03 April 2015

Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions

One of the important conclusions of Jan Nattier's 1992 article on the Heart Sutra was that the traditional dates ascribed to its composition could not be correct and that it is more likely that it was composed in the 7th century, a time period which coincides with the life of Xuánzàng (602 – 664 CE) and his activity as pilgrim and translator. This coincidence allows Nattier to speculate that it might even have been Xuánzàng who translated the text from Chinese into Sanskrit. The speculation is bolstered by the fact that Xuánzàng has form in this area. He is known to have translated the Chinese authored 《大乘起信論》 (Dàshéng qǐxìn lùn) or Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna into Sanskrit.

In this essay I will rehearse Nattier's arguments about chronology and attribution of the Chinese translations as a prelude to discussing the challenge to them published by Dan Lusthaus. Lusthaus (2003) draws attention to two Chinese commentaries on the Heart Sutra, one of which appears to refer to alternate versions of the Heart Sutra in a way that Lusthaus claims poses "serious problems" for Nattiers conclusions about the chronology of the Heart Sutra. As one of the few scholars to engage critically with Nattier's thesis in print, Lusthaus's article is interesting both for the new information it presents and for the test it provides for the Chinese Origin thesis.

Another reason to rehearse this aspect of Nattier's thesis, is that that the popular Zen inspired commentaries seem to struggle with it. Red Pine, Mu Seong, and Kazuaki Tanahashi all seem to be in denial about the evidence. As such, most modern readers are given the impression that Nattier's argument is weak or improbable. But this is not the case.

In this essay I favour the Pinyin Romanisation of Chinese characters. Lusthaus and Nattier both use the Wade-Giles system. Additionally, Lusthaus uses McCune–Reischauer for the name of the Korean monk 원측, and the Revised Romanisation of Korean proposed by the South Korean government is now standard. I silently emend their Romanisation to fit my own preference (and recent scholarly convention). In particular I change the names:
  • 玄奘: Hsüan-tsang > Xuánzàng
  • 원측: Wŏnch’ŭk > Woncheuk
  • 窺基: K'uei-chi > Kuījī

Nattier's Comments on the Authorship and Dates of The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra exists in three short versions in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. This essays focusses on T250 and T251 attributed to Kumārajīva (334–413 CE) and Xuánzàng respectively. T256 is now thought to be attributable to Amoghavajra (705–774) and directly influenced by the Sanskrit text. The main argument for this is in Japanese, but a summary can be found in Tanahashi (2014: 68).

As Nattier points out, the attributions of T250 and Y251 first appear in an 8th century catalogue of Buddhist texts called 《開元釋教錄》Kāiyuán shìjiào lù (T2154) long after both men were dead (1992:174). This raises the question of why this very popular text failed to be associated with either in their lifetime, especially when we consider the explicit links between Xuánzàng and the Heart Sutra in his biographies. The simplest answer is that neither was involved in the creation of these versions. As we will see this is also the most plausible answer.

