Showing posts with label Sanskrit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sanskrit. Show all posts

10 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. II

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

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

Some Notes on Tang History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuījī and Woncheuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Sutra in Later Chinese Bibliographies

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

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

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

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

Summary So far

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

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

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

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


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


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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.

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

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

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

Skinsnes, O.K. and Chang, P.H. (1985) Understanding of leprosy in ancient China. International journal of leprosy and other mycobacterial diseases. 53(2), 289-307.

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

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

02 February 2018

Lotus: Synonyms in Sanskrit

The lotus is one of the most prolific sources of symbolism and imagery in India—past and present. The growing habit of the lotus, which lifts flower buds above the mud, allowing blooms to unfold without blemish, makes it ideal for conveying ideas related to transcendence and purity. Girls are still routinely named for the lotus flower. Amongst Buddhists, names with lotus symbolism have long been unisex.

There is only one species of lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. However, the situation is somewhat confused because early taxonomists classified them together with water lilies, genus Nymphaea, on the basis of the superficial resemblance of their flowers. Older systems, including one still in use on the sub-continent, still classify the lotus as Nymphaea nelumbo. However, the lotus and water lilies are not closely related in modern taxonomies. They both belong to the clade angiosperm, but are from unrelated orders and families. In other words, the fact that they have flowers and form seeds is about all they have in common, from a biological point of view. Although the standard dictionaries attempt to assign botanical names to the Sanskrit terms, these are all from older, now deprecated, systems and are thus unreliable. 

The true lotus is an important food plant in Asia, especially in China. Young leaves, stems, seeds, roots and rhizomes can all be eaten. The fresh plants are susceptible to microbial infection and, though edible raw, are best cooked for consumption. The flowers of the true lotus are usually white with pink edges, though they may also be plain white, or substantially pink. 

True lotus showing leaves,
bud, flower and seed-pod

So-called blue and red lotus flowers are, in fact, water lilies. The two are easily distinguished. Lotus leaves and flowers tend to be raised above the water on long stalks, whereas water lily leaves and flowers float on the surface of the water. As with roses, most of the water lilies we see now are modern hybrid varieties. 

Water lilies

Although in Buddhism when we say "lotus" we most often think of the lotus flower, Sanskrit has words for specific parts of the plant, especially where those parts are useful, i.e., either edible or used for their fibres. However, I'm mainly interested in names for the flower, here.

I'll take the names roughly in the order given in Apte's English-Sanskrit Dictionary, with a few adjustments to cluster similar terms together. Apte lists 24 synonyms under "lotus", plus some additional names associated with specific colours of lotus.


The word padma is probably the most generic name for the lotus. It simply means lotus. Etymologically, it probably derives from √pad, "step", with the suffix -ma (Cf. dharma from √dhṛ + ma). Kamala is also frequently used but, strictly speaking, means "pale-red" (i.e., pink) or "rose-coloured". Clearly, it comes from the varying pinkness of the flower. The name nalina appears to come from nala, meaning a (hollow) reed, and may be a reference to the flower stalk. 

The name Aravinda or Arvin is quite a common given name in India. Notably, the Bengali form  is Aurobindo. The word aravinda is used to refer to the true lotus as well as both blue and red water lily. The etymology is obscure.  

By contrast, utpala is mostly used to refer to the blue water lily, Nymphaea caerulea (aka Egyptian lotus).  It means to "burst open" from ut, 'up, out', and √pal, 'to move'. The blue water lily flower opens at night. The word utpala can also be used to refer to lotus seeds and to the plant Cheilocostus speciosus, or crêpe ginger. Sometimes the compound nīlotpala (i.e., nīla 'blue' + utpala) is used to specify the blue water lily. It is also called the mahotpala, i.e., mahā-utpala or large water lily.

Another name for the blue water lily is kuvalaya. The etymology of this word appears to be ku, "earth" + valaya, "girdle, bracelet, armlet, etc.". In Pāḷi, Brahmins from the west are sometimes referred to as sevālamālikā "having garlands of sevāla." However, sevāla (Skt śaivāla) is a water plant, totally unsuited to making garlands. Pāḷi commentaries equate sevāla with utpala, which is more plausible. Note that Sanskrit words beginning with ku are often loan words from Proto-Munda. Such borrowing occurred early (words appear in the Ṛgveda) and at a time when the ancestor of the Munda family of languages was common in northwest India, a region where Munda languages are no longer spoken.

The term sarasija means "produced", ja, "from the lake or pond", sarasi. While abja and ambhoja both mean "born", ja, "in the water", ap/ambhas. A lot of the symbolism of the lotus involves highlighting that it emerges from the water as a bud and then blooms. Paṅka means "mud" and another similar term is paṅkaja, "born of the mud".

