Showing posts with label Textual Criticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Textual Criticism. Show all posts

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. 


20 December 2013

Is There Any Such Thing as 'a Text'?

Lines from a Buddhist Sutra
British Library
Most Buddhists will be familiar with the problem of finding two different translations of a text they are inspired by and discovering that the two are inexplicably different. This experience was partly what motivated me to learn Pāli and then Sanskrit (and to dabble in Chinese) in the first place. I remember reading the Bodhicāryāvatara in two translations and being puzzled at the differences. I did not realise at the time that one was a direct translation of the Sanskrit and the other was a secondary translation from the Tibetan translation, which helped to explain some of the major differences. 

If we aren't motivated to learn a scriptural language in order to see for ourselves what the text is saying, presuming it is possible to understand it, then we have limited choices. What most people seem to do is make an aesthetic judgement on which English rendering appeals more. I often hear people say that they prefer this or that translation with no reference to the source language. A monoglot Buddhist will say that some translation captures the meaning and some other translation more literal, with no apparent irony. How does one assess the success, let alone the literalness of a translation when one cannot read the language it was translated from?

Another approach I commonly see is to seek out as many translations as possible and hope to triangulate what the underlying text says. One sees quite elaborate attempts at new renderings of texts with no reference to the Sanskrit or Pāḷi, for example. I've even seen these referred to as a new 'translation'. An old friend used to study the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta by giving each participant in the study group a different translation to read from. Sometimes this is successful and other times not.

Thus we Buddhists make choices between translations on superficial and subjective bases, and we probably think of the translation we are familiar with as "the text". Do we ever stop to wonder what "the text" means if "the text" can be rendered 20 different ways in English? Aren't the different translations in fact different texts?

Critical Editions

But the situation is almost unimaginably worse than this scenario. Because most translations are from critical editions. In the process of making a critical edition one collects up all the surviving 'witnesses' (manuscripts, inscriptions, and earlier editions) and examines each one, possibly correcting scribal errors. Typically each witness is different from all the others, even when they are copies of the same 'original'. Scribes inadvertently introduce errors, large and small, and editors deliberately make amendments, subtractions and additions. Then choosing the best manuscript (best can be judged on any number of bases) one notes all the variations from the best one in the other manuscripts. Traditionally this is first done on a large grid. To produce a critical edition one selects from the variations to produce a text that is consistent and coherent. And if this does not produce a comprehensible or likely reading an editor can suggest an unattested reading that fits better (hopefully with notes to explain the logic of their choice). The editor tries to reconstruct the text as it was first transmitted, or as the author intended it to be. The result is a single text with all the variations footnoted and usually extra notes on amendments (though one of the great problems of Indian textual studies is the practice of silently amending non-standard Sanskrit forms thus obscuring dialectical variants).

And it is these critical editions which end up being translated. In the case of the Heart Sutra for example, Conze consulted more than two dozen sources all different from each other. And he made a number of decisions about the author's intention that in retrospect look doubtful at best or were simply wrong (as discussed in my series of essays on the text earlier in 2013). So each translation hides complexity, sometimes vast complexity, and an industrious process of simplification that is fully subject to human foibles. 

But still worse, some Indian texts can now only be understood by reference to commentaries, often centuries removed from the composition of the text and written by sectarians. Again in the case of the Heart Sutra the commentaries disagree on how to interpret the text along sectarian lines.For example tantrikas treat the text as tantric because it contains a dhāraṇī. And more often than not the commentary itself must undergo textual criticism in order to reconstruct the author's text because it too is subject to all the processes of change that affect a text. 

There is no Diamond in the Diamond Sutra.

Take the Sanskrit Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as an example. For a start the title ought not to be translated as Diamond Sutra or even Diamond Cutter. This was a choice made by Max Müller in 1884 and has been slavishly repeated ever since. But as Conze remarks in the notes to his 1957 edition, the word vajra was very unlikely to be understood as meaning "diamond" by its audience. In that milieu vajra almost certain meant 'thunderbolt' (that wonderfully unscientific word that combines thunder and lightning). Really, we ought to translate vajra as 'lightning bolt'.

Chedikā is from √chid 'to cut off, amputate; cut, hew, split'. A noun form is cheda 'cutoff; cut' and the adjective is chedaka 'cutter, cutting' and in the feminine chedikā. Sandhi rules dictate that initial ch is doubled to cch when preceded by a vowel. Then we ought to ask what kind of compound vajracchedikā is.  Other compounds with -ccheda suggest that it is the first member of the compound which is cut off - i.e. guṇaccheda 'cutting the chord' or dhyānaccheda 'interruption of meditation'. These are tatpuruṣa compounds. Monier-Williams lists no other compounds ending in the feminine -cchedikā. Since "cutting off the lightening" is an unlikely rendering and it is in the feminine gender following prajñāpāramitā which is also feminine, we must suspect a bahuvrīhi compound (i.e. it is an adjective describing prajñāpāramitā): "the perfect wisdom that cuts like lightening". I think this is probably what it means. So really we should refer to it as the [Cuts likeLightning Sutra, though it's extremely unlikely that the facts will result in a change. 

The Manuscript Tradition and Editions.

Paul Harrison and Shōgo Watanabe have provided us with a detailed account of the history of editions of the Vajracchedikā (Vaj). There are now ten published editions, including Harrison & Watanabe. The first of these was produced in 1881 in Devanāgarī by the redoubtable F. Max Müller. Müller had four witnesses of which two were copies of the same original and two were Chinese block prints. All of these witnesses post-date the composition of Vaj by at least 1500 years. They are copies of copies of copies and each copying introduced errors. It was Müller who introduced the system of breaking the text into sections. His numbering has been retained in subsequent editions, but they do not occur in any manuscript.

Not long after Müller produced his edition a number of manuscripts of Vaj were found and began to be published. Aurel Stein discovered a Central Asian ms. in 1900 that was published by F. E. Pargiter in 1916 (P). This manuscript is thought to date from the late 5th or early 6th century (though dating on palaeographic grounds can be doubtful). Five of the nineteen folios had been lost and many others were poorly preserved. The Pargiter text appears to be similar to the Chinese translation by Kumārajīva (401 CE).

A partial manuscript was found in 1931 as part of a cache of texts discovered near Gilgit (G). The seven surviving folios are dated to the 6th or 7th century. This ms. was not published until 1956 in a Roman script edition. A facsimile edition was published in 1974. Another Roman script version was published by N. Dutt in 1959 which used portions of Müller to fill in the gaps. However none of the Roman script editions were entirely reliable and in 1989 Gregory Schopen published a new edition which corrected the many mistakes. Schopen's edition is available online from the Gretil Archive.

Amongst several editions of the complete Vaj brought out after these finds, only Conze's 1957 publication has attracted any attention. Conze based his edition on Müller's, but presented it in Roman script and included amendments based on the published versions of P and particularly G. Conze introduced a number of innovations such as western punctuation and hyphenated compounds. "However, Conze did not use M consistently as his base text, occasionally making changes to the wording in which he conflated his various witnesses arbitrarily. He also failed to list the differences in his witnesses exhaustively." (Harrison & Watanabe 92). Never-the-less Conze's edition has become, as it were, canonical and most subsequent studies and translations have been based on his edition and this means, for example that "philosophical questions have also been addressed on less than solid foundations..." (92). 

In 1961 P. L. Vaidya produced yet another edition based on Müller but, as per Conze, with "improvements" based on G as it was then (unreliably) published. This text is widely available on the internet via the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon and the Gretil Archive for example. And yet Harrison & Watanabe conclude it "can safely be set aside" (92). Similarly the edition by Joshi simply rearranges the text of previously published editions. 

