24 July 2015

Form is Emptiness. Part II: Commentary

~~Continued from Form is Emptiness. Part I: Establishing the Text (17 Jul 2015)~~

Traditional Commentaries

We have available in translation, two very early Chinese commentaries by Xuánzàng's top students Kuījī 窺基 (Shih & Lusthaus 2006) and Woncheuk 원측 (Hyun Choo 2006). These date from the 7th century, close to the composition of the text, with a strong suggestion that Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text to consult. (Lusthaus 2003). Kūkai's commentary from the early 9th century is perhaps the first Tantric commentary, and gives us insights into Kūkai's thought (Hakeda 1972). We also have eight Indian commentaries from the 8th-12th centuries preserved in Tibetan, translated and studied by Donald Lopez (1988, 1996). However, as almost every scholar who has ever studied these commentaries has complained, they are resolutely sectarian.
"One feature of these commentaries on the Heart Sūtra struck me quite forcibly: each commentary seemed so different from the others, and yet they seemed all to show in greater or less degree the influence of the Mādhyamika School of Buddhist philosophy. The writers seemed to be experiencing some difficulty in exposition, as though they were not writing through having inherited a tradition about the scripture going back to its original composition, but rather were simply arranging their particularly learning in Buddhism to the terminology of the sūtra." (Wayman 1984: 309)
Each commentator takes the Heart Sutra to epitomise their views on Buddhism, whatever their views happen to be. There is no commentarial tradition which ties the Heart Sutra into the early Prajñāpāramitā tradition where it arguably belongs, since, especially with the words of this passage we are dealing with here, the ideas come from the early centuries of the Common Era at the latest. As Malcolm David Eckel says:
"... to approach the Indian commentaries in the hope that they will somehow yield the 'original' meaning of the text is to invite disappointment... what they thought it mean was shaped as much by the preoccupations of their own time as it was by the words of the sūtra itself. (Eckel 1987: 69-70)
The traditional commentaries are in short a major disappointment. The Chinese commentaries, for example, are couched in thick and impenetrable Yogācāra jargon. Without their own commentary, the commentaries don't really make sense. The language of the translations in both cases is classic Buddhist Hybrid English, but worse, Kuījī constantly contradicts himself, alternating between telling us that dharmas exist and do not exist, perhaps as a result of a commitment to the Two Truths. It means that his argument on this passage is, on face value, incoherent. The Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan have much the same problems, though looking at the Heart Sutra from different sectarian points of view. None take the text as their starting point. All take their belief system as a starting point and try to shoehorn the Heart Sutra into it. In other words no commentator is trying to explain the text, they are using the text as a cipher to expound their existing views. Which means that, though they might be interesting historical documents in their own right, they are next to useless in the quest to understand the text on its own terms.

There is one source which is not a commentary on the passage, but which may help reveal something about the text. As we know this part of the Heart Sutra is an extract from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, but the Pañcaviṃśati itself is an extrapolation from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. One way to approach understanding this passage, then, is to attempt to locate the original passage in Aṣṭa from which is descends and see what it says. I believe I can point to the passage in question and that it sheds previously unseen light on this famous rebus. Before we get there, however, we need to consider modern commentary

Modern Commentary

Unfortunately all the remarks that apply to traditional commentaries can also be applied to modern ones. With one exception that I am aware of, which is in Jones (2012). Jones is a relative outsider in that he does not seem to hold either an academic or ecclesiastical post, but he does have appropriate qualifications and is well versed in Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka literature. And although his approach to translating the Heart Sutra is a sectarian one (based, I think, on the Yogācāra inspired exposition of Alex Wayman, though he neglects to say), in his book of Prajñāpāramitā translations there is a short essay on just the passage we are considering (2012: 224-226). Jones initially expresses considerable misgivings about "form is emptiness, emptiness only form". "In fact," he says, "the claim is odd." 

The first problem is that the text appears to make śūnyatā into "an ontological source of some kind... rather than simply the absence of self-existence." Jones cites Thích Nhất Hạnh as a populariser of this view when he says: "form is the wave, and emptiness is the water". But this is completely out of keeping with Prajñāpāramitā and with Madhyamaka thinking about śūnyatā. There is nothing that emptiness "is" because conceptually and semantically it denotes an absence! If in Nhất Hạnh's metaphor emptiness is the water, then it is a presence of something from which waves are made, not the absence that helps us to see the wave is insubstantial.

A related problem is that form is, in the Two Truths view, ultimately "unreal" whereas śūnyatā is not. I take issue with Jones here on the basis of Kātyāyana: real and unreal are not qualities that can be imputed to experience. What he means, I think, is that dharmas arise and pass away, whereas śūnyatā is always the characteristic of all dharmas. Form is contingent, but all forms lack svabhāva. To try to equate the two, as the Heart Sutra seems to, is to make a category error. My own view is that equating a substantive (rūpa) with an abstract (śūnyatā) is as best linguistically awkward, at worst nonsense. Jones briefly notes the alternate reading in some sources i.e. "form is empty" (rupam śūnyam). Which is fine until we try to turn it around and discover that nouns and adjectives play different roles in language and can't be interchanged. The irony here, as we will see below, is that in a sutra largely devoted to negations, this positive assertion is the most problematic passage in the text. 

