23 November 2012

Heart Sutra Syntax

Dr. Edward Conze
UPDATED. This is one of those issues where I just have to write down my thoughts and there's not enough to warrant a published article.

I'm studying the Heart Sutra to practice my Sanskrit, and for the joy of chanting it aloud.  And I've found an interesting puzzle. Like many people I'm familiar with Conze's critical edition in Buddhist Wisdom Books (2nd Ed. 1975); checked against the version in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (1967) which contains the variant readings he found, and against Vaidya's edition (which is also online). The part that concerns me is right at the start:
ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitā-caryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhās tāṃś ca svābhavaśūnyān paśyati sma.
I think this sentence has been parsed incorrectly by Conze. There are three syntactical problems with this rendition.

Firstly the verb vyavalokayati (vi + ava + √lok; conjugated as a 10th class verb) has no object. If we break the sentence when Conze says, then it suggests that the verb vyavalokayati is intransitive. Avalokiteśvara is just looking, not looking at anything. This is a little bizarre, but worse when we consider the rest of the sentence.

The second problem is the place of ca. This is an enclitic particle that follows the word it applies to. Here it joins two sentences. This suggests that the second sentence must begin with tāṃś - an accusative plural 'they' (with a sandhi change from tān to tāṃś to accommodate the following ca). This means that pañcaskandhās must belong to the first sentence, but as it is in the nominative singular case it doesn't fit. In this case tāṃś is referring back to the object of the previous sentence - except that it does not have one.

Thirdly tāṃś (pronoun) and svabhāvaśūnyān (adjective) are both accusative plural forms. With what are they agreeing if not the five skandhas?
Let me just describe what is happening in this sentence for the non-Sanskrit reader. The first sentence has two clauses: The subject of the sentence is the Noble Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (ārya-avalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo). He is practising (caramāṇo) the deep (gambhīrāṃ) practice of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ). Here caramāno is a secondary verb in the form of a present participle which describes an action taking place at the same time as the main verb. The two words gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ are in the (feminine) accusative singular - gambhira being an adjective which must match it's noun.  As such prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ is the object of the secondary verb, caramāṇo.

While practising Avalokiteśvara did the action of the verb vyavalokayati sma. The particle sma is called a "periphrastic past". To make a present-tense verb past, one has the option of just adding sma after it, as paśyati 'he sees' does in the next phrase. Conze's rendition of this as "looked down from on high" is fanciful and seems to be based on over analysing the word avalokita. Edgerton's Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary is more sober and suggests 'inspecting, examining' which makes more sense. Conze got carried away here in reading vyavalokayati as an intransitive verb and it left him a problem in the form of pañcaskandhās which has no clear syntactic relationship with the other words in either sentence, but is important in the text.

Now we know that extant manuscripts have a lot of variation - hence the need for critical editions. Conze (1967) notes here show that there is a majority with his reading, but some variations amongst the 12 Nepalese manuscripts. Regarding this passage (N stands for Nepalese manuscript).
Ne - omitted;
Nb,c pañca-skandhān svabhāva-śūnyāṇ vyavalokitavyam
Nk (begins) vyavalokitavyam
Nd,l - omitted.
Vaidya has:
... व्यवलोकयति स्म। पञ्च स्कन्धाः, तांश्च स्वभावशून्यान् पश्यति स्म॥
... vyavalokyati sma | pañca skandhāḥ, tāṃśca svabhāvaśūnyān paśyati sma
Vaidya has the same problem: what to do with pañcaskandhāḥ in the nominative plural? Now Conze renders this part of the passage "He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and saw that in their own-being they were empty".
I think this is a blunder on Conze's part, because the sentence simply can't say this. Pañcaskandhās is unambiguously a nominative plural, and thus the subject of the sentence. In the sentence pañca skandhāḥ, tāṃśca svabhāvaśūnytān paśyati sma it is clearly the pañca-skandhāḥ that did the seeing. Hence the superimposed comma (which Sanskrit entirely lacks) because otherwise it is nonsense.

Conze's reading is also problematic because it suggests that the skandhas have self-existence (svabhāva) which is empty; and as I understand this text (and Nāgārjuna) a central plank of Prajñāpāramitā thinking is that dharmas and skandhas all lack svabhāva. Self-existence is not possible according to Nāgārjuna. Surely the text must be saying that the skandhas are empty of svabhāva, rather than that their svabhāva was empty?
There is a simple solution to this dilemma which is suggested by Conze's Nepalese manuscripts b & c. Which is that pañcaskandhās is in fact an accusative plural: pañcaskandhān. However -ān followed by t undergoes compulsory sandhi change to -āṃs. Thus we expect to see pañcaskandhāṃs tāṃś ca. The difference is more subtle in Indic scripts which indicate the anusvāra with a dot:

पञ्चस्कनधांस्  vs  पञ्चस्कन्धास् 
pañcaskandhāṃs vs pañcaskandhās   

We know that Nepalese manuscripts are often sloppy with anusvāra. It solves both the problem of the lack of object for vyavalokayati and the placing of ca. In favour of this theory is that in Vaidya's edition of the long Heart Sutra we find just this, i.e. pañca skandhāṃstāṃśca.