Finally we have an incomplete ms. (MS 2385) discovered in the Schøyen Collection dated to the 6th or 7th century, and recently published by Harrison & Watanabe  (2006). This text is missing it's ending. Fortunately the Schøyen ms. (S) is very similar in character to the Gilgit ms. (G). Indeed S and G are closer to each other linguistically than either is to the edition of Pargiter (P). Both contain a number of similar Prakritic features (see Harrison & Watanabe (97-99) S contains sections 1-16c; whereas G contains sections 13b-14e and 15b-32b. And thus, while they are not identical where they overlap, together G and S make up a reasonably consistent single text (see below).

In addition a total of twelve identifiable fragments of Vaj have been discovered in Central Asia. Other texts have been catalogued but are presently lost somewhere in the Nepalese National Archives it seems!

So to sum up the most widely used edition of the Sanskrit Vaj is unreliable; the most widely available to those outside academia is also unreliable. An important problem in the history of this text is that the sources available to Müller are considerably longer than P, G or S. Do we treat this as one text that was added to, or do we treat this as one text in at least two recensions, one shorter and one longer? 

One of the weird things about Vaj is that it suggests that anyone who recites "even one verse of four lines" (catuṣpadikām api gāthāṃ) stands to benefit. But this text is not in verse. There's no evidence that it ever was in verse except this phrase. Is it a stock phrase that was used unthinkingly? Or did the text once exist as verse? As far as we know only one Prajñāpāramitā text is in verse: the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā.

So far we have a Sanskrit text, available in multiple recensions and versions which may well not point back to a single point of origin, and known far and wide by the mistranslated title. The situation in Chinese is almost as complex with seven different translations of texts which vary in length and quality. 

The Text in Translation

When we read a translation it is almost always the case that this background complexity is completely suppressed or at best highly compressed. 

When it comes to translations we are similarly blessed with many options. Max Müller published his translation in 1894. Conze has published three versions of his English translation with only the most recent being widely available. As with the Heart Sutra, Conze's edition has become standard amongst Buddhists, but when examined it is problematic. My preliminary assessment is that Conze's translation of Vaj suffers from his beliefs getting in the way, just as in his Heart Sutra. Conze in particular embraces paradox and nonsense because it fits his preconceptions about Prajñāpāramitā, but this causes him to mistranslate and to obscure the ways in which the text does make sense.

Schopen has published both a translation of the Gilgit ms. and a complete translation. And translations have also appeared by Mu Soeng, Red Pine  and Richard H. Jones. Now we can add the translation by Harrison of the combined S and G manuscripts. Apart from Schopen and Harrison all the available translations are based either on Müller's or Conze's Sanskrit editions with all their faults. As one might expect there are a number of translations from Chinese also, mainly from Kumārajīva's translation.

Unfortunately the translation by Harrison is relatively inaccessible, though it is based on by far the most carefully constructed edition. There is in fact one interesting and useful presentation of the translation on the web based at Oslo University's Bibliotheca Polyglotta. Though the website in theory makes the text available to everyone, I don't think many Buddhists will find the site, and many won't feel comfortable with the presentation in multiple languages and versions, it is not formatted for easy printing for off-line study, and it lacks all the extensive discussion and notes from the publications mentioned. It would be advantageous to have a popular publication with the Sanskrit text and Harrison's translation (with notes) side by side.

One development mentioned briefly above is worth drawing attention to. Promoted as "a new translation" (it is not) the Diamond Sutra website, by one Alex Johnson, is an extreme example of using English translations found on the internet to try to triangulate the underlying text and produce something more comprehensible, though in this case he has singularly failed to find the text. What the author has done, essentially, is to produce a collage of all the versions. No attention is paid to which text has been translated into English - though translations from Chinese are invariably from Kumārajīva's version and from English from Müller or Conze. At times it strays very far from the Sanskrit and/or Chinese text as the elaborations of previous translators are incorporated to produce a rather bloated and turgid rendition of little doctrinal or literary merit (though clearly Johnson has laboured long to produce this, he'd have been better to spend his time learning Sanskrit or Chinese). Nor is any attention given to the context of the sutra. A single example should suffice: in Section 5 he has the Buddha say, "When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature." But "Buddha nature" is entirely anachronistic and out of place here. It is never mentioned in the text. This late Buddhist idea has been crowbarred into the text in a most inelegant way. The Sanskrit text here is "hi lakṣanālakṣanataḥ tathāgato draṣṭavyaḥ" (Harrison 115). This says: "For a Tathāgata should be seen from the non-characteristic of characteristics.” [As ever arguing against naive realism and reification of sense data] Reconciling Johnson's purple prose with this statement is impossible, and I would say, pointless. And yet if you search "Diamond Sutra" what do you find? 


The purpose of this account based on the examination carried out by Harrison & Watanabe is to highlight how complex the manuscript traditions are and how the processes of textual production in the present suppress complexity at every stage, thus to some extent falsifying the witness statements. Vaj is actually not a complicated case, but it highlights a problem that Buddhists simply don't think about. As I said with respect to the Heart Sutra, it is not so much a "text" as a tradition with multiple, competing, variously unreliable, texts. I don't want to go down the road of post-modern textual criticism and deny the existence of the text altogether. For one thing I don't know enough about post-modernism to be credible. But we are obliged to think more about what we mean by "the Diamond Sutra". The production of the text we read is a process in which various scribes and editors have been involved. Many decisions have been made to prune the tangled mass of the tradition in order to present us with reading matter and ideas as homogeneous and simple as possible. Reality is somewhat different:
"... we ought to expect multiple branching of the manuscript tradition, with enlargement and other textual changes not fully present in some of the branches, despite the late date of their witnesses. This presents the editor of texts like this with considerable problems which cannot be gone into here, but to put it in a nutshell, the idea that the wording of any Mahāyāna sūtra can be restored to some original and perfect state by text-critical processes must be abandoned: all lines do not converge back on a single point." (Harrison 240. Emphasis added)
So according Harrison there might not be a (discoverable) single point of origin, a single authoritative text. And this is an argument against criticisms of Conze. That fact that Conze's version is popular with Buddhists is what makes it authoritative, however uncritical those Buddhists have been. Perhaps we have to consider that his version, with all it's faults, is no less valid than other versions? But wouldn't this be rather too defeatist? Ought not errors of reading and translation be repaired? Awkward and infelicitous, not to say inaccurate, translations can be improved on. Though experience does suggest that given the choice Buddhists will cling to a familiar corrupt text rather than embrace a repaired new one.


In the last twenty years I have gone from naive follower to engaged reader, to published scholar. I've discovered along the way that editors and editions can be unreliable. In my education as a Buddhist I was inculcated with the greatest respect for Dr Conze. My Buddhist teacher dubbed him one of the great Buddhists of the 20th century. But as a scholar his methods left much to be desired and his particular Buddhist beliefs seem to have hampered his scholarship. Most of his work is problematic and all of it needs redoing. I hope to do this for the Heart Sutra in the English speaking world (by formally publishing the material I've been blogging) and clearly Harrison, Watanabe and Schopen have done so for the Diamond Sutra. The Sanskrit edition of the Aṣṭasāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra is apparently good enough, so we only require a re-translation of that text (several partial translations have been produced, but as yet no one has undertaken the whole task).

But all of this is simply to play the same old game and something about it nags me. A standardised text is almost a lie. It rests on the idea, drawn from Classical scholarship, of a single author sitting down and composing a text that was then corrupted by scribes over time. But Buddhist texts don't seem like this. They almost always seem to be the product of local traditions (plural) preserved in local dialects and languages.

Clearly Buddhist texts are not like Vedic texts. They are not revelations of eternally unchanging texts. They have not been preserved with the kind of fidelity that Vedic oral texts have. Given that we live 800 years after Buddhism died out in India, the home of Sanskrit text production, we must wonder how much or how little of the variation has survived the burning of Buddhist libraries. If we have this many variations now, how many more were lost? 

