25 October 2013

Variations in the Heart Sutra in Chinese

Huifeng (慧峰)
It's well known that seven versions of the Heart Sutra are preserved in the Chinese Canon. Of these, two are versions of the short text:
  • T 8.250  摩訶般若波羅蜜大明咒經
    Móhēbōrěbōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng
    (= Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidyā-sūtra).
  • T 8.251 般若波羅蜜多心經
    Bōrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng
    (= Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra).
T 250 is attributed to the Kuchan bhikṣu Kumārajīva, though only by later catalogues, for the first time in 730 CE, which is four centuries after he died (Nattier 214, fn 71); and T 251 is attributed to Xuánzàng,  again only by later catalogues.

There is a third version of the short text, which is a complete transliteration of the Sanskrit using Chinese characters (T 8.256). It has traditionally been attributed to Xuánzàng,  though more recently it has been attributed to Amoghavajra. The remaining versions are all later translations of the long text of the Heart Sutra and don't concern us here.

Both of the two Chinese short Heart Sutra texts are almost identical to sections of Kumārajīva's translation of T 8.223 摩訶般若經 Móhēbōrě jīng (= Mahāprajñāsūtra; Large Wisdom Sutra - a translation of the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra or 25,000 Line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra). It is this identity in Chinese, combined with the differences in idiom and sentence structure in Sanskrit versions of these two texts, that lead to the conclusion that the Heart Sutra was assembled in China, albeit from parts of the Large Wisdom Sutra.

Shi Huifeng (Orsborn 2008) has raised a question about part of Jan Nattier's (1992) argument that the Heart Sutra was assembled in China. Although I think the weight of evidence is against his objection, it will be instructive to work through it and think about the implications.

One of the besetting problems of the religious and academic study of Buddhism is the tendency to see texts as monolithic and fixed. We will write about 'The Heart Sutra' for example, as though it was clear what this meant. If my recent work has showed anything it is that the Heart Sutra is far from a unitary phenomenon. It exists in multiple, often competing, recensions: Tibetan Buddhists almost exclusively use  one of two long texts found in their Canon, whereas in Japan and China the short text is most important. In China the version by Xuánzàng is more or less the only text is use. In Japan they have an old (though not as old as claimed and somewhat corrupt) manuscript in Sanskrit that is influential alongside the Chinese. In the West we tend to prioritise the Sanskrit editions by Conze, though I hope to change this by publicising the errors in his edition. And we have very many English translations each of which takes a slightly different approach.

It is very difficult to know which reading of any particular passage is the correct reading. It was only in 1992 that this most popular text in all of Mahāyāna Buddhism, a text which has received intense scrutiny over centuries, was discovered to have been assembled in China. But even the two Chinese short texts are not original: T 8.251 appears to have been edited to conform to some of Xuánzàng's word coinages, but largely follows Kumārajīva's translation (something which Xuánzàng does not do in other cases) and T 8.250 has additions which are drawn from Kumārajīva's Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra translation (see below). Both contain a phrase that is not found in any Sanskrit manuscript and which must therefore have been added after the creation of the Sanskrit archetype or been deliberately left out of the Sanskrit (viz 度一切苦厄 "overcame all states of suffering"). The former being the more likely of the two explanations because while Buddhists frequently add to their texts they seldom if ever deliberately leave lines out.

Each manuscript is different and not just because scribes made mistakes. Each manuscript has been subtly altered by an anonymous editor who presumably thought to "improve" the text. Yes, we can find and undo these additions where appropriate, but this assumes that we know better than them! Our main advantage being that we have access to more versions than most historical Buddhists would have had. All these versions were presumably in use by Buddhists at some point and were deemed to be authoritative. Of the two versions of the text that were preserved in the Tibetan Canon, both have obvious errors. But they are the canonical versions in Tibet so in practice pointing out the mistakes makes little difference. Tibetan exegetes deftly work around the  textual difficulties. I looked in more detail at some of these points in my article on the Vajrasattva Mantra (which is mostly transmitted in a corrupt version even where canonical versions are less corrupt). Thus in practice it would make more sense to speak of a Heart Sutra tradition or even a number of traditions, including the traditions of exegesis, rather than a single Heart Sutra text. The text that any group had access to at any given time was the Heart Sutra for that group at that time - and this is true even now. 