The amended passage now reads:
āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitācaryāṃ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma pancaskandhāṃs, tāṃś ca svābhavaśūnyān paśyati sma.
Noble Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva, practising the deep practice of the perfection of wisdom, examined the five skandhas and saw them empty of self-existence.
This simple change also avoids the awkwardness of Conze's translation, and makes more doctrinal sense.

It's important to be aware that the original Sanskrit manuscripts did not have punctuation and the hand writing was often very poor, especially on later Nepalese manuscripts. Conze himself complains of this. A manuscript might have looked a bit like this:
Facsimile of the so-called "Horiuzi Palm-leaf MSS." of Hōryū-jimonastery.

There's little or no punctuation in this style of writing, and no word breaks as each syllable is written as a standalone. For the record pañcaskandhāstāṃśca would look like this in Devanāgarī

पं च स्क न्धा स्तां श्च

paṃ ca ska ndhā stāṃ śca
In this manuscript it would not be hard to confuse stāṃ and ntāṃ, it's only a matter of a single misplaced stroke, or a smudge. In the image below I've taken the syllable from the manuscript above: stā is on the left and is altered to read ntā on the right (this ms. leaves off the anusvāra or ):

However the loss of anusvāra is the simplest answer to the conundrum. I'll see if I have time to check the Chinese at some future date. This section of the text was almost certainly composed in China, and there is no parallel in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer. p. 147-167. (Originally published in: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1948, pp. 33-51.)

Conze, Edward. (1975) Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. 2nd Ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.

'Facsimile of the Horiuzi Palm-leaf MSS. of Hōryū-ji Monastery' in Buddhist Texts from Japan. (Anecdota Oxoniensia, Aryan series), 1881. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Falongsibeiye.png
Vaidya, P.L. (1961) Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṁgrahaḥ ( part 1). Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 17. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute. Online: http://dsbc.uwest.edu/ [This volume contains editions of both long and short versions of the sutra].

Chinese Texts
照見五蘊皆空T 8.251 ST XuanzangHe observed that the fives skandhas are all empty.
照見五隠空T 8.250 ST KumarajīvaHe observed that the five skandhas are empty.
照見五蘊皆空T 8.253 ST
He observed that the fives skandhas are all empty.
照見五蘊自性皆空。彼了知五蘊自性皆空:T 8.252 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence. He knew the five skandhas were empty of self-existence.
照見五蘊自性皆空T 8.254 & 257 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence.
觀察照見五蘊體性悉皆是空T 8.255 LTHe observed that the five skandhas where empty of self-existence. (with synonyms)

LT = Long text; ST = Short text.


Adam Cope said...

Greetings Jayarava :-)

Many thanks for yr postings on The Heart Sutra. I have read this post several times over the past months and really appreciate your translation & commentary on the sanskrit of these first two lines, as these lines have confused me for some time now. I am certainly no expert but am interested in perception & the skandas, as you probably know.

That the skandas are conjugated with ( svabhāvaśūnyān ) self-existence + emptiness ... was an important realization for me.

so two meanings, as you point out (correct me if I'm wrong) :

1, their svabhāva was empty ... like a glass has no water in it i.e. it is empty but exists independently of the water.

2, the skandhas are empty of svabhāva .... there is no glass at all and the glass only comes into being with the water ... i.e. our perceptions only arise upon contact with the object of perception & also having a body capable of perceiving i.e. no perception possible with a body & an object of perception.

A thought : was there ever a time when the glass existed without the water? our organs of perception without an object of perception? Having observed how eyesight unfolds in my children as babies, just because they have eyes doesn't mean that they are seeing something. Their eye-consciousness hasn't yet arisen & so they cannot see with their eyes. And that leads to : the more we use our eyes/eye consciousness/ object of eye-sight , the more the eye skanda is developed & comes into being.


If one is translating according to the second meaning, then I feel that it is better to drop the word 'empty' . In plain english, 'devoid' is better, IMO. Too many translations insist on a blanket use of the word empty throughout the sutra, when in fact, just looking at an english thesaurus shows us how better words there are than 'empty'.