Buddhists are often fundamentalist when it comes to texts. We have a 'cult of the book' as Gregory Schopen terms it. The book itself becomes an object of worship (I know of at least a couple of Buddhist shrines that have never-read books on them). The book itself symbolises knowledge, but is in conflict with the anti-intellectual injunction against the written word as definitive. In this view, wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox. So even though the Diamond Sutra is a sacred text, it need not be read, though it is chanted from memory in many monasteries and widely studied

The Buddhist tradition is strangely hostile to complexity at times. We are always trying iron out wrinkles, usually with unintended consequences. It begins to seem a little quixotic to insist that our texts are unitary phenomena. Was the Vajracchedikā composed as single text? Did it once stop at what Conze calls "The First Ending" (§13a) only to be restarted by a latter author? How did the later authors justify adding words, lines and sections? Were they like Alex Johnson, i.e. well meaning but incompetent editors trying to resolve textual variations without really understanding the text? If Harrison is right and the lines do not converge then which Vajracchedikā do we take to be authoritative. In China it's usually the translation by Kumārajīva that is authoritative if there is a choice (though as discussed, this is not true in the case of the Heart Sutra

Practising Buddhists often resolve these conflicts and contradictions by changing the frame of the discussion and invoking the authority of personal experience. Which is to say they sidestep the textual issues by trumping the authority of the text with a higher authority. Only in doing so they retain the text as object of worship as the (ultimately faulty) encapsulation of "perfect wisdom". On the other hand historically merely hearing the Vajracchedikā is said to have brought about miraculous conversion: in ancient times for example for Huineng the patriarch of Zen and in modern times by Sangharakshita who, aged 17, both realised he was a Buddhist after reading an early translation from the Chinese and also had a series of mystical experiences that shaped his approach to Buddhism (and indeed to life) subsequently. 

The other frame change we like to invoke is to cite "the Absolute", a term drawn from German idealism but applied to Buddhism especially by Conze. Sometimes the term non-dual is used instead though the meaning is more or less the same. Modern Buddhists frequently believe that there is a viewpoint that stands outside the framework altogether and sees things as they are - though heaven forbid that we call this the god perspective! The Absolute is beyond words and concepts and yet encompasses all words and all concepts. And crucially the Absolute can be invoked to resolve all doubts and all disputes. If one cannot think through a problem to a satisfactory conclusion that is because not all problems are amenable to thought or reason. Some problems and doubts are only resolved by adopting the godlike perspective of the Absolute.  This is the viewpoint which insists that wisdom cannot be put into words except as nonsense and paradox.  Unfortunately credibility is strained at times when people who clearly do not have access to this perspective, use nonsense to silence questions and stifle discussion. 

So, is there any such thing as 'a text'? I spend my time reading and studying and creating texts. However, the sacred Buddhist text as a unitary object with well defined boundaries is a fiction. With a tradition like the Prajñāpāramitā we have a number of texts which represent the tradition in different ways at different times, but are themselves far from stable or fixed. The modern day obsession with fidelity of transmission does not seem to have been shared by our Indian antecedents. Texts were changed as expedient. Mistakes were as likely to be conserved as correct readings were. Better to think of a text as a sketch of a tradition from a particular place and time, seen after several generations of copying. It may be clear and focussed and relatively helpful in understanding the tradition which produced it, or it may be obscured and blurred and unhelpful. Sometimes it's hard to know which. Most Buddhist texts in fact seem to continue to be composed over a considerable period of time that may only have stopped with the destruction of Buddhism in India.


11 October 2013

An Alternate Sanskrit Heart Sutra.

Two weeks ago I proposed an imaginative story of how the Heart came about. The purpose of the version of the Heart Sutra I am presenting below is the result of a further thought experiment. Imagine, now, that our monk, though still Chinese, had access to the Sanskrit versions of the texts he was drawing on, and a little more familiarity with Sanskrit idiom.

We have a manuscript of the Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra dated to the 6th century from Gilgit which is likely to be similar to the one Kumarajīva used to create his Chinese version. It is published in facsimile, though in a script I cannot read. Fortunately, there are partial transcriptions in the Gretil archive which cover the parts used in the core of the Heart Sutra. This Gilgit manuscript will form our model for sections 2-4 below. In addition, I have included all the other improvements suggested to date to produce a totally new version of the Heart Sutra.

This new version of the Heart Sutra never existed and will not likely spread beyond this website. The last version I blogged was a serious suggestion about how the Heart Sutra should look in Sanskrit based on a critical examination of extant Sanskrit manuscripts and epigraphs, the Chinese canonical versions (T 8.250, 8.251), and work by contemporary scholars, particularly Jan Nattier (but including Donald Lopez and Jonathan Silk). If I was the editor of the Heart Sutra, that earlier version is how I would publish it and I've outlined the arguments for the that reading. This new version is purely speculative. There is no need to take it seriously, though, of course, I hope readers will find it an interesting 'what if...'

On some level this is the Heart Sutra as it might have been had it been composed in Sanskrit using the idiom of the large Perfection of Wisdom texts. And even if you don't know Sanskrit you will be able to compare the paragraphs and see how different they are. This difference evaporates in Chinese where the Heart Sutra is nearly identical to Kumārajīva's Large Wisdom Sutra. And this is the basis of Jan Nattier's claim that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was not extracted from any extant Sanskrit Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, but from the Chinese.

As before I've used full stops for the end of sentences and upper-case letters for the first words in sentences, but otherwise tried to keep punctuation and hyphenation to a minimum. 

Alternate Sanskrit Text


࿓ namas sarvajñāya
1. Āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma panca skandhāṃs tāṃś ca svabhāvaśūnyān paśyati sma. 
2. Na hi śāriputra anyad rūpam anyā śunyatā. Nānya śunyatānyad rūpaṃ. Rūpam eva śunyatā śunytaiva rūpaṃ. Evam eva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskāra vijñānaṃ. 
3. Iha śāriputra sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā. Yā śūnyatā notpadyate na nirudhyate na saṃkliśyate na vyavadāyate na hīyate na vardhate. 
4. Tasmāc chāriputra śūnyatāyāṃ na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānam. Na cakṣur na śrotraṃ na ghrānaṃ na jihvā na kāyo na manaḥ. Na rūpaṃ na śabdo na gando na raso na spraṣṭavya na dharmaḥ. Na cakṣūrdhātur yāvan na manovijñānadhātuḥ. Nāvidyā nāvidyākṣayo yāvan na jarāmaraṇam na jarāmaraṇakṣayo. Na duhkho na samudayo na nirodho na mārgaḥ. Na prāptir nābhisamayaḥ  
5. Tasmāc chāriputra aprāptitvād bodhisattvasya prajñāpāramitām āśritya viharaty acittāvaraṇaḥ. Cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānam. Atītānāgatapratyutpannās sarvabuddhāḥ prajñāpāramitām āśritya anuttarāṃ samyak-sambodhim abhisambuddhāḥ. Tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā asamasamavidyā. Sarvaduḥkha-praśamanaḥ samyaktvāmithyātvāt. 
6. Prajñāpāramitāyām ukto dhāraṇī tadyathā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā 
Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayam samāptam


Title: word sūtra is not included because it is not found in most of the mss. or canonical versions. The text is not a sūtra, though that title could be claimed by the longer text. Instead, the genre of the text is hṛdaya 'gist or essence'.

Maṅgala: the maṅgala favoured by Conze, ༄ oṃ namo bhagavatyai āryaprajñāpāramitāyai, is found in the long texts and in Nepalese mss., but is not found in the short text or the Japanese mss. which have this shorter, more common maṅgala. There is no oṃ in the maṅgala because this was an anachronism for the time. Probably oṃ was originally a mis-reading of the yimgo in any case. None of the Chinese canonical versions include a maṅgala. Sarvajñā 'omniscience' is a constant topic of discourse in the Prajñāpāramitā texts.

