origins thesis. 

1. Form is no different from emptiness

nānyad rūpaṃ anyā śūnyatā 
rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā

If we were being pedantic, then na anya X anya Y means "X is not one thing and Y another"; whereas X na pṛthak Y means "X is not different from Y". Two ways of saying that X and Y are the same. However, although it is grammatically correct, the X na pṛthak Y  idiom is not found in the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature, whereas the na anya X anya Y idiom is. (Nattier).

Some confusion arises because there are two Chinese ways of writing this idea: 1. 非色異空 and 2. 色不異空. Version 1 negates 非 the phrase 色異空 "form is different from emptiness". Version 2 only negates the verb/adjective 異 "is different from". To distinguish them we might translate 1 as, "it is not the case that form is different from emptiness" and 2 as, "Form is not different from emptiness". T250 uses 1 and T251 uses 2.

Some older editions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka use 2 in Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Sutra, but Taishō uses 1. Taishō has 2 in the Upadeśa. It's not entirely clear what this means, but it is possible that the whole quoted text in the Heart Sutra comes from the Upadeśa.

2. All dharmas are marked with emptiness

yā śūnyatā na sā utpadyate... 
是諸 法空相不生不滅 
sarva-dharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā anutpannā

In Pañc it is emptiness itself that doesn't arise, etc, and "all dharmas" are not mentioned (the same is true of the later Nepalese manuscripts). However, Kumārajīva's Chinese translation introduces "all dharmas", 諸 法, and syntactically makes them the subject of the sentence, changing the meaning substantially. The Heart Sutra follows Kumārajīva's Chinese translation rather than the Sanskrit text it supposedly quotes from.

The grammatical form also changes. Verbs are replaced by adjectives. See 3.

3.  Emptiness does not arise or pass away

na sā utpadyate, no nirudyate, na saṃkliśyate, na vyavadāyate, na hīyate, no vardhate 
不生 不滅不垢不淨不增不減 
anutpannā aniruddhā, amalā avimalā, anūnā aparipūrṇāḥ.

In the Sanskrit Heart Sutra a series of finite verbs in the 3rd person singular utpadyate are replaced by a series of adjectives in the masculine plural (to go with the noun dharmāḥ). 

And this is precisely the kind of confusion that medieval Chinese introduces. A character like 生 can be used as a verb, utpadyate, or as an adjective, utpanna, or for any other nominal or verbal derivative of ut√pad and probably a number of other verbal roots. How we read it is up to us. Without a very detailed knowledge of the Prajñāpāramita idiom in Sanskrit, we are likely to make the wrong choice in this circumstance. And the translator does. 

Note also that some of the adjectives in the Heart Sutra have similar meanings, but have changed roots. For example, na hīyate, "does not fall short" (< √) is translated as 不增, but then back-translated as an-ūna "not deficient". 

The list in Pañc is used frequently (in part and in full), with the same verbal roots used in this order but with different derivatives (past participles and action nouns). The list in the Heart Sutra is not found elsewhere, meaning that it was created ad hoc, rather than following the usual Buddhist practice of giving standard lists. (Nattier)

This is very strong evidence for the Chinese origins thesis but is often overlooked in discussions of Nattier's article.

4. Negated lists
na cakṣur na śrotraṃ na ghrāṇaṃ na jihvā kāyo na manaḥ 
na caksuḥ-śrotra-ghrāṇa-jihvā-kāya-manāṃsi

Such lists are frequent and often combined into one long compound. However, in Pañc the compounded form is only used for positive forms. Where the terms are negated, as here, Pañc always negates each individually. On the other hand, in Chinese we see the convention of supplying one negative particle for the list as a compound.

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra follows the Chinese convention rather than the Sanskrit convention.  The fact that we find a Chinese convention in a Sanskrit text is again a strong argument for the Heart Sutra being composed in Chinese (Nattier).

5. Na jñānam. Na prāptir

In the extant texts of Pañc this is na prāptir nābhisamayo “no attainment, no realisation”. The same wording is found in Mokṣala T221: 亦無所逮得 亦無須陀洹 (8.6a11-12) and in Xuánzàng T220-2: 無得 無現觀 (7.14a23).

Only two Chinese texts have 無智亦無得: the Heart Sutra and the Dàjīng (T223). This quirk shows that this passage in the Heart Sutra was copied from the Dàjīng (T223) and not from any other version of the text in either Sanskrit or Chinese.

Conclusion Section

Leaving behind the quoted section, we move onto the original composition. Since this section was composed in Chinese, arrows go away from the Chinese. Below the Chinese is the received translation. Above the Chinese, the Sanskrit word/phrase marked by an * is an attempt at conveying the meaning of the Chinese more accurately in the light of modern research. If you like, it is how the translator ought to have translated the text if they were more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts. On occasion, we can trace parts of the conclusion to Pañc as well. 

6. Practising non-apprehension

Kumārajīva uses 得 to represent a verbal noun from pra√āp, i.e., prāptiḥ. The author immediately uses the same character in the next phrase and it was, naturally, assumed to denote another word derived from pra√āp, i.e., aprāpritvād. However, Huifeng showed that Kumārajīva invariably translated the Sanskrit phrase anupalambhayogena using this Chinese phrase 以無所得故. The translation aprāptitvād could not have been composed in India because it relies on the ambiguity of the Chinese characters.

What's more, Huifeng argued that this word really goes with the quoted section. This qualifier moves us away from metaphysics and towards and epistemic reading of the text. (Huifeng) That is, it tells us that being in the state of emptiness and practising non-apprehension of dharmas is the only time that "no form" applies. (Attwood)

7.  His mind does not become attached

*asya cittaṃ na kvacit sajjati 
viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ

Huifeng showed that cittāvaraṇa is simply the wrong translation here. 心無罣礙 translates "mind without attachment", where 罣礙 is a verb rather than a noun. He proposed to read 罣礙 as "hang", but I argued that it was more straightforward to read it as "attached". Similarly, the Sanskrit verb sajjati means "attach" or "become attached".  So, āvaraṇa, "impediment", is also clearly the wrong translation.

The phrase na kvacit sajjati occurs in both Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśāti. So, even though this is not a quote, we have a clear view of how Kumārajīva used this combination of characters (though Kumārajīva could be inconsistent, as we have seen). Āvaraṇa is not a bad guess, but it's not consistent with the Prajñāpāramitā idiom. Which argues against composition in India. (Huifeng).

There is nothing in the Chinese that could be read as viharati "he dwells". My supposition is that the translator was struggling for a word here, especially having read 罣礙 as a noun instead of a verb, and did not know the verb sajjati. They had to improvise and this was the best they could do.