The two words śatapatra and sahasrapatra refer to flowers with 100 (śata) and 1000 (sahasra) petals (patra). They are lotuses by implication and often have esoteric significance. 

The term kuśeśaya is said to literally mean "lying (śaya) amongst the kuśa reeds." But is also taken to mean "lying in the water", i.e., a water lily. However, this doesn't explain the medial e. I can see no easy way to explain this and we have to say that etymology is obscure. Again, possibly a loan word from Proto-Munda. 

Apte lists paṅkeruha as a name for the Lotus. We also have related words saroruha, sarasīruha, and ambhoruha. The word ruha means "mounted, ascended" from √ruh, "ascend". Then paṅka means "mud", sara, "lake", sarasi, "pond", and ambhas, "water". So we have paṅkeruha, "ascended from the mud", saroruha, "ascended from the lake", sarasīruha, "ascended from the pond", and ambhoruha, "ascended from the water". Sārasa is another adjective meaning "of or related to the pond" that is used to mean lotus. 

Monier-Williams says that tāmarasa is the "day lotus". Rasa is the juice or sap of a plant and tāma is probably from tamas "dark". 

The word puṣkara is used for the blue water lily, amongst many other things such as the bowl of a spoon, the skin of a drum, the tip of an elephant's trunk, and so on, in a series of seemingly unrelated objects. The etymology here is unclear. One is tempted to say that it means "flourishing" or "that which makes one flourish" from √puṣ, "to flourish", and √kṛ, "to make or do". However, Monier-Williams argues against this. It is perhaps instead related to puṣpa, "flower". Nothing seems to connect the various usages which suggests that several words have become confused and merged together over time. It may also be a loan word. 

Bisaprasūna is from bisa, the lotus plant, especially the stalks or edible rhizomes and roots. In fact, bisa effectively means "lotus" and should have been included in the original list. It occurs in several compounds such as bisa-kusuma, "lotus flower", bisa-ja "lotus flower", bisa-tantu "lotus fibre" and so on. Prasūna is from sūna "born, produced" (from √sū, "generate") and means "bud, flower". Similarly, Apte misses out giving mṛṇa, "crushed", as a name for the lotus plant, particularly the fibrous parts, though not usually the flower.  

And finally rājīva, "streaked" or "striped", is used for the blue water lily. 

Apte then includes a few more words that are colour specific. For example, names specific to the white lotus include puṇḍarīka, "that which bears a mark or sign (puṇḍa)" , and sitāṁbhoja, "white and bountiful". The red water lily is sometimes called kokanada, though more specifically this refers to the bright red (koka) colour of the flower. Similarly, raktotpala (i.e. rakta-utpala) means a burst of colour (rakta), especially red colour (recall that utpala is used for the blue water lily). This word is also used for bloodshot eyes. One last name for the blue water lily is indīvara, "the reward of/for beauty" or "whose reward is beauty".

We can extend this list a little by referring to the Amarakośaa thesaurus composed by Amarasiṃha, a Buddhist author in the middle of the first millennia CE. Further synonyms include: saugandhika, "sweet smelling"; kalhāra (or kahlāra), hallaka, "red water lily", rakta-sandhyaka, "reflecting colour", śālūka, "shining"? And finally, Kumuda, "exciting joy", a name used variously for the white lotus and red water lily, but also or many other plants and things that make people happy. 

Further notes

The plant itself, as distinct from the flower, can be referred to by feminine versions of many of the nouns, e.g., nalinī, kamalinī, padminī, mṛṇālinī, kumudinīpaṅkeruhiṇī, and so on. 

Many of the names for lotus are also names for cranes (e.g., kamala, aravinda,). Also, names associated with red colours are also names for copper and deer. 

Most of these can be combined in compounds to form adjectives of women as  "lotus-eyed", -padmākṣī, lotus-hued (e.g., padmā) or lotus faced,  padmamukhī.


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.

13 October 2017

Red Pine's "Vagaries of Sanskrit grammar".

When I mention to anyone that I work on the Heart Sutra, there is a better-than-even chance that that person will declare that they like Red Pine's book on the text (2004). This small book purports to be a translation from the Sanskrit along with a commentary. However, Pine is not very good at Sanskrit and there are a load of mistakes in his book, and his commentary is sectarian, to say the least. My Amazon UK review of his book suggests that it is "a facile book on modern Japanese Zen rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra." I say this whenever his name comes up, but his reputation survives intact. The response is usually along the lines "We trust him, we don't trust you (so fuck off)". The last may be sotto voce, but sometimes it is expressed just like that.