In the study of Pāli texts we seldom see discussions of variant readings, and the study of the manuscript tradition is neglected compared to Sanskrit studies. Westerners are only beginning to unlock the riches of the Chinese canonical works, and there are still no English translations of the bulk of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, though the first generation of translations are now being expanded in the BDK Tripitaka Translation Series, under the auspices of the Numata Foundation. Some scholars are starting to make use of Chinese texts and it is becoming more common to see comparisons particularly of Pāli and Chinese translations. But we usually see one Pāli and one Chinese translation compared. We see the critical editions being compared without any attention given to alternate readings. The Pali Text Society critical editions and the Vipassana Research Institute Pāli editions, as well as the CBETA/Taishō Chinese edition, all include footnotes about variant readings in other editions or manuscripts. Also note that Silk found considerable variation in the Tibetan Canonical versions of the Heart Sutra based on comparing fourteen exemplars of the various editions of the Tibetan Kanjur.

It may well be that these are of no consequence in the majority of cases, but the lack of any discussion of variants is suspicious. My experience of finding multiple errors in Conze's 60 year old, well scrutinised version of the Heart Sutra has put me on guard. Thus it was of considerable interest to see Huifeng making an argument precisely on the basis of variant readings recorded in the Taishō Tripiṭaka. We first need to set the background for the point Huifeng makes.

The argument about the attribution of T 250 begins at Nattier p.184 (Huifeng places the argument at p.164, which may be a typo). The importance of the argument is that it eliminates Kumārajīva as a potential translator of the Heart Sutra and thus makes an important chronological point. Had Kumārajīva been a plausible translator we would have to push back the creation of the Heart Sutra to the early 5th century. We've already pointed out that the attribution to Kumārajīva is not made until 730 CE - this makes the attribution "highly suspect" (184). Nattier makes four numbered points and adds a fifth as after thought (though it is not inconsequential).
  1. Near the beginning T 250 contains an extra passage:
  2. In the middle T 250 adds: 是空法,非過去、非未來、非現在。which has no counterpart in T 251.
  3. The wording of the phrase 'form is not different from emptiness' is worded differently.
  4. T 250 and 251 vary in their rendering of certain key terms: prajñāpāramitā, skandha, bodhisattva, and the names Avalokiteśvara and Śārputra.
The fifth point is that no translation by Xuánzàng ever eclipsed a translation by Kumārajīva in Chinese Buddhism. In other words where Kumārajīva has translated a text, it becomes the standard, right down to the present, despite the existence of an (arguably) better translation by Xuánzàng. And yet the most popular version of the Heart Sutra the one attributed to Xuánzàng and all of the Chinese commentaries, which begin to be produced only in the latter half of the 7th century, are on that single version (188).

Fukui Fumimasa, cited by Nattier, has used the similarity between extra parts of T 250 (points 1 and 2 in Nattier's discussion) and Kumārajīva's Large Wisdom Text (T 233) to argue that Kumārajīva must have translated the text, but Nattier counters that "a nearly verbatim agreement between two Chinese texts should instead arouse our suspicions" (196). The odds of choosing the exact same translation in two different texts (and recall that the wording of the Sanskrit texts is different) are "enormous". (186). The obvious conclusion is not that T 250 is a translation by Kumārajīva, but a portion copied from his T 233 translation. "And this is especially true of a translator like Kumārajīva, who is renowned not for wooden faithfulness to the Sanskrit original but for his fluid and context sensitive renditions." (186).

The different wording at point 3 Nattier attributes to the text being taken not directly from T 233 the Large Wisdom Text, but from his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśastra: T 25.1509 大智度論 Dàzhìdù lùn (Attributed to Nāgārjuna).

T 251
sè bù yì kōng, kōng bù yì sè 
For is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form
T 250
fēi sè yì kōng, fēi kōng yì sè
It is not that form is different from emptiness, it is not the emptiness is different from form.
With respect to the passage under discussion here T 1509 reads:
Nattier concludes: "In other words, the Heart Sutra may be viewed as the creation of a Chinese author who was more familiar with the Large Sutra as presented in this widely popular commentary than with the text of the sutra itself" (187). In my view is true of T 250, but I don't think it can apply to T 251 which is entirely consistent with the sutra (i.e. with T 233) except where a few of Xuánzàng's translations of individual words have been used (i.e. those mentioned in point 4), which suggests that it was altered post-composition.

However Nattier also sees this scenario as consistent with point 4. Where the terms mentioned above are used, T 251 has the characters typical of a translation by Xuánzàng, while T 250 uses characters typical of Kumārajīva. Of course if the Heart Sutra is drawn from another text translated by Kumārajīva then we are not surprised to find his terminology in use. T 251 can then be explained as having been edited by someone familiar with Xuánzàng's vocabulary. 

The section of the text that Huifeng draws attention to, dealt with by Nattier point 3, is the part that translates as "form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form" (Huifeng 10-11, n.34). As above this is different in the two Heart Sutra texts.
T 251 色不異空,空不異色
T 250 非色異空,非空異色 
Kumārajīva's Large Wisdom Text (T 233) here is different to T 250 :
T 223 色不異空空不異
Punctuation aside, and all Chinese punctuation comes from modern editors, the characters in T 251 and T 223 are identical. While those in T 250 are different. On this basis Nattier argues that T 250 is drawn from T 1509 and probably not the work of Kumārajīva.