8. Not being attached


If 心無罣礙 translates "mind without attachments", then 無罣礙故 means "because [it] is without attachments". The Sanskrit Heart Sutra renders this, "because of the non-existence of mental impediments". The construction nāstitvād "because of the non-existence of" is very strange and appears to be a one-off in Sanskrit. A Sanskrit-reader can see what it means, but there are simpler and more elegant ways to negate a noun (i.e., by adding the negative prefix a-). This construction implies someone familiar with the rules of Sanskrit, who did not feel bound by the conventions of idiom. It also continues the misreading that begins above.

9. Buddhas of the Three Times

atītānāgatapratyutpannā buddhā
tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ sarvabuddhāḥ

This is the smoking gun. All being well, I'll be publishing something on this in 2018, but this phrase in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could only have come from translating a Chinese text because it involves an idiom that developed in Chinese and is never seen elsewhere in Indian Buddhist Sanskrit texts.

Now published as:
Attwood, Jayarava. (2018). 'The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 15: 9-27.

10.  Prajñāpāramita is a vidyā

mahavidyeyaṃ bhagavan yaduta prajñāpāramitā | anuttareyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā asamasameyaṃ bhagavan vidyā yaduta prajñāpāramitā 
T250: 故知般若波羅蜜是大明呪 無上明呪 無等等明呪 (8.847.c24)
prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro anuttaramantro ‘samasamamantraḥ

In the passage from PañcPrajñāpāramitā was described as a great vidyā (mahāvidyā 大明呪 ) and unsurpassed vidyā (anuttarā vidyā 無上明呪) and an unequalled vidyā (無等等明呪). Kumārajīva uses 明呪 to translate vidyā. But it is mistaken for two words, 明呪 "bright dhāraṇī". 

After the advent of Tantric Buddhism in China (7th C) 呪 is used to translate mantra. Tantra subsumed the previously existing spell practices under the category of mantra. This makes no sense from the perspective of a few centuries early where dhāraṇī existed entirely outside the Tantric milieu. Therefore, the Sanskrit Heart Sutra came into being after the advent of Tantra when mantra chanting was finally accepted as a Buddhist practice. That said, Woncheuk (613–696) makes brief mention of having a Sanskrit text, though he does not treat it as authoritative.

The form found in T250 can only have come from T223, while T251 has been modified to reflect the wording of Xuanzang's translation in T220 while keeping Kumārajīva's phrasing.

Note: Mantra recitation is still seen as non-Buddhist and frowned on in Aṣṭa. It doesn't become a feature of Buddhism until the mid-7th Century in India and about a century later in China.

11. True and not hollow

*satyā na tucchakā
satyam amithyatvāt

These are adjectives of prajñāpāramitā and should be in the feminine gender. The translator seems to have misread them as related to a mantra (grammatically neuter). He also misread 虛 which means "hollow, empty, vain" for which tucchaka is a more obvious translation than mithyā "contrarily, incorrectly, improperly".

The translator has a penchant for abstract nouns in the ablative case, which adds the sense of "because of being in the state of [the noun]". So satyam amithyatvāt literally means "truth because there is no contrariness". If these are not adjectives then this is not a well-formed sentence.


We can now conclusively say that the Heart Sutra was composed in China without any equivocation or hedging. Not only is there a weight of evidence, but No.8 is the clincher. The "three times" idiom in the Heart Sutra can only be Chinese. It is not simply that there are some suspicious looking paraphrases, but that there are passages that look like Sanskrit translations of Chinese phrases. In the case of the three times, there is no other way to construe it. The Sanskrit is definitely a translation from Chinese. 

Again, we can unequivocally say that the Heart Sutra is an apocryphon. But then so are all Mahāyāna texts. Arguably all Buddhist texts are apocryphal. There is no Buddhist equivalent of divine revelation or the preserved word of god. The best a believer could argue is that the sutras were based on a true story. There is a great deal more internal contradiction and incoherence in the literature than is usually admitted and this militates against a single source. For example, the Pāḷi suttas clearly came from multiple sources.

We can also say that the person who translated the text from Chinese into Sanskrit was unfamiliar with the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā literature. They had a bias for taking active sentences in Chinese and rendering them as a series of compound adjectives, and a preference for using abstract nouns in the ablative case, even when this was inelegant. They seem to have been forced to improvise on several occasions, by a limited Sanskrit vocabulary. Lastly, they produced a unique form of Chinese influenced Sanskrit—preserving Chinese literary conventions in Sanskrit translation—which to my knowledge has no parallel. In this sense, the Heart Sutra is unique.

To my eye, this does not look like the work of someone who translated millions of words of Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts into Chinese and who is still acknowledged as a master of the art of translation. In other words, the idea that Xuanzang produced this shoddy work is not really credible. It is clearly the work of an inferior and parochial mind whose point of reference for the Prajñāpāramitā tradition was Kumārajīva's Chinese translations. Which ought not to surprise us, because Kumārajīva's translations have always been more popular that Xuanzang's. 

As for Tanahashi's idea that Avalokiteśvara transmitted the text of T251 to Xuanzang in India as a divine revelation (allowing him to claim that it is an "Indian text"), we would want to know why either the bodhisatva or the expert translator would only change a few key terms in Kumārajīva's text, while leaving the worst features—the mistakes—of it intact. This is not credible. 

Of course, I will need to properly frame these ideas and present the evidence to my "peers" in academia. I expect this to happen in due course. I'm hoping to get the last of the necessary corrections published this year along with one or two other papers about the text. Though getting published is less than half the battle. 80% of all articles in the humanities are never cited by another article. To date, I don't think any of my work on the Heart Sutra has been cited. There is little or no interest in the Heart Sutra in academia and little or no interest in critical scholarship amongst Buddhists. 


22 December 2017

What is a Text Anyway?

I often find myself having to stop and reflect on the process and methods I use to explore texts. There is no ideology of method in Buddhist studies; we simply do whatever we think is best at the time. Indeed, there is very little discussion of "Theory" in the sense that presently dominates other subjects in the humanities. So, as I decipher texts, I have to keep asking myself, "What do I have to assume in order for this approach to allow me to make valid inferences, and are those assumptions themselves valid?" Writing my thoughts down is often the best way to organise them. 

My task at present is to identify instances of the Chinese phrase  三世諸佛 in Prajñāpāramitā texts and compare parallels in the extant Sanskrit sources. The phrase means "all the buddhas of the three times" (Three 三 time 世 all 諸 buddha 佛). My hypothesis is that Sanskrit sources will always have atīta-anāgata-pratyutpannā buddhāḥ "past, future, and present buddhas". This is important because the Heart Sutra has "tryadhvavyavasthitā sarvabuddhāḥ" or "all the buddhas appearing in the three times". So far, I can say with confidence that this way of phrasing it does not occur in any of the Sanskrit editions of earlier Prajñāpāramitā texts. In the jargon it is a hapax legomenon, or a one-off (or perhaps a neologism). 

