13 September 2013

Who Translated the Heart Sutra into Sanskrit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Conze, Edward (1948) ‘Text, Sources, and Bibliography of the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 80(1-2): 33-51.

Conze, Edward. (1967) ‘The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra’ in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, Bruno Cassirer, pp. 147-167.

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

Kimura Takayasu (2010). Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Vol. I-1, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin 2007. Online: 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.

Nattier, Jan. (1992) The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

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

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