However by the end of his short treatise, Jones seems to have convinced himself that the passage does make sense. 
"...'form is emptiness' appears to mean that emptiness does not exist apart from the bodily aggregates and the other factors of the experienced world. Emptiness is not an ontological source or some transcendental reality to be attained by abolishing the phenomenal realm." (226)
Thus Jones manages to convince himself, through invoking "a Gestalt-like shift" that the text that seemed so problematic to begin with, in fact confirms his understanding of Perfection of Wisdom according to Nāgārjuna. The problems in Buddhist texts have to be rationalised and normalised. When one's hermeneutic disallows nonsense, then finding it, one will simply re-interpret it as a new kind of sense that requires a special counter-intuitive perspective. At least Jones does not look down on his audience for their not having that special perspective, in the way that Conze did.

My approach is different. In my hermeneutic "nonsense" is not just a possible reading, it is expected. Reading a text as trying to express something about experience is a productive approach, but it cannot solve all the problems encountered, precisely because the author was frequently trying to make an ontological point. All ontologies that are based on the raw phenomenology of experience hold the possibility of error, of confusion, and of nonsense. Nonsense is a likely outcome when generalising about reality from individual experience. And this is not simply my opinion. The early Buddhists knew this, at least in principle, when they spelled out the kinds of wrong views that one could come to by generalising on the basis of recollecting one's former lives through psychic powers developed in the fourth jhāna, see the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1; i.12-16).Thus we can expect to find nonsense as Buddhists embrace speculations about ontology, and by the time of the Heart Sutra, this embrace was already locked in. 

Thus primed we can now move on to considering what the Aṣṭa can tell us about the Heart Sutra.

Aṣṭasāharsrikā Prajñāpāramitā

The first thing to say by way of commentary is that remarks about form (rūpa) and emptiness apply just as much to the other skandhas individually and collectively. We usually give extra weight to form because it is used as the example for this analysis, but this skews the view. Yes, form is empty of svabhāva, but so is sensation (vedanā), apperception (saṃjñā), volition (saṃskāra) and cognition (vijñāna); or all five together, since they only ever operate collectively. We could just as well conduct the whole discussion in terms of vedanā or saṃjñā. And that would give the discussion a very different feel, because the temptation to make an ontology out of vedanā or saṃjñā must be considerably less. If anything, such a discussion would tend to Idealism. So any conclusions we come to must be applicable to the entire apparatus of experience, not just to the locus or object of experience (rūpa).

Another preliminary comment is that talk of śūnyatā is, at least in part, an invocation of the three liberations (P. vimokkha) the signless (animitta); desireless (apaṇihita) and emptiness (suññatā). These refer to profound states of absorption in which sense experience does not impinge on the mind at all. It's entirely possible that some of these passages in the Prajñāpāramitā, in which the bodhisatva 'grasps at nothing' etc, relate to śūnyatā-vimokṣa. Compare the two suññatā suttas (MN 121, 122) and the Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43). More on these at a later date.

The Heart Sutra passage is in the third chapter of Pañcaviṃśāti, so we expect to find any corresponding passages early on in Aṣṭa, probably in the first chapter. Where possible I will try to supply parallels from the first century CE Gāndhārī Aṣṭa (Falk & Karashima 2012). The Aṣṭa is full of references to śūnyatā, but not in the first chapter. However there are two passages in Chapter One which shed light on the Heart Sutra. The first is:
That said, Elder Subhuti said to Elder Śāriputra... "Form, Elder Śāriputra, is free from self-existent form; just so for sensation, names, volition; discernment, Elder Śāriputra, is free of self-existent discernment. Perfect-wisdom, Elder Śāriputra, is free of self-existent perfect-wisdom. Omniscience is free of self-existent omniscience. Perfect-wisdom is also free of the characteristic of perfect-wisdom. A characteristic is free of self-existent characteristics. The signified is free of self-existent. The self-existent is also free of a characteristic of self-existent signification. (Aṣṭa 1.12; Vaidya p.6)
The highlighted sentence takes the form: rūpam eva virahitaṃ rūpasvabhāvena. This is fairly standard Buddhist metaphysics, and quite similar to the kind of argument we see in the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā also (See The use of Negation in Vajracchedikā). Although we experience form, or experience ourselves as having form, there is no self-existent form. "Form" arises because sense object meets sense faculty in the presence of sense cognition; because the apparatus of experience is functioning. There is no 'essence of form' to give being to form. This places a struct limit on epistemology, on what we can know. Knowing the dependently arisen form does not give us knowledge of the object, only the experience. From a modern perspective this is too restrictive (I'll discuss this in a forthcoming essay), but for now we need to accept that early Mainstream Buddhists accepted this limit on knowledge and seem to have passed it on to some early Mahāyāna Buddhists. Additionally, as per Nāgārjuna's argument, if a form were to be endowed with self-existent form, then that form would either never exist, or always exist. Because experience is constantly arising and passing away, we know that it cannot have svabhāva in the sense of self-existence. (See also Emptiness for Beginners) Which also ties into the rejection of the terms existence and non-existence in discussing experience. And this is what we take "form is emptiness" to mean, though why the abstract noun śūnyatā is used in the Heart Sutra is, as I say, unclear.

We surmise that the problem that passages like this are addressing is the incipient Realism of the Abhidharma project. It used to be thought that this kind of language was a direct dig at the Sarvāstivādins. In fact seems to be a generalised critique with nothing specific to the Sarvāstivāda. The authors of the Abhidharma started out using the word svabhāba to mean something like a characteristic quality. At first it defined categories into which dharmas could be slotted. Gradually the dharmas themselves came to be seen as having these qualities. And before long the defining characteristic took on a separate life, that did not arise and pass away. The early Prajñāpāramitā texts were in part a general critique of this kind of erroneous thinking.