If my hypothesis is accurate, then this phrase in the Heart Sutra can only be a Sanskrit translation from Chinese. This would prove beyond any doubt that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese. To be clear, it is already beyond any reasonable doubt that this is accurate. I think I can make it certain. And this is important because some scholars are on the fence as regards the Chinese origins thesis, and some irrationally reject it. I hope to entice the fence-sitters down to earth and to leave the rejectors no wiggle room. It's part of my elaborate homage to the originator of the Chinese origins thesis, Jan Nattier (3 articles published, 1 submitted for peer-review, and 3 more planned). 

One Text or Many?

However, this task is far less straightforward than it might seem at face value. Take, for example, the first occurrence of the phrase in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Aṣṭa; "Perfect Gnosis in 8000 Lines"). It occurs in a speech that Maitreya gives in praise of transference of merit. In the translation produced by Kumārajīva’s group in about 408 CE, (aka  "T227") it begins at T 8.548a17 (Vol 8 of the Taishō Edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, page 548, panel a, line 17). 

It is easy enough to locate the same speech in Vaidya’s Sanskrit edition (72) [Page 127 of Conze's translation]. However, Vaidya's text is approximately three times as long as in T227. In the translation by Xuánzàng (T 7.791c29), the speech is almost twice as long again. Although we don’t have a Gāndhārī text of this chapter, we know that, in general, it is considerably less prolix than the Pala Era (8th - 12th Century) manuscripts used by Vaidya for his edition. Also, there are seven Chinese translations in total (though only one other is of any great interest). This raises the question of whether "parallel" is even the right term. 

There is, in effect, no single text of Aṣṭa. Each instance of Aṣṭa is unique. And we need to be very cautious about thinking of the Sanskrit text as “original”. In fact, the extant Sanskrit documents certainly do not constitute an “original” for Kumārajīva’s translation, but date from perhaps 400-500 years later. We no longer have Kumārajīva's source document (thought it probably was a Sanskrit translation). 

The prolixity of Xuánzàng's text may be an artifact of his translation process, which often includes an element of auto-commentary: i.e., the text commenting on itself.. Where we can compare the late 1st Century Gāndhārī manuscript we often see that the Sanskrit has expanded one adjective or verb with up to five or six synonyms. For example, where Gāndhārī might have, "speak"; the Sanskrit texts might have, "speak, teach, instruct, draw-out, reveal, illuminate". I think we can see this as a form of auto-commentary. 

This raises some philosophical questions. If Aṣṭa is in fact many texts, in many languages, and specific to particular practice communities in particular places, then are my methods sound? Because, in common with other scholars, I tend to assume a unitary text with at most minor variations that can easily be eliminated. But the variations here are huge and cannot be ignored. And, if it was officially translated, then it was authoritative to someone.


The basic approach of philology grew out of Bible Studies. As 18th and 19th Century European imperialists looted the world, they came across, amongst other things, very old manuscripts of the Bible that had differences from the received text in Europe. I imagine this must have been unsettling for Theologians at the time. Methods were developed to identify the ur-text and restore the Word of God (phew!). Those methods became the main tools of philology and provide Buddhist Studies with some of our most important tools. We, too, spend time collecting and assessing documents, creating critical editions (restoring the original or ur-text), and doing "higher criticism" based on this "original"

But if what I've been saying about Aṣṭa is true, then the possibility of reconstructing the ur-text is doubtful at best. We know from analysis of phonetic transcriptions of some words and names in the earlier Chinese translations and from the existence of a single badly damaged manuscript--carbon dated to ca. 70 CE--that the oldest Prajñapāramitā texts we know of were in Gāndhārī. In other words in the vernacular language of Gandhāra, a kingdom that roughly equated to the Peshawar region in modern-day Pakistan, though it extended over the Hindu Kush and into what is now Afghanistan, as well (hence the Bamiyan Buddhas). Mahāyāna texts began to be translated into Sanskrit around the 4th century CE. The oldest Sanskrit manuscript of Aṣṭa, by contrast, is from the mid 9th Century (it's held in the Cambridge University Library and I have seen the actual object). In other words it is 800-odd years removed from the origins. Lokakṣema's Chinese translation was produced in 179 CE from a Gāndhārī source text. Might it not have a greater claim to authenticity than a 9th Century copy of a 4th Century Sanskrit translation? 

Recently, one of the more inspirational professors of Buddhist Studies, Jonathan Silk, has raised many related issues. He has argued that a critical edition is, in fact, a new composition. The idea that a critical text represents the ur-text is simply a fantasy. The reconstructed text may not even be in the correct language. This is the case with the Heart Sutra. It was composed in Chinese, using a quote from Kumārajīva's translation of the Perfect Gnosis in 25000 Lines. Because it contains a quote, even the Chinese text is not a true ur-text because we can go several steps further back - right back to the Gāndhārī text of Aṣṭa. Other parts of the Heart Sutra may have been composed in the late 7th Century, but they show distinct influence from the idiom of Kumārajīva. 

Lest we think that the prajñāpāramitā literature is a special case, let me assure you that it applies to all Buddhist texts, including the Pāḷi texts. There is every reason to believe that the texts were not composed in Pāḷi but are translations. When we look at the Chinese translations of counterparts of Pāḷi texts they show the same trend, albeit to a lesser extent, as the Mahāyāna texts - later translations are more elaborate and edited for consistency (see, for example, my rough translations of the Chinese Spiral Path texts in the Madhyama-āgama). Consider also that, as yet, there is no proper critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon. The editions we have were from a very small number of documents. Alex Wynn is heading a project to produce such an edition, but the host monastery in Thailand, Wat Dhammakāya, is embroiled in multiple scandals, so will it have credibility? 

Mahāyāna texts were written down soon after being composed, or were perhaps even composed as written, as opposed to oral, texts. And, yet, they were dynamic, open to change, and seem to have grown over a period of some 6 or 7 centuries. Writing did not cause them to be fixed. Mahāyāna texts were anthologized (as in Śātideva's Śikṣasamuccaya) but they were not Canonised. Even the Pāḷi Canon underwent some post-canonical editing. 

Unlike the differences in the Bible, which were effectively an accumulation of mistakes and misreadings, Buddhist texts were actively changed and edited. And not always competently. Part of my work on the Heart Sutra will be repairing the damage done by inept ancient editors.

