Showing posts with label Xuanzang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Xuanzang. Show all posts

29 June 2018

Critical Thinking in Buddhist Historiography

In this essay I'm going to try to show some of how I evaluate sources of information using a case study of the two mentions of the Heart Sutra in the standard biography of Xuánzàng written by Huìlì and Yàncóng. This involves a detailed assessment of such qualities as authenticity, veracity, accuracy, precision, and reliability. What knowledge can we obtain from a text, using which kinds of methods? What kinds of caveats apply to this process?

On the 5th day, 12th Month of Yǒnghuī 6 (永徽六年十二月五日) i.e., 6 January, 656, Xuánzàng sent a letter to the emperor celebrating the birth of a new prince the month before. He wrote in a letter: "I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case." (輒敢進金字《般若心經》一卷并函 T 50.272b.12). This piece of information is quite a big deal because this is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra with a precise date that I know of. It is five years before the earliest physical evidence (661 CE) and definitely before Xuánzàng began translating Prajñāpāramitā texts in ernest (660 CE). But this important date is seldom, if ever, discussed in the literature on the Heart Sutra

The information comes from the 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》, a Tang Dynasty (唐) biography (傳) of Xuánzàng (aka "the Dharma Master 三藏法師傳 of the great Ci'en Temple 大慈恩寺") by 慧立 Huìlì and 彥悰Yàncóng from about 688 CE (henceforth, Biography). I say "biography", but as Xuánzàng never puts a foot wrong and is portrayed as conforming to an ideal, the text is clearly part of a trend to elevate him to the status of Buddhist saint. As such, we might better refer to it as a hagiography. Chinese Buddhist saints are quite different in character from Indian Buddhist saints, which is something that requires its own study (and I don't propose to get into it here). Unlike some hagiographies, the Biography was composed quite close to the subject's lifetime, in a literate society that kept good records in both the religious and imperial spheres, and partly by someone who knew the subject personally. So Xuánzàng is not presented as doing many miracles, but more as behaving in an exemplary manner in social, political, and religious spheres. He is, in short, the archetype of a good Buddhist living in a fundamentally Confucian society.

The Biography is included in the Taishō Edition of the Tripiṭaka as text no. 2053. T2053 was translated by Samuel Beal in 1911 (I use a 1914 reprint), and more recently by Li Rongxi  for the BDK English Tripiṭaka (1995). Huìlì was a younger contemporary of Xuánzàng, who knew and worked with him. Yàncóng recounts the  story of how the Biography came about in a preface. Having written down the the Biography, Huìlì lost confidence and buried them "fearing that the contents of his writing might be incomplete and inadequate for the public" (Li 1995: 3). However, on his death bed he asked his students to dig up the manuscript. Within a few years it had become divided and scattered. Some parts were lost. Around 688 CE, the students managed to collect up the remaining works and commissioned 彥悰 Yàncóng to edit it into a book. What remained of Huìlì's work amounted to five scrolls, and Yàncóng added five more. The result is the now famous biography. 

However, there is a slight difference between how Li tells the story in his translator's introduction and how Yàncóng tells it. Li suggests that Huìlì's account ended with Xuánzàng's return to China in 645 CE. If Yàncóng does not supply this detail, then who does? It probably originates from a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by Beal in his introduction:
The five chapters added by [Yàncóng] are probably those which follow the account of [Xuánzàng]'s return from India, and relate to his work of translation in China. (1914: xix)
As far as I can tell, there is no basis for this "probably". Beal is guessing. What Yàncóng says in Beal's own translation is that he was engaged to "to re-arrange and correct the leaves which their master had written and hidden in a cave." (xix).  But compare Li "Then I mixed the original text with supplementary annotations, extending it into a work of ten fascicles" (1995: 9). What this suggests to me is that Huìlì provided the framework for the whole text and Yàncóng expanded on it in general.

Li is not beyond adding little details to pad out the story. Take the example of the famous story of the sick man giving Xuánzàng the Heart Sutra, which occurs earlier in the Biography:
慜將向寺施與衣服飲食之直。(T 50.224b.8-9)
Li: "With a feeling of pity, he took the man to his monastery and gave him money to purchase clothes and food." (26).
However, when I parse this sentence what I get is:
慜 benevolent 將 will 向 to 寺 temple 施 bestow 與 give 衣服 clothing 飲食 food and drink 之 going 直 straight 。
i.e.,  feeling benevolent, [Xuánzàng] took [the sick man] straight to the temple, and gave him food, drink, and clothing. [my trans]
There is no mention of "money" or "purchasing" in the text. And, given that we generally understand monks as not handling money, this added feature is incongruous, although, of course, some monks did handle money (and I haven't checked which kind Xuánzàng was). So the translation here is more precise than the source text (it supplies extra details), but it appears to be inaccurate (because the details don't arise from the source text).

I started out assuming that Li must be fairly reliable to be employed as a translator by the prestigious BDK organisation. Based on assessing these two details, I conclude Li is less reliable than my initial assessment of him. Samuel Beal's translation is, "Pitying the man he took him to his convent, and gave him clothing and food" (1914: 21). Beal, writing in a different era, uses language with an archaic feel to it. We might also wonder why he chose "convent" (usually associated with nuns in English) for 寺. On the whole, however, his translations seems more more accurate, and thus more reliable than Li at this point.

How does anyone assess when a translator is more or less reliable without reference to the source text in the source language? Very often my friends and colleagues make a kind of aesthetic judgement on the grounds of which one reads better. Often the more "poetic" a translation is the more folk like it. Which seems like nonsense to me. Is it fair to judge a translation on a handful of sentences? When we are only interested in a handful of sentences, the importance of them with respect to the text as a whole is magnified.

In this case Li's small amendment to include a reference to giving money has a major impact on my study. Had I taken Li seriously, I might have decided that I needed to spend time looking into the issue of use of money by monks in medieval China. This is a potentially fruitful avenue to go down if it relates to my task at hand, but the fact is that it doesn't. It's just a lapse on the part of a translator. Fortunately, I like to try to see how source texts look before taking translations seriously. Any reader who does not check the source text (for whatever reason) is always at risk of being misled.

譯 = Translator?

One of the interesting things about the Biography is the style of the attribution. In some past explorations of the attribution of the Heart Sutra we've seen that 譯 means "translator". Dictionaries are quite unequivocal on this point. However, in the Biography the attribution is:
沙門慧立本 譯彥悰箋.  
"Originally composed by Monk Huìlì, edited by Yàncóng, with annotations."
Here 沙門* means that Huìlì (慧立) was a Buddhist monk. The character 本 means "origin, root" and tells us that the text originates with Huìlì.  Next, 箋 means "annotation" or "commentary". We know from Yàncóng’s (彥悰) preface that his role was that of editor of Huìlì’s manuscript and notes, 譯 here must mean “editor/edited”, rather than “translator/translated”. However, this work  was composed in Chinese, so 譯 cannot mean "translator" as nothing was translated. This is an important detail because it contributes to another aspect of my work on the Heart Sutra: the relationship between Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. When I checked I found that Xuánzàng is credited with being the 譯 of his own travelogue, also composed in Chinese. 
* 沙門 is pronounced like 'shaman', deriving from Prakrit ṣāmana (Sanskrit śrāmaṇa). There is a possible link with English shaman: Sanskrit śrāmaṇa → Prakrit ṣāmane → Middle Chinese 沙門  ʃamuən → Siberian/Tungus šamān → Russian shamán → German schamane → English shaman (attested 1698).
It might be fair to assume that if many texts that are translations refer to a person as the 譯 in relation to it, then that person is the "translator" and that 譯 must mean "translated [by]". But we have two examples of the character being used in contexts where it cannot mean "translate". The dictionary  definition seems to be incomplete. There is another sense which is something like "worked on", which is distinguished from "authored".

Keeping track of such small details is integral to this kind of work, because the accumulation of details is what adds up to a case. The only problem is that some intellectuals tell us that no accumulation of details adds up to a case. 