1. Corrected according to my observation of an error in Conze's text. Specifically, vyavalokyati sma is a transitive verb and has pañca sakandhān as its object. In other words, Avalokiteśvara was examining the five branches of experience when he saw no svabhāva in any of them. This is consistent with Chinese versions. On the translation "five branches of experience" see Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics. My formal write up of this material, including a detailed comparison of Sanskrit mss. and Chinese and Tibetan canonical versions has been submitted to a journal for review. 

2. The meaning here is the same, but the extract is taken from the Pañcaviṃśati(Gilgit ms. Folio 21v) rather than the Chinese translation. In the Pañcaviṃśati, Śāriputra is, in fact, being addressed by the Buddha, though in the Gilgit ms. he is called Śāradvatīputra : evam ukte bhagavān āyuṣmantaṃ śāradvatīputram etad avocat 'That said, the Bhagavan said to Elder Śāradvatīputra.' The two parts of the passage are inverted nānya rūpam... followed by rūpameva śūnyatā... in the Heart Sūtra, this order is reversed.

3. Though sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣaṇā is not included in Pañcaviṃśati, it is in all versions of the Heart Sutra, including the Chinese. The jury is out on how to split this compound: śūnyatā-lakṣaṇā 'marked with emptiness' or śūnyatā-alakṣaṇā 'emptiness and unmarked'. My preference is for the former because it is more consistent with Prajñāpāramitā, generally. The rest of this passage amended according to Pañcaviṃśati (Gilgit ms. Folio 21v). There are two main differences. Firstly, the subject is different: Yā śūnyatā notpadyate 'that which is emptiness does not arise'. In the standard version it is dharmas that don't arise, and here it is whatever is emptiness. Note that  it seems as though śūnyatā is being used as concrete rather than an abstract noun here. So 'emptiness' as a translation is awkward here. This is something which needs to be looked at more closely. The second difference is that the past participles have become present tense finite verbs: an-uptannāḥ 'unarising' becomes notpadyate (i.e., na utpadyate) 'it does not arise'. The latter is a feature that makes more sense with a Chinese intermediary between synonymous but formally difference Sanskrit phrases. Both the Chinese Heart Sutra and Large Wisdom text have 不生 bù shēng. The Dutt/Kimura editions of the Pañcavimśati both have: śūnyatā śāriputra notpadyate.

4. Amended by including na before all negated list items where all Heart Sutra mss. omit it. This is more idiomatic Sanskrit. This idiom is found in Pañcaviṃśati (Gilgit ms. Folio 21v). No extant Pañcavimśati includes na jñānaṃ. It's possible that nābhisamaya was first translated as 無智 wú zhì and then back-translated as na jñāna. Though this would also require switching the order of na prāpti and nābhisamaya.

5. Niṣṭhānirvāṇa is replaced with nirvāṇaparyavasānam on the basis of studying Kumārajīva's translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra via the glossary produced by Seishi Karashima in comparison with the Sanskrit edition by Vaidya. Tryadhva-vyavasthitāḥ does not occur in Pañcaviṃśati. In the same place it has atītānāgatapratyutpannā 'past, future and present' (which means exactly the same), though this is not attested in any Heart Sutra ms. This passage now incorporates praises to prajñāpāramitā as vidyā, replacing the word mantra with vidyā as per Sanskrit Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśati, thereby correcting a paraphrase that was confusing. Satyam amithyatvāt replaced by samyaktvāmithyātvāt and (thus) into grammatical relationship with sarvaduḥkhapraśamanaḥ. It's possible that there is one long sentence from tasmaj to samyaktvāmithyātvāt.

6. The word "mantra" replaced with dhāraṇī to reflect the nature of the item. Now a standalone chant with a bare introduction as the epithets clearly apply to the previous paragraph, not this one. On the dhāraṇī and my use of amen to translate svāhā see The Heart Sutra Mantra.

Colophon: see comments in A New Sanskrit Heart Sutra.


The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom

Homage to the Omniscient
1. Noble Avalokiteśvara bodhisattva was practising the deep practice of the perfection of wisdom. He examined the five branches of experience and saw they lacked intrinsic existence.
2. Śāriputra, form is not one thing and emptiness another. Emptiness is not one thing and form another. Form is just emptiness. Emptiness is just form. Sensations, names, intentions, and discriminations are the same.
3. Here Śāriputra, all experiences are marked with emptiness. Emptiness does not arise, does not cease, is not soiled, is not purified, does not decrease, and does not increase.
4. Therefore, Śāriputra, with respect to emptiness there is no form, no sensations, no names, no intentions, and no discrimination. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touchable, no mental objects. No eye element, and so on, to no mind-discrimination element. No ignorance, no cutting off of ignorance, up to no old-age & death and no cutting off of old-age & death. There is no disappointment, no cause, no cessation, and no path. No attaining. No realisation. 
5. Therefore, Śāriputra, because of their state of non-attaining, the bodhisattva, relying on perfection of wisdom, dwells with unobstructed mind. And because they have an unobstructed mind, they are unafraid, overcome perverse views, and culminate in nirvāṇa. Having relied on the perfection of wisdom, all the Buddhas of the three times are fully and perfectly awakened. Therefore, the perfection of wisdom should be known as a great spell, an unsurpassed spell, a peerless spell. Because it is true and not false, it allays all suffering.  
6. A perfection of wisdom chant is: Gone. Gone. Gone over. Gone over to the other side. Awake. Amen.
The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom concludes.


20 September 2013

Fixing Problems in the Sanskrit Heart Sūtra

There's an old IT saying: "the good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from." Standardisation does help to facilitate interactivity. These words are encoded in the English language, written in a script deriving from Roman writing. On my computer, they become encoded at one level as HTML rendered on your screen according to agreed protocols; at a lower level in terms of TCP/IP packets sent to your computer from a server; and at a lower level still as short bursts of voltage changes on a wire. If the parameters of these voltages, packets or markup languages were not agreed upon then the internet would cease to work.

In India, from about the beginning of the common-era, Sanskrit became a kind of standard for religious discourse. Even Buddhists began producing texts in Sanskrit, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, from around this time, despite the apparent prohibition on using Sanskrit contained in the early texts (Vin v.33.1). Some of the first Sanskrit texts were the early Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, especially the Aṣṭasāhasikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā. However, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is distinct from Classical Sanskrit because it includes many Prakrit forms (to the point where some dialects are more like Prakrit than Sanskrit). In some out-of-the-way places other languages were important: Pāli became the "church language" in Sri Lanka; Gāndhārī was used in the Northwest Frontier and many Gāndhārī texts were translated into Chinese (especially the Āgamas or counterparts to the Pāli Nikāyas). Several Central Asian languages of the Iranian family (e.g., Tocharian and Khotanese) were also important scriptural languages. But most Mahāyāna texts were preserved in a variety of Sanskrit.

Another form of standardisation is the construction of critical editions from manuscript sources. The assumption is that a text that now exists in a variety of versions originated from a single written version, which is obviously not always true in a place like India that favours oral composition. An editor will gather all the existing editions of a text and try to determine a text, an ur-text, that is a plausible ancestor to them all. To do this they note scribal errors, any lines or phrases out of place, broken metre, etc., and try to fix them. Then, when obvious errors are fixed, they look for other ways in which texts evolve: for example, interpolations or other changes by previous editors. The resulting text may be different from any of the surviving manuscripts, as is the case for the Heart Sutra.