So this first passage from Aṣṭa critiques Realism with respect to dharmas. But what we are ideally looking for is a discussion of the emptiness of dharmas. The second passage which sheds light is the only part of Chapter One that uses the word śūnya.
Furthermore Elder Subhūti, having begun [describing?] the bodhisatva mahāsatva thus, said: if he practises with respect to form, he practices with respect to a sign (nimitta). If he practises with respect to an external characteristic of form, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘this is a feature of form’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the arising of form, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the cessation of form, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the destruction of form, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘form is empty’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘I am practising’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘I am a bodhisatva’, he practices with respect to a sign. Just perceiving ‘I am a bodhisatva’ he practices.
Thus with respect to sensation, designation, volitions.
If he practises with respect to discernment, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to an external characteristic of discernment, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘this is a feature of discernment’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the arising of discernment, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the cessation of discernment, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to the destruction of discernment, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘discernment is empty’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘I am practising’, he practices with respect to a sign. If he practises with respect to ‘I am a bodhisatva’, he practices with respect to a sign. Just perceiving ‘I am a bodhisattva’ he practices. If moreover there is [the thought] ‘he practices with respect to the perfection of wisdom who thus practises, creating the perfection of wisdom’ he practices only [with] external features. This bodhisatva is called ‘not skilled in the good’ (Aṣṭa 1.14)
The passage is in fact one long paragraph, but I have broken it up and added some highlighting to make the structure of it more clear. For the Gāndhārī manuscript and notes on Chinese counterparts compare Falk & Karashima (2012: 57 & n.52). The first section critiques the idea of practising with respect to form. If one's orientation is to experience, then even if one is practising for the end of experience, it is still practising relative to experience. The form that impacts on the sense, causing an experience to arise and then cease, is of no interest to the bodhisatva. It's all just sense experience and being caught up in sense experience is what traps us in saṃsāra. So the idea is to unhook from sense experience completely. And one of the ways of expressing this is the almost familiar phrase:
saced rūpaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | (Aṣṭa 1.14.7)
If he practises with respect to ‘form is empty’, he practices with respect to a sign.
The part in quotes is our familiar line rūpaṃ śūnyam 'form is empty'. In the Pañcaviṃśati, and therefore in the Heart Sutra, the statement has become decontextualised and abstracted: śūnyatā is an abstract noun from śūnya as 'emptiness' is an abstraction from 'empty'. Aṣṭa is saying that if one practices with the idea that 'form is empty', then one is still getting it wrong, because one is still practising with respect to sense experience. And yet, this is a common interpretation. Buddhists go around quoting "form is emptiness" as though it is profound, as though it is the whole point, when Aṣṭa more or less says that it is a delusion. And this is so because, as the first passage says, form is free of self-existent form.

Now, as we know, liberation (temporary or permanent) is signless (animitta). And this description of the bodhisatva's practice reads very like descriptions of the experience of vimokṣa described in the Pāli suññata suttas (MN 121,122). I just want to flag up this connection and will explore it in another essay.

In a later chapter the Aṣṭa expands on the emptiness of dharmas in a familiar way:
Here Subhūti, the bodhisatvas mahāsatvas, being fully enlightened Buddhas, teach the dharma that form has the [same] condition of space in the world. So also sensation, apperception, and volition. In the same way, Subhūti, all dharmas have the condition of space, not coming, not going, just like space. Just as space does not come or go; it is not made or unmade or shaped, it does not last, remain, or endure, it does not arise or cease, so also all dharmas do not come or go; they are is not made or unmade or shaped, they do not last, remain, or endure, they do not arise or cease. Why is that? Subhuti, the emptiness of form does not come or go. So also with sensations, apperception, and volition. The emptiness of cognitions does not come or go. In the same way, Subhūti, the emptiness of all dharmas does not come or go. The reason is that all dharmas are in a state of emptiness. They cannot escape that state. (Aṣṭa 15.2 Vaidya 148)
The important point here seems to be that the bodhisatva must not identify with the world of experience. And this is where we might think of the bodhisatva as in the state of śūnyatāvimokṣa in which the world of experience has effectively ceased. In the terminology of the Spiral Path they become fed up (nibbidā) with sense experience and lose their fascination with it (virāga) and are thus liberated from saṃsāra (vimukti), which in turn produces the knowledge that they are liberated (vimuktijñāṇa). It is the last that is communicated to disciples in order to cause the arising of faith in the Tathāgata. Note that Aṣṭa says "all dharmas are in a state of emptiness" (śūnyatāgatikā sarvadharmāḥ) which echoes the Heart Sutra's phrase "all dharmas are characterised by emptiness" (sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanāḥ).

So far this is all pretty standard Prajñāpāramitā, even if the emphasis is somewhat different from the usual Heart Sutra commentary. The Aṣṭa has interesting things to say about the Heart Sutra, particularly that practising with respect to "form is empty" is still not what the bodhisatva does. This is still a concept and the bodhisatva, perhaps in the meditative state known as śūnyatā-vimokṣa, does not pay attention to any such concepts. To emphasise this phrase is not necessarily the same as being wise. 

Next week, however, we will be going off piste. It turns out that the phrase that everyone knows and loves was significantly altered when it moved from Aṣṭa to Pañcaviṃśati. The version of the phrase in Aṣṭa opens up a whole new vista for thinking about the Heart Sutra and what it might mean.