The catalogue of Buddhist texts in China 《綜理衆經目錄》 Zōnglǐ zhòngjīng mùlù (compiled in 374), itself now lost but reproduced in 《出三藏集記》 Chū sānzàng jíjì, compiled around 515 by Seng-yu (僧祐; 445-518), records two texts considered to represent lost versions of the Hṛdaya in Chinese. The two titles mentioned are:
Móhēbōrěbōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn
Great Perfection of Wisdom Vidyā in one scroll
bōrěbōluómì shénzhòu yī juàn
Perfection of Wisdom Vidyā in one scroll
These titles are certainly similar to the Chinese sutra titles:
T250 《摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經》
Móhēbōrěbōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng
T251 《般若波羅蜜多心經》
Bōrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng
T256 《唐梵翻對字音般若波羅蜜多心經》
Táng fàn fān duì zì yīn bōrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng
Tang [i.e. Chinese] Transcription of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra.
However the similarity itself is suspicious, because it was Kumārajīva who introduced the transcription 般若波羅蜜 bōrěbōluómì for prajñāpāramitā. Nattier points out that earlier translations of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra do not use this terminology. For example:
T221 《放光般若經》Fàngguāng-bōrě-jīng, by Mokṣala (291 CE)
T222 《光讚經》 Guāng zàn jīng, by Dharmarakṣa in 286 CE
    However early translations of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra use 般若bōrě for Sanskrit prajñā, and one uses 摩訶 Móhē for Sanskrit mahā. Eg.
    T224 《道行般若經》Dàohéng-bōrě-jīng, by Lokakṣema (179 CE).
    T226 《摩訶般若鈔經》Móhēbōrěchāo-jīng, by 竺佛念 Zhúfóniàn (382 CE).
      I think this undermines the argument that the title is anachronistic. Nattier's dismissal on the grounds that the two supposed early texts containing the term 神咒 shénzhòu because "both are clearly intended to be construed as mantras based on - or at least associated with - the Prajñāpāramitā corpus." (1992: 183) is less convincing because mantras did not come into Chinese Buddhism for some centuries after the supposedly early period of the texts. On the other hand the use of the phrase 神咒 may itself be anachronistic. Mantras were non-Buddhist until after this period, but dhāraṇī and vidyā (along with Pāḷi parittas) were not. The idea that the Heart Sūtra is itself intended as a dhāraṇī is one that Nattier herself discusses (1992: 175-6). On the other hand, another early translation of Aṣṭa, 《大明度經》Dàmíngdù-jīng (T225) by 支謙 Zhīqiān (225 CE), uses the character combination 神呪 (or possibly 神祝, the editions disagree) to represent Sanskrit vidyā, and Xuánzàng apparently employs 神咒 for the same word. So the titles of the two "lost translations" are not so unusual after all. But it is possible that the catalogue was edited at a later date to include texts that could not have existed at the time, and it's also plausible that a no-longer extant text predates both T250 and T251 because of their variations (and differences between them and the Sanskrit mss.). I do not think that T250 or T251 are a plausible ur-text.

      If they did exist, the two texts are now lost and we cannot draw any hard and fast conclusions about them, however ambiguous the evidence. We certainly ought not to join Red Pine in taking their existence on face value.

      Kumārajīva & T250

      Having decided that we must set aside non-existent texts, Nattier then turns to the ascription of T250 to Kumārajīva. This was already in doubt as Conze attributed it to Kumārajīva’s pupils (1978: 20). Nattier summarises the consensus view:
      "...it seems clear that the students of Kumārajīva (in particular, Sēngzhào) read and commented on the core passage of the Heart Sūtra found in Kumārajīva's version of the Large Sūtra [ie. T223]. There is no evidence, however, that they were aware of the existence of the Heart Sūtra as a separate text, nor is there any evidence that Kumārajīva himself had any role in the production of the 'translation' associated with his name." (1992: 184)
      It is precisely this consensus of informed opinion that Tanahashi (2014) rejects when he refers to T250 as the "α-version", doing his readers a disservice. There is simply no way that T250 is the ur-text for the Heart Sutra. It clearly dates from after Kumārajīva's death and has been edited by third parties unknown. It's interesting to note also that Sēngzhào (ca. 378—413 CE) is associated with the establishment of Madhyamaka, whereas Xuánzàng and his students were instrumental in establishing Yogācāra thought in China.

      That the Heart Sūtra is based on Kumārajīva's translation T223, or perhaps on the version found embedded in 《大智度論》Dà zhì dù lùn (= *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa; T1509), is not in doubt. The similarity between the two is too great to be a coincidence. That the Heart Sutra is based on the large Perfection of Wisdom text is also evident in some of the Nepalese Manuscript titles. For example the new Hṛdaya manuscript (EAP676/2/5) I described in 2014: is titled Ārya-pañcaviṁśatikā-pajñāpāramitā-mantra-nāma-dhāraṇī which translates as The Dhāraṇī named The Mantra of the Noble 25,000 Perfection of Wisdom.

