25 December 2015

Taishō 256: The Other Chinese Heart Sutra

(14th Century Japan).
There are three versions of the short text of the Heart Sutra in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. To date I have focussed almost exclusively on T250 and T251 (see Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions). T256 (T 8.851.a1-852.a23) is interesting in its own right and I have begun familiarising myself with it. The text contains a transliteration of a Sanskrit text alongside a Chinese text. Both the Sanskrit and Chinese texts are somewhat idiosyncratic. T256 has a preface which tells us about its provenance and tells the story of how Xuanzang received the text in the first place. There is also a manuscript of the text, which was obtained from Dunhuang by Aurel Stein and is now in the British Library. The manuscript (Or.8210/S.5648) has been digitised and put online as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). The text in the manuscript has a number of alternate characters and some other differences that might be scribal errors.

In his recent book on the Heart Sutra, Kazuaki Tanahashi (2014) makes repeated mention of a comprehensive study of the Heart Sutra in Japanese by Fukui Fumimasa (2000). Apparently Fukui also studied S.5648 and T256, but he only writes in Japanese. Very little of the huge volume of Japanese research into this text makes it into European languages. The glimpses Tanahashi provides into Fukui's work are tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying. In English we have a transcription and Romanisation of T256 by Matsumoto (1932); however, his Chinese characters are handwritten (due to limitations in print media in 1932) and are a little difficult to read in parts. In 1977 Leon Hurvitz published a complete translation of the Chinese preface along with a romanisation and translation of the Sanskrit text. Chen Shu-Fen 陳淑芬 (2004) wrote a detailed study of the methods used to transliterate the text and a partial reconstruction of the Middle-Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration.

British Library Manuscript Or.8210/S.5648
Both Hurvitz (1997) and Chen (2004) attribute T256 to Xuanzang. For example, Hurvitz says in his translation of the introduction:
Preface to the copy humbly made, of the record inscribed by the upadhyāya of the Monastery of Compassionate Grace, on a stone wall of the Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good in the Western Capital.
In a note (1977 121, n.56) Hurvitz says that the upadhyāya or preceptor of 慈恩 was a reference to Xuanzang. And thus, the text was attributed to Xuanzang. However, in an email exchange between myself and the Chinese translator, Rulu, (Buddha Sūtras Mantras Sanskrit) it became clear that Hurvitz correctly interpreted 慈恩和尚 as "upadhyāya of Monastery of Compassionate Grace"; however, he was mistaken about who this referred to. The first two characters, 慈恩 Ciēn, are part of the name of a monastery, 大慈恩寺 The Great Monastery of Compassionate Grace, which was located in Changan, the main capital of the Tang Dynasty (now the site of the major city of Xian). Note also that the 大興善寺 (Great Monastery of the Furtherance of Good) was also in Changan, not Loyang as Hurvitz suggests (1977: 108). During the Tang Dynasty, Loyang was referred to as 东都 The Eastern Capital and T256 refers to 西京 The Western Capital, meaning Changan.

It seems that 慈恩 is also an epithet for Xuanzang's foremost disciple, 窺基 Kuījī. Xuanzang was strongly associated with two Monasteries in Changan, initially with Hongfu Monastery 弘福寺 and subsequently with 西明寺 Ximing Monastery. These two were where he did his translations after returning from India. Kuījī, by contrast, was associated with Ciēn. And the preceptor of Ciēn was Kuījī. As mentioned in a previous essay (Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions):
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.
In that essay I noted Lusthaus's argument that Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text to refer to. Lusthaus saw in this fact a challenge to Nattier's Chinese Origins hypothesis. However, Lusthaus also thought that Woncheuk composed his commentary after Xuanzang's death and I argued that this was entirely consistent with Nattier's hypothesis. Here a similar argument applies to Kuījī. The fact that the two of them had a Sanskrit text when they were students of Xuanzang, decades after his return from India is also consistent with the Chinese Origins hypothesis. In fact, we expect this, especially if, as we suspect, that Xuanzang was involved in the Sanskrit translation. Wriggins (2004: 9) has Xuanzang beginning to learn Sanskrit before his departure for India. What would be more natural for a student of Sanskrit than making a translation of a well-known and -loved text? And, as I have noted, the composer of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra seems unfamiliar with some of the idioms of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā tradition. After he returned, Xuanzang was asked to translate the 道德經 Dàodéjīng into Sanskrit (Wriggins 2004: 196), so we know that he did translate some texts from Chinese into Sanskrit.

Tanahashi refers to the earliest known text of the Heart Sutra, a stone inscription erected in 672 by 唐高宗 Emperor Táng Gāozōng at Hongfu Monastery, Changan. Tanahashi is also mistaken in thinking that this presents a challenge to the Chinese origins hypothesis (2014: 81). I will deal with this inscription in my next essay.