History of Ideas

For me, this impression is reinforced by the history of Buddhist ideas. We all know that Buddhist doctrines changed over time. Buddhists experimented with many varieties of worldview over time and now have such a broad range of views that any attempt to conceptually unite them necessarily fails. Buddhism has not been a single religion for about 2000 years now. We've evolved into distinct (incompatible) species. Of course we know that there were innovations, and some of us have adopted one or other innovation as our standard view, but we seldom get real sense of why there are variations. What drove Buddhists to innovate?

The obvious answer is dissatisfaction with the doctrines obtained from the earlier texts (aka The Pāḷi Canon). In other words, we have to ask: If the Pāli texts are so authoritative, why did all Buddhists (including Theravāda Buddhists) keep inventing new doctrines and changing the old ones? Often to the point of completely abandoning the earlier material (especially in Tibet and Japan).

While I was researching the history of the ideas of karma and rebirth, I identified a couple of probable reasons for innovation that I still have not seen in any books. My prime example is that karma requires consequences to manifest long after actions, while dependent arising denies that this is a possibility - "when this ceases, that ceases." Once the action has ceased, the possibility of a future consequence should entirely vanish.

Now, Buddhists had four choices: leave it incompatible; modify karma; modify dependent arising; or modify both. Initially they opted for modifying dependent arising in various ways (though all that survived was two variations on the kṣanavāda, or doctrine of momentariness, and the dvayasatyavāda, or doctrine of two truths.). However, later, when the karma doctrine no longer fit their needs, they also modified karma (On this see my 2014 article in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics). 

Over time, Buddhists changed things. They changed what seem like central doctrines and they changed seemingly sacred texts. Often they went down blind alleys. Modern Buddhists tend to have some knowledge that things changed, since most of us have read books from different traditions and experienced the confusion of terms and ideas. On the other hand, very few of us understand the dynamics that produced these changes. The "why" question is often left blank. A notable except is Ronald M. Davidson's Indian Esoteric Buddhism, which describes the socio-economic and geopolitical forces that may have contributed to the rise of Tantric Buddhism. 


I don't expect anyone will rush out and start learning multiple traditional languages (though Pāḷi is not so hard, and we have an excellent Pāḷi teacher in Cambridge). But I hope that we can move towards a more sophisticated view of texts. I'll finish with some key points

  • Buddhist texts have complex histories and change considerably over time.
  • With very few exceptions all the texts we have are translations.
  • Sanskrit is very seldom an "original" language. 
  • Chinese is far more important than we have so far grasped. 
  • Buddhist texts were always unsatisfactory to Buddhists.
  • This unsatisfactoriness was a major driver of doctrinal innovations. 
  • On-going doctrinal innovation is a feature of the history of ideas in Buddhism.
  • Innovation causes legitimation anxiety for Buddhists.
  • Each generation has adapted the Dharma to their needs, while claiming to be reinstating what the Buddha taught.
  • Pāḷi texts (or their analogues in Gāndhārī and Chinese) are perhaps the most important single source of arguments and disputes in the long history of Buddhism. 
  • There is, and can be, no Buddhist "Bible" nor indeed anything that we might call "Basic Buddhism". 

All the best for the solstice. 


15 December 2017

Bodhisatvas in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā

This is another in a series of reflections on the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as I read through it in Sanskrit with a friend. Despite the central importance of this text in Mahāyana, it is curiously neglected. Only one complete English has been published, though several partial translations exist. No modern commentary has been produced, though there are a handful of book chapters and articles (and one book which is a collection of such). The Chinese translations seem to have had more attention. It would be a great shame to lose sight of this most important Mahāyāna text. 

I noted in an earlier post that the nidāna of Aṣṭa tells us that there are ((13 - 1/2) * 100) or 1250 arhats present for the action. Although Lokakṣema's translation (ca. 179 CE) includes some bodhisatvas, none of the other versions of the text mention bodhisatvas being present. And yet, most translators seem to think that the Buddha asks Subhuti to "explain to the bodhisatvas". 

One of the translation problems is that the action begins with the Buddha saying to Subhūti:
tatra khalu bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ subhūtiṃ sthaviram āmantrayate sma - pratibhātu te subhūte bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ prajñāpāramitām ārabhya yathā bodhisattvā mahāsattvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur iti || 
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Subhūti, from perfect understanding of practitioner-aspirants, explain the way that practitioner-aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
The Gāndhārī text is fragmentary, but for comparison reads
[tatra ho bhag̱ava aïśpa suhuti amaṃtreti paḍi]‐ [1-03] + + + + + + + + + mahasetvasa prañaparimidu aradhya yasa bosisatve mahasa[tv]e [1-04] + + + +1 [mi]dae ṇiyayae  
Conze translates this as:
The Lord said to the Venerable Subhuti, the Elder: Make it clear now, Subhuti, to the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, starting from perfect wisdom, how the Bodhisattvas, the great beings go forth into perfect wisdom! 
What he has done, and my friend concurs with this, is that he has read the genitive plurals (bodhisatvānāṃ mahāsatvānāṃ) as dative plurals: i.e., as "to" or "for" instead of "of". There was a tendency for the dative plural and genitive plural to merge in Pāḷi - the genitive form being used with a dative meaning. But this is not true in Classical Sanskrit. In fact, in Sanskrit, for nouns in -a, it is the dative and the ablative that begin to merge. The language of Aṣṭa is more or less Classical Sanskrit. Just to complicate matters, the Gāndhārī appears to have a genitive singular (mahasetvasa).

Reading -ānām as Dative

For the sake of argument, let us accept the dative reading for the moment. The Buddha asks Subhūti to explain to the bodhisatvas how the bodhisatvas have gone forth. Apart from the fact that no bodhisatvas are present, why would the bodhisatvas need to have being a bodhisatva explained to them? One implication might be that our definition of bodhisatva is in error. In this view, the arhats present are the bodhisatvas.

Recall that our text was composed in the very earliest times of Mahāyana. (See my overview of recent research on this topic: Early Mahāyāna: Everything You Know is Wrong. 03 July 2015). I cited David Drewes summary:
"Mahāyāna was not a distinct sect. It did not involve the worship of bodhisattvas. It was not developed by lay people. It was not an offshoot of the Mahāsāṃghikas. It was not a single religious movement." Drewes (2010: 59)
So perhaps we need to be wary of the later definitions of bodhisatva. The Pāḷi word bodhisatta was already in use for an aspiring Buddha. Indeed, in Pāḷi, there is only one bodhisatta who is the Buddha before his bodhi. I'm unsure who first proposed this, but there is a theory that satta was wrongly Sanskritised as satva (and later by English editors as sattva). In other words, there is an argument that the Pāḷi was not satta, "being", but satta, "committed, intent on", and ought to have been Sanskritised as sakta. Caveats aside, the idea is that bodhisatva ought to be bodhisakta "committed to awakening", and it's possible that mahāsakta might have signified "one whose commitment is great".