Noble Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva, practising the deep practice of the perfection of wisdom, examined the five skandhas and ... found them devoid of self-existence.

or .... found them devoid of independent existence.

The word 'saw' is confusing too as it negates the other 5 senses. 'found' is better, I think.


Thanks again


ps. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the "There is ... no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment ..." verse please!

Adam Cope said...

"Meditation is not a search; it's not a seeking, a probing, an exploration. It is an explosion and discovery. It's not the taming of the brain to conform nor is it a self-introspective analysis; it is certainly not the training in concentration which includes, chooses and denies. It's something that comes naturally, when all positive and negative assertions and accomplishments have been understood and drop away easily. It is the total emptiness of the brain. It's the emptiness that is essential not what's in the emptiness; there is seeing only from emptiness ; all virtue, not social morality and respectability, springs from it. It's out of this emptiness love comes, otherwise it's not love. Foundation of righteousness is in this emptiness. It's the end and beginning of all things. "

- Krishnamurti, Notebook, part3 Gstaad
(my highlighting)

Jayarava said...

Which just goes to show that even a smart person can misunderstand what Nāgārjuna meant by svabhāva-śūnyatā.

Adam Cope said...

Dear Jayarava

Thank you for taking the time for us non-sanskrit readers. Sorry to drag you back to blogging with my comments. I post some thoughts below as they are too long for blogger comments. lol ;-)

I understand that in yr blog post you are specifically looking at the finer details of translation of one verse & not the entire meaning of the sutra & shunyata. I appreciate your analysis of grammar etc, even if I don't follow it all. Very helpful. I struggle to understand the Heart Sutra & commenting here helps externalize some of my thoughts... and some of my misunderstandings.

Maybe it's best that Heart Sutra is left an enigmatic poem that people have to struggle with? After all, that would be in keeping with Nagajuna's 'Two Truths' doctrine.

Kind Regards

PS. Bet that ( stāṃ / ntāṃ ) smudge was when the slippery ell Naga-King swam up through the watery depths with the sutra clutched around his slimey scales ;-)

Adam Cope said...

I do really really really wish I could come up with an image that makes ( svabhāvaśūnyān ) easier for me to understand! After all, the short form of the Heart Sutra is one of the most poetic of all sutras.

Regarding the two options that you point out:

1, (concerning the skandhas) : their svabhāva was empty ... like a glass which has no water in it i.e. it is empty but still exists independently of the water. The glass is still there even when there is no water in it. Also this view of shunyata is very close to nothing as in 'something vs. nothing.'

2, the skandhas are empty of svabhāva ....
.....A metaphor something like the glass is formed around the water at the same time as the water gathers together? (that would be a great cinematographic sequence!).
Maybe an image of water but without the glass? Maybe ... Just as water forms into a drop, then turns into a trickle, river, lake, ice, mist, steam, cloud, then back into a rain drop...so too our apparatus of perception take shape around what is perceived : the ear is shaped around the sound, the eye around the sight, the thinking consciousness around the thought, etc.? Can an eye exist without something to look at? I think not. What happens when you sleep, when your eyelids are shut, vision goes dark & the eye consciousness quietens down? Does eye return to its true self or it is empty & thus diminishes to a temporary state of non-self? I take dreams & visions to be kind of after images, like ripples on a pond after a stone has been thrown in & not proof that the eyesight exists independently of the eye ball. The fact that our visual perception is molded as much by our eye consciousness in our mind as by our eye, is proof enough of 'the skandhas are empty of svabhāva'. The skandhas aren't simply a glass waiting to be filled up.

Do you remember that pop video back in the early 1990's, of changing faces, one persons face morphing into the next? It was one of the first computer generated 'Special FX'... their faces devoid of static immutable identity as they wrapped one into the next in a state of constant becoming rather than fixed being. I deeply appreciate Bill Viola's imagery concerning Shunyata, especially the Nantes Diptypch.

Maybe EVOLUTION is a good image for ( svabhāvaśūnyān ) ? Evolution is such a big image. It is also challenging, not just because it challenges the notion of a Creator but that it also challenges the notion of an unchanging & immutable identity, a soul i.e. "This monkey was made from this template, this mold, this design and so this monkey typifies what a monkey is quintessentially like. This is the inner-core of a monkey and all monkeys will return to this ideal state upon perfection." Evolution however tells us that one thing changes into another thing, that nothing has a fixed & unchanging identity. And, just as an eye cannot exist without something to look at, so too a creature cannot exist without its environment, the forces of evolution that call it into being. Nothing can exist by itself alone; everything is interdependent.