      The argument against attributing T250 to Kumārajīva is complex (Nattier 1992: 184-189). Where T250 has two passages of extra characters, these can be traced to T223. Nattier asserts, not entirely convincingly I think, that it is unlikely that the parallels would have been translated identically by Kumārajīva and that the exact correspondence argues for a plagiarism. The argument would be stronger if we had some concrete examples of this actually happening. I can supply an example of Kumārajīva's inconsistency from his translation of the Aṣṭasahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, i.e. 《小品般若經》 T227. At 8.542.b5-6 Kumārajīva translates vidyā as 呪術 zhòu shù, while a little later at 8.543b25-29 he translates first as 明呪 míng zhòu, and then simply as 呪 zhòu. More examples would be needed to establish a pattern, but it lends plausibility to Nattier's assertion.

      Nattier further points out that the initial equation of form and emptiness conforms not to T223, but to T1509 《大智度論》. The combination of observations leads Nattier to propose that T250 is based on, or has been made to conform to, T1509, rather than T223. Thus, the earliest possible date (terminus post quem) for T250 is the date of the translation of T1509, ca. 406 CE (1992:188).

      Nattier's next step is to point out that, unlike Kumārajīva's other translations, which eclipse Xuánzàng's in popularity even to this day, T250 was never popular in China. Unlike T251, T250 is not craved into stone, copied, or printed. Not only are all the Chinese commentaries on the Heart Sutra on Xuánzàng's version, T251, but they do not date from earlier than Xuánzàng's lifetime, whereas Kumārajīva was active 250 years earlier. Thus the attribution of authorship of the Heart Sutra to Kumārajīva rings hollow. And in fact Kumārajīva is frequently apocryphally given as author or translator when it is clear that he is not.

      Xuánzàng & T251

      However the attribution of T251 to Xuánzàng is also problematic. Xuánzàng was a prolific translator. His compendium of Prajñāpāramitā texts (T220) takes up vols. 5-7 of the Taishō edition of the canon, each of which is thicker than Vol. 8 containing all the other Prajñāpāramitā texts translated by all the other translators. If Xuánzàng translated the Heart Sutra why was it not attributed to him in his lifetime, and why was his translation not included in T220? Why does the legend of his association with the text speak of him receiving the text from a sick man if he composed it or translated it from Sanskrit?

      Curiously T251 largely sticks to the terminology found in T250 (and thus in T223/1509). But three key terms: the names Avalokiteśvara and Śāriputra, and the Sanskrit word skandha, are written in a way that is distinctive to Xuánzàng. A text containing 觀自在, 舍利子, and 蘊 can only have been completed during or after the work of Xuánzàng. Nattier concludes that Xuánzàng did indeed receive a text and made minor amendments. T250 seems also to be an amended text, which suggests to me an ur-text of which both T250 and T251 are revisions. This is supported by the Sanskrit text which is significantly different in places from either of the two Chinese versions, in particular it has no equivalent of 度一切苦厄 in the first sentence. That the Sanskrit translator would drop this phrase is less plausible than that at some later date it was added to the Chinese text. This is because everywhere we look, Buddhists add words, phrases, and chapters to their texts, but we very seldom see them subtracting. Indeed in light of recent scholarship, Conze's view that the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya and Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā represent 3rd or 4th Century condensations of the Prajñāpāramitā texts seems unlikely. Vaj is now thought to be contemporary with Aṣṭa and the character of Hṛdaya is not a condensation, but simply a quote or two.

      Either way the Heart Sutra as we know it can be no older than the early 5th century, i.e. after Kumārajiva's translations of the Pañcaviṃśatisahāsrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and/or Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa because it is an extract of one or both of them. Another part of the text that is cited word for word from the same source is the passage with epithets of prajñāpāramitā, found at T223, 8.286b28-c7 and many other locations: see Nattier (1992 footnote 54a) and my forthcoming article for JOCBS.

      So the catalogues which list earlier texts are most likely forgeries. And on this basis Nattier proposes that the Heart Sutra was composed in or near the 7th Century in China. The close association with Xuánzàng suggests that he may have been involved in the translation of it into Sanskrit, though given how botched the translation is, it was presumably well before his work on 《大般若波羅蜜多經》(T220). My view is that the translator from Chinese to Sanskrit was more at home in Chinese than in Sanskrit, and not very familiar with the Prajñāpāramitā literature in Sanskrit.

      Woncheuk's Commentary.

      Xuánzàng’s students 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696) produced commentaries on the Heart Sutra in the late 7th century (Nattier 1992: 173). These have both been translated into English: see Shih & Lusthaus (2006) and Hyun Choo (2006) respectively.