The linguistic argument on its own is not very persuasive, but consider also that Jan Nattier, in her book A Few Good Men (1993), argued that 'bodhisatva' referred not to mythical/magical beings, but to people who had committed themselves to attaining liberation. In other words, people who sought to emulate the original bodhisatta. They were what we might call full-time practitioners, in contrast to monks who were concerned with more mundane matters like running monasteries and doing magic for lay-people.

This distinction has sometimes been formalised as a split between forest dwelling anchorites and town dwelling cenobites (country monks and town monks). For example, Reggie Ray wrote about this in his book Buddhist Saints in India. However, the Ugraparipṛcchā (Nattier 1993) shows the bodhisatva monks living in monasteries alongside other monks. David Drewes has been critical of this thesis: 
"The main problem with the forest hypothesis is that Mahāyāna sūtras, the final court for any theory of early Mahāyāna, provide little support for it." (2010: 61). 
We could, therefore, translate bodhisatva mahāsatva as "practitioner aspirant". However, we must stress that the wrong Sanskritisation can only have reflected the understanding of the day; i.e., those who began to use Sanskrit understood satta to mean "being". So the confusion is not simply a mistaken word choice, but evidence that the word had changed its meaning. And note that the Gāndhārī text, by far the oldest Prajñāpāramitā document, unambiguously has satva

In this sense, an arhat who had been a aspirant to liberation might just qualify as being a bodhisatva. Or perhaps it trades on the distinction which occurred quite early on between an arhat and a buddha. However, working out the metaphysics of all this is tricky. An arhat has escaped rebirth so cannot be reborn, but a bodhisatva must be reborn in order to fulfil his role. Early Buddhists accepted that winning the goal meant leaving the game, while Mahāyānists could not bear the thought of continuing without their key players, so forced them to rejoin saṃsāra as iterative messiahs.

Reading -ānām as Genitive

As I say, there seems no obvious reason to read these words as being in the dative case. Nor does it make sense to explain things to people who are not present. So the argument for reading this as genitive, "the perfect understanding of the bodhisatvas" makes more sense (to me anyway). Additionally, there is no problem posting that bodhisatvas have Prajñāpāramitā which might be explained by Subhūti (to the arhats), whereas explaining it to them sounds wrong.

So, on balance, I still lean towards saying that Conze got it wrong. However, the second clause of the sentence is still awkward:
yathā bodhisatvā mahāsatvāḥ prajñāpāramitā niryāyur
For a start the connecting adverbial pronoun is yathā, which usually means something like "in that /which way", "just as", or "according to". It is a adverb of mode, i.e., describing how or the way something is done. Compare other modal adverbial pronouns: tathā, "in that way"; sarvathā, "in every way"; aññathā, "in another or different way". And so on.

The verb is a third person plural past perfect from nir√i, "go forth, depart". So it means "they went forth, they departed". Since we have an agent (bodhisatvāḥ) in the nominative plural this is fine: bodhisattvāḥ niryāyur means "the bodhisatvas have gone forth". The perfect tense is for actions that are completed in the past and in English usually involves "has" or "had" plus a past participle, i.e., "he has gone".*
* There are three kinds of past tense in Sanskrit: aorist past, "I departed"; past imperfect, "I was departing"; and past perfect, "I had departed". Plus the passive past participle, "departing was done by me". 
But what is prajñāpāramitā doing in this phrase? Well, it's a trick question. It cannot easily be explained as it stands. But, in a later paragraph, the whole sentence is repeated with the word prajñāpāramitāṃ in the accusative case and this does make sense, sort of. The accusative is used to indicate the object of the sentence (the thing to which the action of the verb is being done) or, with verbs of motion, it can be the destination. So the whole sentence says:
Then the Bhagavan addressed Senior Elder Subhūti: "Explain, Subhūti, from the perfect understanding of the practitioner aspirants, the way that practitioner aspirants have gone forth to perfect understanding"
So, that's what it says, but what does this mean?


The Bhagavan is asking Subhūti, the chief representative of the Prajñāpāramitā practice community, to explain to the arhats, the fact that bodhisatvas have perfect understanding and that they have gone forth to that perfect understanding. In Buddhism we are quite familiar with the language of going forth. Typically, Buddhist monks go forth from home (āgarika) into homelessness (anāgarika). Or we might say that we go forth from false refuges so that we can go for refuge to the triratnāḥ or three precious gifts (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha).

The text is hinting, I suppose, that perfect understanding is a standalone refuge. That if one has perfect understanding, then one doesn't really need the other refuges. If this is what the text is saying, then it may have been be controversial. It still is.

Why the arhats need this instruction is far from clear. Aṣṭa does not have the disdain for arhats that developed later in some quarters of the Mahāyāna literature. Apart from having had a guide, there is nothing to distinguish an arhat from a buddha.

Before we can even take this in, we find that the first thing Subhūti does is to deny the very terms on which the Buddha has asked him to speak (i.e., he is correcting the Buddha). We're more or less used to seeing Śāriputra as a Mahāyāna patsy, but less used to thinking of the Buddha in this role. Subhūti denies that he can see, apprehend, or perceive any such phenomena as a bodhisatva or prajñāpāramitā. In which case, he asks, "what perfect understanding would I teach to which bodhisatvas?" (katamaṃ bodhisatvaṃ katamasyāṃ prajñāpāramitāyām avavadiṣyāmi anuśāsiṣyāmi?).

It turns out that precisely this is the teaching of perfect understanding; i.e., this denial that names apply to experience; or, conversely, the idea that just because you have a name for a phenomena does not make it real. This takes some reflection. But it helps to get a little of the context provided in the subsequent paragraphs.

Subhūti then proceeds to outline an idea that has been central to my own understanding of the Dharma for ten years: that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to experience. The language mirrors the Sanskrit version of the Pāḷi Kaccāgotta Sutta (SN 12:15) - see my translation of the Kātyāyana Sūtra. And, as it happens, I have already had a preliminary go at writing about this aspect of the sūtra: Kātyāyana in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. (26 June 2015).

But we can briefly say that the teaching given to Kātyānayana (or Kaccāna) is the teaching of perfect understanding. I believe I am the first person to make the connection quite so plainly. Though many people, not least David Kalupahana, have noticed that Nāgārjuna makes passing reference to the Kātyāyana Sūtra, I have not yet seen any reference to this much earlier (and defining) reuse of Kātyāyana. 