~~Continued in Part III - 31 July 2015~~


Chinese Texts from the CBETA version of the Taishō. http://www.cbeta.org
Sanskrit texts from Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages (Gretil) http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ 
  • Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā from Harrison & Watanabe, as simplified on Bibliotecha Polyglota.
  • Prajñāpāramitā-ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā from Yuyama, Akira. (1976) 

Attwood, Jayarava (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 21: 503-535.
Attwood, Jayarava (2015). Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 8: 28-48.
Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167. [revised version of Conze (1948).]
Eckel, Malcolm David. (1987) Indian Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra: The Politics of Interpretation. The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 10(2): 69-79
Falk, Harry & Karashima, Seishi. (2012) A first‐century Prajñāpāramitā manuscript from Gandhāra - parivarta 1 (Texts from the Split Collection 1). ARIRIAB XV, 19-61. Online: https://www.academia.edu/3561115/prajnaparamita-5  
Hakeda, Yoshito (1972). The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra in Kūkai: Major Works. Columbia University Press.
Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.
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. February 2006, Vol.6, pp.121-205.
Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Wisdom. Jackson Square Books. 
KIMURA Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. http://fiindolo.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/psp_1u.htm [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.
Lusthaus, Dan. (2003) The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi. International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. September, Vol. 3: 59-103. 
Huifeng [aka Orsborn, M. B.] (2008) A Survey Of Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra Translations In Chinese. Online: http://prajnacara.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/survey-of-prajnaparamita-sutra.html.
Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707  
Shih, Heng-Ching & Lusthaus, Dan. (2006) A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-hyrdaya-sutra). Numata Center for Buddhist Translation & Research.
Sperber, Dan. (2010) The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 1:583–592 DOI 10.1007/s13164-010-0025-0
Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala.  
Wayman, Alex. (1984) Buddhist Insight: Essays. Motilal Banarsidass. 
Yuyama, Akira. (1976) Prajñā-pāramitā-ratna-guṇa-saṃcaya-gāthā (Sanskrit Recension A). Cambridge University Press.  
Zacchetti, Stefano. (2005) In Praise of the Light: A Critical Synoptic Edition with an Annotated Translation of Chapters 1-3 of Dharmarakṣa's Guang zan jing, Being the Earliest Chinese Translation of the Larger Prajñāpāramitā, Tokyo. (Bibliotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica, 8). IRIAB. Sanskrit text also available from Gretil.

Although I don't cite it directly, the material on śūnyatāvimokṣa is inspired by an essay privately circulated by my colleague Satyadhāna. It popped up rather late in the process of constructing this essay (which is already about 12,000 words long over three parts). I'm hoping it might be made more widely available, because it seems to me to provide further keys for understanding the early Perfection of Wisdom. I plan to survey the relevant Pāḷi texts and their Chinese counterparts as soon as is practical. My sense is that there is considerable continuity between them and Aṣṭa.


Sanskrit Aṣṭasāhasrikā Passages
Numbers in square brackets are pages in Vaidya's Edition. 
1.12 [6] evamukte āyuṣmān subhūtir āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – etam etad āyuṣman śāriputra evam etat | rūpam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ rūpasvabhāvena | evaṃ vedanaiva saṃjñaiva saṃskārā eva | vijñānam evāyuṣman śāriputra virahitaṃ vijñānasvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitaiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā prajñāpāramitāsvabhāvena | sarvajñataiva āyuṣman śāriputra virahitā sarvajñatāsvabhāvena | prajñāpāramitālakṣaṇenāpi prajñāpāramitā virahitā | lakṣaṇa-svabhāvenāpi lakṣaṇaṃ virahitam | lakṣya-svabhāvenāpi lakṣyaṃ virahitam | svabhāva-lakṣaṇenāpi svabhāvo virahitaḥ ||

1.14. punaraparamāyuṣmān subhūtir bodhisattvaṃ mahāsattvam ārabhyaivam āha – saced rūpe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpanimitte carati, nimitte carati | saced ‘rūpaṃ nimittam’ iti carati, nimitte carati | sa ced rūpasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced rūpaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati | evaṃ saced vidanāyāṃ saṃjñāyāṃ saṃskāreṣu | saced vijñāne carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānanimitte carati, nimitte carati sacedvijñānaṃ nimittamiti carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasyotpāde carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya nirodhe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānasya vināśe carati, nimitte carati | saced vijñānaṃ śūnyamiti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ carāmīti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti carati, nimitte carati | ahaṃ bodhisattva iti hy upalambha eva sa carati| sacet punarasyaivaṃ bhavati - ya evaṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāyāṃ carati, sa prajñāpāramitāṃ bhāvayatīti, nimitta eva sa carati | ayaṃ bodhisattvo 'nupāyakuśalo veditavyaḥ ||

1.22 atha khalvāyuṣmān subhūtir bhagavantam etada vocat - yo bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchet - kimayaṃ māyāpuruṣāḥ sarvajñatāyāṃ śikṣiṣyate, sarvajñatāyā āsannībhaviṣyati, sarvajñatāyāṃ niryāsyatīti? tasya bhagavan evaṃ paripṛcchataḥ kathaṃ nirdeṣṭavyaṃ syāt? evamukte bhagavānāyuṣmantaṃ subhūtimetadavocat - tena hi subhūte tvāmevātra pratiprakṣyāmi / yathā te kṣamate, tathā vyākuryāḥ / sādhu bhagavannityāyuṣmān subhūtirbhagavataḥ pratyaśrauṣīt / bhagavānetadavocat - tatkiṃ manyase subhūte anyā sā māyā, anyattadrūpam, anyā sā māyā, anyā sā vedanā / anyā sā saṃjñā, anye te saṃskārāḥ / anyā sā māyā, anyattadvijñānam? subhūtirāha - na hyetadbhagavan / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadrūpam / rūpameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva rūpam / na hi bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyā sā vedanā, anyā sā saṃjñā anye te saṃskārāḥ / vedanā saṃjñā [9] saṃskārā eva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vedanāsaṃjñāsaṃskārāḥ / na bhagavan anyā sā māyā anyattadvijñānam / vijñānameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva vijñānam //