Facts don't necessarily win arguments or establish reputations, and nor do falsehoods necessarily lose arguments or destroy reputations. No one alive today can doubt this truism. Nevertheless, I still try to deal in facts and here are some facts about Red Pine's attempts to understand the Heart Sutra.

One of the characteristics of Pine's approach is his outright rejection of Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China.
"... we are shown no proof that the Heart Sutra was originally composed or complied in Chinese, that any part of the first half was extracted from the Large Sutra or any other Chinese text, or that the mantra was added later."  (2004: 23)
Pine instead proposes a "lost manuscript thesis". That is to say, he argues that the Heart Sutra quote from the Pañcavimśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, is from a (now lost) sūtra with the same name, and with the same meaning, but written in an entirely different Sanskrit idiom from any other Prajñāpāramitā text. In other words, he believes that the Indian sūtra existed in at least two prose versions, which paraphrased each other; meaning that one of them was in the standard idiom of all other Prajñāpāramitā texts, and one was in an idiom unknown except for the passage in the Heart Sutra. The fact that the Chinese Heart Sutra is coincidentally identical to Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati is apparently irrelevant (note: it is T250 that is character for character identical; T251 has a line removed in the middle and a couple of key terms changed). 

In taking this perverse approach, Red Pine is asserting that the Sanskrit text is original and authoritative and that the Chinese text is just a translation. But as we will see, this is not what he believes in practice. I draw your attention to Section VI of Conze's edition and to Red Pine's "translation". 

The mystery of Section VI

Conze's edition chops up the Heart Sutra into sections to make it easier to comment on. The earliest manuscripts of the Heart Sutra do not have sections. In fact, they don't even have sentence or word breaks. They have no punctuation at all. In Conze’s edition the passage reads:
VI. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvo Prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ.
This section has already been examined in detail by Huifeng (2014), but there is work to do yet on the Sanskrit. I am about to submit a short article tackling the mistake introduced by Conze, and am working on another article which tackles what went wrong with the original (back)translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. Here, I just want to look at Red Pine's approach and what it reveals about his methods.

The second sentence in particular is puzzling. Jan Nattier notes that it seems "abbreviated at best", but doesn't seem to clock why. Others seem to gloss over the problems. What Pine says is this:
“I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta” (2004: 137)
If we look at the Sanskrit text it is apparent that there are problems with this passage. The two words viparyāsātikrāntaḥ and niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ are both bahuvrīhi compounds or compound adjectives. The two words in the compound work together to describe a noun: "one who has overcome delusion" and "one whose extinction is final". But there is no noun for them to describe. Nor does the sentence have a verb or anything that might substitute for one - and just as in English, a sentence without a verb is a contradiction in terms.

A compound cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces under any circumstances. It is never allowed.  There is nothing vague about this rule. For one thing, were we to do that to viparyāsātikrāntaḥ, as Pine does, we would leave  viparyāsa with no case ending and thus no relationship to the other words in the sentence (grammar is all about relationships between words). The role of the compound in the sentence is entirely determined by the second member of the compound, which does have a case ending (in this case masculine nominative singular).

The passive past participle atikranta cannot function as a finite verb under any circumstances. The root verb ati√kram does not mean "see through", it means "go beyond, transgress, transcend". Given the Prajñāpāramitā idiom, it probably ought to be samatikranta, which cannot be construed as "transgress", but that is a another story.

Pine has misread the sentence and, in asserting that there are any "vagaries" here, has gone completely off piste. The problem, as my forthcoming article will show, is that Conze has incorrectly put a full stop (US "period") in the middle of the sentence, stranding the three adjectives (atrastaḥ is the third) apart from the noun they describe, i.e. bodhisatvaḥ. Note that the Chinese text in the CEBTA version of the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka has a semicolon at this point, rather than a full stop. Conze had little or no facility with Chinese and never checked the Chinese texts when preparing his Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts.

This is completely obvious to anyone educated in Sanskrit: adjectives taking the case of their noun is very basic stuff (you probably learn this in the first or second week of study).

Why is it so obvious in this case? Because the noun nirvāṇa is invariably neuter (nominative singular nirvāṇaṃ), but in the Heart Sutra it has a masculine ending, -nirvāṇaḥ. The only time this is permitted is when a word is used as an adjective for a masculine noun, in the nominative singular: adjectives take the gender, case, and number of the noun they describe. Thus niṣthānirvāṇaḥ can only be a bahuvrīhi compound, an adjective, and can only be related to a masculine noun in the nominative singular, and could not be anything else. The only candidate noun within 20 words in either direction is bodhisatvaḥ, in the previous "sentence". When we remove the full stop we have one perfectly good Buddhist Sanskrit sentence.