However, Huifeng points out that the Taishō edition footnotes record that in the earlier Sòng, Yuán, Míng and Gōng editions of the Tripiṭaka T 223 reads 非色異空,非空異色. This is exactly the same as T 250. Thus the third point regarding the attribution of T 250 to Kumārajīva is not valid and the Heart Sutra found in T 250 precisely matches the earlier editions of the Large Wisdom Sutra (T 223) which is known with certainty to be the work of Kumārajīva. This invalidates Nattier's comments regarding point 3, which is an important part of her argument about the authorship of T 250. There is now an imperative to examine other such arguments in more detail.

Problematically Huifeng infers from this what he considers to be a reasonable doubt about the entire Chinese Origin hypothesis.
"Detailed analysis would be needed to determine whether or not the rest of her argument and conclusions, and thus [the] conclusion that the Heart Sūtra is a Chinese apocryphal work, are still valid" (11, n.34)
I think Huifeng is overstating the doubts that emerge from his valid point. If he had provided evidence that definitely linked T 250 with Kumārajīva then that would be a game changer. But there is a weight of other evidence provided in Nattier's article that undermines the attribution. Particularly the lateness of the first attribution, which is in fact some 300 years late. Kumārajīva is not an obscure translator whose work went unnoticed. Where he translated a text it is usually still the standard version even in the present day (this is true of the Lotus Sutra for example). If he translated the Heart Sutra the lack of any mention of this before 730 CE requires an explanation. Also there are the extra passages. It is axiomatic that texts are frequently added to, but seldom reduced in scope. This is plainly evident in the extant Sanskrit manuscripts that I have examined for example. One passage of 37 characters and another of 12—which incidentally appear in no Sanskrit source either—do not just disappear from a Buddhist sutra.

Nattier goes further, saying "nor is there any evidence that Kumārajīva himself had any role in the production of the 'translation' associated with his name" (184). And this is the considered opinion of previous scholars working in the field where "significant progress [in understanding the origins of T 250] has recently been made by Japanese and Western scholars" (184).

There is no doubt whatever that the Heart Sutra is largely based on the Pañcaviṃśati. This fact is already acknowledged in some of the Nepalese mss., which title the text: ārya-pañcaviṃśatikā-prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya nāma dhāraṇī (The Dhāraṇī entitled the Heart of the 25,000 Line Perfection of Wisdom).

If the creator of the Heart Sutra took their extracts from a Sanskrit text then they either a) had a previously unknown version of the Sanskrit Pañcaviṃśati with an entirely different wording, though largely the same meaning; or b) the composer deliberately changed the wording of the Pañcaviṃśati to create a paraphrase without substantially changing the meaning, a procedure unknown in any other case. In either a) or b) the result was a Sanskrit Heart Sutra in which the wording, but not the meaning, was different from the extant versions of Sanskrit text it was extracted from (i.e. Pañcaviṃśati) and also contained one or two phrases that make better sense in Chinese than in Sanskrit. Neither of these two options are very likely. By contrast the differences between the Large Wisdom Text and the Heart Sutra in Chinese are minimal. For the most part the wording (including choice of characters) is identical. The obvious conclusion, the conclusion demanded by Occam's Razor, is that the extraction happened in Chinese and in China; and that the Sanskrit translation of the short text Heart Sutra was done by a Chinese speaker. Unlike the short-text, the extra passages found in the long text Heart Sutra seem to have been composed by someone well versed in Sanskrit and the conventions of Sanskrit Buddhist literature.

To Nattier's extensive evidence I have added the example of the word vidyā in Pañcavimśati becoming the word mantra in the Heart Sutra, which is difficult to explain in purely Sanskrit terms, but makes sense given a Chinese intermediary and the Chinese practice of abbreviating technical terms. I've tried to show how the Heart Sutra might look had it been extracted from a Sanskrit Pañcavimśati from that time period rather than from the Chinese (An Alternate Sanskrit Heart Sutra). I also showed that Nattier's arguments about satyam amithyatvād in relation to the Chinese text are better explained by Conze's mistaken choice for his critical edition: the text should have read samyaktva-amithyātvāt.

Thus I think we can say that, though Nattier's argument is incorrect in one or two small details, the case for the Heart Sutra being assembled in China is very strong and that extraordinary evidence would be required to refute this theory. Huifeng's main point about versions is certainly true, and it does change the picture, but only a little. That said a still more nuanced story might still emerge from paying attention to the footnotes and variant readings. Huifeng is correct to wonder what other variations might reveal if studied. And variations are the norm rather than the exception when dealing with Buddhist texts.


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

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