15.2 iha subhūte bodhisattvā mahāsattvā anuttarāṃ samyaksaṃbodhimabhisaṃbuddhāḥ santo lokasya ākāśagatikaṃ rupamiti dharmaṃ deśayanti / evaṃ vedanā saṃjñā saṃskārāḥ / evameva subhūte sarvadharmā ākāśagatikā anāgatikā agatikā ākāśasamāḥ / yathā ākāśam anāgatam agatam akṛtam avikṛtam anabhisaṃskṛtam, asthitam asaṃsthitam avyavasthitam , anutpannam aniruddham, evameva subhūte sarvadharmā anāgatā āgatā ākṛtā avikṛtā anabhisaṃskṛtā asthitā asaṃsthitā avyavasthitā anutpannā aniruddhā ākāśakalpatvādavikalpāḥ / tatkasya hetoḥ? yā subhūte rūpasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evaṃ vedanāyāḥ saṃjñāyāḥ saṃskārāṇām / yā subhūte vijñānasya śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / evameva subhūte yā sarvadharmāṇāṃ śūnyatā, na sā āgacchati vā gacchati vā / tatkasya hetoḥ? śūnyatāgatikā hi subhūte sarvadharmāḥ / te tāṃ gatiṃ na vyativartante /[148]

~~Continued in Part III - 31 July 2015~~

17 July 2015

Form is Emptiness. Part I: Establishing the Text

I was trying to have a discussion with someone about the Heart Sutra and it became apparent that as far as they were concerned the Sutra consisted only of the phrase "form is emptiness". I realised that I've avoided saying much about this part of the text. It's the part that most people are focussed on, though to me there are other more interesting facets of the content of the text, not least of which is its fascinating history. It seemed that the time had come for me to overcome my reluctance and to tackle this enigmatic passage and see what I can make of it.

This is as much a methodological problem as it is an exegetic challenge. I feel no obligation to take the tradition on its own terms, therefore I don't feel bound to do what most Buddhist commentators do, which is to reproduce what has been said before whether it makes sense or not. In fact in the case of the Heart Sutra this typically Buddhist procedure is particularly unsatisfactory, partly because the text itself is problematic in ways that previous Buddhist commentators have almost without exception failed to notice, and partly because what has been traditionally said is more related to sectarian views than to the text itself, and finally because what is said very often does not make sense. I want to try to avoid the "Guru Effect", the assumption that because we fail to understand what an intellectual says, that it must be profound (Sperber 2010). It seems clear to me that Buddhism suffers from this to a high degree, especially when it comes to Prajñāpāramitā texts. A great deal of obscurantist nonsense has been written about the Heart Sutra.

Despite the fact that the passage in question is short, just 16 characters in Chinese, the methods I adopt in working with this text require many steps and the method itself is (I hope) of as much interest as the outcome. Weakness in method plagues commentaries on the Heart Sutra. For example commentators were prevented from seeing the simple grammatical error outlined in my JOCBS article Heart Murmurs (2015). They failed to parse the sentence properly. As popular as this text it, it seems to suffer from neglect born of complacency. If one person overlooks a grammatical error one time, that is one thing. When every highly trained scholar and passionate Buddhist overlooked it for a period of 60 years during which time the text received daily attention, then we have reason to distrust the whole enterprise.

My approach means that the essay is long by necessity. Part I deals with the text and its variations. Part II considers the traditional commentaries and begins to explore the Aṣṭasāhasrikā as a commentary on the Heart Sutra. Part III presents a radical new approach to understanding the text by showing that the relevant quote was changed in the Larger Prajñāpāramitā text. Eventually this material will be incorporated into my book on the Heart Sutra.

At the outset I assume that the Heart Sutra is a Prajñāpāramitā text, not a Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, or Tathāgatagarbha, or Tantric text. Those other points of view are, at best, secondary to the task of understanding the Heart Sutra. This passage, like much of the text is a quotation from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra. So, although it spoke to the 7th century Chinese monk who copied some lines from the Pañcaviṃśati and framed thereby creating the Heart Sutra, and although these words have appealed to the various sectarian audiences over time (including the present), the words of the Heart Sutra ought first and foremost to be understood as an expression of Prajñāpāramitā thought from the early first millennium CE in North-West India. An approach that to my knowledge has never been tried.

I also assume that the Buddhists who wrote the early Prajñāpāramitā texts were still working within the domain of experience and were opposed to ontological speculation. Thus I see a continuity between these "Mahāyāna" texts and early Buddhist texts like the Kaccanagotta Sutta and the Sabba Sutta, which emphasise that the domain of application of Buddhist ideas is human experience. I find that this assumption is productive of more interesting and coherent readings of these apparently enigmatic texts.