What the Chinese Origins hypothesis says is that the Heart Sutra is composed in Chinese after the translation of the Pañcaviṃśati-sāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra by Kumārajīva in 404 CE, i.e., T223 《摩訶般若波羅蜜經》, since it clearly borrows from this text. And it must have been composed prior to Xuanzang's leaving for India in 630 CE, since Xuanzang reportedly had a version of the text by the time he left China, possibly much earlier, though this could be an apocryphal story. The association of Xuanzang with the production of the Sanskrit text and its transmission back to China is based on supposition (and perhaps a little wishful thinking), but it is neither implausible nor at odds with the known facts. Any time after Xuanzang's arrival back in Changan in 645 CE we can fully expect Chinese scholars to have access to a Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra alongside a Chinese text. That we have evidence of precisely this is a sign that the theory makes an accurate (but not decisive) prediction. At the very least, it does not conflict with the hypothesis, as Lusthaus and Tanahashi try to make out.

Another piece of information, also pointed out by Rulu, is that the introduction tells the story of Xuanzang's receiving the Heart Sutra after he set out for India. It suggests that he stopped off in 益州 Yì zhōu, present day Chengdu, Sichuan, on his way. Though, since Chengdu is about 800km south-west of Changan and there is an imposing mountain range blocking travel to the west, it is not a likely stopping off point on a journey from Changan to India. The more plausible stories say that, due to political upheaval associated with the collapse of the Sui Dynasty, Xuanzang moved to Chengdu and became a bhikṣu there (cf. Wriggins 2004: 7). Xuanzang apparently spent time wandering through China collecting texts before heading to India. In any case, the introduction of T256 refers to Xuanzang as 三藏 or tripiṭaka. Someone expert in the branches of the Buddhist Canon (traditionally sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma) might be called 三藏, in this case corresponding to the Sanskrit traipiṭaka (the grammatical form is the same as the title jaina for someone associated with the jina, similarly bauddha is the Sanskrit for "Buddhist"). Those who remember the TV show Monkey, will remember that the Xuanzang character is called "Tripitaka". As Rulu points out, Xuanzang would not refer to himself in the third person or by this title; clearly, this is written about him, not by him. So apparently the preface was composed by a senior disciple, i.e., Kuījī, remembering his master in reverential terms.

However there is another little nugget at the end of this preface, which is that the text was transcribed by Bùkōng 不空, aka 不空金剛 (MC Bulgong Geumgang) or Amoghavajra (705–774) in response to an Imperial command. Amoghavajra was of mixed Sogdian and Indian heritage. He became a novice at a young age and then travelled to China where he received the bhikṣu initiation ca. 724 CE. Apart from a period of travelling, enforced by the expulsion of foreign monks from China, he lived most of his life in China and was a noted translator of Tantric texts. We don't know when he edited the text of T256, but we do know that in 771 CE he presented a petition to the throne asking that his translations be added to the Tripiṭaka. And the current preface of T256 was added after his death in 774 CE, which we know because it mentions his posthumous, 謚, name, 大辦正廣 (Dà bàn zhèng guǎng). Tanahashi translates Fukui's transcription of the preface of S.5648 and it also says that the text was "translated" by Amoghavajra (2014: 68). S.5648, suggesting that Xuanzang got the text directly from Avalokiteśvara which contradicts the account in T256.


Contra Hurvitz (1977), T256 was originally a text associated with Kuījī and was inscribed in stone in Changan at some unknown date, but probably after the death of Xuanzang. We can surmise that Kuījī had a Sanskrit text that he got from his teacher, because we know that his fellow disciple and rival Woncheuk had a Sanskrit text. A question remains over what form the Sanskrit text took - was it this transliterated version, or was there a lost manuscript in Siddham script? However, it's not clear whether that Sanskrit text influenced this version of the text. It seems we must attribute the final sūtra text to Amoghavajra, but he most likely only copied and slightly edited the Kuījī text. The current text of T256 probably entered the Canon ca. 771 but was updated sometime (probably soon) after 774 by (at least) the addition of a preface.

Given that Jan Nattier has given us reason to doubt the attribution of T250 and T251, this makes T256 more important than it might have seemed previously. An urgent task for researchers interested in the Heart Sutra is a comparison of the three Chinese versions of the short Heart Sutra in the light of the Sanskrit text in T256. And also a more detailed comparison of the Sanskrit text of T256 with the critical edition by Conze - though Conze used Matsumoto's version, Matsumoto acknowledges that he edited the text to conform to the edition by Max Müller. A diplomatic edition of T256, with a reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit transliteration would be useful for future researchers and I am working on this now.



Chen Shu-Fen. (2004). On Xuan-Zang’s Transliterated Version of the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra (Heart Sutra). Monumenta Serica, 52, 113-159.

Fukui Fumimasa. (2000) Heart Sutra of the Comprehensive Study: History, social and material. Spring and Autumn, Inc. , 2000. = 福井文雅 『般若心経の総合的研究:歴史・社会・資料』 春秋社、2000年。

Hurvitz, Leon. (1977). Hsüan-tsang 玄奘 (602-664) and the Heart Scripture in Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze. University of California at Berkeley Press, 103-113.

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, 6, Feb: 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, 3, Sept: 59-103.

Matsumoto, Tokumyo. (1932). Die Prajñāpāramitā-literatur: Nebst Einem Specimen der Suvikrāntavikrāmi-Prajñāpāramitā. Stuttgart: Verlag von W. Kohlhammer. [My thanks to Eva Ludolf for reading through the German preface to this article with me].

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. Shambala.

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.
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