In the case of the Heart Sutra, we have known for some time that the core of the text derives from the Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and Jan Nattier has shown that it specifically comes from the Chinese version by Kumārajīva (T 223). Further investigation tells us that the stemma codicum most closely resembles the Chinese version ascribed to Xuánzàng (T 251), though it is not a perfect match. T 251 is largely in the idiom of Kumārajīva with a few of Xuánzàng's terms over-laid. Though a version is attributed to Kumārajīva (T 250) who lived two centuries earlier, both attribution and date are plausibly disputed. Nattier argues that T 250 draws on T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra), a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati attributed to Nāgārjuna and also translated by Kumārajīva, rather than directly from T 223, suggesting it has been edited by someone familiar with the work of Kumārajīva. T 250 also contains two passages, one of 37 characters, which do not occur in T 251. 

In the previous three essays we rehearsed Nattier's arguments that the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is a translation from the Chinese, focussing in the process on a number of infelicitous passages, the conclusion being that the Sanskrit text is, indeed, a translation from Chinese, produced by someone with Chinese as a mother tongue. If we were concerned to produce a better reading on our way to proposing a stemma codicum, some of these infelicities were easily fixed. In the case of the phrase, na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi, we simply add the negative particle and a case ending to each word to arrive at idiomatic Sanskrit: na cakṣuḥ na śrotraṃ na ghrānaṃ jihvā na kāyo na manaḥ. Thus, the Gilgit ms. of Pañcaviṃśati and, as it happens, also quite a few of Conze's sources, e.g., Ne, Nh, Nk, Jb, Ce, and Cg (once again, Conze misses the opportunity). But some of the other problems run deeper. They would require us to first better understand the Chinese idiom and then make an informed decision about how to render that idea into Sanskrit.

This essay will look, in particular, at two phrases identified by Nattier as working well in Chinese, but becoming clumsy in Sanskrit and in English translations from Sanskrit.

Satyam amithyatvāt

The Chinese characters are 真實不虛 zhēn shí bù xū. Now, the characters 真 and 實 are used in the translation of yathābhūta-jñānadarśana (knowing and seeing things as they are), viz, 見如實、知如真, literally ‘seeing as real, knowing as true’. Where 真, zhēn, means 'real' and 實, shí, means 'true'. Hence, the sense is 'really true' which can be rendered as 'genuine' or 'authentic'. However, according the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism: 真實 has been used to translate a bewildering variety of Sanskrit terms:
akṛtrima, avitatha, avitathatā, aviparīta, ātmaka, ārjava, kalyāṇa, tattvârtha, tatva, tathātra, dravya, dharma-tattva, naya, niyata, nūnam, parama, paramârthatā, paramârtha-sat, paramârthena, pariniṣpatti, pariniṣpanna, pāramārthika, bhūtatā, thūti, maula, yathābhūta, yathāvat, *vāstavikatā, śuddhā, śubha, saṃsevana, sat, satya-kāra, satyatā, sad-bhāva, samyaktva, sāra, sāratā, sva-tantra, sva-naya, svanaya-pratyavasthāna
Choosing which of these was intended is difficult without more context. However, the second part of the phrase is more straight-forward and gives us a point of reference (note the contrast with the difficulty of this part, amithyatvād, in Sanskrit). 虛, xū, 'false', is also used for a variety of terms including śūnya; ākāśa; mṛṣā, mithyā abhūta, but these are all part of one broad semantic field concerned with lack of substance, either literally (śūnya 'empty') or metaphorically (mṛṣā 'false').

Though we find the Sanskrit satyam amithyatvāt unsatisfactory, there are a number of other possibilities that take in the contrast between truth and falsity. One of the main problems with  satyam amithyatvāt is that satyam is not usually contrasted with mithyā. Satyam is contrasted with asatya or, sometimes, with anṛta or mṛṣā. The Vajracchedikā Nāma Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā or Diamond Sutra (section 14) contrasts satya/mṛṣāna tatra satyaṁ na mṛṣā 'there is no truth and no lie'. However, this pair is not found in the Pañcaviṃśati and mṛṣā is only used once there, in the compound mṛṣāvādaḥ, 'false speech' (cf. Pāli musāvāda). Mithyā, on the other hand, is usually contrasted with samyañc. Of the various possibilities, samyañc/mithyā seems the more likely pair.

Let us begin with 虛, xū, and take it to convey the Sanskrit word mithyā, 'false'. Thus, 不虛 bù xū ought to be: na mithyā or amithyā, literally, 'not false, non-false', or 'true'. These negative forms are common and important in Buddhist Sanskrit vocabulary (and perhaps also in wider Indian literature). There is a special emphasis in saying that something is "not false" as compared to saying that it is "true". Right down to the present, Buddhists have an anxiety about taking the wrong path, or being given false teachings that do not lead to nirvāṇa. In this phrase, the non-falsity of prajñāpāramitā is almost as relevant as its truth.

The opposite of mithyā is usually samyañc (which becomes samyak/samyag in use, since ñc is not a permitted final). For example, we usually contrast samyagdṛṣti, 'right view', 正見, or 'perfect view' with mithyādṛṣṭi, 'false view', 邪見, xiéjiàn. And so on for all of the Eightfold Path. Though note that the character used here is 邪, xié, rather than 虛, xū.

In Pāli, we sometimes find other juxtapositions of samyañc and mithyā. At SN v.17-8 and DN iii.254 the abstract nouns micchatta/sammatta (Sanskrit mithyātva/samyaktva) are contrasted in terms of the items of the Eightfold Path. At DN i.8 we find that Gotama refrains from arguments of the type 'you are proceeding falsely and I am proceeding correctly' (micchā paṭipanno tvamasi, ahamasmi sammā paṭipanno). And at DN iii.128 a contrast is made between understanding the meaning and the words of any given doctrine, either of which can be micchā or sammā: e.g., ‘ayaṃ kho āyasmā atthañhi kho micchā gaṇhāti byañjanāni sammā ropetīti. (grasping a wrong meaning while having a right sense of the words).

From amongst the many possible translations of 真實 given by the DDB we see an abstract noun formed from samyañc, i.e., samyaktva 'completeness, wholeness; truthful', though this word is seldom used in Buddhist Sanskrit (searching across the whole of the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist canon). It's entirely possible for the same Chinese character to be used to translate both samyañc and samyaktva.

So we might have expected the contrast in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra to be along the lines: samyag na mithyā; or samyak ca amithyā ca; or samyagamithyā. Or, if the abstract was preferred, samyaktva na mithyātva etc. In the critical edition of the Aṣṭa by Vaidya we find this contrast between samyak and mithyā used as adjectives:
Saced evaṃ pariṇāmayati, samyak pariṇāmayati, na mithyā pariṇāmayati. Evaṃ ca bodhisattvena mahāsattvena pariṇāmayitavyam. (72) 
If he transforms this way, he transforms truthfully, he does not transform. And thus the bodhisattva mahāsattva should transform.
In a fragment of the Aṣṭa found in central Asia we find reference to a particular samādhi named 'devouring all truthhood and falsehood': samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhiḥ (AṣṭaK line 13). In another fragment (AṣṭaB) we find this explained as:
tatra katama samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ nāma samādhir yatra samādhau sthitvā sarvasamādhīnāṃ saṃyuktvamithyātvaṃ na samanupaśyaty ayam ucyate samyaktvamithyātva-sarvasaṃgrasanaḥ samādhiḥ
There is the best of integrated states called "devouring all truthhood and falsehood", remaining in that state he does not perceive the truthhood and falsehood of all integrated states - this is called the integrated state of devouring all truthhood and falsehood.
The same idea occurs in the Pañcaviṃśati (Dutt 1.203)
tatra katamaḥ sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ yatra samādhau sthitvā samādhīnāṃ samyaktvamithyātvāni na samanupaśyati tenocyate sarvasamyaktvamithyātvasaṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ
Here the wording is almost identical, except that, in the name of the samādhi or integrated state, samyaktva-mithyātva-sarva-saṃgrasanaḥ 'all devouring' has been substituted with sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho 'compendium of all truthhood and falsehood'. Kimura (1-1.184) has 'there is an integrated state called compendium of truthhood and falsehood' (asti samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ) and then later (1-2. 65) sarva-samyaktva-mithyātva-saṃgraho as per Dutt, with the same explanation (1-2: 74). Dutt also has (1.143) 'there is an integrated state named compendium of truthhood and non-falsehood' (asti samyak-amithyātva-saṃgraho nāma samādhiḥ).