      Lusthaus (2003) cites four passages from Woncheuk's commentary 《般若波羅蜜多心經贊》 (T1711), which he says lead us to two main conclusions: 1. that versions of the text once existed that were different from the extant versions; and 2. that these versions were older than the extant versions. And thus Nattier's preference for a later composition date is seriously challenged.

      The first passage comments on Xuánzàng’s use of the form 觀自在 Guānzìzài for the name of Avalokiteśvara Woncheuk comments:
      若依舊本名觀世音 (T1711, 33.543b.21)
      "This is what the old text(s) named Guānshìyīn" (Lusthaus 2003: 82)
      Quite a lot of Lusthaus's argument rests on his conclusion that it is "natural in this context to understand this as a reference to older versions of the Heart Sutra" (82). Hyun Choo (2006) concurs, he translates the passage "According to the old version of the translation [of the Prajñāpāramita-sūtras]" (138). However, as is well known Avaoliketśvara does not appear in any other Prajñāpāramita sūtras, so this is an unlikely interpretation. In fact, Woncheuk's commentary immediately proceeds to a discussion of the deity and the name 觀音in Buddhist literature, a discussion that does not include any Prajñāpāramitā sūtras or mention of the
      Heart Sutra, but does include the Avalokiteśvara-sūtra (觀音三昧經), Avalokiteśvara-bodhisattva-mahāsthamaprapta-bodhisattva-sūtra(觀音授記經), and the Larger Sukhāvatīvyuha-sūtra (無量壽經). If we are talking about "natural" conclusions then Woncheuk's reference to 舊本 'old texts' appears to reference these other named texts.
      The next passage concerns the first sentence of the Heart Sutra:
      或有本曰 「照見五蘊皆空」 雖有兩本。後本為正。撿勘梵本有等言故後所說等準此應知。(added punctuation for clarity)

      There is another version of the text 或有本 which says "illuminatingly, he saw the five skandhas, and so on (), are all empty." Although there are two versions of the text 有兩本, the latter text is correct. An examination of the Sanskrit text [梵本] shows that is has the word "and so on" (). Hence the 'and so on' stated by the latter (text) should be understood to be the standard." (Lusthaus 2003:83, emphasis added)
      By 'and so on' we can probably interpret Sanskrit ādi. T251 here simply has 照見五蘊皆空 without the extra character 等. Given that the text does list the skandhas and other lists such as the dhātus and āyatanas this interpolation is not wrong. However, as Lusthaus concedes, ādi doesn't appear in any known Sanskrit text. Nor does any extant Chinese text have 等 here. The mention of a Sanskrit text with a different wording here is interesting of course, but the manuscript tradition of the Heart Sutra is widely variable - so much so that editing it proved very difficult for Conze and led him to make several errors (See my forthcoming article in the JOCBS 7). No two manuscripts of the Sanskrit Hṛdaya are identical, even the oldest manuscript (the Hōryūji Manuscript; probably from the 8th century) is obviously corrupt in many places.

      Next, Lusthaus cites this passage:
      又解此經自有兩本 一本如上。一本經曰受想行識亦復如是。所言者準下經文有六善巧。謂蘊處界緣生四諦菩提涅槃。(T1711, 33.546.13-15)
      "Further, for interpreting this sutra we have two texts (自有兩本). One text is as above 如上 (i.e. Xuánzàng's version, which says 'vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāras, and vijñāna are also like this'). The other text of the sutra says: 'vedanā, saṃjñā, saṃskāras, vijñāna, and so on , also like this.' The word 'and so on' [deng] indicates what is [discussed] below in the text of the sutra, i.e. the six skill in means, the aggregates, āyatanas, dhātus, pratītysamutpāda, the four truths, Bodhi, and Nirvāṇa." (Lusthaus 2003: 84).
      From this we infer that Woncheuk has at least two texts in front of him. Possibly two Chinese texts and at least one Sanskrit text. And one of the Chinese texts again has 等 (= Sanskrit ādi) at the end of a list of skandhas, seeming to indicate the other lists that follow in the sutra. Again no extant Chinese or Sanskrit text has this additional feature, but it is not inconceivable, in the light of the manuscript tradition, that it could have been added by a scribe or editor.

      Woncheuk's contemporary and rival, Kuījī, also wrote a commentary on the Heart Sutra and also seems to have a text with 等, and does not problematise it in the way that Woncheuk does, suggest that he only had the one text and it included 等. And this raises the question of why we do not find it in the text attributed to their teacher Xuánzàng. Lusthaus avoids the conclusion from Nattier's study, that the text of T251 was at best edited by Xuánzàng, or more likely by his later students, rather than being a translation he produced.

      Finally in relation to Chinese versions corresponding to the Sanskrit passage "cittāvaraṇanāstitvād atrastro viparyāsātikrānto nirvāṇaparyavasānam", which in Chinese becomes:
      心無罣礙;無罣礙故,無有恐怖,遠離顛倒夢想 ,究竟涅槃。(T251)
      His mind is not obscured, since it is not obscured he is not afraid, far from upside-down dreamlike thinking, he finally attains nirvāṇa. (My translation).
      Lusthaus observes that Woncheuk's two texts differ and that Woncheuk favours the one that says 遠離一切顛倒夢想 "far from all upside-down dreamlike thinking." And in this case the T250 has 離一切顛倒夢想苦惱. Lusthaus says "Unfortunately for Nattier's thesis, the alternate version this time is recognisable. It is Kumārajīva's version". Except that it is not. T250 does not include the character 遠 and adds two characters 苦惱. The difference Lusthaus is highlighting involves the interpolation of just two characters, 一切 (literally 'one cut'; figuratively 'all'), so having three other differences is significant. Certainly the two are similar, but then all of these Chinese texts derive have similarities. In fact we have reference to yet another version of the text here which is not the same as either T250 or T251.

      One possible good to come out of this is that in looking for parallels in the wider Canon for the last passage, which to my knowledge has not previously been identified with any existing text, we now know to look for alternate readings, though a preliminary search did not turn up any parallels for any of the variants.


      On the point about the dating of versions of the Heart Sutra referred to in Woncheuk's commentary we need first to address the issue of "older texts". Crucially, Lusthaus says earlier in his article,
      "We have no dates of other background information on when or where the two commentaries were written... We don't know for certain even if these commentaries were written before or after [Xuanzang's] death, though my sense is that they were written after." (2003: 66: emphasis added)
      The conjecture by Lusthaus that the commentaries he is discussing were written (i.e. composed) after the death of Xuánzàng is important in assessing his claim that the alternate readings found in them amount to a text from a much earlier period, particularly contemporary with Kumārajīva in the early fifth century.

      We've seen that when Woncheuk mentioned old texts" (舊本) he was in fact directly referring to a number of other sutras in which Avalokiteśvara plays a prominent role. So Lusthaus's conclusion that it would be "natural" in this context to conclude that this referred to the Heart Sutra looks wrong. We've also seen that his attempt to connect Woncheuk's text with Kumārajīva fails. Lusthaus's challenge to Nattier's theory falls well short of its mark.

      What we're left with is evidence of multiple versions of the Heart Sutra, probably around the time of, or not long after, the death of Xuánzàng. No texts with the readings evinced by Woncheuk, in either Chinese or Sanskrit are extant. Thus there is no good case for pushing back the date of composition of the Heart Sutra before Xuánzàng. On the other hand, the evidence for multiple versions at this time is intrinsically interesting in terms of the history of the text. And in drawing attention to these early commentaries. Lusthaus has made an valuable contribution.

      Nattier's thesis on the origins of the Heart Sutra certainly has stronger and weaker points. However, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Heart Sutra per se began life in China as a compilation of extracts from Kumārajīva's《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》(T233) or possible the commentary on it 《大智度論》and probably other texts including the Mahāmegha Sūtra (possible source of the dhāraṇī). And her arguments about the attribution and dates of T250 and T251 largely stand. Neither seem to be the product of authors to which they were attributed in the 8th Century.


      Conze, Edward. (1978). The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Tokyo, The Reiyukai.
      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.
      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.
      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.
      Tanahashi, Kazuaki. (2014) The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambhala.

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