The first step is to establish the text. This is particularly difficult with the Heart Sutra because the various Sanskrit editions contain errors, the manuscript/epigraphical tradition is rife with errors, the extant Chinese versions are different from each other and from the Sanskrit. Establishing the text in this case also involves comparison with relevant passages in the extant texts Pañcaviṃśati (in our case through both editions and manuscripts). A further difficulty is that all of these texts continued to grow in India, so that each subsequent Chinese translation is longer than the previous ones. Deciding which of the many versions is authoritative is reduced to a more or less arbitrary decision.

Having decided which text we are commenting on, we can begin to try to understand it. In order to do this I will, in Part II, turn initially to the traditional commentaries from India, China and Japan. However these offer very little insight into the text because as already stated they are simply sectarian monologues treating the Heart Sutra as a tabula rasa for other ideas. And this is not the same as commenting on the text.

So instead of relying on traditional sectarian commentaries, I will make a methodological leap and employ the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra as a commentary. Aṣṭa is the source text of the Prajñāpāramitā tradition and thus what it says on the subject ought to be both authentic and authoritative (taking into account that Aṣṭa itself is something of a moveable feast that changes over time). This approach poses a challenge to the idea that the Heart Sutra conveys the essence of Prajñāpāramitā. I raise the possibility that the flip side of "form is emptiness" might simply be a hyper-correction by an over-zealous early editor. Finally I reflect on some implications of this study, and my hermeneutic approach generally, for practising Buddhists. As usual all translations are my own, unless otherwise specified.

I hope a fresh approach to reading this all too familiar text will produce a new appreciation for the Heart Sutra and reinvigorate interest in the kind of practice it represents.

Establishing the text.

Our first task will be to look at the text and try to settle on a version to comment on. Another starting assumption is that the text was composed in Chinese based on selections from Kumārajīva's Large Perfection of Wisdom text 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》= Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T223; translated ca. 404 CE), which is a translation of the Pañcaviṃśati. The section beginning "form is emptiness" is definitely drawn from that text. We'll first locate this passage in the Sanskrit manuscript tradition. I no longer trust Conze's edition, though I use his notation for identifying the manuscripts, see his 1967 version of the edition for a key. So from the manuscripts I have personally transcribed, or that are published as individual transcriptions, we see the following variations:
  • Nb rūpaṃ śunyaṃ śunyataiva rūpaṃ na rūpān pṛthak śunyatā na śunyatā pṛthak rūpaṃ ||
  • Ne rupaṃ śuyaṃ śunyataiva rupaṃ . rupān. pṛthak . śunyatāyāṃ . pṛthak śunyatāyāṃ . pṛthak . śunyaṃ ||
  • Nh rupa śuṇyā śunyataiva rupaṃ rupā {pṛ}tha{k} nā śunyatāyāṃ pṛthak sunye
  • Nk rūpaṃ śunyaṃ śunyataiva rūpaṃ | na rūpāt pṛthak śunyatā | śunyatāyā na pṛtha(k) rūpaṃ
  • Ja iha śāriputra rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatāyā śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ
  • Jb rūpa śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam | rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam | yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā yā śūnyatā tad rūpam |
  • Cc iha sāriputra rūpaṃ śūnyatā [śu]nyataiva [na pṛ]tha[k] rūpa [śū]nya[tāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ]
  • Ce rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ || na rūpaṃ pṛthak śunyatāyāḥ nāpi śūnyatā pṛthagrūpāt ||
  • Cg iti hi rūpaṃ śunyatā śūnyateva rūpaṃ rūpaṃ te pṛk śunyatā śūnyatāyā pṛthaka rūpaṃ yat rūpaṃnta śunyatā śunyateva sa rūpaṃ
From this we might suppose that the first Sanskrit translation of the Heart Sutra probably read:
iha śāriputra rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam
Although many mss., including Ja which is the oldest extant ms., add yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatāyā śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ, we have reason to believe, from comparison with the Chinese canonical texts and Pañcaviṃśati that this phrase was added sometime later (see also Nattier 1992: 201, n.5a; 204 n.19). Conze decided to include the phrase in his critical edition, but does not discuss the reasons.

Only a minority of manuscripts address this passage to Śāriputra, which leaves us in some doubt about whether to include iha śāriputra at this point. The Chinese texts both include an equivalent phrase and each Pañcaviṃśati witness has some form of address to Śāriputra. So it was probably meant to be there, but the form of the address varies significantly.

The Chinese texts

There are three versions of the short text Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka, of which we will focus on two since the third (T256) is relatively late:
  • T250 摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經 = *Mahāprajñāpārami[tā]-mahāvidyā-sūtra.
  • T251 般若波羅蜜多心經 = Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra
Note that T250, ostensibly from two centuries earlier, doesn't call this text the Heart Sutra (心經) at all, but opts for Mahāvidyā Sūtra (大明呪經). There is quite a bit that could be said about this, it's arguably a much better title for the text, but this will have to wait for another essay. Please also see Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions. The relevant passages read:
T250: 舍利弗!非色異空,非空異色。色即是空,空即是色 (8.847c13-14)
T251: 舍利子: 色不異空,空不異色;色即是空,空即是色。(8.848c08-9)
I won't translate for now, but even with understanding we can see that they use much the same characters with minor variations ( and 不 are both negating characters with slight different functions; 是 = 'is', verb 'to be'; 色= rūpa空 = śūnyatā). We understand that these are quotations from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśati, T223, and a direct comparison shows that T251 is almost identical with T223, except for how the name Śāriputra is written.
T223 舍利弗!色不異空、空不異色,色即是空、空即是色,(8.223a13-4)
However, Huifeng (2008) points out that the Taishō edition footnotes record that in the earlier Sòng, Yuán, Míng and Gōng editions of the Tripiṭaka, T223 reads 非色異空,非空異色 for 色不異空、空不異色. (See also Variations in the Heart Sutra in Chinese). So in fact we can read T250 and T223 as being identical at this point, making T251 the odd one out.