It's common to think of Mahāyāna as a radical departure from mainstream Buddhism. But this seems to be inaccurate. Instead, we can think of the Prajñāpāramitā working out the implications of a much older way of thinking about Buddhism as evidenced by the Kātyāyana Sūtra. In other words, they were a conservative group of meditators, focussed on experience, doing practices associated with states of emptiness (cf MN 121) or cessation (cf DN 9).  They were also resisting the metaphysical speculations emerging into mainstream Buddhist discourse by this time. It is sometimes said that Prajñāpāramitā is a rejection of Abhidharma, but Lewis Lancaster's PhD dissertation from 1968 shows that Aṣṭa contains some Abhidharma elements and gradually assimilates more as time goes on.

The importance of rejecting astitā and nāstitā is that it ought to prevent us from reading the text as  metaphysics. I say "ought", because, clearly, it never stopped some people, notably Edward Conze. If we cannot speak of existence or non-existence, then we are not talking about reality, or truth either (the words are, if anything, more synonymous in Sanskrit). Instead, we are talking about phenomenology and epistemology. And, by calling into question the applicability of names for phenomena, Aṣṭa is inviting us to question the very basis of our knowledge about the world.

The way I understand this is that, if you attain cessation, it is experience that ceases, and while it is ceased, one dwells in emptiness.  And when one allows experience to start up again, it's like watching a boring film and not being caught up in it, but noticing how bad the acting, dialogue, and plot are.

A lot of fluff has built up around this basic idea, but this is the essence of Buddhist liberation. From the point of view of emptiness, there is nothing to hang a name on. Imagine that we have two states: one in which there is no arising and ceasing, and one in which there is. If we treat it as "reality" (which it is not) then the fact that is it unchanging from an experiential point of view is very misleading. It points in the direction of absolute being or absolute reality. But this would be a mistaken interpretation. Emptiness is not absolute. Nothing that we can experience is, or can be, absolute.

If this experience were common to meditators, and the techniques for attaining such states seem to have been quite widespread, then the contrast may well account for the dualism of Sāṃkhya-darśana and also the absolute being of the Upaniṣads. Indeed, mystical speculations about this experience may well explain a good deal about India religion more generally.



Drewe, David. (2010). 'Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship.' Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x

Karashima, Seishi. (2015). 'Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.' ARIRIAB XVIII: 113–162.āyāna_Scriptures_The_Mahāsāṃghikas_and_Vaitulya_Scriptures

Nattier, Jan. (1993).A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

Ray, R. A. (1994). Buddhist Saints in India : A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press.

24 November 2017

Japanese Reception of the Chinese Origins Thesis

As I prepare material for my book on the Heart Sutra, I have been collating published responses to Jan Nattier's thesis that the text was composed in Chinese and (back)translated into Sanskrit (Nattier 1992). I suggested in a previous essay that the reception of Nattier's thesis in Japan has been and remains decidedly anti. New evidence of this has emerged in the form of an article by Ishii Kōsei (2015), translated by his English-speaking former student Dr Jeffrey Kotyk

Unfortunately, much of the research done in Japan is only ever published in Japanese and is thus inaccessible to the majority of Buddhist Studies researchers in the West. The linguistic burden is high in our field. I have varying levels of skill in Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Medieval-Chinese, but adding modern Japanese just to get access to secondary literature is not feasible. A review article of the Japanese reception of Nattier's article by some qualified scholar is a desideratum, but since Prajñāpāramitā is a tiny niche in Buddhist Studies, it is unlikely ever to happen. 

Ishii is apparently writing in a milieu in which there have already been well-received attacks on Nattier's thesis of a kind that we have not seen in English. He cites publications by Fukui Fuminasa and Harada Wasō, but these apparently focus on the conjecture that Xuanzang might have been responsible for making the Sanskrit translation from Chinese. The conflation of the Chinese origins thesis with the Xuanzang as translator thesis is unhelpful. Nattier leaves open the possibility but, in the end, does not commit to Xuanzang being the translator. On the other hand, the evidence for Chinese origins is very strong. Ishii seems to think that it is because we Western scholars of Buddhist Studies are "not specialists in this respect" that we have fallen for Nattier's thesis, rather than the strength of her arguments.

Ishii thus see his article as contributing some details to an existing (Japanese)  consensus in the face of a general credulity and ignorance in the West. Without access to that consensus, we are forced to take his article on face value, which I'm sure does not do it justice. Be that as it may, I will briefly outline the main points of Ishii's article and then review his methods and conclusions. I may say that my own published research has touched on many of the issues that Ishii has raised and I am thus in a relatively unique position to comment. I am very much a specialist in this respect (see my list of publications).

A Precis of Ishii (2015)

Ishii begins by referencing Nattier's 1992 article with a focus on the idea that Xuanzang might have been involved in editing and translating it from Chinese to Sanskrit. The bulk of the article deals with the opening sentence of the Heart Sutra and with Nattier's translation of it, which Ishii suggests follows the Chinese text, largely on the basis that Nattier omits a word-for-word translation of svabhāva  (1992: 155). 

While Nattier is explicitly translating from a modified version of Conze's critical edition, Ishii refers only to the diplomatic edition based on several hand-copies of the Hōryūji manuscript, produced by Müller in 1884 (though he refers to this as a "critical edition", it is clearly not). In order to attempt to refute Nattier, Ishii launches into a lengthy exposition showing that the word svabhāva is present in the Sanskrit text, but absent in the Chinese, and that the passage overall has given translators some difficulty. He tries to establish a case for the word svabhāva being dropped by a Chinese translator (as it is dropped by Nattier). 

Ishii spends a good deal of time speculating on how to translate the Sanskrit text into Chinese, twisting it this way and that according to rules which may be obvious to his Japanese readers, but which are not at all clear to me. His point seems to be that one may, through a series of arbitrary changes, rearrange a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit, to fit the pattern of Chinese one finds in T251 (the standard Heart Sutra in East Asia). However, on face value the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are simply different. I am told that this may reflect the Japanese practice of rearranging Classical Chinese texts into the Japanese word order and only then interpreting them, a procedure known as  kaki-kudashi, 書き下し.