Critical Thinking and Historiography

Advocates of critical thinking sometimes suggest that there is only one rational way to go about seeking knowledge, i.e., through refutation. This is supposedly based on Karl Popper's principle of conjecture and refutation. In this view, there is nothing to be gained by looking for confirmation or, in my case, the accumulation of details. We can never confirm a theory; all we can hope for is to refute it. This, they say, is because of the so-called black swan effect. The story goes that Aristotle, when formulating his outline of logic, took it as axiomatic that "all swans are white". This allowed him to confidently construct deductive syllogisms like
All swans are white.
Bruce is swan.
Therefore, Bruce is white. ✓
Until one discovers that Bruce is Australian and he is actually a black swan and the deduction is false. The problem here, and with all deductive reasoning, is that it all revolves around axioms, i.e., propositions that one accepts as truth before proceeding to infer some new fact by deduction. If the axiom is false, then all inferences from it are also false. The argument proceeds to say that it doesn't matter how many white swans you meet, you can never be certain that all swans are white. It only takes one black swan to disprove the axiom that all swans are white and all inferences from the axiom fall apart.

The "black swan" argument is that you can never arrive at the truth through seeking confirmation of an axiom. Indeed, proving that any axiom is true is a very difficult thing to do. It is possible in mathematics. However, in any system of mathematics it is also possible for something to be true or false, but for this to be impossible to prove. So the search for truth quickly gets bogged down. And this is why scientists tend to avoid the idea of truth, and instead seek accurate and precise descriptions of reality (i.e., the day to day focus is on the epistemic aspects of their work). The attitude is "let the philosophers argue over the nature of that reality, as long as we can predict how it's going to behave". Scientists and philosophers are often dismissive of each other, largely because scientists stray into the area of speculating about the (ultimate) nature of reality (metaphysics) and because philosophers often speculate without reference to empirical knowledge - which is far and away the most reliable form of knowledge.

This critical thinking approach, call it hyper-critical thinking, leads to an impasse. It seems as if all claims to truth are either false now or soon will be. And thus it may seem that there is no point in even seeking knowledge, because in common sense and classical philosophy we equate knowledge and truth. Meanwhile, in the real world, very general rules of thumb turn out to be surprisingly useful in day to day life. We mainly get by on heuristics, or generalised approaches to solving problems that are good enough. Truth, as an abstract or an ideal, turns out to have surprisingly little practical value. Law courts, for example, use the heuristic of establishing something beyond reasonable doubt, which may be very far from the ideal of truth.

The hyper-critical approach to knowledge is a more or less useless strategy for studying history. History is always written from a point of view. That point of view includes the axioms that the historian explicitly accepts about history and historiography (the writing of history) as well as the implicit axioms they accept uncritically (bias, prejudice, cultural conditioning, etc.). In Justin L. Barrett's terms, historians, like everyone, have  reflective and non-reflective beliefs. And by now historians all know this. Very few historians, especially trained historians, ignore these problems. But just in case they do, few serious readers of history ignore these problems. We know that history is not "truth", but that doesn't matter. No one is much interested in truth in the absolute sense. History provides us with an understanding of events, from a point of view. Historians and readers alike know that multiple points of view are available. History is not science, much less abstract philosophy.

Equally, historians are aware that new information surfaces all the time. A history written in 1900 or 1950 is likely to be out of date for this reason. We would usually like our records to have been recorded as close to the events as possible, and our histories written as close to the present as possible. But the fact that there are always going to be new takes on history should not, and does not, paralyse historians, or prevent them from publishing. The black swan effect is a given. Two years ago I blogged an essay about "the oldest dated Heart Sutra" unaware that in Chinese academic circles an older version had been common knowledge for almost sixty years. Unaware of the fact, I continued to suggest that the oldest Heart Sutra was dated 672 CE right up until the last couple of weeks.  History is not only written by the winners, but it is rewritten by the better informed amongst the winners' descendents.

Approaching the subject

Coming back to the to passage from the Biography that I started our with: "Xuánzàng presented the Emperor Gāozōng with a copy of the Xīnjīn on 6 Dec 656." There are two ways to approach a statement like this.

On one hand, we may doubt the authenticity and veracity of the statement and look for ways to refute it. We may, for example, check that the dates coincide with other records of the reign of Gāozōng and the birth of the prince. We could check if there is any record of the Emperor receiving such a gift in the imperial records. Some documents from that time still exist in some form. We might query whether the conversion to the Gregorian calendar is accurate (since I used an online black-box converter this would be a good question). In this approach we think of Huìlì and Yàncóng as unreliable, motivated witnesses and we interrogate them like prosecuting attorneys. We try to pick apart their story. Some might argue that such a procedure is the only way to deal with historical sources. The Greek historian is known both as The Father of History and The Father of Lies. Pre-modern historians were not always critical when it came to their sources.

The other approach is to assume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Huìlì and Yàncóng are at least sincere in their statements, that they have not set out to deceive us. They may themselves have been deceived, but Huìlì was contemporary with the subject and Yàncóng only one generation removed. Many living people who knew Xuánzàng would have been available to Yàncóng as witnesses. Also, one or both of them seem to have had access to official records of both state and religious institutions. Apparently, one or both had access to the correspondence between Xuánzàng and Gaōzōng (in the days before carbon paper). In this approach, we may look for corroboration of dates. In doing so we may turn to the very same sources as those who set off looking to refute the statement. We may look for a state record of receiving the gift, or a letter of acknowledgement from the Emperor. Such a letter is reproduced in the biography, but does it occur anywhere else.

The trick is not to ask is it true or false. We know at the outset that what we are seeing is not the truth in any abstract sense. We understand that someone is expressing their values through the medium of a biography (or hagiography). So we know to look at a text like the Biography as an anthropologist might. What interests us as historians is how reliable are our witnesses? What level of confidence should we have in them? What biases do they have? In this sense, good history is naturally Bayesian in its approach. We look at the givens and we make an initial assessment of the veracity. The different scenarios from complete falsification to existentially accurate and precise. Then we look into the matter, gather evidence and see how that affects our perceptions of the possibilities.

We will never establish an existential truth beyond the actual existence of the text we are studying. There is a biography and it is text no. 2053 in the Taishō. The accuracy of the authorship, the date, and provenance of it are all matters of conjecture. What we seek, rather, is a plausible account that, ideally, fits all the facts. If, for example, we know for certain that the Heart Sutra is not a translation, then we need to account for the stories that state Xuánzàng translated the text. This may involve factors such as the ambiguous use of language and the pious desire to connect Xuánzàng with the Sutra.

Precision vs Accuracy

One of the problems that we face is that the biography gives us a precise date: 永徽六年十二月五日. The precision is admirable and can, with some effort, be translated with equal precision into the more familiar Gregorian Calendar, 6 January, 656. Precision to the day might be undermined if all the other references to the event are less precise. If a dozen other texts say "sometime in 656" then the precision of Huìlì and Yàncóng might seem suspicious. In general, however, Chinese sources do keep track of events to this level of precision quite routinely. Two prominent exceptions are the commentaries on the Heart Sutra attributed to Xuánzàng's successors, Kuījī and Woncheuk. But since these almost certainly post-date the date of 656, they don't really matter in terms of establishing the provenance (except that Woncheuk appears to refer to a Sanskrit text). 

Other scenarios include the whole event being made up, i.e., high precision but completely inaccurate. It it might be that they got the day, month, or year wrong, causing inaccuracy at different orders of magnitude. A lot of history is written about at the level of precision of the year. For example, we often cite the year of birth and death for a historical figure: Xuánzàng (602-664). On the other hand, earlier in the Biography the authors suggest that the prince in question is born on the afternoon of the Month 1, day 5 and that Xuánzàng's gift was given in Month 2, day 5 giving us precision to the day. 

So, given a precise date, we have to think about how precise it is and how plausible that level of precision is; and how accurate it is. How would we know? Again, the approach is to look for either refuting or corroborating evidence: which either lowers or raises our level of confidence. What critical thinking does, is make it more likely that our confidence will fall to 0% than that it will rise to 100%. We can more easily be convinced that something is false, than that it is true. But most of the time we will be somewhere in the middle.