Nattier's thesis additionally floats the possibility that T250 might have been edited to conform to T1509 《大智度論》Dàzhìdùlùn (*Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa?), a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati incorporating the text and attributed to Nāgārjuna, also translated by Kumārajīva in the early 5th century. Or that the text was originally taken directly from T1509 and T251 has been edited to conform to Xuánzàng's style in T220-ii 《大般若波羅蜜多經》(Vol. 7, Fasc. 401-478).
T 1509 非色異空,非空異色,色即是空,空即是色;(25.327c22-23)
T220-ii 舍利子!色不異空,空不異色,色即是空,空即是色 (7.14a11-12)
Given that Kumārajīva worked roughly two centuries before Xuánzàng we might assume that T223/T1509/T250 show the original wording. So we will assume that T251 took its final form relatively late, probably as a result of editing by Xuánzàng's students and take the Chinese text to follow T250:
This runs counter to the usual procedure of those who comment on the Heart Sutra, which almost always privileges the version attributed to Xuánzàng, i.e. T251. In my view, neither T250 nor T251 can be the ur-text or the source text for the Sanskrit translation. There are just too many discrepancies between Chinese and Sanskrit. Thus some work is required to establish an ur-text in Chinese through a detailed comparison of T250, T251, T223, T1509, and the Sanskrit text, along with comparisons with other translations by Kumārajīva to locate all the parallels.

Now we turn our attention to the next important reference point, the Sanskrit precursors.

Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

There are two modern editions of the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati, Dutt (1934) and Kimura (2010), though the latter is apparently a revision of the former based on the same Sanskrit manuscript. The Gilgit manuscript has been published in facsimile, but not yet edited or transliterated except in part by Stefano Zacchetti (fols. 1-27) and Yoke Meei Choong (fols. 202-205). A small extract with just the Heart Sutra material is also found in Nattier (1992: 161-3) and Tanahashi (2014: 205-6) and all three are slightly different! Tanahashi cites the initial transcription by Greg Schopen revised by Paul Harrison for the book, but gives no publication details. Nattier (204, n.15) credits her transcription to Schopen (unpublished), so presumably this is also the source for Tanahashi. Nattier's text is an uncorrected transcription with notes (1992: 204-5, n.s 15-26) recording record some scribal errors and variants; Zacchetti's edition has corrected scribal errors and the online version does not include any notes; whereas Tanahashi has included scribal errors with comments linearly in curly brackets in his text, and eschews any notes. The Gilgit ms. is dated to the 6th century and seems to be very like Kumārajīva's T223 and must correspond closely to the Sanskrit text he translated. Thus we would have a strong preference for using the Gilgit ms. over the later versions in this study. Fortunately the passage concerned is in the Zacchetti extract.
tathā hi śāriputra nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā, nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ, rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam, (Kimura 2010: 1-1, 64)
na hi śāradvatīputrānyad rūpam anyā śunyatā nānyā śunyatānyad rūpam rūpam eva śunyatā śunyataiva rūpam (Zacchetti 2005: 21v)
There are minor differences here. The most obvious being that Śāriputra is addressed as Śāradvatīputra. This seems to be based on a tradition that his mother was called Śāradvatī. In the Pāḷi tradition Sāriputta's mother's name is Rūpasārī. Other variations on his name in Sanskrit texts include Sāriputra, Sāliputra, Sārisuta, Sāradvatīputra, Sārisambhava. The confusion of r/l is a dialectical variation. other variations could be artefacts of the translation of oral texts from Prakrit to Sanskrit. See also Nattier 1992: 204, n.16). Most of the other differences, especially at the beginning are the result of sandhi: na anyā > nānyāśāradvatīputra anyad > śāradvatīputrānyad.  

However, the two versions are similar enough to establish the text addressed to Śāriputra:
na hi śariputra anyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ rūpam eva śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpam.
Although the name Śāriputra is invoked at this point, it does not help to clarify in what way. Neither version uses the iha 'here' idiom, but both use the particle hi 'for' to make it clear that what follows relates to what has just been said. So if the particles were not missing entirely in Chinese we could say that iha was a back translation for hi. Since the way Śāriputra's name is invoked is at best secondary to the problem of understanding the passage we'll leave it off for the purposes of comparison.

The Text

Now we can see the passage in it's journey from India to China and back, and note that this was one of the examples used by Nattier in establishing her Chinese Origins hypothesis (1992: 164). Our passage is a series of four statements

Pañcaviṃśati →T223/T250 →Hṛdaya
nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā
nānyā śūnyatā anyad rūpaṃ
rūpam eva śūnyatā
śūnyataiva rūpam
rūpaṃ śūnyatā
śūnyataiva rūpaṃ
rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā
śūnyatāyā na pṛthag rūpam

Form is not one thing and emptiness another (anyad).
Emptiness is not one thing, and form another.
Form is just emptiness.
Emptiness is just form.

It is not the case that form is different from emptiness.
It is not the case that emptiness is different from form.
Form just is emptiness.
Emptiness just is form.

Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is just form.
Form is not different from (pṛthak) emptiness.
Emptiness is not different from form.

We might also have looked at the short texts in Tibetan discovered at Dunhuang, but my ability to analyse Tibetan is very limited. Nattier mentions a preliminary study that has not been completed, though see notes in Attwood (2015: 39-40). It seems likely that the Dunhuang Tibetan short text is a translation from the Chinese.

As per Nattier's (1992) comparison we can see that the Heart Sutra is a paraphrase of Pañcaviṃśati:

na anya X anya Y = X na pṛthak Y

The Chinese texts by contrast are all more or less identical with T250. Note also that semantically there is no distinction in Sanskrit between saying nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā and saying rūpam eva śūnyatā. On one hand we are saying that form and emptiness are not different, and on the other we are saying that they are the same. It amounts to the same thing. Rather than adding anything new, we can see the second statement as emphasising the statement, with redundancy typical of Buddhist texts. Although Buddhist exegetes often see this kind of repetitious reinforcement as an opportunity to add more comments, this is unnecessary.

The simplest way to account for the texts as we find them is Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis: a text reading nānyad rūpam anyā śūnyatā, was transmitted to China where it was translated (T223) as 非色異空 and then this Chinese phrase was quoted in the Chinese Heart Sutra. When the Heart Sutra was translated back into Sanskrit it became rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatāIn other essays on the Heart Sutra I have observed that other features of the text suggest that the person who translated the text from Chinese into Sanskrit was a native Chinese speaker and unfamiliar with the Sanskrit conventions of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, and thus chose unconventional Sanskrit phrasing in several places.

Another difference is the inversion of the two halves of the passage in Sanskrit Hṛdaya, despite the agreement of Pañcaviṃśati and the Chinese Hṛdaya (both versions). Since the Chinese Heart Sutra has these the right way around, the change seems to have occurred in the translation back into Sanskrit. But there's no way to tell why.

Some Sanskrit manuscripts and all of the Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan (Lopez 1996: 5, n.2) have rūpaṃ śūnyaṃ rather than rūpaṃ śūnyatā, which may be a scribal error or related to the fact śūnya and śūnyatā are both indicated by 空 in Chinese. Comparison with the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati shows that śūnyatā was intended.


This is the kind of process that one must carry out to work seriously with the Heart Sutra, a process one does not find in modern translations and commentaries. A initial grasp of the history of the text allows us to locate the relevant information and to see that our text undergoes a series of changes over time. Indeed how we see the text depends on what our reference point in time is.

All previous commentators, except for Jan Nattier, have simply taken the textual tradition on face value. The Sanskrit version is the one reconstructed by Conze, the official Chinese one is T251 (attributed to Xuánzàng), and the Pañcaviṃśatisāharikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra is largely ignored, even when it is cited. A partial exception is the recent guide to the Heart Sutra by Kazuaki Tanahashi (2014). This is by far the best of the modern, Zen inspired, commentaries, but is still weak on Sanskrit semantics, grammar and morphology. Tanahashi does at least give lip service to the role of the earlier Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā tradition, but he does not allow it to have any authority in understanding the text, whereas I argue that one cannot study the text without giving due attention to the Pañcaviṃśati in both Sanskrit and Chinese. Tanahashi also overloads his book with irrelevant versions in multiple languages drowning out important information with trivia. He is resistant to some of Nattier's revisions of the attribution and dating of the Chinese versions, insisting that T250 is the ur-text, "the α version", when plainly it cannot be. At least it is not the version from which the Sanskrit text was translated.

The history of this text makes establishing the text to be commented a complex task. When we take everything into account it introduces a note of ambiguity into the proceedings, and not the kind that Buddhists like. What it does is undermine the idea that any one text is the authentic Heart Sutra. It's likely that from now on we'll always have to work with multiple versions: a reconstructed first Sanskrit translation, now partially obscured by the copying tradition, which introduces a number of changes and errors at different times and places; a first Chinese version, now lost and as yet unreconstructed (largely because of resistance to Nattier's thesis); a series of precursor texts in Chinese (particularly T223/T1509, T387, and T410) that are translations of Sanskrit texts, most of which have extant versions; and in the case of the 25,000 line Prajñāpāramitā, the 8,000 line text that predates and underlies it. On top of this is the fact that all the Prajñāpāramitā texts continued to evolve over time, independently and as different rates. So how we understand the Heart Sutra depends in large part on our reference point. All existing commentaries also take an external reference point, usually in the form of a sectarian ideology.

Buddhists often tell me that they feel they can approach the essential meaning of a text by reading multiple translations. Except that in this case, all of the translators are repeating the same mistakes and none of them is showing enough of their working for a naive reader to see what those mistakes are. For example as far as the popular translations and commentaries of the Sanskrit text are concerned it's clear that none is a reliable guide to the text, and none is sufficiently well versed in the early Prajñāpāramitā to put the text into its context. The Chinese text is better understood, since many of the commentators are at least competent in modern Chinese, but it gets slotted into the context that suits the ideology of the translator. The implications of Nattier's landmark 1992 article have yet to be fully appreciated. The article is long and complex, with a great deal of information tucked away in the many and voluminous footnotes.

Having established the text that we aim to study, in Part II we will briefly turn to the traditional commentaries, before attempting another approach, using the Aṣṭasāhasrikā as a commentary.

~~Continues with Form is Emptiness. Part II: Commentary 24 July 2015.~~

For Bibliography and Sanskrit texts see Part II
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