A particular problem is that the Sanskrit has three phrases, marked by the present participle caramāṇo, "practising") and two verbs with meaning "look" (vyava√lok) and "see" (√paś) - both using the pleonastic particle sma indicating the past or the present-in-the-past tense. One of the problems in Chinese is that there are only two verbs in this sentence, i.e., "practising" (行) and "clearly-seeing" (照見). Ishii seems to be saying that the latter is in fact two verbs in two distinct phrases, but rearranged in a series of aesthetic changes so that the two verb characters are together at the beginning of the two phrases, in the order verb1 verb2 phrase1 phrase2

Ishii then discusses the 照見 combination in Chinese literature (two examples) and the vyavalokayati sma/paśyati sma combination in Sanskrit. However, he seems to show that 照見 is used as a binomial verb - the two characters have to be taken together, rather than as two separate verbs, which undermines his case. He argues that, though the phrase 照見五蘊皆空 ("[he] saw the five skandhas were all empty") occurs nowhere else in Chinese, translating it as two phrases does not make sense. 

Next Ishii brings up the commentaries of Kuījī (Ji in the article) and Woncheuk. Ishii notes that Kuījī does not mention a Sanskrit text and that he used a minor variant of T251, which has an extra character  等 (Sanskrit ādi = English "etc") in two places. Woncheuk was also aware of this variant, and finds ādi in his Sanskrit text, though, of course, his commentary is on the text of T251. It is very likely that these two commentaries established T251 as the authoritative text of the Heart Sutra down to the present. Neither man mentions the differences between the versions in the introductory section. As Ishii hints, had a Sanskrit text been available, it would have been incumbent on the commentator to comment on differences, if only because Sanskrit texts were considered authoritative (this was the entire rationale behind Xuanzang's journey to India, after all).

Ishii reveals that his primary goal is still to criticise Nattier's omission of a word for word translation of svabhāva. He has spent 6 of the 8 pages of the article showing this, though we may say that this is an obvious point and one that has little bearing on the larger issue of where and when the Heart Sutra was composed.

Having laboured this point, Ishii briefly discusses the phrase 真實不虛, "true and not false". The Tang dynasty commentators all take this as a standalone phrase; however, Ishii claims that the Sanskrit manuscripts read "satyam amithyātvāt, prajñāpāramitā ukto mantra" which is the way Nattier translates it. Ishii uses the same method to translate the Sanskrit into Chinese, producing something different than the present Chinese text. Ishii seems unaware that Nattier is following Conze's edition, and that Conze's edition gives this passage as:
Tasmāj jñātavyam: prajñāpāramitā mahā-mantro mahā-vidyā-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro’ samasama-mantraḥ, sarva-duḥkha-praśamanaḥ, satyam amithyatvāt. Prajñā-pāramitāyām ukto mantraḥ. 
On this basis, then, Ishii declares that Nattier's thesis is a mistake and untenable. Had I been reviewing this article prior to publication, I would have argued that it need major modifications before being published. As it stands, the argument is difficult to follow and the evidence does not support the conclusion. 

Critique of Ishii (2015)

Core of the Thesis

Nattier's thesis mainly revolves around the core section of the Heart Sutra, which is a quote from Kumārajīva's text of the Large Sutra (T223). The Chinese Heart Sutra, especially T250 is identical with T223. T251 is identical, but missing a line at the beginning and one in the middle; and a few technical terms are "spelled" according to innovations introduced by Xuanzang. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra, by contrast, is a strangely unidiomatic paraphrase of the Sanskrit Large Sutra (compared to either the Gilgit recension or the later Nepalese recension).

The Sanskrit Heart Sutra contains a number of words or phrases that are hapax legomena (one of a kind), whereas the Sanskrit Large Sutra has a string of stock phrases. The Sanskrit Heart Sutra is unidiomatic in almost every place where it is possible to use a nonstandard synonym, that is, outside the settled technical vocabulary of Buddhist jargon.

There is no doubt in my mind, despite some minor slips on Nattier's part, that the thesis is accurate. I think I have the smoking gun for this, but have not yet had time to check all of the details and write it up. So far as I can tell the term sarvabuddhāḥ tryadhvavyavasthitāḥ "all the Buddhas existing in the three times" is a translation of a phrase that only ever occurs in Chinese, i.e., 三世諸佛. This is literally, "three time all buddha", but we would translate it as "all the buddhas of the three times". Sanskrit texts always use the wording atītānāgatapratyutpannāḥ buddhāḥ instead, i.e., "past, future, and present buddhas". There is no way that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra could be anything but a translation from Chinese, produced by someone unfamiliar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom. I need to do a very thorough check on the various texts, but I think this conjecture will stand up to scrutiny and provide definitive proof of the Chinese origins thesis.

Whatever minor flaws we may find in Nattier's analysis, the main conclusion that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese is already beyond reasonable doubt. While I would be interested to get more insights into the problems that Japanese scholars see, I cannot imagine how they think they have disproved the thesis. Ishii has certainly not done so in this article, though, strangely, he provides quite a good summary of the evidence presented by Nattier. However, Ishii does not even touch on this central problem or any of the evidence for it, but concentrates instead on peripheral and seemingly trivial issues that have no impact at all on the issues at hand.

Both of the passages that Ishii comments on are outside the core part of the text; i.e., not part of the quoted section, but part of the original composition that accompanies it, one in the introduction and one in the concluding passage.

Flaw in the Introduction

Before addressing Ishii's comments in the introduction I need to point out that I have showed that Conze (and, for that matter, Müller) made a mistake in his edition. In the first (three phrase) sentence, pañcaskandhās is nominative plural and vyavalokayati sma is intransitive, both of which are nonsensical and make the sentence impossible to parse as Sanskrit. In fact, as some manuscripts allow, the noun should be in the accusative plural, pañcaskandhāṃs (simply add anusvāra to dhā). If we do this, pañcaskandhāṃs becomes the object of vyavalokayati sma. The result is a sentence that can be parsed and that does not require any punctuation (Attwood 2015).

Without solving this problem the Sanskrit sentence cannot be parsed or translated without fudging things. Both Nattier and Ishii fail to notice anything amiss, here. But, then, so do all other scholars, apparently.  In this respect, the Heart Sutra is a curiously neglected text, given its popularity. My next published article will identify and solve another simple error in Conze's edition (in Section VI) that has also gone unnoticed (the flaw is already outlined in my essay Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar" 13 October 2017, but the article will give rigour to the conjecture).

The main problem that Ishii highlights, other than Nattier's failure to provide a word-for-word translation of svabhāva, is that the Chinese has two phrases and the Sanskrit three phrases. If we assume that the Sanskrit is original, then we expect three phrases in the Chinese, as well. In order to make three phrases, Ishii proceeds to rearrange the characters 照見 to make one verb into two verbs, each applying to two different parts of the sentence. 照 can, in fact, mean "inspect, regard" which is what vyavalokayati means, so in that sense this procedure makes a certain amount of sense.