Elsewhere in the Pañcaviṃśati samyaktva tends to only be used in a compound with -niyato 'connected with, established in, or disciplined by'
bhagavān āha: na mayā subhūte 'nuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhim abhisaṃbudhya kathaṃcid api sattva upalabdhaḥ, samyaktvaniyato vā mithyātvaniyato vāniyato vā (Kimura 5:120)
The Bhagavan said, Subhuti, I don't perceive a being anywhere having attained supreme perfect awakening, connected with truthhood, or connected with falsehood, or unconnected. 
Thus we have a precedent in the Perfection of Wisdom literature for the contrast samyak na mithya and for samyaktva-mithyātva. The Heart Sutra is trying to convey that the efficacy of prajñāpāramitā is down to the features of both truthfulness and non-falseness. The ablative case ending indicates from what a verb proceeds, either spatially or more abstractly for what reason the action happens. Prajñāpāramitā is a great spell, etc., is the allayer of all disappointment because 真實不虛, i.e., because it is true/truthhood and because it is not-false/not-falsehood (it is difficult to find matching abstract nouns in English). We might combine the two factors into a dvandvā compound: samyaktvāmithyātvāt

Having done all this comparative/deductive work, if we now look again at Conze's critical edition we note that there were a few variant readings of this expression:
Cae: samyaktvaṃ na mithyatvaṃ
Ne: samyaktva amithyātvā
Nb: samyaktvamithyatvat (not noted in Conze's edition)
Thus, the very readings (with some minor scribal errors) which would make sense in the context were, in fact, available to Conze in his mss., but he rejected them in favour of something which was not good Sanskrit and did not really make sense. Also, the lacuna in Conze's list of the alternate readings here is not the first I have found after examining the manuscripts.

Unfortunately, this undermines Nattiers argument that this passage is a back-translation. Other passages withstand scrutiny better, but here the simpler explanation is that we are mislead by Conze's critical edition. There was and is a better translation of this phrase.


This term is more consistent in the mss. and our job here is not identifying a better reading from the extant mss. because there isn't one. The job here is to look more broadly at how Kumārajīva, in particular, might have used this phrase to translate Sanskrit. Since the passage this term appears in has not yet been identified with a counterpart in other Buddhist texts, we must cast a broader net. However, I think we can assume that the general style of Kumārajīva is likely to be a reference point, because where we have found exact correspondences to date they are to Kumārajīva's translations. We are fortunate to have Seishi KARASHIMA's detailed glossary of Kumārajīva's translation of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sutra (T. 9.262), which shows us where and how each phrase was used and links it to a Sanskrit edition.

The Chinese is 究竟涅槃, jiùjìng nièpán. The last two characters render nirvāṇa while the first two mean 'finally attain' or 'ultimately'. The phrase is usually supplemented in both Sanskrit and Tibetan with the verb pra√āp, 'attains', as a past participle, prāpta. This choice is ironic because the text earlier says na prāptiḥ. Conze tolerates this:
"[Niṣṭhānirvāṇaprāthaḥ) obviously contradicts [na prāpti]. It is just because he seeks no attainment, it is just because attainment is quite impossible, that the Bodhisattva attains or wins Nirvana." (1975: 97-98), 
Conze seems to relish the contradictions sometimes found in Perfection of Wisdom texts, but I've already identified at least two example of how this predilection for nonsense has led Conze astray in editing the Sanskrit text. Generally speaking, when our text is nonsense, we have to ask if we have made a mistake. So we have to ask, is the contradiction part and parcel of the text or simply a mistake? What we want here is something that means 'culminating in nirvāṇa'. The bodhisattva, in a state of non-attaining, relies on perfect wisdom and has no mental obstructions (cittāvaraṇa), and thus they overcome wrong views and attain/reach nirvāṇa. So we can see the temptation to supply a verb like prāpnoti 'to attain' even though the text rules it out. We saw the verb ā√rādh 'to succeed' used in Pāli in the last essay.

Now the characters 究竟 are used to translate niṣṭhā, 'state, condition; conclusion, termination'; but they are also used to translate atyanta, 'ultimate, culmination; arrive, reach', and sometimes atyantaniṣṭhā (pointed out by Dan Luthaus on Buddha-L). It would seem that atyanta is a better choice, here. The terms atyantaśūnyatā, 'ultimate emptiness', and atyantaviśuddhitām, 'ultimate purity', are found quite frequently in Pañcaviṃśati. The compound atyantaniṣṭhā, however, still begs the addition of a verb or verbal form, so in this sense it does not solve our problem. 

Consulting Karashima's glossary we find some extra possibilities. Karashima has identified a number of uses for this Chinese phrase in translating the Sanskrit Saddharmapuṇḍarīka or Lotus Sūtra. But one in particular stands out.
為求聲聞者說應四諦法,度生老病死,究竟涅槃 (3c17)
Wèi qiú shēng wén zhě shuō yīng sìdì fǎ, dù shēnglǎobìngsǐ, jiùjìng nièpán
The parallel in Vaidya's Sanskrit Ed. is
yad uta śrāvakāṇāṃ caturāryasatya-saṃprayuktaṃ pratītyasamutpāda-pravṛttaṃ dharmaṃ deśayati sma jāti-jarāvyādhimaraṇaśoka-paridevaduḥkha-daurmanasyopāyāsānāṃ samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam | (12)
Here 究竟涅槃 corresponds to samatikramāya nirvāṇaparyavasānam, 'going beyond [suffering] to the conclusion of nirvāṇa'. Samatikrama (sam+ati+ √kram) means ‘going entirely over or beyond’; while paryavasāna (pari+ava+√so) means ‘end, conclusion’ or 'ending, concluding'. Kumārajīva also translates nirvāṇaparyavasāna (without samatikramāya) with 究竟涅槃 at 19c4, 50c4, 50c7. Additionally, he used these characters to translate: parinirvāṇa (7c2) and samavasaraṇa (12b5) which overlap semantically. 

Given the context in the Heart Sutra we're looking for a word or phrase that indicates that the bodhisattva's path culminates in nirvāṇa (which is not an attainment, but rather the extinction of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion). Contra Conze (1975), I see no reason to construct this as a paradox. That the goal is a liberation from something, rather than an attaining to something, is not so difficult to grasp. As a compound, nirvāṇaparyavasānam can mean exactly 'culminating in nirvāṇa', because paryavasāna is a verbal noun. As such, it is probably the best candidate for what was written as 究竟涅槃 from amongst the choices identified. The paraphrasing effect of going from Sanskrit to Chinese to Sanskrit might have produced the sequence:

nirvāṇa-paryavasānam → 究竟涅槃 → niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa

I suggest, then, that nirvāṇaparyavasānam is a better reading for 究竟涅槃 in the Heart Sutra than niṣṭhānirvāṇa, and were I editing the text would propose this substitution to create a readable text.

The assumption here is that the Chinese text was inspired by Sanskrit texts throughout. This is an assumption that requires further investigation, though I see preliminary evidence that even the parts not clearly associated with the Large Perfection of Wisdom Text drew on Chinese idioms of Kumārajīva's translations of Buddhist texts. In other words, the text has been composed to conform to Buddhist idioms, probably by somebody familiar with Kumārajīva's translations.