For example, I think it unlikely that Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is not a sutra at all, but a sutra extract. The practice of copying out extracts is distinctively Chinese. Also, Nattier has shown that extraction was done in Chinese, from Kumārajīva's translation. The story in the Biography makes it seem likely that Xuánzàng received a Chinese text, before he left for India and learned Sanskrit. And the date of 656 CE from the Biography suggests that he had the text before he started to translate the Prajñāpāramitā texts in 660 CE. There is a story that he translated the Heart Sutra in 649 CE, but this first appears some centuries later and is quite obviously apocryphal. So any story we tell about the man and the text, has to fit all these points. And we must ignore that fact that many uncritical authors have told other stories (the 649 CE date is repeated as a solid fact uncountable times). 

Doing Historiography

So, despite what critical thinking nerds might say, it absolutely makes sense to look for confirmation as long as one does it in the right spirit. As historians, we pile up evidence  and then try to weave a narrative in which all the evidence is accounted for. We tell stories in the full knowledge that next year or tomorrow, some new piece of evidence may turn up that changes the story. And we (mostly) acknowledge our biases. No one is pretending that History is a science, though sometimes it may approach being a kind of philosophy.

Histories are always constructed on partial information. The historical record is patchy, though it is often better in China than almost anywhere else because the Chinese were literate and kept records. Knowledge is always partial in any case, but as the centuries pass such records tend to degrade. So while we have what we think are reliable copies of the Biography composed by Huìlì and Yàncóng, the kinds of records against which we might look to evaluate the biography often don't exist (such as the correspondence between Xuánzàng and the Emperor). Which is not to say that evidence never existed, although sometimes this may be the case. As the saying goes "Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence." 

Under these conditions, sitting on the fence and being a tooth-fairy agnostic is not interesting at all. To participate, one has to get off the fence and join the discussion. This is why historians write histories with conviction. As Mercier and Sperber have observed, when making a case, it is natural, reasonable, and rational to make the best case possible and then see what others say. History is not a solitary, one-time occupation, it is an ongoing, collective effort. At any given time a small number of people will be putting forward stories constructed as the strongest case they can make (harnessing confirmation bias) and a majority will be sitting back and arguing over the alternatives. Fundamentally, reason is both collective and argumentative. And so is history. 

Another problem is the motivation of the witnesses. The donor of the Fangshan stele states that his desire is for his family to attain awakening by donating the merit of making the stone sutra to that end. We can probably relate to this. However, what was the motivation of the stone carver, or the monastery who employed him? We don't know. We do know that Chinese monasteries were often extremely wealthy as donors sought to mitigate misfortune or buy their way into Heaven. These carved sutras with donor inscriptions are a bit like the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences -- make a big enough donation and your sins will be forgiven. Monasteries also engaged in usury, farming, and manufacturing to generate income. Do these motivations give us any reason to doubt the details of the artefact or the biography? Sometimes the adage, "follow the money" is apposite in historiography.

Is the association of the Heart Sutra with Xuánzàng historical or is it legendary? We might want to ask the question, who benefits from the association? 

One thing that is clear is that, in 7th Century China, insisting that Heart Sutra was a translation from an Indian text would have added an air of authenticity. The implication was that a sutra from India was ipso facto the words of the Buddha. In the story about Xuánzàng receiving the Heart Sutra from a sick man, we are not told what language the sutra is in. But if we look at inscriptions from the period, they are almost all in Chinese, not Sanskrit. A few Sanskrit inscriptions exist, but only a handful of people could read them (a situation analogous to the present). It's unlikely that Sanskrit was heard outside the monasteries in which translations projects were carried out. 

It seems very likely that there was a conscious effort to promote the Heart Sutra from sutra extract (抄經) to sutra (經). And to focus on the name 《心經》 (Hṛdayasūtra) rather than any of the alternatives such as 《大明呪經》(Mahāvidyasūtra). The assigning of a translator (譯) would have been an essential part of this process, though it may have exploited an existing ambiguity in which Xuánzàng was an editor (譯) of the text. It is so tempting to see T251 as a edited version of T250, attributed to Kumārajīva, that we might not fault Tanahashi for referring to is as the α-version. Actually, we do not know the provenance of T250, though we do know that the evidence for it is later than evidence for T250. 

Questions, questions

In writing up my notes on the Fangshan Stele I was left with a number of questions:
  • Are the precise dates I have accurate? 
  • Are the 7th Century sources reliable? 
  • And how would I know?
  • Where can I find accurate geographical information on Tang China?
  • Do my observations about 譯 add up to anything?
  • What was Xuánzàng's involvement in the Xīnjīng?
I'm puzzled that many experts have transcribed the colophon of the Fangshan Stele without commenting on the words in it, especially the place names and military titles. Or is it just so obvious to experts that they didn't think it needed commenting on? When the experts in epigraphy don't do their job, then historians struggle to know what to make of such inscriptions. I'm also puzzled as to why so little has been made, by other historians, of the clear and dated reference to the Heart Sutra discussed in the Biography. If Xuánzàng gifted a copy of the Heart Sutra to the Emperor in 656 CE, then this really does change the narrative. 

The important point is that historians cannot afford to take witnesses at face value. Questions must be asked. Whether we seek to refute or confirm, we have to evaluate sources. Careful historiography is often our best defence against religious bias. History often reveals the weaknesses of religious stories precisely because it evaluates and compares sources. As a historian of ideas, I am fascinated by how doctrines that some religieux treat as articles of faith have been quite changeable over time. And, in particular, by how historical arguments about doctrine reveal weaknesses visible even in antiquity (without the need to invoke modernity or science). I hope to inspire friends, colleagues, and fellow religieux to be more careful in their use of historical sources, to cast a wide net, and above all to critically evaluate sources. 



Chinese texts from the Online CBETA Reader.

Beal, S. (1914.) The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. By the Shamans Hwui Li and Yen-Tsung. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

01 January 2016

The Oldest Dated Heart Sutra

[Updated 5.6.2018]
This essay is in the form of a minor mystery. I started off trying find some basic information about an image in a recent book on the Heart Sutra (below) and ended up investigating all kinds of things and finally discovering that the image is not quite what it appears to be. I hope that presenting the information in roughly the order I discovered it will make for better reading than just presenting the end point. The final picture came together slowly over a period of a couple of weeks of intensive exploration of the Chinese Heart Sutra. So to begin at the beginning...

In Tanahashi (2014: 96) the image above is captioned, "The earliest known rendering of the Heart Sutra. Carved in 672. Stone Rubbing". The List of illustrations adds "Public Domain" (xi). The discussion of this inscription says "Xuanzang's Heart Sutra was carved on the monument erected by Emperor Gao in 672 at the Gaofu Monastery, Chang'an." (81; sic). This statement is credited in the notes to "Ibid., 562", i.e., Fukui (2000: 562). I don't have access to Fukui (2000) yet, so I set about trying to track down this "public domain" image mainly in order to compare the text with other Chinese Heart Sutra texts, but also because I was intrigued that it might be the earliest dated Heart Sutra.

You might think that a public domain image of the "The earliest known rendering of the Heart Sutra" would be of considerable interest and therefore be easy to find. Not so. Initially, I could find no images of this text on the internet, except for a badly cropped version showing only the upper half.
Note 3 Jan 2016. I was mistaken about this image being cropped. The text is all there but is a little more compressed that the image above. I will add more about this other image below.
So I wrote to Shambala Publications who kindly sent me a high resolution image. The author himself has not replied to my questions about the provenance of the image, however. So I had to find out for myself.

The first step to finding out more, was to try to clarify the information supplied in the reference. There were two Emperors of the early Tang called "Gao". To coincide with the year 672 CE, Tanahashi must be referring to 唐高宗 Táng Gāozōng, i.e., Gāozōng of the Tang Dynasty (628 – 683). Gāozōng was the third Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. He is usually considered a rather lacklustre emperor. After a series of strokes, his wife, Empress Wu 妾皇后, more or less took over running the state, then after he died she became the first Empress. Where Gāo, like previous Tang emperors, was not very supportive of Buddhism, Wu found in it her justification for being a female emperor in deeply patriarchal China.

