17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

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

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

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

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

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

We begin by reviewing the received tradition.

The Received Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

The Shénzhòu Identity

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

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

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

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

Xīnjīng Standalone

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

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

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

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

The Chinese/Sanskrit Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Forged the Hṛdaya?

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of the Heart Sutra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155

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

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

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

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

Satyadhana. (2014) The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/satyadhana-formless_spheres.pdf

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