Conze blunders again and the whole (Buddhist) world blindly follows him off the cliff.

The essential problem, then, is that cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ is not a well formed sentence. It's just a qualifier and three adjectives, with no verb, no subject, and no noun to be described. When we remove the full stop, and merge it with the previous sentence, we supply all three. That is why Pine is struggling, but he doesn't see it. And rather than take the simple and obvious solution he abandons Sanskrit grammar altogether and claims that Sanskrit grammar itself is "vague". Given that he has abandoned grammar, why does he choose the particular configuration he does? If he is abandoning the rules of grammar then he might have opted for any combination of words. The answer lies in the Chinese text.


The text that everyone in Asia considers to be the Heart Sutra is T251. It differs from T250 at this point, but only in a minor way (I will deal with this in the article, but not here). The Chinese parallel to the Sanskrit phrase cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto niṣṭhānirvāṇaḥ in T251 is:
A word for word translation would be:
unattached (無罣礙) because (故),there is no (無有) terror (恐怖),going beyond (遠離) delusions (顛倒) [and] illusions (夢想 ),final (究竟) nirvāṇa (涅槃).
Here the particle 故 gives the first word the same sense as the Sanskrit ablative of cause, it is a qualifier meaning "because, since". The previous sentence concluded that "[the bodhisatva's]  mind 心 is unattached 無罣礙". So the qualifier links the two phrases, in the manner of "; because of that...". Then we have a statement that appears to logically follow from it, i.e. "because he is unattached, he is without fear". Then we have a verb "he goes beyond" and it has a direct object "delusions and illusions" and an indirect object "final-nirvāṇa". So it says:
[his mind is unattached]; since it is unattached, [the bodhisatva] is not afraid; he goes beyond delusion and illusion to final extinction.
I want to draw your attention to two things here. Firstly the sentence structure of the Chinese is completely different to the received Sanskrit and some of the words are different. I've already pointed out that the second part of Section VI cannot be a standalone sentence in Sanskrit. But in Chinese, we do have a well formed sentence with verbs and nouns (the subject is implied, but it is the bodhisatva in the preceding phrase). Translating this we don't struggle, at least we certainly don't have the kind of problems thrown up by Conze's Sanskrit edition.

Secondly, compare how Red Pine has construed the Sanskrit text to make atikranta the verb (= 遠離), viparyāsa a standalone noun (= 顛倒), niṣthā an adverb (= 究竟), and nirvāṇa a standalone noun (涅槃). To make it plain, Red Pine has chopped up the Sanskrit sentence, abrogating the rules of Sanskrit grammar, to make it read (more or less) like the Chinese, but with a concession to his Zen ideology. The concession is that he takes niṣṭhā as an adverb, "finally", related to the "verb" atikranta, rather than part of the adjective "final-extinction". This allows him to construe the possibility of "finally seeing through nirvāṇa". Again, Sanskrit does not allow parts of compounds to come adrift and act independently, so this reading of the Sanskrit is wrong. I don't think it works in Chinese, either, though at a pinch it might be a plausible reading. A broader look at the phrase 究竟涅槃 in Chinese shows that it is always a single compound and not an adverb-noun combination. But Red Pine does not seem to know this.

The main point I wish to make here is that Red Pine prioritises the Chinese text over the Sanskrit (and not just here, either).

As I noted above, Red Pine says that he considers the Sanskrit text to be the authentic original Heart Sutra. The Chinese text is merely a translation. But when he meets a problem in the Sanskrit text he does not deal with it in Sanskrit (even though there is a simple and obvious solution to his problem); instead, he uses the Chinese text as a guide to butchering the Sanskrit, to make it read like the Chinese.

I discovered this some weeks ago and I still laugh out loud every time I explain it to anyone. Despite what he says in relation to the Chinese origins thesis, and despite claiming that he is translating from Sanskrit, in practice Red Pine treats the Chinese text as authoritative and translates from Chinese (on more than one occasion). 

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Richard Feynman. "What is Science?" The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969)
Now, to give him his due, Red Pine is almost unique in admitting that he had any problem at all translating this part of the text. Most religious translators hide their struggles and their methods from their readers, giving the illusion of greater understanding than is humanly possible. In this case Conze's edition is unreadable and untranslatable. A sentence with just a qualifier and three adjectives is nonsense and nonsense cannot be translated into sense. But strangely enough all the English translations seem to make sense. How does that happen? 