Seal One
At first I could find no reference linking Gāozōng to this inscription. At the end of the inscription however, are two seals. The practice of adding seals to documents for authenticity may have begun with Gāozōng's father, 唐太宗, i.e., Emperor Tàizōng of Táng (r. 627-649). It seems to have been related to his interest in the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi (see below). Chinese seals are carved, usually into soft stone, with characters in the Seal Script, an archaic form of Chinese writing still used for decorative purposes. Unlike the inscription itself, the forms of these seal characters are often quite different from the modern ones. Reading seal script is an art in itself. Identifying the characters in these seals seemed like it might be illuminating.

seal generator
I asked for help identifying the characters in these seals via my Visible Mantra Facebook Page. Seal One reads: 高堅之印 or "The Seal of Gāo jiān". Where 印 means "seal" and 之 is possessive. 高, Gāo, is the same character as occurs in the name of Emperor Gāozōng, which made me think that perhaps it was related to the emperor. Different fonts render seal script in different ways, but on the right is one version, created by an online app, which shows some similarities with this seal (the bottom left character is inverted). However, one of the comments gave me some useful information about this seal:
"Yes this is 高堅之印, the seal made by a very famous seal artist Mitsui Takakata 三井高堅". (@Shugendo Canada).
So here the character 高 is, in fact, Japanese taka(i) "high, elevated". And Seal one, in fac,t reads "Seal of Takakata". Mitsui Takakata (1867-1945), aka 宗堅, Sōken, was a Japanese industrialist and art collector (note that in Japanese the Kanji 堅 can be pronounced kata or ken). He was a senior member of the Mitsui Zaibatsu, one of the largest corporations in the world at the time. He also had strong artistic leanings: "Takakata was a talented calligrapher versed in classical literature and an amateur epigrapher with a particularly good knowledge of seals." (Sherman 1982). Below are some examples of seals he created, supplied by my informant. The one of the left bears a striking resemblance to Seal One.

三井高堅之印 高堅之印

Takakata was responsible for collecting perhaps 500 rubbings of stone inscriptions now held in the East Asiatic Library, University Of California, Berkeley (Mitsui was broken up by the post-WWII government and forced to divest itself of many assets, which meant selling a large chunk of their extensive library). I could not locate the rubbing from Tanahashi in EAL collection, though it contains several examples of the Heart Sutra or 心經.

It seems that Mitsui Takakata was the person who did the rubbing that appears in Tanahashi (2014). He must have stamped it with his own seal afterwards. We still don't know when he created this image or where the original rubbing is.

Seal Two
In the second seal we may have 安唐. 唐 means Tang, the name of the Tang Dynasty which is the Dynasty under which Xuanzang lived. Or it may be 安適. Opinion was divided amongst commentators and neither option produced much insight into whose seal this is. The two seals are very different in style, so perhaps this seal was part of the original inscription? In any case I could not learn anything further about Seal Two.

Update 3 Jan 2016. The plot thickens a little as I discovered, by paying attention, that the other image of a rubbing found on Wikimedia shows what may well be the original rubbing that the image in Tanahashi is based on.
The image here is rather indistinct, but a very hi resolution image is available via Wikimedia. Here there are 40 short columns, while in Tanahashi there are 27 longer columns. I'm not sure if this is a separate rubbing or if this is the model used for creating the image in Tanahashi. If so, it has been cleaned up substantially. There's a lot more noise in the Wikimedia image - white pixels surrounding the characters. I've tried looking specifically at the stray pixels around the characters - since the characters themselves are more or less identical - but the Tanahashi image has either been cleaned up in some way (perhaps using photoshop) or they are different. Note that the Wikimedia image has no seals. 

Returning to the description in Tanahashi (2014), "Gaofu Monastery" was a brief mystery in its own right. In fact, it is a mistake. The author, or perhaps the typesetter, has taken the name Gao from the emperor and mixed it up with the name of the monastery. The monastery is called 弘福寺 Hóngfú sì (Great Good-fortune Monastery), a place closely associated with Xuanzang. It was where he started his translation work on returning from China. Later, he moved to 西明寺 Xīmíng sì (Western Bright Monastery).

Tanahashi relates the story behind the creation of the inscription of which the rubbing is a copy (2014: 95-97). In Wong (2002) we find another version of the story:
"In 652, at Xuanzang's request, Gaozong authorized the erection on the temple grounds of a five-story Indian-style stūpa, which was built as a brick-covered earth core. After the stūpa was completed, the two steles incised with the imperial texts were installed in a stone chamber on its top floor."
"In 672 the same imperial texts were inscribed anew, this time in the style of Wang Xizhi's 王羲之 (307-65) xingshu, or running script (fig. 3). Huairen 懷仁 a monk from the Hongfu Monastery, initiated the project and was responsible for its design. Assembling characters from Wang Xizhi's extant works, he shrank or enlarged them as necessary, so that the texts incised on the stele would replicate Wang's fluent, semi-cursive style. 12 This work is currently in Xi'an's Beilin 碑林, or Forest of Steles." (Wong 2002: 49; emphasis added)
Each version of this story that I have uncovered seems to have slightly different details. Emperor Taizong who was originally fascinated by the calligraphy of 王羲之 Wáng Xīzhī (303–361), a Chinese calligrapher traditionally referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy (書聖), and became a collector of his work (Powers & Tsiang 2015: 299). In 2010 an example of this calligraphy sold for $46 million (BBC News). In 648 Taizong issued an edict as the preface to the Chinese Tripiṭaka titled, Preface to the Sacred Teaching 聖教序 (781 characters). It was this text that was initially inscribed in stone on a stele. According to Powers & Tsiang (2015), two versions were created, one based on the calligraphy of Chu Suiliang 褚遂良 (597-658) in 653 and a more elaborate one, by Huairen, based on the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi. Perhaps the Heart Sutra was added by the pious Huairen? All sources agree that it took 25 years to assemble all the characters needed for Huairen to compose the full text in this way (so collecting the characters must have begun in 647 at the latest, which is during the reign of Taizong and six years before the first stele was completed). When a precise character could not be found its radical and parts were extracted from other characters so it could be constructed. The finished project (1903 characters) included the Heart Sutra that interests us here.

Sheng (2011: 65) by contrast mentions:
"A pair of steles inscribed with the Da Tang Sanzang shengjiao xu 大唐三藏聖教序 (Preface to the Holy Teachings of the Tripiṭaka of the Great Tang Dynasty) and Da Tang Sanzang shengjiao xu ji 大唐三藏聖教序記 (Notes to the Preface to the Holy Teachings of the Tripiṭaka of the Great Tang Dynasty) erected in 653, represent the most refined phase of [Chu Suiliang's] calligraphy
The former preface was composed by Li Shimin 李世民, i.e., Emperor Tàizōng, and the latter by Li Zhi 李治, i.e., Emperor Gāozōng. The first steles stood at the southern entrance of the famous 大雁塔 or Great Goose Pagoda at 大慈恩寺 (Great Grace and Goodwill Monastery) (Sheng 2001: 87-88), which we mentioned in last week's essay as a monastery associated with Xuanzang's disciple Kuījī. A good deal more detail on the influence of the Imperial obsession with the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi on the development of writing in China can be found in Sheng (2011: 48ff).

So Huáirén created a kind of Frankenstein text of these two prefaces, plus some other bits and pieces and a Heart Sutra text. Sheng (2011: 100) notes that Chinese art historians have tried to trace the individual characters to individual works by Wang Xizhi with limited success. Knowing this is quite helpful because when we look at the image from Tanahashi we can see that the characters are indeed a mishmash of styles. We probably would not guess they were all by the same calligrapher. For example, compare these characters (below) which were selected to highlight the differences. They were all copied from the Tanahashi image without any resizing:

The characters are different styles and different sizes, a fairly random collection of mismatched characters. It becomes even more apparent when we look at variations of individual characters, for example of 不, 亦, and 無 respectively.

This observation supports the idea that the rubbing in Tanahashi was created from the stele created by Huairen in 672. At this point it might we worth saying something about the Chinese practice of making inscriptions of sutras.

Dhāraṇī Pillars

Dhāraṇī texts (including the Heart Sutra) are the subject of Paul Copp's (2014) book, The Body Incantatory. Carved pillars with short texts including the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya and Uṣṇīṣavijayadhāraṇī Sūtra were very common in medieval China. Around the 7th century the writing down of texts for use as amulets worn as arm-bands or necklaces had become a specific practice and it appears that short texts, such as the Uṣṇīṣavijayadhāraṇī Sūtra and possibly the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya were composed especially for this purpose.