However, Ishii's method seems to require us to believe that Chinese has no syntax rules. We know that Buddhist Chinese does follow syntax rules, albeit that it sometimes follows medieval Chinese and sometimes Indic rules. Ishii's method is a classic case of making the data fit the hypothesis. It is a post hoc rationalisation. His method is not sound, and not consistent with established principles of philology.

In all of this procedure it is never explained why a Chinese translator would omit the word svabhāva from their translation if it occurs in the Sanskrit text, nor why they would condense three phrases down to two. Nothing is explained. 

Assuming that we ignore the overwhelming case of a Chinese origin for the core section, there is no way to establish precedence by comparing the number of phrases in a given passage outside the core. In my work on the epithets of the mantra (Attwood 2015) I showed that the number of epithets varied from 2 to 8 in unpredictable ways. Note also that Conze's English translation of his Sanskrit, has an fourth phrase as he struggled to turn his garbled Sanskrit into comprehensible English.

True and Not False

It is ironic that Ishii should bring up 真實不虛, because the Sanskrit is clearly a mistranslation of the Chinese. Although the combination of 真實 and 不虛 is common in Chinese, the combination of satya and amithyā never occurs in Sanskrit outside the Heart Sutra, where is is one of several hapax legomena. Although Ishii provides several examples of the use of 真實不虛 in Chinese, he never gives the Sanskrit equivalent. Since we know that it is not satyam amithyātvāt, it would be most interesting to see what the equivalent is. 

However, the problem here is deeper: satyam amithyātvāt is nonsensical as it stands. Amithyā does not mean "false"; i.e. ,it is not an antonym for satya, which would be mṛṣa or even asatya. Mithyā, on the other hand, is the antonym of samyañj, and it means "wrong" (as in "going about something the wrong way, against the grain, in the wrong direction"). Worse, in fact 虛 isn't an antonym of 真實, "true", either, but, instead, means, "hollow, empty; vain, pointless". The passage does not mean "true and not false"; it means "true and not in vain". And amithyā cannot be construed as a good translation of this. And the word in Sanskrit that might correspond to this is tucchaka. A better English translation would thus be "true and effective". A better Sanskrit translation would be satyaṃ atucchakaṃ. Again, I hope to publish something on this, but it is another case of something that ought to have been obvious to anyone who reads Buddhist Sanskrit texts. 

Syntactically, in Chinese both qualities are predicates of prajñāpāramitā (there is no suggestion that one is the cause of the other). It makes no sense at all, in Sanskrit, to take satyam amithyātvād with the following passage. Amithyātvād is weird: the wrong word in the wrong form in the wrong case. It is not the weirdest thing about the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, but I find it hard to believe that it has not caused other scholars to scratch their heads.

Miscellaneous Criticisms

It is strange that Ishii would use Müller's diplomatic edition rather than the critical edition by Conze. Despite being flawed in places, it is still the result of comparing many different manuscripts. At one point Ishii refers to "most of the extant Sanskrit manuscripts", but he does not cite any one of them. We have to wonder what sources he consulted, or whether he referred to Conze's notes in his edition? In which case, why not use that edition as his Sanskrit source?

At one point Ishii makes a big deal of the Chinese translations of the extended version of the Heart Sutra T253, T254, T255, and T257. He must surely be aware that there is no dispute that these are translations from Sanskrit. The dates are clearly recorded in Chinese and that they come from a much later period. They have no bearing on the matter of which language the text was composed in. Citing them doesn't help his case at all.

Thinking about Woncheuk's reference to a version with 等 (ādi) in it, Lusthaus (2003) also tries to make something of this. But so what? The version is no longer extant and was not canonised - no one saw it as important enough to preserve. And as before, it doesn't affect the main arguments. Ishii and Lusthaus both fail to see that, although Woncheuk appears to have had a Sanskrit text, he does not treat it as authoritative. Rather, he comments on T251 as the authoritative version of the text. So does Kuījī. Under what circumstances does a Sanskrit "original" (as Lusthaus calls it) not trump a Chinese translation in early medieval China? In fact, both Kuījī and Woncheuk were aware that the Heart Sutra was not a sutra, and Kuījī at least knew it contained a quote from T223  (see Nattier 1992: 206-7, n.33). So this is not news. It is quite likely that it is precisely these two commentaries that establish T251 as the authoritative text in China and its cultural sphere. This is entirely inconsistent with the pair having a Sanskrit "original".


The text of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is so far from the idiom of Prajñāpāramitā Sanskrit literature, Buddhist Sanskrit literature, or any other kind of Sanskrit literature, that the fact itself is (or ought to be) remarkable. The Heart Sutra stands alone in the entire body of Sanskrit literature and is only related to the other Prajñāpāramitā texts by its use of jargon. This is not consistent with being composed in India. It is consistent with having been composed in China by someone proficient in Sanskrit, but without any great knowledge of idiom. This could not have been Xuanzang - who was more familiar with Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā idiom than anyone in China at the time. I think the mistakes highlighted by Huifeng (2014) also helped to cement the Chinese origins thesis. The translator has misread the Chinese text at times and has struggled to find the Sanskrit vocabulary to express the Chinese concepts at others. Again, this is inconsistent with a monk in an Indian Sanskrit-using context. The translator was relatively isolated.

I admit, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging from Ishii and I found the article quite disappointing. He concentrates on peripheral issues and provides no refutation of the very strong evidence put forward already (and added to by Huifeng and myself in the last couple of years). The methods are not sound and the conclusions are weak and do not derive from the evidence presented. It looks like a tendentious throwing together of evidence to support a preconceived conclusion. "It is inconceivable that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, therefore it wasn't. QED." But this is hardly the standard of argumentation and reasoning we expect from a senior academic.

Like other scholars before him, Ishii has simply overlooked the grammatical errors in the Sanskrit text, which I am less and less inclined to forgive in professionals. After all, professionals are, on the whole (with a few notable exceptions), very hard on me when I dare to encroach on their territory and do not meet their high standards. So yes, let's have high standards, but that includes not being duped into accepting simple grammatical errors in our texts. 

We should, of course, not judge Japanese scholarship more generally on the basis of this single example, even though Ishii is a senior member of the Japanese Buddhist Studies establishment. We can hope that the article does not reflect the state of the art in Japan. However, it is not a good sign that such a weak and confused article could be published in a peer-reviewed journal at all. 


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

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

Huifeng. (2014). ‘Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: “Non-attainment”, “Apprehension”, and “Mental Hanging” in the Prajñāpāramitā.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105.

Ishii, Kosei. (2015) 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 ―ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う = ‘Issues Surrounding the Heart Sutra: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier's Theory of a Composition by Xuánzàng.’ Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu), 2015, 64(1), 499-492. (Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk).

Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) 'The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.' International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103.