In this essay and the previous one, I have proposed two additional changes to the wording of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, to go with the revision of the first paragraph proposed last year, and the stylistic observations made by Jan Nattier also discussed in my last essay. The two latest suggestions are:
  1. satyaṃ amithyatvāt  → samyaktvāmithyātvāt.
  2. niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa(-praptaḥ) → nirvāṇaparyavasānam
The first is supported by extant mss. readings, though the second is not. In the second case some mss. attempt to solve the problem of the unreadability of niṣṭhānirvāṇa by adding the past participle prāpta, though this creates readable nonsense. The case for the second change, then, is based on readability and an attempt to establish alternatives by tracing how 究竟涅槃 was used to translate Sanskrit terms by Kumārajīva.

Jan Nattier argued that in both cases we have evidence for a back translation from Chinese. I have shown that in the first case this is incorrect, as it seems to be a problem with Conze's critical edition. However, the second does seem likely to an artefact of a phrase moving from Sanskrit to Chinese and back to Sanskrit.

On investigation, we find an accumulation of errors and infelicities in the critical edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, along with a series of suggestions for how to improve the text. A new critical edition, and one which pays much close attention to alternate readings, is now more than desirable, it is urgent. In my next essay I'll propose a new edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra which incorporates the changes suggested so far.



  • Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. 

06 September 2013

Heart Sutra Mantra Epithets

The material in this essay has been rewritten, peer-reviewed, and published as
Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Karaṇḍamudrā dhāraṇī
My last essay mined the footnotes of Jan Nattier's excellent article 1992 on the provenance of the Heart Sutra. Her article is a remarkable piece of scholarship and repays close study. The footnotes are no less interesting and in this essay I want to expand on a single long footnote: 54a (211-213). The 'a' is added because this information was included just as the article was going to press and the note, amounting to two full pages, had to be squeezed in, sans any Chinese characters (which in any case were hand written on a separate page at the end of the article).

The subject of this note is the epithets of the mantra. The section we're interested in reads:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ
Therefore, it should be known that the perfection of wisdom is a great mantra, a mantra of great insight, an unexcelled mantra, an unequalled mantra
For Conze these are epithets of the Buddha applied to a mantra as a way of conveying the magical power of the mantra: "The prañāpāramitā... is here envisaged as a spell" (1973: 101-104). The epithets in question are those from the familiar itipi so gathā that Triratna Buddhist Community members will know as the Buddha Vandana. In Pāli:
iti pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācarana sampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti
As we can see by simple comparison Conze is stretching things somewhat with this comparison. Of the Heart Sutra terms only anuttara 'unexcelled' has an actual parallel and it is a rather common superlative applied to any and all Buddhist ideals.

Nattier cites two letters sent to her by Nobuyoshi Yamabe. Yamabe San completed a PhD at Yale in 1999 and is the author of several books on Buddhism. Yamabe identified a number passages in Chinese which closely parallel the Heart Sutra epithets. Nattier adds two extra passages to those identified by Yamabe. We'll begin with the passage found in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Aṣṭa). This text is the basis for the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Pañcaviṃśati) and is therefore of some interest. Also the existence of a clear Sanskrit text allows us some insight into another matter.

The Chinese Heart Sutra (T 8.251) reads:
故知般若波羅蜜多,是大神咒 ,是大明咒,是無上咒,是無等等咒, 
Gùzhī bōrěbōluómìduō, shì dàshén zhòu, shì dàmíng zhòu, shì wúshàng zhòu, shì wúděngděng zhòu, 
Therefore know the perfection of wisdom, the great magical mantra, it is the great knowledge mantra, unsurpassed mantra, an unequalled mantra,
般若波羅蜜多 bōrěbōluómìduō is a transliteration of prajñāpāramitā. A short digression here. The Middle Chinese pronunciation of 般若波羅蜜多, reconstructed from rhymes, but lacking information on tones, would have been ban ya ba ra mil da. As we will see shortly the Aṣṭa is written in Classical Sanskrit. However the transliteration banya suggests a spelling more like Pāli paññā than Sanskrit prajñā. Baum and Glass's interim Gāndhārī Dictionary record several spellings of prajñā from the Gāndhārī Dhammapada: praña, prañaï, prañaya. The transliteration of prajñā is quite standard across genres. I can find only one variant: 鉢若 bōruò, Middle Chinese balya. It seems the initial syllable was not heard or seen as a conjunct /pra/ by early Chinese translators even when we can be reasonably sure the text used it.

shén is a term from Daoism that is sometimes used to translate Sanskrit ṛddhi 'supernatural power' or even deva. Generally is means 'supernatural, divine' or 'magical'. It's missing from all of the Sanskrit versions of the text, which opens the possibility that it was added to the Chinese after the Sanskrit text was created.

Yamabe identified a counterpart from the Chinese Aṣṭa, early 5th century CE, translation by Kumārajīva (T 8.227 843b25-27) reads:

Bōrěbōluómì shì dà míngzhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúshàng zhòu,
bōrěbōluómì shì wúděngděng zhòu.

Prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā (明呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unsurpassed vidyā (呪),
Prajñāpāramitā is an unequalled vidyā (呪).
As in the last essay, one doesn't need to know Chinese to see that these are the identical characters, except that the anomalous 是大神咒 shì dà shén zhòu is absent. If one knows that Chinese languages, like English, are subject-verb-object languages, one can even guess that 是 means 'is'. Also note that in the Aṣṭa the last syllable of prajñāpāramitā is left off, which is typical. The reason for translating 明呪 míngzhòu and 呪 zhòu as vidyā becomes apparent when we look at the Sanskrit text below. Note also the substitution of 呪 zhòu for zhòu, on which I will say more below.

The Sanskrit version of this text has been edited by Vaidya (p.36, line 30-p.37 line 7 = Conze 's translation p.108-109). This is one of the best attested texts of Buddhist Sanskrit literature. I have seen and handled the beautiful Cambridge manuscript (Add 1643) dated to 1015 CE, which forms the basis of the critical edition. It's written in Classical Sanskrit with just a few Prakritisms. The edition by Vaidya has been digitised, from which I take the following (placing each sentence on a new line to facilitate reading):
mahāvidyeyaṁ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
apramāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
aparimāṇeyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
anuttareyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asameyaṁ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā|
asamasameyaṁ kauśika [vidyā] yad uta prajñāpāramitā|

O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a great spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an immeasurable spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a measureless spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unsurpassed spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly an unequalled spell.
O Kauśika, the perfection of wisdom is certainly a peerless spell.
Kauśika is one of the epithets of the Vedic God Indra, usually called Śakra (Pāli Sakka) in Buddhist texts, who plays an important role in early Buddhism and is one of the main interlocutors of the Aṣṭa. The context here is the Perfection of Wisdom per se. Both apramāṇa and aparimāṇa mean 'not-measured or measureless'. Similarly both asama and asamasama mean 'without equal'. I translate vidyā here as 'spell', as the context shows that the idea is something to be spoken or chanted that has magical powers. There is an irreducible element of magical thinking in these texts that is inherent in their pre-scientific world view. It's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Note that the word in Sanskrit is vidyā throughout, and not mantra or dhāraṇī. Here we see 明呪 míngzhòu translating vidyā. Note that in the Heart Sutra epithets we get the sequence 大明咒,無上咒,無等等咒. In the context of the Heart Sutra the tendency is to see 明 as an extra character: the great  knowledge  mantra 咒. We know from the Aṣṭa passages that 明呪 means vidyā, so we ought to read 大明咒 as 'great vidyā'. And this means that  is a shorthand reference to vidyā. The character 明 is being dropped from the other epithets, not added to only one of them. 