The image on the right (taken from Sotheby's online catalogue) shows a typical stone pillar, octagonal and carved with the Uṣṇīṣavijayadhāraṇī Sūtra. One of Conze's Heart Sutra texts was a similar octagonal pillar discovered in Mongolia and published by Miranov in 1932. The Heart Sutra and Uṣṇīṣavijayadhāraṇī appear together on the famous Horiuzi Palm-leaf manuscript and in several other manuscript sources.

See also Liying Kuo (2014), who notes that the second oldest Heart Sutra text is found engraved on a pillar erected in 702, during Wu’s reign. And recall that Wu could not justify her taking power through either Daoism or Confucianism and so sought legitimation through Buddhism. By this time the kings of Japan were also using Buddhism as a legitimating narrative for their kingship.

So the inscription and, indeed, the Heart Sutra, more generally, needs to be seen in this light. It was distinctive in its way, but also fits into the context of a widespread popular practice. And it was in the context of clarifying this information that I came across the real prize in this research.

The Stele

Amongst the many searches for the image itself I turned up many references to the original stele now residing in the Forest of Steles Beilin, in Xian, no other images of the stele itself. Then, serendipitously, whilst looking for images of Dhāraṇī pillars, I chanced upon an image of another rubbing of the same stele held in a collection of rubbings at Harvard University Fine Arts Library. In the image below the Heart Sutra takes up columns 23-27 (counting from the right).

The Stele is 226 x 94 cm. There are 30 columns of text, each of which contains up to 84 characters. Each character is about 3.5 cm in width and 4 cm in height. Although most sources mention only three texts, Sheng (2011: 96) describes several:
"The stele begins with the title Da Tang Sanzang shengjiao xu. Next to the title, two important statements—―太宗文皇帝製 (Composed by Taizong, the Literary Emperor) and ―弘福寺沙門懷仁集晉右將軍王羲之書 (Monk Huairen in Hongfu Monastery collected the characters from the calligraphies of Wang Xizhi, General of the Right Army of the Jin dynasty [to engrave on this slab] are presented in one line. This statement of calligraphic authorship is followed by five individual bodies of text: the complete text of Taizong’s Preface (ten lines), Taizong’s reply to Xuanzang’s gratitude letter (one line), Gaozong’s Notes to the Preface (ten lines), Gaizong’s reply to Xuanzang’s gratitude letter (one line), and a paragraph [sic] from the Heart Sutra (five lines).
"The last line of the inscription reads, ―On the eighth day of the twelfth month in the third year of [Gaozong] Xianheng era [672], erected by the Buddhist priests in the capital; calligraphies engraved on the stone by civil official Gentleman-litterateur, Zhuge Shenli, and Commandant of Militant Cavalry, Zhu Jingzang (咸亨三年十二月八日京城法 侶建立; 文林郎 諸葛神力 勒石 武騎尉 朱靜藏 鐫字). (Sheng 2011: 95)

Because of the distinctive nature of the text a comparison is relatively easy. The text of the rubbing in Tanahashi is the same as the text in this rubbing. See image right comparing the title of the text - with Harvard on the left, Tanahashi in the middle, and the Wikimedia image on the right. I have tweaked the contrast in the Harvard image to improve the contrast (by adjusting the black, mid and white points using the "levels" tool in Photoshop Elements) Looking at this my impression is that the characters in the Tanahashi image have also had the contrast adjusted. The white of the characters is too white. Contrarily, the Wikimedia image shows texture in the white of the letters, which is what we might expect with an engraving.

The third image complicated matters somewhat because we don't have enough information on the provenance of any of them to know how or even if they are related. We can say that the Harvard rubbing shows no sign of seals and that these must have been added to the rubbing at a later date, possibly by Mitsui Takakata himself, or perhaps by someone else. 

The original stele was more like a dhāraṇī pillar than a page of manuscript. This stele now stands at Beilin Museum in Xian and it is commonly referred to as the 集王聖教序并記 "Preface and the Notes to the Preface to the Holy Teaching with the Collected Wang's [calligraphies]" (Sheng 2011: 89). Sheng goes on to discuss the Preface in great detail (90ff). Sheng suggest that Taizong's preface was composed specifically for Xuanzang's translation of the 100 fascicle Yogācārabhūmi.

Of the utmost importance for the history of the Heart Sutra is the note by Sheng (2011: 96) that "At the end of the main text, five high officials are credited with giving the translation of the sutra a proper elegance and finish... and ... the process of the afore named officials' finalizing and polishing the sutra's translation took place in 656". Thus the Xuanzangisms in the text (the spelling of 觀自在 and 舍利子, for example) may well have been added in tribute to Xuanzang rather than by him, but before his death in 664. We also know that although Emperor Gāo appreciated Xuanzang, more generally he was no fan of Buddhism and is, contra Tanahashi (95), unlikely to have thought of promoting the Heart Sutra. Gāo cancelled the translation program in the same year as Xuanzang died and thence turned increasingly to Daoism (Wriggins 2004: 203). This also means we can date T251, which is more or less identical to this text, to 656 CE at the latest. This is still long after Xuanzang returned from India and also after the date traditionally ascribed to T251 i.e. 649 CE.

The Text of the Stele Inscription

I have transcribed the inscription as it appears in Tanahashi, checking against the Harvard rubbing where possible. My version is shown below in a semi-cursive font (and repeated below in whatever your browser uses for a standard Chinese font). The text mainly follows Xuanzang's version and the traditional Chinese reading order - one starts at top right and reads down, then goes to the top of the next column to the left and finishes in the bottom left. It's like English writing with the page rotated 90° clockwise.

The first two lines read:
  1. 般若波羅蜜多心經 i.e. Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya Sūtra.
  2. 沙门玄奘奉 "Homage to Shāmen Xuánzàng." 沙门 shāmen here means “monk”. There are two separate characters below this that are indistinct in Takakata's rubbing and even less clear in the Harvard rubbing. The characters are difficult to read, but comparison with a number of other texts suggests that they are 詺 "named," and 譯 "interpret, translate". I'm not sure how to read them in this context. The Wikimedia image does not separate these characters out. 
Note 5.6.2018: 詔譯 means "a translation requested or sanctioned by the emperor". While 奉詔譯 "translated by imperial decree". So the Line 沙门玄奘奉奉詔譯 should not have a gap, and another inspection shows no gap in the Beilin Stele. The line thus reads "The Monk Xuánzàng translated by imperial decree".
The rest of the text is the same as T251 the version attributed to Xuanzang, except that in columns 25 and 26 the character 帝 is written as 諦. However, these two have the same pronunciation, . The text written left to right reads:
色無受想行識無眼耳 鼻
    揭諦揭諦    般羅揭諦
    般羅僧揭諦    菩提僧莎訶


I think this story shows how important good referencing is. Without accurate information it can be very difficult to track down the original, be it an image or a textual source. Tanahashi has not made it easy to locate this important version of the Heart, so seldom written about or studied in English. However, I believe I have now correctly identified the image, filled in many of the gaps in the information about its provenance, transcribed it and shown how it fits in with existing versions. Scholarship is partly about ensuring that those who come after you don't have to reinvent the wheel.

If this is indeed the earliest dated Heart Sutra text, then it is extremely important in the history of the Heart Sutra. The Japanese Horiuzi palm-leaf manuscript is said to date from 609 CE, but this is unlikely to be true. The first European scholars to examine the ms. dated it to the 8th century on palaeographic grounds. Of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but an earliest text dated 672 CE is consistent with Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis. If, for example, it really had been "translated" in the 5th Century by Kumārajīva we might expect an earlier inscription or some other corroborating archaeology. Not only do we have the first physical evidence of the Heart Sutra in the late 7th century, but we can also date the first commentaries to around the same time, i.e., shortly after the death of Xuanzang. Again, if the text were earlier we might expect a narrative source, such as the diaries of previous Chinese pilgrims to India to mention the text, but again the earliest source for this kind of evidence is associated with Xuanzang. As it is, the earliest Indian evidence, the Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan, date from the 8th century.

All of this is consistent with the text being composed or at least popularised in the 7th century, probably originally as an amulet for protection from misfortune. The status as an epitome of Prajñāpāramitā most likely came later and, in fact, the first commentators (i.e., 원측 Woncheuk and 窺基 Kuījī),  understood the text to be an epitome of Yogācāra thought, unlike the Indian commentators who saw in the text either a Madhyamaka or Tantric epitome.


Note 5.6.2018. It was announced in China in 2016, but not reported in the West, that two more stone steles have been discovered and dated to 661 and  669 CE. Both contain the line “三藏法師玄奘奉詔譯” bolstering support for Xuanzang's involvement in the text, since he died in 664 CE. However, a note of caution -- I have not yet seen anything to say how these steles were dated. 


Copp, Paul. (2014). The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Columbia University Press.

Liying Kuo. (2014). Dhāraṇī Pillars in China: Functions and Symbols in Wong, Dorothy C. & Heldt, Gustav. (Eds) China and Beyond in the Mediaeval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections.

Powers, Martin J. & Tsiang, Katherine R. (2015). A Companion to Chinese Art. [229] Google Books:

Roger Sherman. (1982). Acquisition of the Mitsui Collection by the East Asiatic Library, University Of California, Berkeley. Journal of East Asian Libraries, 67. [This article is a summary of the author's MLS specialization paper, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, UCLA, 1980].

Sheng, Ruth. (2011). The Development of Chinese Calligraphy in Relation to Buddhism and Politics During the Early Tang Era. A dissertation presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Florida.

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

Wong, Dorothy C. (2002). The Making of a Saint: Images of Xuanzang In East Asia. Early Medieval China 8, 43-81.

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.

25 December 2015

Taishō 256: The Other Chinese Heart Sutra

(14th Century Japan).
There are three versions of the short text of the Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. To date I have focussed almost exclusively on T250 and T251 (see Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions). T256 (T 8.851.a1-852.a23) is interesting in its own right and I have begun familiarising myself with it. The text contains a transliteration of a Sanskrit text alongside a Chinese text. Both the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are somewhat idiosyncratic. T256 has a preface which tells us about its provenance and tells the story of how Xuanzang received the text in the first place. There is also a manuscript of the text, which was obtained from Dunhuang by Aurel Stein and is now in the British Library. The manuscript (Or.8210/S.5648) has been digitised and put online as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). The text in the manuscript has a number of alternate characters and some other differences that might be scribal errors.

In his recent book on the Heart Sutra, Kazuaki Tanahashi (2014) makes repeated mention of a comprehensive study of the Heart Sutra in Japanese by Fukui Fumimasa (2000). Apparently Fukui also studied S.5648 and T256, but he only writes in Japanese. Very little of the huge volume of Japanese research into this text makes it into European languages. The glimpses Tanahashi provides into Fukui's work are tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying. In English we have a transcription and Romanisation of T256 by Matsumoto (1932); however, his Chinese characters are handwritten (due to limitations in print media in 1932) and are a little difficult to read in parts. In 1977 Leon Hurvitz published a complete translation of the Chinese preface along with a romanisation and translation of the Sanskrit text. Chen Shu-Fen 陳淑芬 (2004) wrote a detailed study of the methods used to transliterate the text and a partial reconstruction of the Middle-Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration.

British Library Manuscript Or.8210/S.5648
Both Hurvitz (1997) and Chen (2004) attribute T256 to Xuanzang. For example, Hurvitz says in his translation of the introduction:
Preface to the copy humbly made, of the record inscribed by the upadhyāya of the Monastery of Compassionate Grace, on a stone wall of the Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good in the Western Capital.
In a note (1977 121, n.56) Hurvitz says that the upadhyāya or preceptor of 慈恩 was a reference to Xuanzang. And thus, the text was attributed to Xuanzang. However, in an email exchange between myself and the Chinese translator, Rulu, (Buddha Sūtras Mantras Sanskrit) it became clear that Hurvitz correctly interpreted 慈恩和尚 as "upadhyāya of Monastery of Compassionate Grace"; however, he was mistaken about who this referred to. The first two characters, 慈恩 Ciēn, are part of the name of a monastery, 大慈恩寺 The Great Monastery of Compassionate Grace, which was located in Changan, the main capital of the Tang Dynasty (now the site of the major city of Xian). Note also that the 大興善寺 (Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good) was also in Changan, not Loyang as Hurvitz suggests (1977: 108). During the Tang Dynasty, Loyang was referred to as 东都 The Eastern Capital and T256 refers to 西京 The Western Capital, meaning Changan.

It seems that 慈恩 is also an epithet for Xuanzang's foremost disciple, 窺基 Kuījī. Xuanzang was strongly associated with two Monasteries in Changan, initially with Hongfu Monastery 弘福寺 and subsequently with 西明寺 Ximing Monastery. These two were where he did his translations after returning from India. Kuījī, by contrast, was associated with Ciēn. And the preceptor of Ciēn was Kuījī. As mentioned in a previous essay (Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions):
Xuánzàng’s students, 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696) produced commentaries on the Heart Sutra in the late 7th century (Nattier 1992: 173). These have both been translated into English: see Shih & Lusthaus (2006) and Hyun Choo (2006) respectively.
In that essay I noted Lusthaus's argument that Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text to refer to. Lusthaus saw in this fact a challenge to Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis. However, Lusthaus also thought that Woncheuk composed his commentary after Xuanzang's death and I argued that this was entirely consistent with Nattier's hypothesis. Here a similar argument applies to Kuījī. The fact that the two of them had a Sanskrit text when they were students of Xuanzang, decades after his return from India is also consistent with the Chinese Origins hypothesis. In fact, we expect this, especially if, as we suspect, that Xuanzang was involved in the Sanskrit translation. Wriggins (2004: 9) has Xuanzang beginning to learn Sanskrit before his departure for India. What would be more natural for a student of Sanskrit than making a translation of a well-known and -loved text? And, as I have noted, the composer of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra seems unfamiliar with some of the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā tradition. After he returned, Xuanzang was asked to translate the 道德經 Dàodéjīng into Sanskrit (Wriggins 2004: 196), so we know that he did translate some texts from Chinese into Sanskrit.

Tanahashi refers to the earliest known text of the Heart Sutra, a stone inscription erected in 672 by 唐高宗 Emperor Táng Gāozōng at Hongfu Monastery, Changan. Tanahashi is also mistaken in thinking that this presents a challenge to the Chinese origins hypothesis (2014: 81). I will deal with this inscription in my next essay.

What the Chinese Origins hypothesis says is that the Heart Sutra is composed in Chinese after the translation of the Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra by Kumārajīva in 404 CE, i.e., T223 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》, since it clearly borrows from this text. And it must have been composed prior to Xuanzang's leaving for India in 630 CE, since Xuanzang reportedly had a version of the text by the time he left China, possibly much earlier, though this could be an apocryphal story. The association of Xuanzang with the production of the Sanskrit text and its transmission back to China is based on supposition (and perhaps a little wishful thinking), but it is neither implausible nor at odds with the known facts. Any time after Xuanzang's arrival back in Changan in 645 CE we can fully expect Chinese scholars to have access to a Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra alongside a Chinese text. That we have evidence of precisely this is a sign that the theory makes an accurate (but not decisive) prediction. At the very least, it does not conflict with the hypothesis, as Lusthaus and Tanahashi try to make out.

Another piece of information, also pointed out by Rulu, is that the introduction tells the story of Xuanzang's receiving the Heart Sutra after he set out for India. It suggests that he stopped off in 益州 Yì zhōu, present day Chengdu, Sichuan, on his way. Though, since Chengdu is about 800km south-west of Changan and there is an imposing mountain range blocking travel to the west, it is not a likely stopping off point on a journey from Changan to India. The more plausible stories say that, due to political upheaval associated with the collapse of the Sui Dynasty, Xuanzang moved to Chengdu and became a bhikṣu there (cf. Wriggins 2004: 7). Xuanzang apparently spent time wandering through China collecting texts before heading to India. In any case, the introduction of T256 refers to Xuanzang as 三藏 or tripiṭaka. Someone expert in the branches of the Buddhist Canon (traditionally sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma) might be called 三藏, in this case corresponding to the Sanskrit traipiṭaka (the grammatical form is the same as the title jaina for someone associated with the jina, similarly bauddha is the Sanskrit for "Buddhist"). Those who remember the TV show Monkey, will remember that the Xuanzang character is called "Tripitaka". As Rulu points out, Xuanzang would not refer to himself in the third person or by this title; clearly, this is written about him, not by him. So apparently the preface was composed by a senior disciple, i.e., Kuījī, remembering his master in reverential terms.

However there is another little nugget at the end of this preface, which is that the text was transcribed by Bùkōng 不空, aka 不空金剛 (MC Bulgong Geumgang) or Amoghavajra (705–774) in response to an Imperial command. Amoghavajra was of mixed Sogdian and Indian heritage. He became a novice at a young age and then travelled to China where he received the bhikṣu initiation ca. 724 CE. Apart from a period of travelling, enforced by the expulsion of foreign monks from China, he lived most of his life in China and was a noted translator of Tantric texts. We don't know when he edited the text of T256, but we do know that in 771 CE he presented a petition to the throne asking that his translations be added to the Tripiṭaka. And the current preface of T256 was added after his death in 774 CE, which we know because it mentions his posthumous, 謚, name, 大辦正廣 (Dà bàn zhèng guǎng). Tanahashi translates Fukui's transcription of the preface of S.5648 and it also says that the text was "translated" by Amoghavajra (2014: 68). S.5648, suggesting that Xuanzang got the text directly from Avalokiteśvara which contradicts the account in T256.


Contra Hurvitz (1977), T256 was originally a text associated with Kuījī and was inscribed in stone in Changan at some unknown date, but probably after the death of Xuanzang. We can surmise that Kuījī had a Sanskrit text that he got from his teacher, because we know that his fellow disciple and rival Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text. A question remains over what form the Sanskrit text took - was it this transliterated version, or was there a lost manuscript in Siddham script? However, it's not clear whether that Sanskrit text influenced this version of the text. It seems we must attribute the final sūtra text to Amoghavajra, but he most likely only copied and slightly edited the Kuījī text. The current text of T256 probably entered the Canon ca. 771 but was updated sometime (probably soon) after 774 by (at least) the addition of a preface.

Given that Jan Nattier has given us reason to doubt the attribution of T250 and T251, this makes T256 more important than it might have seemed previously. An urgent task for researchers interested in the Heart Sutra is a comparison of the three Chinese versions of the short Heart Sutra in the light of the Sanskrit text in T256. And also a more detailed comparison of the Sanskrit text of T256 with the critical edition by Conze - though Conze used Matsumoto's version, Matsumoto acknowledges that he edited the text to conform to the edition by Max Müller. A diplomatic edition of T256, with a reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration would be useful for future researchers and I am working on this now.



Chen Shu-Fen. (2004). On Xuan-Zang’s Transliterated Version of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra (Heart Sutra). Monumenta Serica, 52, 113-159.

Fukui Fumimasa. (2000) Heart Sutra of the Comprehensive Study: History, social and material. Spring and Autumn, Inc. , 2000. = 福井文雅 『般若心経の総合的研究:歴史・社会・資料』 春秋社、2000年。

Hurvitz, Leon. (1977). Hsüan-tsang 玄奘 (602-664) and the Heart Scripture in Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze. University of California at Berkeley Press, 103-113.

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

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, 3, Sept: 59-103.

Matsumoto, Tokumyo. (1932). Die Prajñāpāramitā-literatur: Nebst Einem Specimen der Suvikrāntavikrāmi-Prajñāpāramitā. Stuttgart: Verlag von W. Kohlhammer. [My thanks to Eva Ludolf for reading through the German preface to this article with me].

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

Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.

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

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.

13 September 2013

Who Translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit?

This is the third in a series of essays exploring Jan Nattier's thesis that the Heart Sutra was composed in China in about the 7th century. The last two essays have looked at some of the sources for what ended up in the text. The other main issue addressed by Nattier is the question of who translated the text into Sanskrit. I think it's fair to say that this is still a mystery, but the text itself has some clues. 

Let's begin by looking more closely at some of the Sanskrit phrases. Many scholars by now have noted that the Sanskrit used in the Heart Sutra is rather unidiomatic at times. I can assure you that translating the Sanskrit text as it stands is not always easy! It was perhaps this awkwardness that hid a basic grammatical error in the first paragraph which I discovered at the end of last year. In this essay I outline some Chinese idioms identified by Nattier in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, and show how this supports her Chinese origins thesis and puts some limits on who could have translated it into Sanskrit. Coming out of this examination are concomitant proposals to improve the Sanskrit text, which will be in next week's essay. 

In making the case that the Heart Sutra was composed in China, Nattier points to a number of idioms that seem more at home in China than India. For example the phrase niṣṭhā-nirvaṇa is rather awkward in Sanskrit. The Chinese 究竟涅槃 jiùjìng-nièpán is more natural. The last two characters render nirvāṇa while the first two mean 'finally attain' (Nattier has "literally 'ulimate[ly] nirvāṇa"). Nattier comments "[this phrase] is attested in a number of other Buddhist texts, and might well be described as standard (even idiomatic) Buddhist Chinese." (178).

The difficulty of this term can perhaps be exemplified by Edward Conze's equivocation with respect to it. The first two versions of his critical edition (1948) and (1967) have niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa, but (1975) has niṣṭhā-nirvāṇa-prāptaḥ. Conze has added the past participle prāptaḥ 'attained' (from pra√āp 'attains') to nirvāṇa extending the compound. This choice is ironic because the text earlier says na prāptiḥ 'no attaining' (this is a verbal noun from the same root)So why choose prāpta? The obvious answer is that it appears in some of the mss. Looking at the footnotes of Conze's 1967 critical edition (confirmed from my own observations in most cases) we find these variant readings:
Nabcdikm: nistanirvāṇaprāptaḥ
Ne: nirvvaṇaprāptās
Jab, Ccg: niṣṭhanirvaṇaḥ
Cae: tani nirvāṇam prāpnoti
Cg: niṣṭhanirvāṇā
Thus those mss. which supplement niṣṭhanirvāṇa, supplement it with a verbal form from pra√āp. But prāptaḥ doesn't make sense because the text itself rules it out. This, plus the fact that many mss. leave it out and Conze himself left it out in his first two versions of the critical edition, suggest that it was inserted later to help make sense of the text precisely because niṣṭhanirvāṇa alone is so awkward. It's extremely unlikely that the text was composed with the phrase niṣṭhanirvāṇa in Sanskrit.

In Pāli we find a strikingly similar idiom, though only in a single text, Gaṇakamoggallāna Sutta (MN 107):
Appekacce kho, brāhmaṇa, mama sāvakā mayā evaṃ ovadīyamānā evaṃ anusāsīyamānā accantaṃ niṭṭhaṃ nibbānaṃ ārādhenti, ekacce nārādhentī’’ti. (M iii.4)
When, O Brahmin, my disciples are advised and instructed by me, some do indeed succeed to the ultimate goal nibbāna, and some do not succeed. 
Note that the verb here is a causative from ā√rādh 'to suceed, attain, accomplish' rather than pra√āp. The Chinese counterpart, Madhyāgama 144, was translated ca. 397 or 398 CE probably from Gāndhārī. In Chinese the verb is 得 de 'get, obtain, etc'. Thus where there is a verb in a similar Indic phrase it was supplied by some Chinese translators. 

Nattier argues that no one would use niṣṭhānirvāṇa (with no verb) when composing a text in Sanskrit, but that the same idiom is right at home in Chinese, thus the Sanskrit reflects a Chinese original. Recall that, in the case of those sections known to be from the Pañcaviṃśati, the Sanskrit wording has almost invariably changed after going through Chinese. In the next essay we will see that Kumārajīva used the phrase 究竟涅槃 to translate several different Sanskrit phrases, and show that there are several that are better candidates than niṣṭhānirvāṇa. This in turn provides us with possible improvements to the Sanskrit Heart Sutra. 

Another phrase that stands out is satyam-amithyatvāt. Conze (1975) takes poetic flight in translating this phrase: " truth, for what could go wrong", but this is not grounded in the text. Satyam is easy enough, it means 'truth' and being a neuter word is in either the nominative or accusative singular. The preceding phrases are the epithets of prajñāpāramitā, discussed last week, and we might therefore suppose that here satyam is predicated of prajñāpāramitā. That is to say that we would naturally read this as saying that prajñāpāramitā is true. The fact of being true is of considerable importance to Buddhists. 

The other word amithyatvāt is much more troublesome however. The word mithyā is a contracted form of mithūyā and means 'inverted', or 'contrary' and thus 'false'. The root is √mith which Whitney's Roots glosses as 'alternate and altercate'. The term is often paired with samyañc (from saṃ + √añc 'to bend') which becomes samyak or samyag in actual use. Samyañc roughly means 'to go with' and mithyā 'to go against'. The form amithyatvāt has a prefix and a suffix, and a case ending. We add -tva to create an abstract noun, mithyatva meaning 'a state of being false' or 'falseness'. This is negated by the prefix a- so that amithyatva means 'a state of being true, truthful', however it's typical to retain the Sanskrit morphology and render a word like this as 'non-falseness' or 'a state of not being false'. Finally the whole word is in the ablative case, indicated by the ending -āt, which tells us the reason for the action of a verb (the verb here being a tacit 'to be').

Putting it all together we may say that satyam amithyatvāt literally means 'it is true because of non-falseness' or even 'it is true because of [its] truth'. This is as awkward in Sanskrit as it sounds in English. Nattier assures us that the Chinese version 真實不虛 zhēn shí bù xū is "entirely natural in Chinese" (177). Nattier suggests it means "genuine, not vain". 虛  can mean 'false, worthless; empty, hollow, vain'.

The suggestion is that satyam amithyatvāt is like the common idiom "long time no see". This phrase is thought to have derived from a Chinese greeting and to retain the Chinese grammar. It may be compared to Mandarin phrase 好久不見 (hǎojiǔ bù jiàn), which can be translated literally as "long-time, no see". 

However, as I will show next week, this is not in fact an artefact of back translation from Chinese, but the result of a poor decision by Conze in creating his critical edition. There were other options available to Conze from his manuscripts that would have made more sense, despite being minority readings.

Finally compare this line:
na rūpaṃ na vedanā na saṃjñā na saṃskārāḥ na vijñānaṃ
With these:
na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi.
na rūpaśabdagandharasaspraṣṭavayadharmāh.
The former is just what we would expect from a Buddhist text. Buddhists are not afraid of repetition, especially not where the longer Perfection of Wisdom texts were concerned, and so use na in each case. The latter two lines look unusual (and the 'infelicity' was spotted for Nattier by highly experienced Sanskritist Richard Salomon. See 214: note 57). Nattier quotes from the Gilgit ms. of the Pañcaviṃśati: "na cakṣur na śrotram na ghrāṇam na jihvā na kāye na manaḥ". Compare the Pañcaviṃśati version from Kimura's edition (2007):
na cakṣurāyatanaṃ na rūpāyatanaṃ (no eye base, no form base).
na śrotrāyatanaṃna [na] śabdāyatanaṃ
na ghrāṇāyatanaṃ na gandhāyatanaṃ
na jihvāyatanaṃ [na] rasāyatanaṃ
na kāyāyatanaṃ [na] spraṣṭavyāyatanaṃ
na manaāyatanaṃ [na] dharmāyatanam,
The Chinese Heart Sutra has:
Wú yǎn, ěr, bí, shé, shēn, yì;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind;
And this in turn precisely follows the Large Perfection of Wisdom Text of Kumārajīva except in the matter of punctuation, all of which was added by later editors: 
無眼耳鼻舌身意 (T 8. 223 p.0223a18.6). 
It seems reasonably clear that na cakṣuḥśrotraghrānajihvākāyamanāṃsi reflects Chinese syntax with a single negating particle for all of the items being negated. Sanskrit syntax would give each item it's own negative particle as we see from the Sanskrit Pañcavīṃśati.

For Nattier the weight of evidence suggests that the Heart Sutra is a back translation from Chinese to Sanskrit. However this is only the most obvious conclusion of her investigation. There is a further conclusion from these facts that Nattier does not explicitly draw, but which is implicit given the facts.

The composer of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was probably a Chinese speaker

For Nattier the main suspect in the mystery of who composed the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is Xuánzàng. He lived at about the right time, travelled to India and learned Sanskrit at about the right time. Thus he had the opportunity and the means. He was also known from his memoir of travelling to India to have been a devotee of the text. 

Nattier invites us to imagine that Xuánzàng had arrived in India only to find that the Indian monks had not heard of this text. Upon learning the language would he not be tempted to compose a version in Sanskrit? Early in my own attempts to learn Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra was one of the first texts I looked at precisely because it is familiar and concise. As I mentioned in my last essay, an Indian provenance was crucial to the authenticity of a Buddhist text in China. The whole point of Xuánzàng's journey to India was to return with authentic Indian texts. To discover that one's favourite text was not extant in Sanskrit might tempt the most scrupulous monk to compose a new Sanskrit "original".

Xuánzàng was unlikely to have composed the Chinese Heart Sutra however. It is recorded that he was given the text. A man who he had cared for during an illness taught him the Heart Sutra out of gratitude (179). It subsequently became a favourite to chant in troubled times, such as crossing the Gobi desert.

Xuánzàng included all his translations of the Prajñāpāramitā texts into one huge volume, treating the various texts as chapters. The only translation of his not included is the Heart Sutra. Also the vocabulary of the Heart Sutra (T 8.251) closely matches Kumārajīva's translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom text in most cases. Given that Xuánzàng led the effort to translate all of the extant Prajñāpāramitā texts, and developed a whole new approach to translating Sanskrit, why would he not use his own terminology?

A couple of terms used in the Heart Sutra are distinctive to Xuánzàng. Kumārajīva transliterates the name Śāriputra as 舍利弗 Shèlìfú. Here 弗 fú transliterates the first syllable of putra. Chinese transliterations frequently leave off the final syllable. Xuánzàng, on the other hand prefers 舍利子Shèlìzi, replacing 弗 with the Chinese word for 'son' 子. 

Kumārajīva translates Avalokiteśvara as 觀世音 Guānshìyīn (whence Guānyīn also spelt Kwan yin), whereas Xuánzàng prefers 觀自在 Guānzìzài. As I have noted before, this change in transliteration reflects a change in the Sanskrit name from Avalokita-svara to Avalokita-īśvara (with sandhi resolving a-ī to e and giving Avalokiteśvara). This change is discussed by Alexander Studholme and involves Avalokitasvara absorbing some of the characteristics of Śiva who is converted to Buddhism in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and in the process absorbing the epithet īśvara 'lord', which replaces svara 'sound'. Nattier notes that Xuánzàng's own students tended to retain the more popular form of the name, Guānshìyīn, even when they adopted his new readings of other terms including the name Shèlìzi (216, n.84).

These usages are innovations introduced into Chinese Buddhist texts by Xuánzàng. And thus we know that at the very least Xuánzàng, or someone familiar with this work, must have edited T 8.251, and have done so after Xuánzàng learned Sanskrit in India and devised these new transliterations of Indic names and terms. 

Whoever did translate the text into Sanskrit, they were soon vindicated by the adoption of the Heart Sutra into the pantheon of Prajñāpāramitā texts.  In China commentaries were produced from the 7th century onwards. In India a number of commentaries (now only preserved in Tibetan) were written from the 8th to the 11th centuries (see Donald Lopez 1988, 1996). All of the Chinese commentaries are based on the Chinese version attributed to Xuánzàng (i.e. T 8.251), and all the Indian commentaries are of the long text. The split in the dates of the commentaries of East and South Asia, as well as the text they chose to comment on are supporting evidence for Nattier's Chinese Origins thesis.



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.

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

Kimura Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. Online: [Input by Klaus Wille, Göttingen, April 2010].

Lopez, Donald S. (1988) The Heart Sūtra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. State University of New York Press.

Lopez, Donald S. (1996) Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra. Princeton University press.

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

Studholme, Alexander. (2002) The origins of oṃ manipadme hūṃ : a study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany: State university of New York Press.