I go regularly to the nearby Musee Nationale de Prehistoire & leave with the very strong that we come into being because of multiple conditions & absolutely not because of a fixed template. They have recently redrawn the traditional Twentieth Century linear chart of monkey transforming into man, as this suggests the unfolding as happening according to a pre-determined plan, in favour of one that takes into account all the dead-end tributaries & mutations. More of a tree diagram, which is far more mind boggling as it conveys the notion that living creatures (with all their skandhas) don't necessarily come into being with predetermined facultities such as eye sight which are simply waiting to be turned on. Their function determines their form i.e. mutation is possible (but doesn't always work in terms of evolutionary survival).

Jayarava said...

Hi Adam

I'm always happy to here from you. The thing is that a post like this one ought to raise questions. I hope none of my readers still thinks translations are 100% reliable. But this post raises the question of the reliability of source texts in Indian languages. They've all be edited many times in Sanskrit or Pāli, and then in modern times a critical edition has been created which takes on the status of "definitive" edition. This text is so hugely popular amongst practitioners and scholars and yet no one spots a simple mistake like the one I found. That ought to make us think - it has certainly made me think!

Another interesting thing about the Heart Sutra is that it was composed out of bits of earlier texts that were concern to critique a particular kind of ontological thinking (associated with the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma tradition). And that kind of ontological thinking is once again popular. Lots of Buddhists I know don't understand what a dharma (in the sense of sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatālakṣanā) is.

Jayarava said...

Hi Adam

There is nothing very poetic about the Heart Sutra. Not really. It's prose and lumpy prose at that. It's a mainly conceptual text, making a conceptual point. Let us not get caught in Romanticising what we do not understand! Mantras aside of course.

We need to be clear that "their svabhāva is empty" is a mistake. Conze doesn't make this mistake in the translation of the 8000 line text, and no one else of note makes this mistake. So let's put it to one side.

What does it mean for a dharma or a skandha to be svabhāva-śūnyan? Well what is a dharma? A dharma is a mental phenomena - an example of the bits that make up experience. In fact our every day world is made up of dharmas that we weave into a story.

The problem the text is addressing is that of assigning svabhāva to dharmas. Now svabhāva 'self-existence' is a technical term. It means that a dharma has itself as a condition, it exists in its own right. But compare this to the Kaccānagotta Sutta which reminds us that our experience of the world is constantly changing. With respect to experience we see it constantly arising and passing away. Nāgārjuna made an important contribution here.

1. If a dharma with svabhāva (itself as a condition for it's own arising) is currently non-existent, then that dharma can never come into existence.

2. If a dharma with svabhāva is currently existent, then it could never cease to exist.

3. When we examine dharmas (units of our experience of ourselves and the world) then we only see arising and ceasing. There is nothing constant in our experience. This is true even when the object does not change - hence sitting in front of a white wall is an interesting practice!

4. Thus dharmas cannot by definition have self-existence or be self-existent. Dharmas are thus empty of svabhāva or svabhāvaśūnyatā.

Experience itself is like a ball of foam. We definitely have experiences, but they don't seem to exist in the way that the things we experience do. The foam defines a shape but offers no resistance. The foam can be seen, but close up is transparent. The foam shape exists briefly and then melts away. This the ball of foam appears to be both real and unreal
at the same time and if you take this literally you end up with the two truths doctrine. If you don't get caught up in real/unreal then you don't need two truths and experience is what it is, i.e. impermanent, disappointing, and insubstantial.

The experience as experience is very difficult to define - does it exist? Not really, even though we have experiences nothing substantial comes into existence when we have an experience. And when an experience ceases, what is it that ceases? As the Buddha says to Kaccānagotta - the words existence and non-existence do not apply to experience. As the Heart Sutra says all dharmas are marked by non-arising (an-utpanna) and non-ceasing (a-niruddha).

So I think the traditional images work very well as long as one understands the context - what the simile of a ball of foam refers to. What the flash of lightening in the dark is illuminating. Etc.

अश्वमित्रः said...

[Which just goes to show that even a smart person can misunderstand what Nāgārjuna meant by svabhāva-śūnyatā.]

Maybe he was thinking for himself.

Jayarava said...


Thinking for himself certainly. But still he has misunderstood Nāgārjuna. So the value of his thinking for himself is nullified because he's giving out wrong information that years later is still being quoted as relevant.

It's problematic enough that there are so many sensible propositions about life's problems, but having to filter out the stupid ones makes it very difficult.

Again it's like jazz. Before you can improvise well, you must know the scales and chords so thoroughly that you don't even think about them. It's not until you have drilled yourself in the basics that you can be free to play the music in your head.

Some people want to think for themselves but they haven't put in the effort. That Krishnamurti quote shows someone who has not put in enough effort to understand Buddhism. He's improvising in the wrong key!

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