What goes through the mind of the translator faced with a text that doesn't make sense, but who wishes to be known as an expert in understanding that text?

Presumably the demands of status mean that these translators simply lie about understanding the text, and then lie to themselves about having lied. And do a lot of hand waving to distract anyone from seeing the lies. They feel safe in the knowledge that very few of their readers bother to learn Sanskrit and that scholars play no corrective role in the process.

And they do get away with this cheating, this intellectual fraud. Time after time.

Surely the publisher of Red Pine's book, Counterpoint Press, also has some responsibility (as do other publishers of non-fiction books)? Counterpoint Press edited the book and presumably sub-edited the English in it. Why was the Sanskrit not sub-edited? No one seems to have bothered to check a dictionary at any point. It seems that they did not do any fact-checking or due-diligence, such as having an expert read the manuscript. At best, the complacency of the publisher has facilitated the ongoing deception. 

We expect religieux to fudge things from time to time because they have an agenda that includes overriding ideological concerns. We understand this and, while we may not endorse it, at least it is no great surprise to find that a religious translator has manipulated a text to make it fit their preconceptions; or told us what they think it ought to say, rather than what it actually says (especially in cases where they demonstrably do not understand it, as here). We expect religieux to have exaggerated reverence for a printed text and not to think about how the text might be wrong (Thich Nhat Hahn is the sole exception to this that I'm aware of but, as I explained, his solution is to hide the problem by manipulating the translation. This is just an exercise in hand waving). 

What of academia? Many of the people who have studied, translated, and commented on this text were academics of quite high standing. Conze's first edition (1948) was published in a prestigious journal, where it was supposedly peer-reviewed. How did all of these experts in Sanskrit, miss the fact that the neuter noun nirvāṇa was in the masculine gender in this text and not see the implications of this? Any undergraduate student could spotted this and have told us what those implications were. 


The fact is that Buddhists have been poorly served by religious teachers and academic experts alike. In the case of the Heart Sutra, huge, possibly irreparable, damage has been done by D T Suzuki and Edward Conze and their Theosophy inspired nonsense. Yet both are almost deified and occupy a kind of pantheon of Buddhist Modernism. Conze has been described by Sangharakshita as "one of the great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century". He was a poor editor and translator, and while his views were influenced by Buddhism (amongst other things), I'm not convinced he was a Buddhist at all.

Red Pine's popular book is full of egregious errors and, as we now know, a degree of deception, inconsistency, and hypocrisy. At best it is a facile book on modern Japanese Zen ideology, rather than a serious book about the Heart Sutra. But there is no doubting that it is popular. So it too has done huge damage.

Where we might have expected correctives from the supposedly objective scholars based in universities, dispassionately studying the languages and documents of Buddhism, we simply see more of the same in most cases (with a few notable exceptions). The most basic level of scholarship has been left incomplete, while scholars pursue ever more obscure objectives. I'm told by insiders that this might be so that they can avoid confrontation with anyone else in the field. Criticism that might affect anyone's career prospects is scrupulously avoided and even suppressed as journals refuse to publish it. Still, Conze has been dead for 43 years, I can't see how criticising him is going to hurt anyone.

Another problem, of course, is that the field is tiny and funding for it in the West has become scarce. Most of the major projects are based in Asia, under the guidance of Buddhist organisations and funders, meaning that scholarship is beholden to those with strong religious ideologies. Dissent is not really possible under such conditions.

The Heart Sutra is frequently referred to as "the most popular Mahāyāna text in the world". Most undergraduates in Buddhist Studies read it. Probably many of them read it in Sanskrit. So actually what I said about any undergraduate spotting the mistake is probably wrong, because several generations of them have not spotted it, or they spotted it and stayed quiet. And so simple grammatical errors have persisted in the most popular Buddhist text for almost 60 years (the anniversary of Conze's edition is in 2018; he died in 1974). 

I'm repeating myself in complaining about Buddhist Studies as a discipline (if "discipline" is the right word). But, here I am, working systematically through the shortest text in popular use (260 Chinese characters and about the same number of words in Sanskrit) and still finding mistakes in the text and trying to figure out how anyone could have translated the resulting mess. Something is deeply wrong in the world, if an autodidact, amateur, independent scholar is the one finding these fundamental problems. They should have been ironed out by academics decades ago. Conze should never have been allowed to publish his critical edition with errors in it for a start, but they should have been corrected long before now. 

Ironically, in the final analysis, this set of circumstances can only stand because Buddhists themselves are complacent and not paying attention. Perhaps we are in a kāliyuga after all?



Conze, Edward (1948) Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. 

Huifeng, Shi. (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.

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

Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Counterpoint Press.