This passage from the Aṣṭa is a slightly more elaborate version of what we find in the Heart Sutra. Now compare the parallel passage in Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T 8.223).
Shì bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, shì wúshàng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā.
Though Nattier notes that the relevant chapter is missing from earlier editions of the Sanskrit, it is found twice in the more recent Sanskrit edition produced by Takayasu Kimura (vols 2&3). Kimura has edited the earlier Sanskrit text of Dutt and referenced both the Chinese and Tibetan translations to produce a new Sanskrit edition based on the same late Sanskrit manuscripts used by Dutt. So we cannot be entirely sure that Kimura has not, once again, back translated an existing Chinese passage into Sanskrit to fill a perceived void. In any case the two passages are:
mahāvidyaiṣā kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttaraiṣā kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā. (Vol. 2-3:55)
evam ukte bhagavān śakraṃ devānām indram etad avocat: evam etat kauśikaivam etat, mahāvidyeyaṃ kauśika yad uta prajñāpāramitā, anuttareyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā, asamasameyaṃ kauśika vidyā yad uta prajñāpāramitā.
(Vol. 2-3:70)
The second of these more closely matches what we find in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra with three epithets: mahāvidyā, anuttara vidyā, and asamasama vidyā. It also alerts us to a further occurrence in Kumārajīva's Pañcaviṃśati (T. 223) at p. 286b28 (unnoticed by Yamabe or Nattier)
Bōrěbōluómì shì dàmíngzhòu, wúshàng míngzhòu, wúděngděng míngzhòu.
The prajñāpāramitā is a great vidyā, an unsurpassed vidyā, an unequalled vidyā.
Again we see from comparing Chinese with Sanskrit, that 明呪 translates vidyā and here it is not abbreviated to 呪 but spelt out each time. If the core part of the Heart Sutra comes from the earlier passage of the Pañcaviṃśati then this passage suggests that the epithets were also borrowed, probably from this passage. Except that it is clear from the context that these epithets are not describing the mantra, but the perfection of wisdom itself. We associate the epithets with the mantra because the word mantra appears in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. The word is used just twice in the Aṣṭa and not at all in the Pañcaviṃśati (suggesting perhaps that the Aṣṭa occurrences are interpolations).

Vidyā has a number of connotations. Clearly both Aṣṭa and Pañcaviṃśati are applying the word to the prajñāpāramitā per se, not to the mantra (as we typically read the Heart Sutra). Vidyā derives from the verbal root √vid 'to know, to discover' (cognate with 'wise, wisdom' etc). Sometimes you'll see vidyā translated as 'science' but the whole context is pre-scientific so this is anachronistic. No body of knowledge before ca. 1700 fits today's definition of science, which is not to say that there was no valid knowledge, only that it could not be considered scientific until the scientific method ha been invented during the European Enlightenment. Vidyā means knowledge in a particular field: knowledge of the Vedas, knowledge of political governance etc. Knowledge cultivated through learning and experience, rather than divinely inspired knowledge or insight. It also have a magical connotation. Knowledge in the sense of vidyā bestows control over the subject studied, when one thoroughly knows a subject one is said to have "mastered" it. Ironically we are stuck using 'wisdom' for prajñā, which means (and is cognate with) knowledge; and 'knowledge' for vidyā, which is cognate with wisdom.

Although vidyā later becomes, at times, almost synonymous with mantra, at the time the Aṣṭa was composed, and probably even the Pañcaviṃśati, Indian Buddhists still probably thought of mantras as the spells mumbled by Brahmins (for money) at ceremonies. The Pāli texts contain a few passages making it clear that the chanting of mantras is un-Buddhist (DN 1 [i.9]; SN 7.8, SN 28.10, Sn 480). By contrast the chanting of parittās, or protective texts, was already established as a popular Buddhist practice in the Milindapañha, which predates the Aṣṭa.

The parittā practice may well be connected to the idea of the saccakiriyā (Skt satyakriyā) or 'truth act'. This practice, attested in for example the Pāli Aṅgulimālā Sutta, insists that plainly and clearly stating a truth can alter reality. Aṅgulimālā, for example, uses a saccakiriya to ease the pain of a women and baby experiencing a difficult childbirth. Many other examples are found in Pāli. Some scholars have attempted to link the practice to similar ideas in Vedic culture. There is even a suggestion that some aspects of the power of truth are Indo-European. Holding a red-hot axe-head is a test of truth in both Vedic and Celtic literature for example. It may be that by chanting a sacred text aloud, sacred texts being true by definition, that one might avoid calamity or avert disaster. As mentioned last week, this was how Xuánzàng used the Heart Sutra.

Nattier cites the example of the word for mantra as an example of a back translation. Her thesis is that the order of textual production was like this:
  1. Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati
  2. Chinese translation Pañcaviṃśati
  3. Chinese Heart Sutra - short text
  4. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - short text
  5. Sanskrit Heart Sutra - long text
  6. Chinese Heart Sutra - long text
We can see that Nattier's theory explains the changes that occur in the word vidyā. In this case the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati (itself based on Aṣṭa) uses the word vidyā. Kumārajīva translated this as 明呪 míngzhòu, the usual translation of vidyā. The Heart Sutra first uses 明咒 míngzhòu then abbreviates to zhòu; where zhòu is a homonym for zhòu meaning dhāraṇī (or mantra). This is then back translated as Sanskrit mantra. The change from 呪 zhòu to 咒 zhòu might have occurred for any number of reasons, not excluding simple error based on similarities of sound and graphic form.

It is interesting to note here that T 250 (attributed to Kumārajīva) has 明呪 míngzhòu in each of the epithets, which conforms to the general pattern of Kumārajīva's translations noted above. Nattier's conclusion regarding T 250 is "[it] was based not directly on his version of the Large Sūtra, but on citations from the sūtra contained in the Ta chih-tu lun*" (187).
* i.e. T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra) Attributed to Nāgārjuna and translated by Kumārajīva.
Dàzhìdù lùn itself shows signs of partly Chinese authorship: "Some of the most notable evidence provided by Chou is that the Dazhidu lun’s commentary on the Mahaprajñaparamita Sutra follows Chinese word order rather than Indian..." (McBride 332-333)

At the time the Heart was composed in China we might expect the key term to be dhāraṇī, since the mid seventh century date proposed by Nattier slightly predates the arrival of Tantra in China, while dhāraṇī texts, such as the Karaṇḍamudra Dhāraṇī depicted above, were and to some extent still are, a central aspect of Chinese Buddhism. The first Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra was produced in India, probably in the late seventh or early eighth century at a time when Tantra was in full swing. These dates coincide for example with Stephen Hodges' proposed dates for the composition of the Sarvatathagata-tattvasaṃgraha. In such an environment mantra might have be the natural translation of 咒. Hence find a mantra where we expect not to and, according to my own definitions, where we might expect to find a dhāraṇī.

This is further evidence that the Heart Sutra is synthetic, which is to say it was constructed in China from a variety of sources, probably by a devotee of Avalokiteśvara in the 7th century. Now on the basis of a comparison with the Sanskrit sources, there is an argument for revising this portion of the Sanskrit text:
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāmantro mahāvidyāmantro ‘nuttaramantro ‘samasama-mantraḥ,
tasmāj jñātavyam prajñāpāramitā mahāvidyā anuttaravidyā asamasamavidyā.
It should be understood that the perfection of wisdom is great knowledge, supreme knowledge, peerless knowledge.



  • Conze, Edward (1973). The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights.
  • McBride, Richard D, II. (2004) 'Is there really "Esoteric" Buddhism?'  Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 27(2): 329-356.
    • Vaidya, P. L. (1960) Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. Online: