17 July 2015

Form is Emptiness. Part I: Establishing the Text

This material was published as:
Attwood, Jayarava. 2017. "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13: 52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.


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, 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 is, 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 them, 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 manuscripts, including Ja which is the oldest extant manuscript, 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 (非 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 the Chinese and the 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 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 manuscript 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 manuscript 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 its 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 that 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. An 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 on 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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